BERLIN, SEPT. 12 -- The hair, so shockingly white in those news photos a few months ago, is black once more. The buttery voice is raspier and breaks every few sentences. And the famous ambling stride has been reduced to the shuffle of an old man.

But the Ronald Reagan Victory Lap that began amid the remnants of the Berlin Wall this morning brought back some of the old glory -- the cocked ear, the flash of a smile, the TV images so precisely planned.

Kicking off a 10-day, four-country European trip, Ronald and Nancy Reagan returned to the place where the president three years ago sternly admonished Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall." Though the press outnumbered the spectators, and the hall where Reagan spoke was only half full, the day still couldn't have been anything but sweet.

This was nothing less than a chance to stand on the ruins of communism and celebrate the victory of democracy, and the Gipper was loving every second of it.

"It feels great," Reagan, 79, said as he stepped gingerly around twisted steel rods that now protrude from the reinforced concrete in the only section of the wall still standing near the Brandenburg Gate. "I don't think you can overstate the importance of it. I was trying to do everything I could for such things as this."

The Reagans arrived in West Berlin Monday night on the late publisher Malcolm Forbes's personal jet, the Capitalist Tool. It is the former president's third foreign trip since he left office. This time -- according to aides stung by criticism of Reagan's $2 million fee for a Japanese appearance last year -- he is being paid only for his expenses, which are being underwritten by foreign governments and private sponsors. In the next few days, Reagan will meet in Moscow with Gorbachev and members of the Supreme Soviet, in Warsaw with Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and in Rome with Pope John Paul II.

On a Reagan trip, image reigns, even in retirement. He travels with an entourage of nearly 30. His advance staff spent a week in Berlin planning the boss's every footstep, walking the route he would take from the Reichstag through the Brandenburg Gate and on to his "unscheduled" visit to the wall, assigning camera locations and decreeing precisely when the band would play 90 seconds of "Ruffles and Flourishes."

The advance team went so far as to arrange for the Forbes jet, emblazoned with its Capitalist Tool logo, to be out of camera range for Reagan's departure Friday.

At the wall, Reagan's staff ran ahead of the former president, and a press aide shouted, "Who's with the AP? You should be over there." He pointed through a gaping hole in the wall. "He's going to look through."

Moments later, Reagan turned to Nancy, clutched her hand and said, "They want us looking through out there." He gripped the rods and peered through to the communist world.

"Feels great," he repeated. "It'll feel better when it's all down. It happened earlier than I thought it would, but I'm an optimist."

A news photographer passed Reagan a blue-headed hammer, and he joined in the popular destruction of the barrier that had served as one of his most favored metaphors.

Reagan chopped hard, with the hammer alone and with the help of a chisel. But the stubborn wall would not give way. Dust and a few chips flew, but no pieces.

"Mr. Ex-President, don't you have a real piece of the wall you can hold in your hands?" a German photographer called out.

"We have a piece that will go into the Reagan Museum that weighs 6,000 pounds," Reagan replied.

Fielding questions from all sides, Reagan sometimes seemed confused. But the former First Lady was ever alert, pointing him in the right direction and, later in the day, saving him from a gaffe. At an auditorium where he was to speak to an audience of Germans and Americans, Reagan began to stand as West Berlin Mayor Walter Momper was introduced. But his wife firmly pressed down on his arm and Reagan kept his seat.

The crowd of East and West Berliners followed Reagan to each station of his pilgrimage, sometimes applauding, sometimes shouting their thanks.

Reagan has been something of a folk hero in Berlin since his prophetic 1987 call on the Soviet Union to release its hold on East Germany. "Mr. Gorbachev, if you seek peace and prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate," Reagan said then. "Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Reagan then painted what Berliners considered an impossibly optimistic picture of their city: united once more, with free air traffic, a jointly sponsored Olympic Games and a bustling conference center. Every one of those visions either has happened or is well on its way.

Reagan's return brought out the sentimental in Germans, many of whom lost their euphoria over reunification months ago.

One Berlin newspaper printed a love song to the ex-president under the headline "The Man Who Made Those Pussyfooters and Weaklings Feel Ashamed." Another noted sadly that no one had bothered to put Reagan's favorite meal, canned meat with cabbage, on the menu for his meeting with Chancellor Helmut Kohl Thursday.

"He had the most vision of any politician in recent times," said Lothar Wolff, a West Berliner who followed Reagan all morning, shouting out his thanks and eventually squeezing close enough to hand the former president "a gift of the ugly history of East Germany" -- a helmet from the uniform of the once-feared National People's Army.

"They called him 'warmonger,' " Wolff said, "but he knew exactly how to handle Gorby."

Later, in a speech sponsored by the Axel Springer Foundation, an affiliate of West Germany's largest and most blatantly boosterish newspaper chain, Reagan took credit for setting in motion "a process in the Soviet Union that has not ended."

Reagan said that the West German decision to deploy cruise missiles and his administration's full-court press for "Star Wars" -- the Strategic Defense Initiative -- "was a major turning point in the long struggle between the forces of freedom and democracy, on the one hand, and communism on the other."

It was the only line in a 15-minute address that the audience of German dignitaries, members of the U.S. armed forces and German-American friendship club members interrupted to applaud.

Reagan welcomed German unification and predicted that the new Germany will be a source of economic strength, a bulwark of democracy, "a symbol of the unquenchable human spirit" and a participant in international peace keeping. Despite repeated American entreaties, West Germany, citing constitutional restrictions, has refused to send troops to the Persian Gulf or to provide financial support for the U.S. effort there.

It was on Reagan's last day in office in January 1989 that East Germany's then-leader Erich Honecker announced that the Berlin Wall would still stand 50 and even 100 years hence, proudly "protecting our republic from robbers."

Twenty months later, Reagan walked along the death strip, where East German border guards once had orders to shoot anyone trying to escape from the country to freedom across the street and over the wall.

As staffers ripped autographed slips off preprinted pads and handed them out, and Secret Service agents frantically tried to teach East and West Berlin police how to form a wedge through the crowd, Reagan leaned on his wife and strained to hear the cries of well-wishers.

"Thank you, Mr. President," an old German shouted.

"Well," Reagan said, "we can't be happy until the whole world knows freedom the way we do."