Getaway: The Wall and beyond in eastern Germany

Matthew J. Gill

On one of the remaining sections of the Berlin Wall there is an image of two flowing beings done up in red, white and blue. According to the slogan above, they are "Dancing To Freedom."

Nearby are countless paintings, slogans, song lyrics and messages - left in many different colors and languages. All serve as artistic memorials to the fact the Wall, built in 1961 to divide a city and country, came down in 1989, paving the way for German reunification.

Seeing the joy depicted in these expressions was an emotional experience for me. I imagined how my father, having grown up during the Cold War, would feel taking in the same scene.

Next year - 2009 - the history of the Berlin Wall and what it came to symbolize will be the cause of great celebration, when the 20th anniversary of its fall will be commemorated. Numerous events are being scheduled throughout Berlin and other German communities reflecting on that historic time.

During my recent tour of eastern Germany, a visit to the Wall was a fitting starting point for a trip that would take me to some of the cities that have played an important role in Germany's lengthy history.

One hour outside Berlin, in the suburb of Potsdam, is Schlosshotel Cecilienhof. A luxury hotel and museum today, Cecilienhof palace played an important role during World War II.

Constructed originally as a home for Prince Wilhelm, the site gained acclaim in the summer of 1945, when the leaders of the United Kingdom, Soviet Union and United States - Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin and Harry Truman - held meetings here in the aftermath of World War II, with discussions including how the city of Berlin would be divided.

While attending the Potsdam Conference, Churchill learned that he'd been voted out of office back in England. He was replaced at the meetings by his successor, Clement Attlee. Just prior to Potsdam, Truman received news of the successful test of the atomic bomb.

The stately hotel today offers 42 guestrooms, extensive grounds and a cozy restaurant, where my companions and I dined on apple strudel, sweet cabbage and, of course, the wurst sausages of Germany.

The estate's museum details events of the Potsdam Conference. In one of the courtyards, a large Russian star serves as the centerpiece for a unique garden.

Potsdam is also known for its many beautiful parks. Every spring the city hosts a tulip festival that draws visitors from around the world and features more than 150,000 flowers. You'd never know by looking today, but among the quaint buildings in town is one that once held a KGB prison.

About 125 miles south of Berlin, another city offering much for history buffs is Dresden. A few months before the Potsdam Conference, Dresden was heavily bombed by British and American fighter planes. The firestorm that ensued is estimated to have killed more than 25,000 people and destroyed much of the city.

In the six decades that have passed - and despite being under Communist rule until 1990 - Dresdeners have been busy rebuilding, literally brick by brick. And today the city - laid out in a perfect panorama along the Elbe - is once again absolutely beautiful.

Perhaps the most impressive of the reconstruction projects is the massive Church of Our Lady, or Frauenkirche. Built in the 1700s and boasting a dramatic baroque dome, the Lutheran church was destroyed in the bombing. In the 1990s, backed by an international fundraising effort, restoration began. And after 13 years of meticulous work, including the use of many of the original stones, the church reopened in 2005, just in time for the city's 800th anniversary the following year.

The church stands at one end of a busy pedestrian square amid cafes, boutiques and hotels. Nearby, both bland Communist period architecture and glorious 18th century royal architecture are in view.

The Elbe Valley around Dresden is home to many beautiful villas and gardens. In the town of Bad Muskau, Muskakuer Park was designed by nobleman Hermann Furst Von Puckler (1785-1871). A world traveler, he created a series of gardens with bucolic views and unusual landscapes including two sizable earthen pyramids. The property stretches across the nearby border into Poland.

On our way back to Berlin, my companions and I stopped at Glienicke Bridge. In 1962, American fighter pilot Francis Gary Powers - who had been shot down over Russia - was returned to the West here in exchange for Col. Rudolph Abel, a captured Russian spy.

Back in Berlin, we visited Checkpoint Charlie, where American soldiers once stood guard at the border between East and West. Displays tell the stories of residents of East Berlin who made daring attempts during the Communist era to escape to the West. Some created cars with the tops cut off so they could make it under a security gate. Others tunneled. Some made it safely across, but 171 people lost their lives trying to escape to freedom.