What lies be­neath

Dark se­crets are wait­ing to be uncovered un­der the bustling streets of Ber­lin

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - ROB GRANT

WITH a few pre­cious hours to spare in a big Euro­pean city, most visi­tors would head to a world-fa­mous gallery, mu­seum or at­trac­tion. I opt for tales of op­pres­sion and nu­clear Ar­maged­don told in claus­tro­pho­bic sub­ter­ranean tun­nels.

In 1997, a pas­sion­ate gang of lo­cal academics founded Ber­liner Un­ter­wel­ten (Ber­lin Un­der­world), to pre­serve and doc­u­ment the city’s un­der­ground trea­sures. With much of Ber­lin’s his­tory un­fold­ing in the shad­ows, it of­fers a ver­i­ta­ble gold­mine for the macabre-minded through a se­ries of fas­ci­nat­ing tours.

Named af­ter Mauer, the Ger­man word for ‘‘wall’’, Tour M digs into tales of the myr­iad tun­nels built un­der the Ber­lin Wall, which split the city in two be­tween 1961 and 1989. It starts in the dis­used rooms of Ge­sund­brun­nen sta­tion, where orig­i­nal maps, arte­facts, pho­tos and posters are used to set the scene.

The des­per­a­tion of about 13,000 sep­a­rated fam­i­lies, and de­vi­ous mea- sures em­ployed by the Stasi (se­cret po­lice) to pre­vent their re­union, make for chill­ing sto­ries. While more than 300 suc­cess­fully crossed un­der­ground from East to West, many failed. I cringe hear­ing how close one tun­nel came, only to be foiled when a win­ter dust­ing left a sus­pi­cious snow-free line above its route ( damn that clever un­der­ground heat­ing).

Af­ter a sub­way ride to Ber­nauer Strasse, the tour lands in an area that our guide says ‘‘looked like a Swiss cheese’’ at the peak of tun­nel-build­ing frenzy. Sadly, de­spite all this ac­tiv­ity, no orig­i­nal tun­nels ex­ist and so care­ful re­con­struc­tions have been built in an old brew­ery cel­lar.

One of the more fa­mous recre­ated tun­nels is the Klaus Koep­pen, a master­piece of in­tri­cate wooden supports with a ven­ti­la­tion sys­tem, light­ing and even a tele­phone. Un­for­tu­nately it failed in its mis­sion but sur­vivors work with the as­so­ci­a­tion and even helped con­struct the Chan­nel Tun­nel.

Few lived the Cold War more in­ti­mately than Ber­lin­ers, with ‘‘en­e­mies’’ liv­ing just a wall apart. Tour 3 takes you deep in­side an eerie for­ti­fied bunker built to pro­tect res­i­dents should the three-minute warn­ing sound.

At the Pankstrasse sub­way stop we dis­cover the bunker is the sta­tion it­self. In­ge­niously, the West Ger­mans blocked off a cen­trally lo­cated sta­tion with colos­sal steel and con­crete doors to cre­ate a huge, ready-made shel­ter.

Pass­ing through the sta­tion, you’d never sus­pect what sits be­hind those un­marked metal doors. Af­ter pass­ing through the air lock, op­er­ated slowly for the­atri­cal ef­fect, the el­e­ments needed for 3500 to sur­vive for two weeks are ex­plained. Each bunkhouse has 70 beds stacked five high and makes a back­packer dorm seem pala­tial.

The in­fir­mary would put off even the most de­ter­mined hypochon­driac and here Ber­liner Un­ter­wel­ten’s ob­ses­sion with his­toric ac­cu­racy is well il­lus­trated. Ap­par­ently it con­tacted the still-op­er­at­ing body­bag man­u­fac­turer to en­sure dura­bil­ity es­ti­mates were valid (30 years, if you were won­der­ing.)

Our dry-hu­moured guide con­cludes by ex­plain­ing the bleak shel­ter’s fu­til­ity, since a nu­clear ex­plo­sion would cre­ate a 400m hole ex­tend­ing far be­yond Ber­lin.

Your fate would be the same fol­low­ing the ex­hib­ited pro­pa­ganda poster say­ing ‘‘jeder hat eine Chance’’ (ev­ery­one has a chance). Lie on the floor with a bag on your head, it ad­vises.

PIC­TURES: BER­LINER UN­TER­WEL­TEN

The Ber­liner Un­ter­wel­ten tour graph­i­cally il­lu­mi­nates the tales of the myr­iad tun­nels built un­der the Ber­lin Wall, which split the city be­tween 1961 and 1989

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