The Iron Curtain Trail: 12 tips for a cycling tour through Europe
The Iron Curtain divided Europe for almost half a century. A 10,000 kilometer (6,214 mi) cycling route, the Iron Curtain Trail, now retraces that Cold War division, making European history and culture tangible.
The Iron Curtain Trail begins in the far north of Europe, near the Norwegian town of Kirkenes. From there it continues along the Russian border through rarely-visited eastern Finland — well over a thousand kilometers of forest, lakes and reindeer. This wilderness is one of the last of its kind on the continent.
Saint Petersburg, Russia
The first urban highlight on the cycle route is the city of St. Petersburg, which was called Leningrad from 1924 to 1991. The Hermitage on the River Neva is one of the world's most important art museums and, as part of the old city center, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Iron Curtain Trail continues along the Baltic Sea coast to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. The Old Town with its town hall (picture) is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The building dates from the early 15th century and is the only surviving town hall in the Gothic style in northern Europe.
Riga, the capital of Latvia, is the largest city in the Baltic States. Just like Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The center of the old Hanseatic city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and famed for its Art Nouveau buildings. The Freedom Monument (picture) was built in the early 1930s during the first period of Latvian independence.
Because the cycling route runs parallel to the Baltic Sea, you can often take a cooling dip in the water. The highlight in the Polish section is the old Hanseatic city of Gdańsk. The shipyards of the port city are considered the birthplace of the Solidarity movement in the early 1980s — a major step in the fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe.
The Iron Curtain Trail also takes you to the Hanseatic city of Lübeck, because the former border between East and West Germany ran right along the city's outer limits. The Holstentor Gate is part of the late Gothic fortifications and is the city's landmark. Since 1950 the gate has housed a museum that delves into the history of Lübeck.
Point Alpha, Germany
Whereas many sections of the border fortifications are now overgrown, the Point Alpha Memorial on the border between Hesse and Thuringia shows very plainly that two hostile systems stood across from each other here: the Warsaw Pact on one side and NATO on the other.
Cheb, Czech Republic
The town of Cheb in the Czech Republic is a medieval gem with 30,000 residents, not far from the German states of Bavaria and Saxony. The town was first mentioned in records under the name of Egire in 1061. In 1634, during the Thirty Years' War, the Bohemian military commander Albrecht von Wallenstein was murdered here.
The next capital on the cycling route along the Iron Curtain is Bratislava in Slovakia, in the border triangle with Austria and Hungary. The city's main landmark is Bratislava Castle (picture). This is where, in 1992, the current Slovakian constitution was signed. Nowadays the complex is now used as a museum and for presentational purposes.
The town with a population of 60,000, which juts into Austrian territory, is considered one of the oldest in Hungary. Among its sights are its town hall (picture center) and the Fire Tower (left). On August 19, 1989, the Pan-European Picnic, during which 661 citizens of communist East Germany crossed the border into Austria and freedom, took place here.
Belasica Mountains, Greece
For Michael Cramer, the former European Parliament member who initiated the cycling route along the Iron Curtain, also known as EuroVelo 13, the section between the Belasica Mountains in the border area between Bulgaria and Greece is among the most spectacular. However, you really have to struggle through the countryside on trails that can be steep and unpaved.
The last highlight on the Iron Curtain Trail is Edirne in Turkey, on the border to Bulgaria. Originally founded by the Romans, the city has changed possession many times over the centuries. From here it's just a few kilometers to Rezovo in Bulgaria, where, after all your efforts, you can finally relax and take a refreshing dip in the Black Sea.