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A glimpse behind the Curtain

This year it is 25 years since the Wall came down, but the Iron Curtain didn’t just vanish overnight, as Russell Hafter discovered.

In a long career in travel, both before the re-unification of Germany, I never saw the Berlin Wall, nor even the Iron Curtain. They would always be there anyway, wouldn’t they? I could always go and see them next year.

Then, suddenly, in 1989, everything changed, and it looked like my chance had gone.

In 1991, after some years of building up my portfolio of itineraries, I decided that it was time to look into offering a walking holiday package in the east. So, one day that summer I was driving north from Bamberg, even though evening was setting in. Suddenly, with no warning at all, the single carriageway opened out into a huge area of tarmac, with high poles reaching to the sky.

Most of the traffic totally ignored this place, but a number of cars, mostly not German, had stopped and a few people were wandering around. It was several minutes before I realised that this must have been a border crossing point. Some equally puzzled Italians asked me if I knew what the place was; they had come to the same conclusion.

On the grass verges were large warning signs “Do not enter ‑ Landmines”, helpfully only in German.

By now I was looking for somewhere to spend the night, so turned round to stay in the Bundesrepublik. Having found a pleasant Gasthof in a small north Franconian village, I found myself sharing a table with a father and son from Aschaffenburg. They had spent the day cycling back and forth across the former border, and recommended that before continuing to the Harz I should visit a small town called Ummerstadt. As the evening wore on, the father started to wonder about how the recent changes would affect this area in particular. “Both sides of the border, these communities were on the very edge of the world. Suddenly they are right in the heart of it.”

Although my map showed no roads leading to Ummerstadt, it was at least signposted. There was a sudden deterioration in the road surface as I crossed the former border and entered the town. There was no traffic. I continued into the centre, into a large open market place surrounded by attractive, well-kept half-timbered buildings. Apart from my car, there was just one motor vehicle there, a Trabant. The shops looked like a film set for the 1930s. It was a place where time had stood still.

Eventually I continued on to the Harz, albeit with little help from any road signs. Since then I’ve often wondered what Ummerstadt is like today, now that that sleepy little place has moved from the edge, to the heart, of the world.



Walking Holidays on the Harz Witches Trail.


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