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Travel: Berlin Wall tour full of bloody, tragic history

The most imposing symbol of the division between the east and west was torn down 20 years ago



A round bronze pillar, elegant in its simplicity, stands near what was once the designated border crossing for Allied forces between East and West Berlin. It's a memorial to Peter Fechter, one of about 140 East Germans killed while attempting to escape across the Berlin Wall.

An 18-year-old bricklayer, Fechter was shot on this spot Aug. 17, 1962. Though he lay on the ground bleeding to death for roughly an hour, nearby U.S. soldiers would, apparently under terms of the Allied Occupation, remain aloof.

Today, on a LED screen on a GPS tour of the remaining sections of the former wall, you see archival photos of East Germany soldiers carrying Fechter's body. The narrator will question the Americans' decision against rescuing him.

This Mauer (Wall) guide is an officially endorsed five-hour audio-video tour of the history of the once-divided city. I picked up the pocket PC and headphones -10 Euros for a day, 8 Euros for four hours - at a roadside stand near Checkpoint Charlie.

This former crossing is where Russian and American tanks faced off for 16 hours in 1961. Today you can have your photo taken with actors dressed as British or American soldiers. You can also buy Russian military memorabilia, including officer hats; go for a spin in an East German police car in the form of a two-stroke Trabant built in the former German Democratic Republic; and visit the Wall Museum on nearby Friedrichstrasse.

But more importantly - and after spending a good few minutes figuring out the GPS technology - the Mauer guide introduces you to the story and surroundings of the Berlin Wall, displays an electronic map showing precisely where events took place, and directs you to your destinations of choice.

Over 14 kilometres, you can visit 22 points of interest accompanied by more than 100 authoritative commentaries, photos and videos. Some of the archival material shown on this iPod-size device, like the photos of Fechter's body, was discovered in GDR Ministry of State Security (Stasi) files.

I continued the tour, via bus and taxi, to Brandenburg Gate, the ultimate Berlin landmark, then to Bernauer Strasse, with the longest remaining section of wall. But before leaving Checkpoint Charlie, I walked along the Niederkirchnerstrasse.

As you learn on the audio, this part of the wall - broken in places, with protruding metal bars and wire mesh - borders the site of Nazi Gestapo headquarters. Two key realities come together here, that of the Third Reich and a divided Germany.

On a stretch called "Land's End," you learn how a paranoid East German military buried listening devices in the ground and mounted them on the roof of the nearby former Prussian House of Deputies. Here too, we learn, the West Berlin Senate operated a mobile studio that broadcast news by loudspeaker into the Soviet sector.