On the trail of the Iron Curtain

From the Arctic to the Black Sea, the 4,000km border that divided the Communist bloc from the West is set to become a heritage walk. Stephen Castle takes you on a guided tour

Stretching from the Arctic to the Black Sea, the barbed wire and watchtowers erected during the Cold War came to symbolise the brutal post-war division of the Continent.

But what was once sinister is now merely intriguing. An ambitious plan is underway to turn the 4,500-mile stretch that was once the dividing line between East and West into a tourist trail.

Spanning the strictly controlled Finnish-Russian border and winding through the former Soviet satellites of the Baltics, the trail will criss-cross the old front line between East and West Germany, and then follow the path of the Danube. Nothing like this has ever been tried and, though cycling its entire length would take more than two months, organisers believe sections of the Iron Curtain trail will become a magnet for everyone from hikers to historians.

The idea of keeping its memory alive comes from a German MEP and Green activist concerned that the watchtowers and barbed wire are disappearing, not just from the consciousness of Europeans, but from the physical landscape. Michael Cramer argues that action is needed to salvage the trail before it is lost. "Some parts of it are being recultivated, some has gone back to nature, some has been returned to former owners or sold off for real estate," he says, sitting in his office in the eight floor of the European Parliament.

In Berlin, Mr Cramer has organised a cycling, hiking and skating tour of the Berlin Wall landmarks, including Checkpoint Charlie and the section along which a 20-year-old man became the last attempted fugitive from the east to be shot dead.

The inspiration came from America after a visit to the Freedom Trail in Boston, a walking tour which commemorates sites of importance linked to the American War of Independence.

Berlin's version, which cost €6m (£4m), follows the route of the wall through the city, as well as the 120km perimeter which once separated West Berlin from the communist GDR. More than 1,000 cyclists have taken part in organised cycle tours, the youngest aged seven, the oldest 84. "Even Berliners who have lived here for 40 years said that they had been to parts of the city they had never visited before in their lives," says Mr Cramer.

One-third of the population of the German capital was not there at the time of the fall of the wall, and therefore has little idea what life was like at the time.

The plan is to extend this experiment in contemporary history to other parts of Europe and, for example, to remind Latvians and Estonians of the days when they were barred from going to the coast after sunset or owning a boat.

As a Green who has lived without a car for 25 years, Mr Cramer is enthusiastic about the potential economic benefits of eco-tourism. He says cycling holidays have been increasing by 20 per cent a year and that much of the Iron Curtain is ideal for the trail because the former communist border guards created a single track along which they could patrol by jeep.

The project will help protect flora and fauna and transform "a death strip into a strip of life", he argues.

The amount of preserved Iron Curtain borderland varies from country to country but in reunified Germany and the Czech Republic much has been retained. At Marienborn, the motorway access point to West Berlin, the checkpoint has already become a museum.

However, much of the route of the Iron Curtain trail has yet to be formally identified - and logistical problems include the risk of unexploded mines.

The project, which would straddle both sides of Europe's great dividing line, has the backing of the European Parliament and the 12 EU member states with territory along the trail. Supporters of the scheme now want formal endorsement from EU ministers. That could bring money to help lay asphalt on a single-lane cycle track and official designation as an EU site.

But the architect of the plan also believes it has political significance, one that would help forge a sense of a common European destiny. "European identity is very difficult to create," argues Mr Cramer, "you have English, Scottish or German identity but Europe is different. Yet with the Iron Curtain we had the division of Europe and with the enlargement of the EU we have reunification."

"It is a roadway into the history, the culture and the politics of Europe, into the past and the future as well. There was a Cold War, a fence and 1,000 people who were killed on the German border. But those who do not know their past will not master their future."

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Davies

THE TOURIST TRAIL

Finland

The tourist trail will begin on the border of Finland and Russia, on the coast of the northern Barents Sea and the Kola Peninsula, once one of the world's most heavily militarised zones and now a location for some of the best salmon fishing in Europe. During the Cold War, the waters around the peninsular seethed with submarines and it was sealed off from Westerners for decades. But sports fishermen now come from far and wide to fish waters which remained unspoilt for so long behind the Iron Curtain.

Poland

The Polish seaport of Stettin was singled out by Winston Churchill as one of the key points of the Iron Curtain in his landmark speech of 1946. "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent," he said, catapulting this sleepy town onto the global map. Poland, the first of the eastern European countries to overthrow communist rule, has much to offer the energetic rambler or cyclist, mainly in the form of the Tatra mountains.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

For years, barbed-wire fencing and searchlights cut off Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from the west. Just one ferry, the Georg Ots, transported Soviet loyalists and foreign tourists over to the other side of the Iron Curtain. But the Baltic States have emerged as one of the success stories of the post-Soviet era, with pioneering flat-tax policies which have transformed their economies and successful tourism strategies that have encouraged hordes of Western holiday-makers to head to capitals Tallinn and Riga. They are also popular among ramblers who like gentle, winding cobbled streets.

Albania

Once one of the world's most isolated countries, Albania is now one of Europe's poorest. The legacy of communist ruler Enver Hoxha is visible to all, with thousands of concrete bunkers built on the late dictator's orders to repel the threat of foreign invasion.

Bulgaria

A Soviet Union satellite state for nearly half a century, Bulgaria's spectacular mountains and coastline have only recently become accessible to Western tourists. Black Sea resorts such as Albena, Golden Sands, Sunny Beach and Duni are now popular with British second-home buyers taking advantage of rock-bottom property prices.

Czech Republic

Walkers following the Iron Curtain along the Austrian border may want to hop over into what is now the Czech Republic, one of the major success stories to emerge from the communist bloc. The capital, Prague, has made the transition from communism to free-market capitalism look almost easy. Bustling with Westerners, the city has become the sixth most-visited city in Europe.

Slovakia

After a slow start, Slovakians soon achieved prosperity. The country now markets itself as a "quaint" destination, where Westerners can immerse themselves in authentic culture, free from what it calls "McDonald's-style commercialism". Bratislava Castle and the peasant villages of the High Tatras are favourite locations.

Berlin

Nowhere in Europe did the Iron Curtain make more of an impact than here. The city was split by a sheer concrete wall which, despite extreme levels of security, hundreds of desperate people tried to scale over the years. Since the wall came down in 1989, Berlin, the new capital of united Germany, has flourished. The little of the wall that is left has been turned into a tourist attraction by city planners. The so-called Eastside Gallery, for example, is a much-photographed section of graffiti-decorated wall, while Checkpoint Charlie has been turned into a museum for tourists and locals brimful of "Ostalgie".

Four other heritage trails

BOSTON FREEDOM TRAIL

In 1958, journalist William Schofield came up with the idea that Boston's historic sites should be more accessible to visitors. So he created the Freedom Trail, a path connecting 16 locations between Boston Common and The Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, telling the story of America's first freedom fighters. Guided tours lead visitors along a redbrick line, telling stories about the American Revolution.

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA

Walkers wanting to follow in the footsteps of medieval pilgrims can take the world-famous trek through north-western Spain, covering 440 miles of rugged coastline and pretty villages on the way to the cathedral town of Santiago de Compostela.

THE INCA TRAIL

Considered to be one of the most spectacularly beautiful trails in the world, this 28-mile trek attracts thousand of tourists each year. Starting at Cusco in southern Peru, the four-day camping trek to the legendary "Lost City" of Machu Picchu combines stunning Inca ruins and mountain scenery with the fauna and flora of the jungle. For the reasonably fit.

THE WHISKY TRAIL

The only walking tour of its kind, this trail around Speyside, home of eight of Scotland's finest distilleries - including Glenfiddich - guarantees its participants an unrivalled insight into the manufacture of the national produce. Speyside also offers awe-inspiring scenery. The only question is: will you be able to remember any of it by the time you've finished?

Clio van Cauter

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