The brightly painted cars of Trabant Safaris seen from the Berlin “Die Welt” Balloon, a captive helium balloon that rises to 150 meters and is one of the world’s largest. Trabants were originally available in a limited range of pastel colors, from beige to pale blue, although owners could not choose which one they received.
Berlin – Been There

Driving the world's one and only car in Berlin

Photo by Andrea Innocenti

Berlin – Been There Driving the world's one and only car in Berlin

I am following Nicolas Aimar, a charismatic Frenchman who has lived in Berlin since the Wall came down. From his Trabi (Trabant, East Germany's signature car in GDR days) up ahead, his expert commentary on the city’s history is piped through to me on the radio – the pinnacle of the onboard gadgetry.

Meera Dattani
Meera Dattani Travel Writer

The GDR may be dead and buried but certainly this part of its history is alive and well. Whenever I park up, people ask if they can photograph it. I feel I am driving the world’s one and only car.

There are not that many spots where you can actually see the Wall – mostly, double rows of cobblestones indicate where it once stood. The longest section is along the East Side Gallery at 1.3 kilometers, its panels covered in comical, political artwork. The most poignant spot by far is the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse, the only section of original Wall with the “death-strip” intact. I climb the viewing tower for a better look at just how crudely Bernauer Strasse – a street on the border between the districts of Wedding and Mitte – was completely split by the Wall. Residents awoke in a new East Berlin unable to go to work in the West, while others were separated from family and friends. Some jumped from apartments in crazed attempts to cross the border and, over the years, about 100 to 200 people would die trying to escape. That the section was called the “Death Strip” is no exaggeration.

As my tour heads back to base, I am stopped by an “East German police officer”. I know it is illogical to feel scared, given the GDR collapsed when the Wall did, but although I recognize a set-up (doesn’t the officer look like a man I saw in the Trabi Safaris office?) I am no less attentive. He asks me to step out of the car and present my documents. Unbelievably, I am a little flustered. Then I recall Nico giving me a “driving license” and “visa” during my briefing. “Keep them safe,” he said before I laughed and carelessly tossed them into the car.

I do find them but then my less-than-fluent German suggests I have been drinking and I have to prove my sobriety by walking in a straight line. It is a moment of lightness, but the implications are not lost. In darker times, a stop like that could end with the driver being bundled into the back of a seemingly innocent fruit-and-veg van and taken off for questioning if an informer had their way.

It is astonishing to think how recent this part of Berlin history is.

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