Cycle path traces former Iron Curtain, revealing forgotten history and unspoiled nature

Photo: archive of the Iron Curtain Trail

The frightening and desolate border separating western Europe from the Communist countries for some 40 years is now being made into a new 10,000-kilometer long cycling path, full of unique natural and historical landmarks, going from northern Finland to southern Bulgaria. Part of the Iron Curtain Trail in the Czech Republic began to be marked out a couple of weeks ago. Radio Prague spoke to Daniel Mourek from the Partnerství Foundation who is the coordinator for the Central European part of the route and asked him about the background of the Iron Curtain Trail project.

Iron Curtain Trail
“It’s part of European Heritage. There are two routes of this kind – St. James’ way and the Iron Curtain Trail EuroVelo 13 – that have been recognized by the European Council as this kind of heritage routes.

“So, we started with the project in 2011. I was responsible for the middle part, which includes countries like Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. We first analyzed the route and came up with the cross-border trail, which means it has to be 50% on each side of the border. So, in the case of the Czech Republic, it means that 50% is on the Czech side, then 50% in Austria, and the same in Germany.

“So, it really has to be a trans-border trail. Normally the EuroVelo routes are on one side of the border, but since the Iron Curtain Trail is a border trail, we want to make sure that people get experience from both sides of the border.”

So, does the whole trail run along what used to be no man’s land, or does is go outside of that space as well?

“The principle is that is five kilometers maximum from the border. There are some sections, especially in the National Parks like Podyje, Thayatal, where we have to stick to existing routes, because it’s impossible to build new routes.

“On the Czech side, we have these old military roads that were built all along the border, which was the same in East Germany and other countries in the Communist Block. In the Czech Republic they were made of asphalt, so many of these military roads are now used as bicycle trails. It has been 25 years and the surface has to be improved.

“In South Moravia, which is the first region in the Czech Republic that signposted the trail with the special Iron Curtain logo, they invested a lot of money into infrastructure, not only the surfacing, but also amenities, like resting points – there are about 12 or 15 new resting points at the border crossings with information on cycling on both sides.

Photo: archive of the Iron Curtain Trail
“It is also important to have the logo on the signposts, because in each country you have different signs; In Austria they are white and green, in the Czech Republic they are yellow with black, in Germany it’s another color. So the symbol of the Iron Curtain Trail and the EuroVelo 13 is a unifying element.

“We started with signposting, because the route has to be identified. And we also published the first guidebook on the Iron Curtain Trail for South Moravia and Lower Austria, which is a section of all together about 200 kilometers.”

We obviously understand the historical significance of the Iron Curtain as a political line that divided Europe. Is there other significance to this line? Is there something else that is special about this area?

“Yes, there is. The Iron Curtain Trail is almost identical with the Green Belt, which is a similar initiative that is more focused on nature protection. The corridor is wider, it’s about 50 kilometers. But basically the Green Belt is a result of the Iron Curtain, because there was no man’s land there, as you said, where the nature is quite pristine. And we want to also promote this natural side of the Iron Curtain Trail, so not only the historical monuments. Though you do need some landmarks along the way. People want to see some remnants of the Iron Curtain, like in Čížov, at the National Park in Podyje. In several places there are new museums. Of course, in combination with nature this is an ideal asset for any cycling path.”

In addition to separating the then east and west, the Iron Curtain was also a place of a lot of suffering. People risked their lives to cross over from communist countries to the West. What will tell people riding along this cycle route what had occurred in these places?

“The guidebook that we published is mostly about stories of people who tried to escape. And there is a Freedom Trail close to Mikulov. It is a 2.3-kilometer long trail that has several stops where you can read the stories of people how they tried to escape in each place – whether they were trying to swim across a river or fly in a balloon, or they dug tunnels. So, there are these kinds of information panels, plus you have several museums now. Some of them are private, some of them are run by the municipalities, but it is also part of understanding the history, to go to the museum, read the documents, listen to radio tapes and so on.”

Daniel Mourek,  photo: archive of Daniel Mourek
A large part of the Czech border is famous for its concrete bunkers, most of which were there even before the Iron Curtain went up. Will they be somehow used by the cyclists?

“Yeah, there are some associations of local people trying to preserve these bunkers. There is one in Šatov, for example, which is a monument. You can go with a group, or individually with a guided tour, get to know about the history. It is not exactly a part of the Iron Curtain Trail, but since there are thousands of bunkers all along the former Iron Curtain, we are trying to use this heritage as well. In Slavonice, for example, there is a big complex of bunkers where you can learn about the history from 1935 to 1938, when these bunkers were built. So, you can’t escape it. When you cycle along the Iron Curtain Trail, you will see lots of them. Some of them are used, some of them are vacant.”

How did you deal with the northern part of the trail, because if I understand it correctly, there the Iron Curtain went along the sea or the seafront.

“Last October I was in Latvia, where we also have a partner organization. The Iron Curtain there was at the seaside, and the trail there mostly follows the coast. There is really solid sand there, so you can cycle along the coast. It was the most wonderful experience I have ever had on a bycicle, because the coastline is really endless. If you cycle south of Riga, you have places like Jūrmala, some of the wonderful beach resorts.

“And I think in Latvia, or in the Baltics in general, they are doing a good job with the heritage interpretation. In Riga there is a museum with the peace treaty signed by Ribbentrop and Molotov. There is a museum of the resistance. They are also trying to link the history of the communist regime, of how people were sent to the gulags in Russia, so there are a lot of still living history. There are lots of places where you can get to know about it. I think they have the best interpretation of the recent history – of Nazism and Communism – that I’ve seen recently.”

Photo: archive of the Iron Curtain Trail
Obviously, everyone is different, but when the whole trail is finished, how long do you think it would take an average cyclists to do the whole route from north to south? What are some of the most interesting parts?

“Well, it’s 10,400 or 10,500 kilometers, so it depends. The northern part, in Finaland, we wanted it to go cross-border with Russia, but because of the formality problems with visas it’s impossible, so in Finland it actually goes on the Finnish territory. I think the middle section of the Iron Curtain Trail is the most interesting one, because you have flatlands of Hungary and Slovakia along the Morava river, and then you have rolling hills in South Moravia and South Bohemia, then you have more challenging hills in the Bohemian or Bavarian forest.

“It is interesting in the northern section of the Czech Republic, you can see how many villages where destroyed when they tried to remove people from this military zone. And there is an exhibit on display about these villages, with the signs with their names. So you have places where you would be cycling on your own for several days. In northern Finland the trail is approximately 1700 kilometers long, and every day you have to cycle for at least 100 kilometers to reach any kind of services.

“Our section is pretty well equipped with services and you have towns like Mikulov, Znojmo, just larger municipalities. The only capital on the iron Curtain Trail is actually Bratislava, and it is well connected by train.

“I think that as with any other longer trail, you do it in sections. You usually don’t have that much time as you would wish to to go along the whole of the Iron Curtain Trail. So, we expect people to go in shorter sections and there is already a website, where people can get the basic information about the trails. And we are building a Czech website – – which will have more detailed information about our section, which is about 500 kilometers long.”

So, at least as far as the central section goes, what is left to be done? When are you expecting at least this part of the trail to be finished?

Photo: archive of the Partnerství Foundation
“As I said, the signposting is finished in south Moravia. I think this month the signposting will be finished in the Plzeň region. And definitely this year South Bohemia will signpost their part. So 90% of the trail in the Czech Republic will be signposted. The trails are signposted now, but without the logos, so you need to read the maps and get oriented. It will be much easier with the logos of the EuroVelo to follow the trail and in most of the cases you can cycle on it. I have done two trips.

“There are sections that I would not recommend for families with kids. The adventure cyclists they can go, they will get along and they’ll love it, because they can be on their own, but for less experienced cyclists I would definitely recommend only parts of the Iron Curtain Trail in the Czech Republic.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on May 7, 2013.