Road Trip through the Former GDR

My fascination for the GDR goes back many years now – I even studied its history in college – but somehow I’d never seen anything of East Germany except Berlin. So three summers ago, I decided it was time for a road trip. Mark and me packed our things, crossed the Dutch-German border and went all the way east. It was time to finally get to know this part of Germany that I was so intrigued by.

First stop: Checkpoint Alpha

I wanted to make the border-crossing official, so the first stop had to be the former frontier between West- and East-Germany. Everything is still there at what was once checkpoint Alpha: passport control booths, command buildings, huge spotlights… The checkpoint, also called Helmstedt – Marienborn, is now a listed complex and serves as a memorial.

Central Berlin - Checkpoint Marienborn
Checkpoint Alpha now. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans

We parked the car where once people had to wait to have their passports checked and walked around between the now abandoned buildings of what was until 25 years ago the biggest border crossing in all of Germany. There were hardly any other visitors, so it was just us and countless empty buildings whose occupants just seemed to have left for their lunch breaks.

Second stop: Leipzig

Berlin obviously had to be part of this GDR road trip, but I also wanted to visit “the new Berlin”: Leipzig. We checked into a hostel on Karl-Liebknecht-Straße, which I’d read was the place to be in Leipzig at night, and walked into the city centre. Karl-Liebknecht-Straße did remind me of Berlin, but as soon as I walked through the streets surrounding the Marktplatz, it was clear why there is no comparison between Berlin and Leipzig: the latter has a historic town centre.

GDR traces are here as well, though. The mass protests that eventually led to the fall of the Wall started in the old town, at the Nicolaikirche. I also loved the GDR Museum with the inspiring name ‘Zeitgeschichtliches Forum’. Entrance is free and it’s at least as good and extensive as Berlin’s DDR Museum. The best thing in Leipzig might have been the exhibition grounds. It housed important events in GDR times and was famous in the entire country. The red star on the roof of the Soviet Pavilion is still there.

Third stop: Chemnitz (Karl-Marx-Stadt)

Chemnitz might not ring any bells, but it’s a unique city. It has had its name since at least the 12th century, but in 1952 the GDR government decided it was time for a new name. As the prime minister Otto Grotewohl put it: “The people who live here do not look back, but look forward to a new and better future. They look at socialism. They look with love and devotion to the founder of the socialist doctrine, the greatest son of the German people, to Karl Marx.” And there it was: Karl-Marx-Stadt.

Central Berlin - Chemnitz
Chemnitz, Karl Marx is still there. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans

The people might have been looking back more than he thought, though. In a referendum in 1990, just after the fall of the Wall, 76% of the people voted to have the name Chemnitz back. Still, Karl Marx didn’t leave the city completely: 40 tons heavy and 13 metres high (of which 7 metres are his head), he still watches over his former Stadt. It would be the biggest bust in the world, but a bust of Lenin in Russia is 60 cm bigger.

Fourth stop: Sächsische Schweiz (Saxon Switzerland)

The hills and mountains of Sächsische Schweiz have always been one of Germany’s favourite holiday destinations and it isn’t hard to see why. Its strangely eroded rock formations are pretty much what I imagine American national parks to look like. Romantic painters like Caspar David Friedrich found their inspiration here.

Central Berlin - Sächsische Schweiz
Sächsische Schweiz. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans

After the war, West Germans had to wait 45 years before they could visit the sandstone mountains again, but there were very few East-Germans who hadn’t spent a couple of nights in this area. In GDR times, more than 50.000 people per day walked down the famous bridge ‘Basteibrücke’ in high season. We crossed the bridge ourselves and took some beautiful walks up the hills and between the mountains. I think the little store just off the bridge still looks exactly like it did 40 years ago, and still sells the same souvenirs and snacks.

Fifth stop: Dresden

Truth be told: I’m not the biggest fan of baroque architecture, so Dresden wasn’t top of my list. Since we were so close though, I wanted to see the city anyway. As we didn’t have a lot of time, we limited our visit to the area around the famous Frauenkirche. The renovation of this church has only recently been finished and it now stands as a strange, shiny new building on a square that so clearly shows its GDR traces – most buildings haven’t been rebuilt and there’s a monstrosity (I love it) of a Kulturpalast.

Still, I was kind of shocked by how much of a tourist trap the city was – we were lured onto a table at the market square and then ran away when we saw the price of a coffee – and after a short walk to the Elbe I thought I had seen pretty much all of Dresden. Little did I know that there’s also a ‘Neustadt’ (new city) that people love because of its rough charm and many nice bars, restaurants and shops. Dresden, I will be back!

Sixth stop: Berlin

Berlin has always been one of my biggest loves, so I couldn’t visit the former GDR and skip Berlin. Truth be told, I don’t even really remember what we did there – but I’m sure we enjoyed ourselves.

Seventh stop: Rügen

It’s hard to beat Sächsische Schweiz, but Rügen is also high on my list of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Just a few hours north of Berlin, there are endless beaches, high white cliffs dropping into the sea and large forests that you have almost entirely to yourself. We took a long walk on the beach and enjoyed the fresh sea air.

Central Berlin - Rügen Prora
Rügen, Prora. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans

But the main reason I wanted to go here was something completely different: Prora, built by the Nazi’s in the 1930s, was a holiday home that measured 4.5 kilometres in length. 20,000 holidaymakers could stay here at the same time. It was never used for this purpose, because the war started before the official opening in 1940. After the war, the Red Army used the many empty buildings as a prison for landowners and as housing for Germans that came from former German territory in the east.

Central Berlin - Rügen Beaches
Rügen, the beaches. Image courtesy of Daphne Damiaans

Demolition was considered, but that would have been too much work. In the following years, the Russian and GDR army used the complex as a sanatorium and education institute – for soldiers from Third World armies among others. The buildings have been mostly empty since the early 1990s, but there’s a Documentation Centre and a GDR museum.