Most German cycle routes follow clear topographical features such as rivers or mountain ranges. But there’s also one which takes a geo-political line.
As its name suggests, the Iron Curtain Trail is not just the dividing line between Germany’s former East and West, but starts way up in the north of Scandinavia by the Barents Sea, and continues for 6,800km until it reaches the Black Sea. It’s an epic ride, although not all of it is completed and signposted yet.
The German section, however, is ready, and it takes in some interesting, lesser-known destinations. And given that it runs along what is effectively a metaphysical scar on recent German history, the people you meet along its route are likely to have interesting stories to tell.
Starting from the German/Polish border, it heads out along the Baltic Coast Trail all the way west to Travemünde, past the old-fashioned resort towns on Usedom and Rügen, which were once huge destinations for the whole eastern bloc, and not just for east Germans. This was, after all, one of the few stretches of politically-acceptable and accessible seaside, and it makes an excellent cycle route.
After Travemünde the route links up with the German Border Trail, and heads for the Hanseatic town of Lübeck, famous for marzipan. From here, it strikes due south through the Lauenburg Lakes nature park to the town of Ratzeburg, using a path once frequented by border troops, with many opportunities of visiting old fencing and checkpoints en route.
In places, nothing has changed
Sidestepping the worst of the Harz Mountains, the next highlights are the pretty towns of Duderstadt and Heiligenstadt, also with various border museums and memorials, almost in the dead centre of modern Germany. The giant Wartburg castle, where Luther took refuge, is just off to the east at Eisenach.
Then comes Point Alpha, not far from Geisa, which is only about 100km northeast of Frankfurt, and which was formerly the westernmost point of the Warsaw Pact countries. A corridor of lowlands here called the ‘Fulda Gap’ made Frankfurt seem vulnerable to any large movements of armour, so there was a strong military presence at Point Alpha, with both sides eyeballing each other from heavily fortified positions. There are still preserved sections of the border defences and a museum.
From here, the route heads east and becomes more rural again as it follows the border between Bavaria and Thuringia. Development has been slow in these areas, and although the likes of Erfurt and Weimar are not that far away, transport links are not good. You could almost think, as you wend your way through the Thuringian-Frankish schist mountains towards the Czech border, via immaculate Ummerstadt, the smallest town in the GDR, and Mödlareuth, a ‘little Berlin’ which was split in two by the Cold War, that almost nothing had changed.
And finally there’s Prex, and the route’s nationality changes properly, but with another nine countries still to be crossed, the Black Sea is still a long way away.
The images with this page are by US-based photographer and writer Kate Trenerry, who has her own site on border travel.