Art, architecture, history, travel

Travels behind the Iron curtain 1978

Do we know what we are doing?

Travels behind the Iron curtain Spring 1978

We made or travel arrangements in East Berlin, they were only too happy to help and take our western money

Actually, I was glad, because it made things a lot easier

After four days in Berlin, we wanted to go to Prague/Prag with a stop in Dresden along the way, about 100 miles/160 km. This would mean crossing into East Germany. We had entered East Germany at the checkpoint alpha on the Hanover Berlin Autobahn and entered West Berlin  at the Wannsee crossing in southwest Berlin, the lesser known Checkpoint Bravo or Drewitz crossing.  We had already used this crossing to visit Potsdam, San Souci and the Cecelienhof home of the infamous Stalin, Truman and Atlee conference in August 1945. As an engineer my father never really understood the intricacies of the communist system. If there was a closer highway exit to where you were it didn’t make sense to use one all the way across town just because it was the only one open to foreigners. The communist system was based on control not convenience. My mother related being surprised that all of the intermediate exits on the autobahn were barricaded.

Soviet War Memorial Treptow, East Berlin

Communism, in practice, was never based on logic despite dialectical materialism. In those days, it was very unusual for people to travel though East Germany on their own outside of Berlin, especially Americans.People were suspicious. Got to Dresden too late to do anything but we did have a nice dinner and stay at a nice hotel.  Zittau is in Upper Lusatia home of the Slavic speaking Sorbs and near the German, Czech Polish tri-point. We couldn’t get rid of our East German marks before we left. We had the same problem after leaving Prag. My dad said you can only use so much food or gas. We cleared East German customs and drove about 100 feet and had to do the whole thing over again. The whole thing took about 3-4 hours. It was really terrible.

We didn’t get to do much sightseeing in Dresden but stayed at the Dresdner Hof, a very nice Hotel and ate at a very nice restaurant on the opposite side of the Elbe, the best in town. My mother desperately wanted to visit the porcelain factory at Meissen, but we were told emphatically that  it was not posible. The next morning we walked around the center of town much evidence of war. Then we had to leave. My mom and dad fell in love with the city and have visited three times including the rebuilt Frauenkirche.

1968 Prague spring Russian tanks

Frauenkirche Dresden restored and ruins

So much for the socialist brotherhood. The 60th anniversary of the great October socialist revolution. It was only 75 miles to Prag and it still took all day to get there. Prag is a beautiful medieval city with a cathedral, castle and even an ancient Jewish cemetery, also the home of Franz Kafka. It was a center of the Protestant reformation. This was, of course, before the split of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. Czech was known for its Olympic athletes, fine porcelain and crystal. We visited some of the fine taverns in downtown Prag such as U supa and sampled the fine draft beer and wine.

It was the time of the ice hockey world championship, Eishockey Weltmeistershaft and very hard to get a room. We let fath out of the car and after an hour he came back with a room. Some people saw the L on our car and were convinced we had driven from Lebanon. They had never heard of Luxembourg. That’s where my parents had picked up the car just outside of Trier. Another point my mother remembered was breakfast at the Park Inn Hotel. A four star hotel. It’s still there. Not far from downtown on the Vlatava. The base of the old Stalin monument which was removed shortly after his death.Apparently some of the ice hockey players were staying at the same hotel. They were huge from the eastern bloc . . . And one athlete ate as much as the three of us. St. Vitus is the  name of my dormitory in Regensburg.  The main cathedral in Prague is also named after St Vitus. Originally from Sicily, St. Vitus is revered as a saint in Germany and Latvia among other places, especially Nuremberg and Bavaria. He is one of he Vierzehnheiligen or holy helpers.

English: A view of the interior of St. Vitus C...

English: A view of the interior of St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, Czech Republic. Nederlands: Het interieur van de kathedraal van de heilige Vitus in Praag, Tsjechië. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our room at the Park Hotel, a big fancy place on the other side of the river. I think it is still there. The base of the Stalin statue was still there but the statue has been removed. We checked into our rooms and turned in our passports. This turned out to be a big mistake. As Dad pointed out 35 years later, we were soon asked to change to a different room. When you turn in your passport they put it in the slot for your room. When we changed rooms they forgot to move our passports. When we went to check out they said they couldn’t find our passports. So there we were behind the Iron Curtain without our passports. I had forgotten about this but Dad said he won’t forget it as long as he lives. We also visited the famous Karlsteyn castle outside of Prague.

Drove from Tabor in southern Bohemia; this was all behind the iron curtain to Vienna. We crossed the border to Austria at Nova Bystrice and Haugschlag in the Waldviertel in Austria, somehow missing Czeske Krumlow and Budevice (Budweis.)

Prague Stalin

Prague Stalin

It was a gray, humiliating and time consuming experience including a minimal currency exchange unlike the instant border crossings we were used to. It’s difficult to grasp what this actually means. It was the same for the Soviet Union. See yes there is more

There was often intense pressure from friends and family not to go at all and support the communist system. Border crossings definitely interfere with sightseeing and other things even in Hungary and Bulgaria.

I was a boy when the Red Army invaded the CSSR in the spring of 1968, but I remember vividly talking to my father about it. Many of the custodians,. At my school there were refugees from the 1956 Hungarian uprising. back then we called them janitors a reference to the Roman god of the household Janus more at January They knew when they left it was forever. They would never be allowed to return to Hungary.


Meissen cup and saucer



Prague tavern U supa

Czech author Franz Kafka

There is more to come . . . .

More travels behind the Iron curtain and Munich to Istanbul on the Istanbul Express

Return Athens to Regensburg January 1978

The only member of the Warsaw pact I missed was Romania. I have not been there to this day. Albania was closed and impossible to visit plus it was cold, winter and I had run out of time. JAS Bond again. Yugoslavia, including Skopje, not safe to go there. Loved Belgrade Orthodox Christmas Sofia, Plovdiv and Istanbul. My neighbor in Cincinnati said “I’ve never heard of Bulgaria and you’ve been there.”

The Visa scam you had to buy a visa and make a mandatory exchange of currency which had to be spent. Just try doing that in this wasteland of consumer goods. After working all day people stand in line to buy something without even knowing what it is. You also had to book your room in advance and always at a higher price than residents.

Personally I was always uncomfortable if I saw a sign, book or newspaper I couldn’t read. Indeed all alphabets including the Latin and Greek date back to the Phoenicians. That’s when I started my lifelong love of languages

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One response

  1. Interesting info, thanks

    nice greetings from Regensburg

    July 18, 2010 at 9:29 am

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