Simon Calder: Twenty years on, has Berlin come in from the cold?

A dark, despairing nation whose weary inhabitants cowered beneath the worn-out regime that ruled them so ineptly. So much for Thatcher's Britain in 1989; in East Germany life was even worse.

The Second World War might have ended more than four decades earlier, but 20 years ago Germany was still an occupied nation. The way that the country's carcass was carved up by Britain, France, the US and the USSR had all kinds of odd consequences for the traveller. One was that no West German airline could fly domestically from Hamburg, Frankfurt or Stuttgart to Berlin. The national carrier, Lufthansa, was banned from the country's main air routes, leaving the market to British Airways, Air France and Pan Am - all of whom prospered out of this constraint on trade. Fortunately for the budget traveller, fares to Berlin from Munich, Frankfurt and Hamburg were subsidised by the German state. So one bleak morning in January 1989, I strode up to the Pan Am counter at Frankfurt airport and handed over the equivalent of £75 for ticket to Berlin (and back, since I was feeling lucky). The new anxieties about terrorism in the wake of Lockerbie - Pan Am 103 had been bombed a few weeks earlier - were displayed when a couple of fellow passengers of Middle Eastern appearance were detained for further questioning.

The trajectory of the short flight to Berlin was unusual. The pilot flew at normal altitude initially, but had descended to 10,000 feet by the time we reached the West-East German frontier. The rules on access to West Berlin from the rest of West Germany insisted that aircraft stick to specified air lanes and altitudes - and, since the rules had been drawn up before any high-altitude passenger jets had been invented, the maximum height was decreed in the era of propeller planes.

The Boeing 727 landed in West Berlin, and I caught a transfer bus and then the U-Bahn (underground railway) to East Berlin. It really was as simple as that: line 6 of the U-Bahn ran directly beneath East Berlin. All the stops in the eastern part of the city were bricked in and heavily guarded "ghost stations", except one: Friedrichstrasse. Today, this junction between underground and overground looks like any other busy city-centre railway station. But 20 years ago it was one of very few places where the axis of liberal democracy intersected with the axis of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Curious tourists were seen by the German "Democratic" Republic as a source of much-needed hard currency. A day visa cost 25 Deutschmarks (about £10). In an attempt by the East German authorities to stifle the rampant black market, the East German authorities insisted on the mandatory exchange rate of 25 (valuable) DM for the same number of their (near worthless) Reichsmarks.

Like Cinderella, the day-tripper had to be home by midnight. But a short appointment at a shabby office on Alexanderplatz, plus another wad of hard currency, was enough to secure permission to stay longer.

Two days in East Berlin passed in an instant - discovering a city that was so beautiful, so cultured, yet so alien, and meeting locals who were trapped in an ideological deep-freeze. They were guarded (in at least two senses), fearful of straying across the ill-defined line between international comradeship and potential espionage. Neither they nor I fancied a speaking part in the real-life Cold War drama set on the city's austere streets. When we said farewell, it might as well have been forever: no one could believe the Wall would melt away in our lifetimes.

I returned through Checkpoint Charlie at dawn. The colour of your passport decided whether or not you could escape from a land ruled by fear, in the shape of the Stasi (state security organisation), to the free world. That dark, icy January morning in 1989, the main exit from the Eastern bloc was softened by mist. My heart raced as I passed through the stern barriers and sterner guards who protected the "death-strip" that separated communism from capitalism. Within a year, the Berlin Wall had gone and the city had come back to life. Yet, as I discovered last weekend (see pages 10-11), the long division adds a fascinating dimension to the German capital. The faceless bureaucrats and black marketeers have turned into stalwarts of the business community, some of them selling chips of the Wall for €12.90; but enough of the barrier remains to take you through the past, darkly.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

FootballGerman sparks three goals in four minutes at favourite No 10 role
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
New Articles
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam