Get ready for the cycling experience of a lifetime – hikers welcome too – on the 10,400-kilometer-long Iron Curtain Trail (ICT) which stretches through 20 European countries from Norway and the Russian-Finnish border to Turkey (see the full country list at the end of the story). Here’s the perfect opportunity to do something as monumental as hiking the Appalachian Trail or taking the 3,350-kilometer challenge of Tour de France – or as simple as a family outing for a day or two.
If you’re under 40, words like “Solidarity,” “Velvet Revolution” and “Checkpoint Charlie” at the Berlin Wall may seem like ancient history. These social movements and events of the 1980’s to early ‘90’s led to the fall of the Berlin Wall (Nov-Dec 1989) and the transformative liberation of Central and Eastern European countries ceded by the Allies to the Stalinist Soviet government at the end of World War II. Some 15 of the 20 countries that form the Trail are now members of the European Union.
With democratic reforms underway, it became possible to literally tear out the barricades, barbed wire fences, walls, watchtowers and guard posts that stretched for 7,000 kilometers and divided Europe –east from west– separated families, and caused the death of thousands trying to flee. “The legacy of the Iron Curtain should never be forgotten; on the contrary, it should always be remembered how high a price for freedom was paid by the inhabitants of the former East bloc.” Places at the Former Iron Curtain/Czech Republic
The end of Soviet domination in these countries inspired the establishment of the Iron Curtain Trail, as well as of the European Green Belt, a 50-kilometer-wide strip of land that runs for thousands of kilometers in length along the former no-man’s land of the Iron Curtain countries— an ecological network connecting high-value protected areas (biospheres, national parks), rare and endangered species, as well as cultural landscapes.
History Writ Large and Small
Without memory there is no identity (Václav Havel)
Cycling or hiking the Iron Curtain Trail – any part of it – is a journey through history and a chance to experience a unique swath of nature. You don’t need to bike the whole trail to enjoy its assets – lakes, riverine areas, national parks, biosphere reserves, untouched landscapes, small historic towns, World Heritage Sites, as well as tangible pieces of cultural and social history. The ICT purposely avoids avoids high-frequency roads and travels through areas where nature has reclaimed the land from the fences and barriers.
You are traveling past memorials, museums, tanks, bits of fencing and watchtowers along this lengthy route — powerful reminders of the end of World War II and of the Cold War era. Official Brochure of the Iron Curtain Trail (downloadable) 43 pp
Michael Cramer, an inspired Green Party member of the European Parliament, spearheaded the ICT’s development as a sustainable tourism initiative of the European Community and has been successful in getting funding. Cramer notes the ICT is invaluable for its ability “to retrace and experience the former division of the continent” adding European culture and history.
In 2011, Eurovelo, a pan-European cycling organization, added the Iron Curtain Trail (Trail #13) to the Eurovelo cycle route network. Their goal – to eventually link cycling routes from Great Britain through the entire continental Europe to Turkey.
From Barents Sea to Black Sea
How to use the Iron Curtain Trail depends on your goals as a family, traveler or athlete. It’s possible to achieve the entire ICT route over multiple trips; take an organized small-group cycling trip; take a 1-2 day hike or bike trip; or set out with a guide in urban area or town or on your own, with the trail map for particular sections.
Here’s a macro description of how the Iron Curtain Trail unfolds:
- Begin at the Barents Sea along the Norwegian-Russian and Finnish-Russian border (you cannot enter Russia!)
- Pass a short stretch of the coasts of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Kaliningrad, Poland and the former German Democratic Republic (GDR)
- Go from Lübeck to the three-nation border (Saxony-Bavaria-Czech Republic) the path follows the former German-German border (former East/West Germany)
- Then follow through the highlands of the Bohemian Forest, pass Moravia and the Slovak capital of Bratislava and cross the Danube near Vienna.
- Follow the southern border of Hungary via Slovenia and Croatia.
- Between Rumania and Serbia follow the Danube, and, via Bulgaria, Macedonia and Greece to end at the northernmost point of Turkey on the Black Sea coast.
For a detailed description of each of these segments, use the Eurovelo #13 Route online
The Berlin Wall Trail for Starters
As an early model for the ICT, the Berlin Border Wall Trail – a 160-kilometer bike ride or walk around the former “West Berlin”– showcases a city encircled for 28 years (1961-1989) inside East Germany by the Soviet-installed wall, checkpoints and watchtowers.
It’s described as “… a themed city tour and scenic route rolled into one. You cycle through the city center, past the museums, memorial sites and the last remaining watchtowers, and along the old border outside the city. This mix of nature and dramatic history means the Berlin Wall Trail offers the best of both worlds.”
Berlin Wall bike tours are highly popular. Check out TripAdvisor for hundreds of reviews on small bicycle tours with informed guides. The Guardian newspaper features how to do a walking tour of the Berlin Wall Trail over a period of days.
The German-German Border Trail (East/West Germany)
Perhaps the best single trail that shows how Germany was partitioned to Stalinist Russia after World War II, the German section of the Iron Curtain Trail combines the routes of two existing cycle trails: the Baltic Coast Trail from the German-Polish border at Swinemünde to the Priwall peninsula at Travemünde. From there, the German Border Trail leads along the former inner German border to the Czech border. This stage of the ICT offers a variety of interesting features: travel on small country roads, ample memorials, border crossing installations, and, as a beautiful destination, the “Queen City” of of Lübeck, a former Hanseatic League city and World Heritage Site.
The European Green Belt
Now partnered with the Iron Curtain Trail, the European Green Belt is considered Europe’s largest conservation initiative – no longer an East-West border controlled by political division – that includes forests, swamps, wild mountain and river landscapes. Europe’s large mammals can be found here (wolves, bears and lynx) as well as threatened migratory and nesting birds.
The European Green Belt is a shared natural heritage along the line of the former Iron Curtain, to be conserved and restored as an ecological network connecting high-value natural and cultural landscapes. The 50-kilometer-wide “belt” is adjacent to many areas of high conservation value– 40 national parks and more than 3200 protected areas. The goal is to integrate the green belt with key habitats as an international network of valuable ecosystems. Read the Green News Update story on the European Green Belt
Backgrounders on the ICT segments
The Southern Part: From the former Triangle Border to the Danube – Through the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria
What lineup! The Iron Curtain Trail countries include Norway, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, FYRO Macedonia, Greece and Turkey.