Narrow bridges

The Europe of Rick Steves: Europe is tearing down walls and building bridges

Europe has built more than its share of walls. From Hadrian’s Wall (built by the ancient Romans to defend Brittany’s northern border) to the Maginot Line (built by the French in the 1930s to keep the Germans out), these walls were not symbols of strength, but of mistrust and insecurity. They were needed at the time.

But the promising news of our time has been a European society moving forward – tearing down the walls to move forward. With the fall of the Iron Curtain and the rise of the European Union, border walls and controls have been replaced by free trade, freedom to travel and the Erasmus program – a well-funded government initiative that subsidizes students and teachers working and learning in neighboring countries. . Europe’s key to a world without walls: interdependent economies and lots of travel, which encourages empathy.

At one time or another, most major European cities – Paris, London, Rome, Florence, Milan, Barcelona, ​​Vienna – were confined within walls, built in ancient and medieval times to defend against invaders . Many of these walls were demolished 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 73 miles from coast to coast across the narrowest part of northern England, where Britannia ended and the barbaric land that would one day Scotland started. 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. Imagine the sadness of being a young Roman soldier stationed here 18 centuries ago.

Today, two of these Hadrian’s Wall forts have been turned into museums, where visitors can see the ruins up close, view 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. 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.

Some walls have become museums and memorials, designed to inspire us to connect with our neighbors in a way that renders them obsolete. The most poignant mural experiences focus on Europe’s recent past. Fortunately, the walls that 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 is now everyone’s country, famous for having hosted the biggest karaoke party in the world. And 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. If you look at the European currency, you notice that the bills have bridges, not walls. And so it is with the dreams of great leaders.

Edmonds resident Rick Steves ( writes European travel guides, hosts travel shows on public television and radio, and organizes European tours. This article was adapted from his book “For the Love of Europe”. You can email Rick at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.