November 9, 2019, will mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I knew that during our visit in late October, we needed to honor this special occasion with a unique tour. The Fat Tire Tour along the Berlin Wall fit the bill! What better way is there to cover such a large area in just half a day?
Even before I arrived in Berlin, I knew that what remains of the wall is spread out across many miles. In fact the original wall was 27 miles long. Seeing the remains of the wall and related historical points would be difficult on a walking tour.
So I registered me, Jason, and our 21-year old son, Ryan, for our first ever bicycle tour and off we went to explore the Berlin Wall. In my humble opinion, this is definitely one of the top things to do in Berlin!
A Brief History of the Berlin Wall
It may have been a few years since your high school history class, so let me remind you how the Berlin Wall came to be. After World War II ended, the U.S., Britain, France and the Soviet Union divided Germany into four zones. Berlin, despite its location in the Soviet sector, was also divided into four zones.
Unfortunately for the Soviets, living in East Germany was very unpopular and many of its citizens fled to West Berlin. In 1961, this prompted the Soviet Union to begin construction of a wall that enclosed West Berlin which then blocked East Germans from fleeing. (See the map of the Berlin Wall below.) It began with barbed wire and grew to a complex security zone over the next twenty-eight years.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, East Germany began to reconsider the travel restrictions imposed on its citizens. They had hoped to lift these restrictions slowly over a period of months, but thanks to a badly executed press conference, East Germans believed that the restrictions had been lifted immediately. On November 9, 1989, men, women and children flooded the gates along the wall and soon the beleaguered guards let them through. Around the world this situation made the news and soon after it was announced that the Berlin wall had fallen.
Fat Tire Bike Tours Along the Berlin Wall–Part One
In a small park near the Fat Tire Tour offices, our guide, Jeff, began our tour by drawing a simple map of Germany with chalk on the sidewalk. From this map he shared the story of the creation of the Berlin Wall beginning with the end of World War II. I kept this map in mind as the story of the wall unfolded over the next four hours at eight different stops.
Our first stop was across the street from the German Parliament, or Bundestag, where there is a small memorial to the first people killed trying to escape after the wall was established. The first man killed was Günter Liftin as he attempted to swim across the river. He was shot and killed.
Our next stop was in a cemetery where a portion of the inner wall still remains. Over time, the East Germans made the wall increasingly secure. Many parts of the Berlin Wall were actually two walls, separated by a dead zone. As would be defectors became more creative in their escape attempts, the Soviets and East Germans responded with a more complex and deadly space.
The Berlin wall was protected by a total of 302 watchtowers, each staffed by heavily armed border guards. Most of these towers were destroyed after the wall fell, but during our tour we had the opportunity to see Führungsstelle Kieler Eck Watchtower--one of the few remaining towers. This tower was unique in that it was a command post for several nearby towers. Border guards were very tempted to defect, so a system had to be developed to keep a close eye on them.
The Berlin Wall Memorial
Located in the middle of the city is the Berlin Wall Memorial, a 1.4 kilometer space designed to share the stories of both East and West Berlin and its residents. Our next few stops took place in this memorial park. Very little of the original wall exists here, but there are several interesting exhibits. At one point visitors will see stones marking the former location of a tunnel built by students in the West. It was through this tunnel that 57 East Berliners escaped. Many tunnels were attempted over the wall’s history, but most did not succeed.
Also located in the Berlin Wall Memorial is a preserved “secure zone.” An elevated viewing platform across the street allows visitors to look into the secure zone which included two walls separated by a “dead zone” and lined with lights for use at night. Observing this menacing space gives us a good understanding of the fear instilled into anyone considering defection.
At the end of the memorial is a famous photo by Peter Leibig painted on the side of a building. The scene is a young East German police officer, Conrad Schumann, escaping to the West by running over the recently installed barbed wire. This event made it clear to the Soviets that much more than barbed wire would be needed to contain East German citizens.
The Berlin Bike Tour Continues
After leaving the Berlin Wall Memorial we continued to a famous house of worship once located in East Berlin, Zion Church. This church has a long history of resistance dating back to the early days of the Third Reich, but during Soviet occupation, this became a popular place for environmentalists to gather secretly. East German factories were polluting the air, but authorities refused to acknowledge it. Concerned citizens began to gather and share literature about the environment and discuss ways to improve it.
Our final stop was in front of the Stasi Records Agency. The Stasi were the East German secret police, similar to the KGB. Here secret files were kept on millions of East Germans. As the wall came down, the Stasi attempted to shred these files, but citizens stormed the building and saved many of the files. Today Germans can request their file to see what type of information was gathered on them.
Preparing for a Fat Tire Tour
Fat Tire Tours range from 3 to 6 hours. Berlin is a fairly flat city, so the riding is pretty easy, but it is important to be able to operate a bike safely for the duration of the tour. We opted for the Berlin Wall tour which lasted four hours and included a 30 minute break. The cost is $35 per person and can be booked here.
We found ourselves quite hungry by break time, so be sure to bring cash for food and drinks. (Not all German shops accept credit cards, so always have some Euros available.)
Carefully consider the weather before your tour and dress appropriately. Fat Tire Tours run rain or shine, so come prepared. The weather was quite chilly on the day of our tour, so we all dressed in layers. I kept all my layers on for the duration, but my son gradually took off his outer jacket. Be sure to wear closed toed shoes. Helmets are optional in Berlin, but Fat Tire does make them available.
I was pleasantly surprised at the range of ages on our tour. I estimate that ages ranged from 10 to 60 in our group. Smaller bikes are available for children. So if you can ride a bike, then this is for you!
Where Else Does Fat Tire Tours Operate?
This was our first time booking with Fat Tire Tours, but it won’t be the last! They operate in eight cities in Europe; Rome, Milan, Florence, Berlin, Munich, Paris, Barcelona, and London. In the U.S. there are currently four cities offered; New Orlean, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Chicago. In some locations Segways tours are also available. So if you’ll be in one of these cities soon, be sure to book your tour soon.
Where To Stay In Berlin
During our recent trip we stayed at the Motel One Berlin Alexanderplatz and were really pleased with it. Alexanderplatz is centrally located in Berlin and the home to a large public transportation hub. The rooms were small, but very clean. The hotel rates are definitely affordable.
And the best part? The Fat Tire Tour office is just a five minute walk from the hotel!