Narrow bridges

Rick Steves: Europe is tearing down walls and building bridges

As travelers learn, the true success of a society lies in finding a way beyond the walls.

Although many impressive walls played a huge role in Europe’s past, today most are historic relics. From Hadrian’s Wall (built to defend the northern border of Roman Britain) to the Maginot Line (built by the French in the 1930s to keep the Germans out), the walls of Europe have generally been symbols not of force, but of mistrust and insecurity. Most were needed during construction. But the promising news of our times has been a European society moving towards mutual respect and cooperation – tearing down the walls to move forward.

Long ago, at one time or another, most major cities in Europe – Paris, London, Rome, Florence, Milan, Barcelona, ​​Vienna – were contained within walls, built in ancient and medieval times to defend against invaders. Many of these walls were torn down long ago as cities expanded beyond their historic centers and land was opened up for large circular boulevards. Some intact walls have been preserved in places like Dubrovnik, Croatia; Rothenburg, Germany; York, England; Lucca, Italy; and Carcassonne, France. In each case, these walls have become friendly, park-like spaces where people walk, congregate and enjoy the view.

Some walls seem to survive to take us back in time. One of my favorites, Hadrian’s Wall, is the remnant of the fortification the Romans built nearly 2,000 years ago in Britain. Now in ruins, this great stone wall once stretched 117 kilometers from coast to coast across the narrowest part of northern England, where Britannia ended and the barbaric land that would one day be Scotland began. More than just a wall, it was a cleverly designed military rampart, manned by 20,000 men. At each mile there was a small fort guarding a gate. On each visit, I try to imagine the sadness of being a young Roman soldier stationed there 18 centuries ago. Today, two of these Hadrian’s Wall forts have been turned into museums, where visitors can see the ruins up close, see ancient artifacts and get a sense of life in the distant past of a desolate corner of Roman Empire.

Hadrian’s Wall is popular with hikers, who follow the wall as it meanders along the natural contours of the terrain. During one visit, I took advantage of a sunny late afternoon to walk the wall. Climbing along the Roman ruins, all alone with the wind and the sheep, I took a moment to simply soak up the scenery. I surveyed vast stretches from a rocky crag that seemed to tear apart the island like horrific geological violence, frozen in the middle of the action.

But the most poignant walls in Europe are products of the recent past. Fortunately, so many people who once represented fear and intolerance now symbolize peace and progress.

During The Troubles, the 30-year conflict that ravaged Northern Ireland, so-called ‘peace walls’ were erected in Belfast to separate its sectarian communities: Catholics, supporters of a united Ireland, and Protestants , supporters of staying in the United States. Kingdom. Today, instead of separating its warring tribes, these walls are a tourist attraction. Visitors from around the world decorate the walls with colorful messages of hope and thanksgiving that the bombings and killings that accompanied The Troubles are no more.

Europe’s most famous wall is the Berlin Wall, designed not to defend against invaders but to prevent residents from escaping. Built in 1961, this 96-mile-long barrier encircled West Berlin, making it an island of freedom in communist East Germany. When the wall fell on November 9, 1989, Europe had its happiest day since the end of the Second World War. In the euphoria that followed, the “wall pickers” shattered the Berlin Wall. A surviving section of the wall has been preserved as a memorial to Cold War victims. It is a long and narrow park that extends from a museum and an observation tower. What was once the famous ‘death strip’, with a deadly obstacle course of barbed wire and spiked tire strips, is now dotted with personal memorials and informative displays. This no man’s land between East and West has become everyone’s playground. And what remains of the long-hated wall has become a concrete canvas for graffiti artists – a popular gallery celebrating freedom.

The walls of Europe were built for a reason. But, as travelers learn, the real success of a society lies in finding a way beyond the walls. It’s no coincidence that paper euro bills have bridges, not walls – like the dreams of great leaders.

— This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the love of Europe.

Rick Steves (ricksteves.com) writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public television and radio, and organizes European tours. You can email Rick at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.