What Cold War travel was really like – from state-run hotels to nudist resorts
As a child of the 1960s, I grew up with the grim realities of Europe divided by the Iron Curtain. To those of us in the West, the Eastern bloc seemed like an alternate Orwellian universe from afar: grey, depressing and repressive. Clearly, the day-to-day reality of the Cold War was not as terribly bleak as it is for Ukraine today. But the sense of confrontation, of fundamental alienation across the ideological divide, had become so deeply rooted that it created a psychological barrier as well as a physical one.
The idea of crossing the line was a bit scary and few saw it as a vacation opportunity. For me, however, it was also motivating – it created a reason to travel. I wanted to draw the curtain, see the world from the other side and try to understand the differences. Although scary at times, I found it more exciting and rewarding than traveling out west. Bad food and soulless hotels, visa bureaucracy, or the nagging paranoia that someone might actually be watching or even following you didn’t bother me.
In the last years before the fall of the wall and the disintegration of the USSR, I visited East Berlin, Prague, Warsaw and Budapest, as well as Moscow, Leningrad and several other Soviet cities. And, far from feeling alienated, I found myself noticing the things that linked our histories and cultures – Italian art at the Hermitage, the British engineers who helped build the Moscow Metro in the 1930s, classical music in Prague. And, perhaps surprisingly, I found it easy to make friends and communicate, despite language barriers.