Berlin Underground Tours
I love alternative sights or finding different ways of seeing a destination. This, coupled with the huge obsession I have with wanting to visit disused underground stations in London, but can’t because it’s really secret and by invite only (hint), meant that Berlin gave me the fix I needed.
When researching my trip there I came across the Berlin Underworlds Association (Berliner Unterwelten E.V) – a society for the exploration and documentation of subterranean culture. More simply, they provide expert tours of the city’s underground linked to various moments of it’s history. Immediately I knew I had to give it a try. The description? “Experience the history of Berlin from an unconventional perspective.” Very Backpacker Becki, no?
The Berlin Underworlds Association has been offering regular tours for around 15 years, so they know their stuff when it comes to the important underground structures in the city. The majority of the tours start in or near the Gesundbrunnen station in the north of Berlin city centre, and last approximately two hours. From war bunkers and air raid shelters to the remains of an anti-aircraft fortress, Berlin’s underground place host to a wealth of history. You might find it hard to choose which tour to go on!
I decided on Tour M – Breaching the Berlin Wall: Subterranean escapes from East Berlin to West Berlin. As a history geek and avid explorer, that title was like travel candy. Here’s a brief overview of the three main things you get to learnt about:
Escaping Via Tunnels
Many attempts were made to escape from East Berlin to the West via man made tunnels dug deep underground, where everything from reinforcements to lighting and ventilation had to be taken into consideration.The first tunnel was dug in December 1961 and the last one in 1985, 4 years before the boarders were opened. Of course, some attempts had devastating consequences, when uncovered by the East German secret police (Stasi), but others were successful – the determination resulting in the same people risking their lives to dig another tunnel in a different location months later in order to help others.
Escaping Via the Sewage System
The sewer channels were also used as escape routes, even though the Stasi had put preventative measures in place with grating systems. Initially the grating was a square shape within the circle of the tunnel meaning there was just enough space to squeeeeeeze under… through the sewage. The Stasi later installed oval shaped grating and then used measures to cover the space completely. Many West Berlin students had great escape operations in place using the sewage systems to help their friends trapped in the East.
However, when escaping this way, someone had to be the ‘lid man’ with the promises of being able to go down into the hole another time. In the room underground was a man hole cover, exactly the same as the ones you see in the city today and what would have been in use back then. The lights were turned out as if to create the atmosphere of night time escape and two strong guys were asked to carefully and quietly lift the heavy lid…
No problem at all, but putting it back? A disastrous mixture of the wrong balance, uneven weight and constant clanging noise. Back then, they would have been caught instantly and killed. It really puts into perspective how difficult these escapes really were with the Stasi on lookout right around every corner.
Escaping Via the East Berlin U-Bahn Underground Stations
With the construction of the Wall, U-Bahn lines in East Berlin were severed in their connection to the West. But as the East got poorer the two West Berlin lines (the U6 and U8) that ran through East Berlin were ‘rented out’ to the West, allowing them to pass through the East side stations without stopping.
We were told about how people cleverly hid among the tracks and side walls ready to jump on passing trains and how the guards on the Eastern side would defect and while on duty, use this route as a means to escape. When the Stasi lost too many men they eventually locked guards on duty in a room with a small window looking out towards the tracks. Any signs of escapees would have to be called through to a superior, by which point it was probably too late to catch them.
Photo exhibitions form much of the tour when underground in what is a former civil defence shelter and it really brings the stories to life. One of the best bits was wandering along a huge underground corridor only to emerge from a side door on the wall of the underground station, which most people probably walk past daily and don’t give a second’s thought!
From there you are taken via the subway to my much recommended Berlin Wall viewing site, Bernauer Strasse, where more than seven escape tunnels were attempted within a short distance of just 350 meters of each other. This is also where two of the most successful tunnels were constructed.
The guide was both passionate and knowledgeable about history and so full of facts that I became as fascinated by the size of his brain as I was with the city’s complex history. Anyone that can condense Berlin’s history into a manageable chunk that you can actually understand gets my seal of approval. It was also cool that he was called Robin Williams (I’ve never got out of that immature habit of finding it funny when people have famous names).
If I lived in Berlin I think I would eventually do all the tours. The owners of the apartment I was staying in even said they had been meaning to do it… for the past 10 years! I highly recommend it – not only do you really get to grips with the city’s history, but you get to learn about it from a truly interesting perspective.
Gives a whole new meaning to ‘off the beaten track’ really, doesn’t it?
Many thanks to the Berlin Underworlds Association for allowing me the opportunity to attend one of their tours.