A Trabi Safari in Berlin
One of the quirkier ways to see Berlin is by taking a Trabi Safari. Trabant cars (or Trabis as they are fondly known) were the most common cars in the East while the Berlin wall separated East from West. Waiting lists were up to fourteen years long but luckily there’s no waiting around for the Trabi Wall Ride on a freezing cold Sunday morning. Our safari takes us around some of Berlin’s most historic sights, but leaves us guessing about whether the car will make it to the finish line…
Not for the nervous driver
We are sitting inside a piece of East German history. And the door is falling off. A Trabi tour is definitely not for the nervous driver.
“If your car doesn’t feel like it’s going to fall apart then it’s not an original Trabant,” our guide Jordi Garcia Rodriguez reassures us as he slams the door. And slams it again. And a third time.
Stuart starts the engine. It sounds like a motor bike. But one look in the bonnet and you notice that it’s more of a lawn mower.
A piece of the Wild East
A Trabi Safari starts in the yard of Trabi World, where you choose your car. Options range from the pink convertible to a little black ‘I love Berlin’ number and include a zebra styled model, just perfect for safari. But these are not the authentic colours. They’ve been painted up, perhaps to attract the tourist into this unusual outdoor showroom.
For our Wall Ride, we are getting one of the classic green Trabants, produced sometime between 1957 and 1990. (We later find out that the green ones are said to bring luck. And it did. We made it back to the yard.) You don’t see many Trabants on the streets of Berlin now, they are mostly owned by enthusiasts and you need a special licence to have one because their fuel is so foul and polluting. But in East Berlin they were a treasured item for many years.
Cost more second hand than new?
Back in the days of the GDR there was a thriving black market for Trabants; it was the only place in the world where a second hand car cost more than the price of new one, because you could buy it immediately. People would put their children’s names down for a new one when they were born in the hope it would be ready when they were 18.
“If you see my car disappearing in a load of smoke then don’t worry. It’s just the two stroke engine doing its thing,” Jordi says as he climbs into his own green Trabi.
The engines roar, the cars pull away, flailing about on the snow. We are now officially on safari; perhaps the strangest safari in the world.
A very peculiar city tour
We drive our own car, with our guide in a Trabi in front, leading the way and giving us commentary through a crackling radio. It all adds to the atmosphere. Driving an old East German car is a fun if challenging way to tour this busy capital city, and an engaging way to explore the life and times of Berlin’s history. We plunge straight into the East, pulling up outside the former Gestapo headquarters in front of the Topography of Terror museum where Jordi briefs us about how people used to try and get over the wall.
We chug past the Fernsehturm TV tower, the ever present symbol of communist Berlin. At the traffic lights a man in a BMW shouts at us.
“The driver’s door is open,” he helpfully points out.
Stuart tries to slam it shut. But the Trabi isn’t cooperating. I’m thinking that it’s better with the door off anyway; less chance of choking on fumes from the fuel cocktail in the engine.
When we finally get the door shut we head to the Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and take a moment to contemplate the shadow years of the 2nd World War.
From East to West over the wall
Our tour criss-crosses between East and West Berlin, travelling over the double lines of cobbles where the wall once stood, and where East Germans would once have been shot for making a bid for freedom either under or over this brutal line.
“We are about to cross from West to East. When we get into East Berlin you’ll feel your car is working much better. It’ll know its home.” says Jordi cheerfully.
This is a lie. The two stroke engine stinks of its breakfast of petrol and oil, and is still having problems waking up. But the novelty value is huge.
“I’d like to drive this every Sunday,” squeals Cameron. It’s all right for him; he doesn’t have to wrestle with the gear stick.
Watch towers and peek holes
“We are now in no man’s land; the former death strip connecting the two Berlins at a time when West Berlin was just an island in the middle of the East,” says Jordi.
We park the cars and he takes us to stand in the death strip, under a watchtower. The kids peer through a tiny slat in the wall.
“It’s really hard to see anything through that,” says Hannah, perhaps repeating what the kids of East Berlin might have said on meeting the grim barrier that would overshadow their lives for decades to come.
Salt bread, snacks and wall art
We stop for salted spread on pumpkin biscuit at East Side Gallery; the longest part of the wall that still stands. This open air gallery, with works painted directly on the wall, was established after the wall came down when artists from around the world created wall art on themes of peace, freedom and reconciliation. The section of the wall here is still embroiled in controversy though. Many of the original paintings have been damaged by erosion and graffiti and attempts to restore them have not been welcomed by some artists who don’t wish to repaint their works or see them restored by others. Nothing is ever simple with the Wall.
On city breaks, our kids often skim museums, or wander round cities whining of tired feet and complaining of boredom. History is something that happened to someone else. But here they bounce up and down on their seats, taking pictures and listening to the commentary. They gaze in wonder at Angela Merkel’s office building (who knew that the German chancellor could be so fascinating to a seven year old?). They look impressed at a tunnel that facilitated the escape of 57 people. They clap with excitement when we run up against roadworks and need to do a U turn.
“Is it even possible to do a U turn in one of these,” sighs Stuart as he wrestles to get it into reverse.
Stop and search
“Let’s speed up and see if we can get our Trabis into fourth gear,” says Jordi.
We all rev the engines of our little boxes and hope for the best. News reports in the past described Trabants as being cardboard cars. In fact they were made out of Duroplast In East Germany Duroplast was made from varying quantities of fibres including cotton and paper. So they weren’t that far from the truth.
Around the corner a uniformed man unexpectedly stands in the street and waves our Trabi convoy down.
The GDR policeman raps his truncheon on our Duroplast roof, blows his whistle and motions us to wind down the window. He insists on inspecting our specially issued documents; much as officials would have inspected East Germans at checkpoints. Luckily Jordi has ensured our documents are all in order.
Heading for home?
“If we kept going for a couple of thousand kilometres, we’d drive straight into Moscow,” says Jordi over the intercom.
I have serious doubts about even getting to Checkpoint Charlie just down the road. But just to show willing Stuart revs the engine to its maximum 26 horse power. The Trabi Safari continues through Berlin’s wild East, with a splutter and a whiff of smoke, and three little faces peering out of the back of the car at the rear, wondering if life in communist Berlin was really this much fun.
Want to see more?
Check out this video of the Trabi Safari and our interview with Trabi Guide Jordi.
Want to know what we thought? Check out these clips on our Punkt! video clips channel.
- First impressions of Trabi World and the pink convertible
- What Stuart thought driving a Trabi about town
- What the kids thought of the experience
Trabi Tours in Berlin are run by Trabi Safari. You can book them directly or through Expedia. You can also do Trabi Tours in Dresden and in Leipzig. Check out our video of touring Leipzig by Trabi Safari.
There are a range of different tours available with durations starting at one hour. Prices start at 30 euro per person and vary according to tour type, duration and vehicle occupancy. We did the two hour Wall Ride Adventure.
Tours go out in convoys with a guide in the lead car and all cars are kept in contact via one way radio. Well, that’s how things were! The cars are self drive and each car can take up to four persons including the driver. If you want to drive you need to have a valid driving licence with you and feel confident driving a lawnmower around Berlin city traffic. It’s not for the faint-hearted. If you’re the nervous type try a Sunday morning tour as the traffic is lighter.