the northern part

You will find detailed maps of the Northern part here (click on EV 13 - Iron Curtain Trail).

Through the Vastness of Scandinavia - The route through Norway and Finland

Relaxation guaranteed - on the way to Vartius

The Iron Curtain Trail starts in the very far north of Europe, near the Norwegian town of Kirkenes. From here, the first section leads to Neiden on the Norwegian-Finnish border. A notable characteristic of Kirkenes, the only larger town in the far north, is the closeness to Russia. The Border Country Museum and the war memorial, which commemorate liberation by the Red Army after four years of German occupation in the autumn of 1944, provide a good introduction to the cycle tour.

If you want to have first hand experience of the division of Europe, you can go to the town of Storskog, Norway’s only official border crossing to Russia, which is about ten kilometres from the centre of Kirkenes. It is however difficult to enter Russia due to the visa requirements, which is why the planned route through Scandinavia runs along the Russian border, but not on Russian soil.

From Kirkenes, the first stage of the journey along the Iron Curtain follows along the Finnish-Norwegian border. Neiden, the centre of Norway’s East Sami people, is the first town to be passed, which is also famous for its excellent salmon fishing. On the way, it is worth making a detour to Vaggatem near the border, where a restored World War II prisoner-of-war camp serves as a reminder of the region’s history. From there you can also easily walk to the signpost marking where the borders of Norway, Finland and Russia meet, but beware: it is strictly forbidden to go beyond this point!

If you continue to follow the main route, you will cross the Norwegian-Finnish border at Näätämö, and after another 30 kilometres or so you will reach Sevettijärvi, the centre of the Inari Skolt Sami. Their homes are built along the roadside and the ‘Heritage House’ offers an insight into this Nordic culture.

The route continues through isolated woods and moorland, where you get a feel for Finland’s vastness, and not just in your legs. In the next larger village, Inari, you can replenish your supplies and also visit the remarkable Sami Museum, also known as the National Museum of Sami Culture. It is also worth taking a one-day detour to the southern end of Lake Inari, known as the ‘meeting point of three cultures’, since the population here is made up of Inari Sami, Finns who moved here in the 1920s and 1930s, and Russian Orthodox Skolt Sami, who settled here during World War II.

You then cycle past Saariselkä, the most northern village in the EU, and Tankavaara, where you can learn the art of panning for gold. The nature-lovers among you will love the picturesque path over the Ilmakkiaapa bog, a few kilometres to the south. A little further on, a special attraction awaits you in Savukoski, if you are willing to make a short detour. According to legend, Santa Claus lives on the nearby mountain of Korvatunturi.

Your journey continues along the former east-west border through Salla and the Oulanka National Park with its gorges, canyons, valleys and river beds. The route then passes through the fisher’s paradise of Hossa and on to Suomussalmi. Here a permanent exhibition on “The Winter War in Suomussalmi” invites you to learn about Finland’s history in World War II. Immediately afterwards you cycle along an authentic part of this history, the Raate Road. This was the site of the decisive battle of Suomussalmi in 1939-40, in which the 44th division of the Soviet army was annihilated. At the other end of the road you will find the only frontier guard post in Finland from the period before World War II which houses a museum and that has been restored to its original 1939 condition. The Winter War Museum further south in Kuhmo, which gives you an impression of the Winter War, rounds off this historical programme. Kuhmo is also famous for its new Finnish wooden architecture by the internationally celebrated architects Mikko Heikkinen and Markku Komonen, and for its annual summer chamber music festival.

Further along the road towards Lieksa you will pass the Jyrkänkoski war memorial before once again entering a mostly deserted landscape. Lieksa, with its beautiful backdrop of lakes and hills, is worth a visit to see the second-largest open-air museum in Finland. The Iron Curtain Trail now passes through Ilomantsi, where the decisive battle in the Finnish-Russian Continuation War took place in the summer of 1944. There are several monuments and the “Fighter’s House” commemorating these events. From Ilomantsi, the trail passes a number of small villages until you reach Värtsilä, which was divided into a Finish and a Russian section after the wars and has thus become a special monument to the division of the European continent. Not far away is the border checkpoint of Niirala, the most eastern border checkpoint on the EU mainland.

The route then follows along a narrow gravel road along Lake Kiteenjärvi to Kitee. It continues through Puhos, Lappeenranta and Uukuniemi to Siikalahti, the most interesting bird lake in Finland, which is not only enthuses birdwatchers. South of the town of Simpele lies a man-made attraction: the old hydroelectric power stations of Ritakoski and Lahnasenkosk, which are worth visiting.

For those who would like to treat themselves to refreshment after the many kilometres in the saddle, there is a beautiful lake with crystal-clear water not far from Laikko. Those who prefer to concentrate on the history should cycle to Miettilä, where there is a garrison post. The army reservist barracks were built in the 1880s and are certainly worth a visit as a historic site.

After Miettilä you ride along a museum road built in 1989, which takes you along a section of the border that was much fought over in the past. Further south, near the town of Imara, there is the border museum at Immola garrison, which was originally founded by local border officials as a way of passing the time. The main focus of the permanent exhibition is on the history of Finland’s borders and border guards after the country became independent. Near Imatra you should also admire the famous Imatrankoski waterfalls, one of Finland’s most popular tourist destinations. You will be left with less pleasant impressions by the Konnunsuo Penitentiary a little further south, which was founded in 1918 and is still in use. Together with the surrounding housing it forms a unique cultural and architectural unit.

The path continues along the Saimaa Canal, which allows the Finnish-Russian border traffic on the water. In Nuijamaa you should have a look at one of the many ‘reconstructed churches’ built to replace churches destroyed during the war. Before you reach the end of the Scandinavian section there is one last particular historic attraction in Miehikkälä: housed in an old bunker, the Salpa Line Museum (Salpalinjamuseo) commemorates a heavily fortified World War II line of defence on the eastern border. Just a short distance further on you approach Virolahti, which is eight kilometres from the Russian border and marks the end of this section of the trail.

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Small area, wide diversity - The route through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

The section through the Baltic may be relatively short in terms of the trail as a whole, but it offers a remarkably wide range of countryside, culture and history, as well as the opportunity to discover three countries in quick succession.

Your journey through the Baltic starts in eastern Estonia, or better said at the little port of Silamäe which in earlier times was not marked on official maps because it was an important producer of fuel rods for Soviet nuclear power stations. The town centre still bears traces of ‘Soviet Baroque’.

From Silamäe you first follow the coast road heading west. This brings you to Estonia’s oldest national park, Lahemaa, or ‘land of inlets’. Here you pass by old farms and the fishing village of Altja, and in summer you can visit the beach in Võsu, the main town in the national park. Tracing Estonia’s Cold War history, you can visit the ‘Memorial Park for the Victims of Cruelty’ in Hiiemäe, which has commemorated those deported to Siberia since 1992. Many of Estonia’s representatives have planted memorial oaks here.

The route then takes you past Cape Purekkari, Estonia’s most northern point and the location of a Soviet radar station in the Cold War. You continue over the Pärispea peninsula, go past a large cemetery with sarcophagi dating to 500 BC, and on through Loksa to the Estonian capital of Tallinn, which was known as Reval until 1918.

In Tallinn you must first go through the tower block section of Maardu before you reach the medieval part of town, which is still mostly surrounded by a city wall. The most common explanation of the present name of the city comes from “Taani linn”, which means “Danish city” in Estonian and dates back to when the Danish King Waldemar II conquered Tallinn in 1219. Today the highlight of the “Danish city” is the old part of town with its numerous towers. Since 1997 it has been an UNESCO World Heritage Site. For those interested in history, the Museum of Occupations is another must, commemorating various periods of occupation. Other popular attractions include the Museum of Modern Art and Katharinental Palace, a small Baroque palace from the 18th century.

Once you have explored Tallinn you continue your journey heading south-west. After just a few kilometres you go past Estonia’s national open-air museum ‘Rocca al mare’, which, if you are interested in history, takes you back into the past with its reconstructed village houses from different regions of Estonia.

The route continues through the coastal villages of Laulasmaa and shortly afterwards Kloogaranna, and then over the Pakri peninsula, which was a missile launch site for the Warsaw Pact countries during the Cold War. In Paldiski, a port that used to be a secret Soviet naval base, you can still see the ruins of the Red Army installations. From here the trail continues through Padise and Nõva to the old cathedral town of Haapsalu, partly situated on a peninsula.

Once you are out of Haapsalu again you can continue either by ferry via the islands of Hiiumaa and Saaremaa, or on land to Pämu. The two islands are particularly worth a short visit for nature-lovers. Those opting to continue by road will head through flat countryside in the direction of Latvia. You pass the lovely 13th century Gothic church in Ridala, and you can take a break in the Nehatu nature reserve or visit one of the many islands off the coast. You also pass Pärnu, Estonia’s “summer capital”, which thrives in the warmer months. You will then finally reach the Latvian border near Ikla. Once in Latvia, the Iron Curtain Trail first runs through the North Vidzeme Biosphere Reserve, an area of mixed woodland, moors, dunes, coastal meadows, natural lakes and rivers. Those who like sailing will love Ainaži, the site of Latvia’s first sailing school where a museum is now located providing information on the subject.

Continuing along the route you then come to Limbaži. In this hanseatic town – one of eight in all of Latvia – it is as if time has stood still. People are just beginning to discover its cultural heritage.

A better-known piece of history from the Cold War is to be found further south in Ligatne. Below a sanatorium there is an atomic-bombproof bunker that was used by the government of the Latvian Soviet Republic. It is particularly interesting since it is still in its original condition.

On the road towards Riga you will also find the town of Sigulda, the centre of which is not particularly attractive today due to the drab buildings of the late Soviet era. The cable railway over the Gauja Valley between Sigulda and Krimulda Castle is worth a visit. On the other side of the river, in Turaida and Krimulda, there is an impressive castle which is one of Latvia’s most popular attractions.

Once you have left Sigulda again, you approach Riga. Among others you will pass through Ulbroka-Stopinu, where the first Latvian radio station was set up after the war where 125-metre radio tower still stands. On 22 August 1991, soldiers from the Soviet special operations unit OMON broke into the radio station during the ‘August Putsch’ and attempted to blow up the equipment without success.

Riga, the capital of Latvia with a population of approximately 730,000, is the largest city of the Baltic States. The old hanseatic city on the Daugava is famous for its art nouveau architecture and well-preserved centre. As in Tallinn, Riga also has a Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, commemorating the sufferings of Latvians under German and Soviet occupation (1941-1991). In this museum you can read the section of the Hitler-Stalin Pact that was kept secret.

From Riga the route then heads for the sea. On the way, in the biggest spa town in the Baltic, Jūrmala, you pass sleepy villas and weekend cottages before finally reaching the beach. During the season the town offers a first-class cultural programme.

From Jūrmala you follow the beach until you come to Klapkalnciems, where you will find Finnish, Soviet and German military cemeteries. If you head further south, shortly after Engure you will reach the Lake Engure National Park, where you can relax by the lake.

About 20 kilometres beyond Kolka a particular cultural surprise awaits you in Mazirbe, which is the centre of one of the smallest ethnic communities in Europe, the Finno-Ugric Livonians. Traces of the Iron Curtain can be visited a little further on in Irbene, where the abandoned and ruined tower block houses and military installations are all that is left of what was a strategically important base on the Baltic coast for the Soviet army.

If you follow the coast road further south you pass the old hanseatic town of Ventspils, whose well-restored old town is worth exploring. The Livonian Order Castle now houses the Ventspils Museum, which depicts all aspects of Latvian and Livonian fishing and farming life. Today this wealthy port is the main Baltic outlet for Russian oil and coal.

Heading south you leave Ventspils on a well-constructed road. Near Priednieki you pass a monument commemorating the inhabitants of the area who drowned while trying to escape from the Red Army to Sweden in 1944/45.

A few kilometres further south you come to Liepāja, one of the jewels of the Iron Curtain Trail. Western tourists are only just beginning to discover this town, whose architecture appears to have been frozen in time at the turn of the 20th century. Visitors are entranced by its six-storey houses, mansions and in particular the villa district by the spa gardens with its art nouveau buildings. Liepāja Museum, which includes a detailed section on the town’s German past, is also worth a visit.

You will also be surprised to discover, among the tower block buildings, the breathtaking St. Nicholas Cathedral. Equally impressive is the former Russian Baltic navy base at Karosta, north of the town, which was located here because of its proximity to Germany and because it is permanently ice-free. The open spaces created when the Russian fleet withdrew have been discovered by artists, and today Karosta is a trendy centre for contemporary art projects from around Europe. The route then continues via Nica and Rucava to the Lithuanian border. After crossing the border into Lithuania, the trail continues through the little tourist town of Šventoji with its popular promenade and holiday houses dating from the Soviet era. A few kilometres further you will find yourself on the Palanga pier, visited by hordes of tourists in the summer.

Just a short ride further south, you will pass a small historical curiosity: two houses in the woods are all that remains of what was once Nemirseta (Nimersata in Curonian). Until 1920 it formed the northernmost point of Germany and was known by the name Nimmersatt (“Nimmersatt, where the Empire ends”). The former customs house and what used to be the last restaurant before you reached the border have now been converted into houses.

The Iron Curtain Trail continues on to Klaipėda (formerly Memel), which was founded by merchants from Dortmund in 1253 beside a medieval castle built by the Livonian Order. Today the town is an important ferry terminal and commercial port. The Simon Dach Fountain on Theatre Square is a popular tourist sight and the town’s landmark.

Leaving Klaipėda, the remaining kilometres of the Lithuanian section take you along the Curonian Spit, which can be reached by ferry. A well-marked cycle path along the Curonian Spit hugs the dunes. In Nida, you can visit the Thomas Mann House right by the lagoon.

That takes you almost to the border with Russian Kaliningrad, the last stop on this section of the Iron Curtain Cycle Trail.

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From Kaliningrad to the German-Polish border - The route along the Polish Baltic Coast

Destroyed not by men but by the forces of nature: the church of Trzesacz

This stretch is very varied and historically fascinating. After crossing the area by Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg), which belongs to Russia, the trail follows the sandy beaches and steep cliffs along the Baltic coast to the German-Polish border at Świnoujście (Swinemünde). Although no actual wall or barbed wire fence was constructed along this stretch during the Cold War, there certainly was a kind of Iron Curtain since large areas of the coastal region between St Petersburg and Usedom were inaccessible military areas and have only been opened up again in recent years. You still find reminders of the past everywhere, apart from relics of the Cold War also traces of the settlement and rule of various tribes over the centuries.

Here the trail offers an ever-changing panorama of sea views, lovely scenery and towns with a long and eventful history. Since it runs alongside the beach, you can take a cooling dip in the Baltic at almost any point. This section begins at the border between Lithuania and Russia near the town of Nida, which is situated at the southern end of the long Curonian Spit. The route along the Russian side of the Spit is a true delight for nature-lovers, lined on both sides by a forest untouched by man for decades. Coming to the end of the Spit, you approach Kaliningrad. A visit to Kaliningrad is not to be missed. In the course of its turbulent history, the town has not only been part of the Hanseatic League, the hometown of Immanuel Kant and a German exclave, but later also became a no-go area and is now a Russian exclave. While it was spared any fighting for a long time in World War II, in 1944 British and American air raids destroyed much of the inner city. In April 1945 the Red Army took the town and annexed it to the Soviet Union. It remained a no-go area until 1991. The Amber Museum and the Bunker Museum are well worth a visit.

From Kaliningrad you continue towards Poland, crossing the Russian-Polish border near Mamonovo and heading towards the Baltic. This takes you past Frombork (Frauenburg), where Nicolaus Copernicus served as canon and was buried in 1543. You can still view his astronomical observatory, his studies and his tools in the city museum. From Frombork you take the ferry to Sztutowo (Stutthof), which was originally a German prison camp, later a concentration camp, and is now commemorated by a memorial. You then follow the coastal road westward along the Baltic. After Mikoszewo you continue to the old trading and hanseatic city of Gdańsk (Danzig), the next must-see metropolis on the Iron Curtain Trail. The Nazi bombardment of Westerplatte in 1939 triggered World War II here, but it is also the birthplace of the solidarity movement of the early 1980s, which was a major contributory factor in the fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe.

Next, you cycle on to Gdynia (Gdingen), the hills of which still show evidence of the Cold War, such as restored gun emplacements. A few kilometres further you see the Hel peninsula, reaching far into the sea. It was once an important Polish military base and a barred military area between 1945 and 1990. Today you are allowed to cross it, and although remains of the coastal defences survive, this strip of land is reverting to tourism. You can do a day trip of the peninsula along a new, 50-kilometre cycle trail.

You then continue along the coast between dunes and forests and the banks of Sarbsko Lake. You will pass Czołpino and Rowy as well as several small lakes and can visit abandoned Cold War military installations in Łazy, while never moving far from the Baltic coast. The Polish section finally ends near the German border at the tourist town of Świnoujście (Swinemünde).

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