Explore both sides of these divided cities for a unique perspective on their past and present.
From the post-World War II Europe to the conflict-torn Middle East, divides defined the 20th century. Even though many walls fell, the new millennium still favors separation. The U.S.-Mexico border wall that dominated the media landscape throughout recent years is the best example. If history can give us a lesson, it’s that the fences almost never benefit the communities they are splitting. And travel may be the best way to educate yourself on the pain and hardships of the divide.
Discovering a place through experiencing it can give you a clear perspective of the past and present. If we’re talking about divided cities, there are destinations that successfully tore the walls down like Berlin and Görlitz but there is also Nicosia, which is divided to this very day. Traveling to these places is a fascinating historical study and a great idea for conscious exploration.
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Looking at the happy tourists taking selfies in front of the Fraternal Kiss graffiti at Berlin’s East Side Gallery, it’s hard to believe that a few decades ago this city was a stage of one of the most tragic divides of the 20th century. From 1961 to 1989, the heavily guarded wall separated island-like West Berlin from the East bringing terror and death. Today’s Berlin often feels like one big open-air museum with many places you can visit to learn more about the history and the effects of the establishment of the wall.
Don’t miss the Mauermuseum-Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie with a captivating Berlin Wall-themed exhibition. Other must-sees include once-devastated Potsdamer Platz (which has become one of Europe’s most vibrant commercial neighborhoods) and The Berlin Wall Memorial located in the former border checkpoint.
Checkpoints, a no man’s land, barricades, ruined buildings. No, it’s not a scene from a spy movie about Cold War Berlin; it’s sunny Nicosia in Cyprus, which is considered to be the last divided city in Europe. A so-called Green Line cuts Nicosia in half with the southern part belonging to Greek Cypriot majority Republic of Cyprus and the northern being a territory of a de facto state Turkish Cypriot Northern Cyprus, which is recognized only by Turkey. Unlike in Berlin, here the essence of the divide is ethnic. Even though today you can easily cross the border, the experience of seeing two completely different parts of one divided city is quite eerie. But Nicosia is definitely attention-worthy with its Renaissance star-like fortifications, a unique blend of British colonial and Ottoman architecture and vibrant cafe scene.
INSIDER TIPOne of the best places to learn more about the divide is Home for Cooperation, a superb inter-communal center set next to the iconic Ledra Palace Hotel (which is also a checkpoint).
Görlitz - Zgorzelec
WHERE: Germany, Poland
Nicknamed “Görliwood,” this picturesque historic German town has played various parts in movies like The Grand Budapest Hotel, Inglourious Basterds, and The Reader. It was also divided at the end of the Second World War. Its right bank became the Polish city of Zgorzelec. As the borders in the EU were eliminated with the Schengen agreement, today you can freely move from one country to another without any border checks. In practice, that means that you can enjoy pierogi for lunch in Poland and then have a bratwurst-heavy dinner in the afternoon in Germany. All you have to do is cross a short bridge over the Neisse in your private move of culinary reconciliation. It is very easy to fall for the charms of Görlitz while marveling at a picture-perfect architecture of the Old Town, so make sure to do that, too.
Cieszyn - Český Těšín
WHERE: Poland, Czech Republic
Another great example of a positive overcome of the divide can be found in Polish Cieszyn and Czech Český Těšín. Historically one town, it was divided into two parts after World War I in the turmoil that followed the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today you can feel all the pleasures of the free movement within the EU by crossing one of the three bridges along Olza river. Both cities have charming central European Old Towns but it is in the Polish Cieszyn that you find most of the sights like the scenic Głęboka Street and the elegant Market Square. Still, Český Těšín has the best pubs where you can try legendary Czech beers. So use the open borders wisely.
WHERE: Bosnia and Herzegovina
There is no physical wall in Mostar. At first glance, this popular town in Bosnia and Herzegovina doesn’t look divided. Tourists flock here to see the UNESCO-protected Old Bridge reconstructed in 2004 following the destruction in the Croat–Bosniak War of 1993. However, Mostar is still regarded as a divided city, the separation here exists less in the town itself and more in the way its people live.
Neretva river and the wartime front line serve as the invisible borders of two communities: Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats. They go to different schools, they hang out at different clubs, they are even served by different firefighting units. The western bank of Neretva has the Croatian majority, the eastern is inhabited mostly by Muslim Bosniaks. In order to get a full picture, be sure to explore both and communicate with locals for a better understanding of the present situation.
El Paso - Ciudad Juárez
WHERE: Texas, United States
Although today separated by a heavily militarized borderline, once American El Paso and Mexican Ciudad Juárez were, in fact, one city in Mexican Texas. They were finally divided in 1848 after the Mexican-American War under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that gave the large chunks of northern Mexican territories to the U.S. Explore both cities to get a full picture of inter-border coexistence, keeping an eye on stark contrasts between the calm bicultural El Paso and vibrant but still somewhat unorganized Ciudad Juárez.
While in El Paso one place is definitely worth visiting to better understand the border: the recently opened El Paso Museum of History, which has an extensive exhibition devoted to the origins of the city.
Looking at the lively Damascus street in downtown Beirut today, it’s almost impossible to imagine that from 1975 to 1990 it looked like a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a graveyard of the decaying buildings conquered by lush vegetation where street fighting was occasionally taking place. That was a reality for the civil war-torn Lebanese capital, a city split by the Green Line, so nicknamed because of the color of the foliage that started growing there. This demarcation between the predominantly Muslim West Beirut and predominantly Christian East Beirut defined life in the city for three decades. Although it’s gone now, the effects of the devastating divide still echo today with the unspoken local codes of conduct in the reunited capital.
The area where the Green Line ran was largely reconstructed and rejuvenated with only one building evoking the tragic divide: Beit Beirut, a museum that details the city’s history and civil war, retains the decrepit look to serve as a stark reminder of the past hardships.
There may be no better illustration of a divided city than Jerusalem. Founded more than 4,000 years ago, this town is one of the oldest and holiest places on Earth and is considered sacred to Christians, Muslims, and Jews. It was also religion that brought on the conflict that separated this walled city of worship. The most painful division came after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War when one city was split in two: Israeli-controlled West Jerusalem and Jordan-controlled East Jerusalem. Although the city was reunited in 1967 after Israel took control over the east, the religious and ethnic divide lives on in Jerusalem, where the air can be so politically tense you can almost feel it.
However difficult the geopolitical tribulations may be, they shouldn’t prevent you from a thorough exploration of one of the most intriguing places in the world. Have a walk in the sights-packed Old Town, take a stroll around the newer suburbs of the West Jerusalem, and pay a visit to predominantly Palestinian Silwan neighborhood to get the wider point of view on the situation.