Legs of steel needed for the 6,800km Iron Curtain trail

23.07.2014: Artikel by David Charter, published in THE TIMES on the 23rd of July 2014

The “death zone” that marked the route of the Iron Curtain has been converted into a 6,800km cycle trail in a remarkable demonstration of how former European foes have — almost — forgotten their divisions.

Just 25 years after the barbed wire and landmines began to be removed along the east-west divide, one man’s dream of a border-free green zone is almost complete.

Michael Cramer, a German Green MEP for Berlin, has just published his four-part guide to the route after a decade-long campaign to cajole the EU and 20 countries to pave and sign it.

The only blip along the way serves as a reminder of present-day European tensions — a visa is needed to pass through the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.

The biggest cycling challenge comes on the first stage along the sparsely populated Norwegian and Finnish borders with Russia where real stamina is needed for the long stretches between accommodation possibilities.

“The Iron Curtain stretched almost 7,000km through Europe from the Barents Sea to the Black Sea and divided the continent into east and west,” said Mr Cramer, who was inspired to push for the trail after he helped to create a 160km pathway in his home city along the route of the Berlin Wall.

“Today there is hardly anything left to see of the former death strip, the remnants are no longer a dividing line,” he said.

Mr Cramer, who secured €1.2 million from the EU to fund his trail, was also instrumental in the project to create the German Green Belt, the conversion of the 1,400km former border between East and West Germany into a nature reserve and cycle path. This is now an environmental haven running the length of the reunified country.

Among the historical highlights of the Iron Curtain trail are the Cold War watchtowers that still face each other near the medieval German village of Geisa in Thuringia on the border with the German state of Hesse.

“This was Point Alpha, it was the westernmost point of the Warsaw Pact and easternmost point of Nato territory, the armies of the two blocs came face to face at a distance of only 200 metres,” said Mr Cramer.

Johannes Hahn, the EU’s regional affairs commissioner, defended the European funding at the launch of the trail in Vienna. “This project will help people to overcome mental barriers, which always takes longer than tearing down a real iron curtain,” he said.