While touring a dank, cold former Soviet military prison near the Latvian seaside town of Liepaja, my guide explained the cluster of parked bikes, “We get groups of cyclists in here all the time riding EuroVelo 13, the Iron Curtain Bike Trail.”
It was a curious name for a bike trail. I’d never heard about it in my month-long trip exploring the Baltics. “The Iron Curtain” was a term coined by Winston Churchill who declared in a 1945 speech that part of Europe had disappeared behind an iron curtain; a reference to the former European nations then occupied by the Soviet Union. Shutting them off from the rest of the world, a 6800-kilometer physical border passed through or was adjacent to twenty countries from northern Norway to the Black Sea on the Bulgarian/Turkish border.
EuroVelo 13—A European Initiative
It turned out that The Iron Curtain Trail, also known as EuroVelo 13, is a thing. The idea of memorializing the entire Iron Curtain border as a biking/walking heritage route was first proposed as a European Union initiative in 2005. The trail is now well on its way to its planned 2020 completion.
The venture corresponds to another cooperative European initiative, The European Green Belt, which is trying to preserve the green spaces that grew between the border walls; fifty years of undisturbed border zone that now exists as habitats for birds and wildlife. Each of the twenty countries along the route is responsible for mapping and signing the route through their country. The bulk of the work is done by each country’s cycling organizations and volunteers with help and funding from the European Union.
Exploring the EuroVelo 13 Route
The EuroVelo 13 route can be cycled or walked in sections or as a long-distance cycling or walking trail. It follows existing Euro bike trails, secondary paved roads, former dirt and gravel military roads. In three countries, you can also follow the Baltic Sea shoreline. The route keeps as close to the former border as possible.
For those unable to cycle or walk, it’s possible to drive sections that aren’t dedicated cycling/walking trails. During much of its length, the route intentionally traverses both the west side of the former Iron Curtain, where residents lived in freedom, and the east side where residents lived an isolated existence under Soviet control. This gives travelers an opportunity to experience the division.
On the east side, there are artifacts and museums of Soviet times. I was standing in one of these sites, an abandoned Soviet military prison directly on the Latvian part of the Trail, when I first heard about the Iron Curtain Trail. The long-distance route also takes travelers past some of each country’s natural and cultural tourist attractions, a bit of relief from the dark Soviet era.
And there are plenty of side routes to explore. In Estonia, with 2,355 islands off its coast, the Soviet border technically extended to the west coast of the islands requiring riders/hikers who want to travel the actual border to ferry between islands. In Germany, you take an eastern side trip into Berlin to see remains of the Berlin Wall.
The twenty countries along the route from north to south include Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Kaliningrad, Poland, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey.
EuroVelo 13—The Baltic Stage
The Iron Curtain Trail begins in northern Norway adjacent to Russia in the small town of Kirkenes. In countries where the former border still borders Russia, the route sticks to the west side to avoid Russian visa issues and still difficult border crossings.
There’s plenty see to in Norway, beyond its vast natural beauty. Check out the Border Country Museum in Kirkenes and a former prisoner of war camp further along the route.
In Finland, the route crosses lakes, moors and woods. There are also cultural points of interest such as the National Museum of Sami Culture, dedicated to the reindeer herders whose indigenous lands crossed the borders of today’s Nordic countries.
In Estonia and Latvia, I traveled the route by car, inadvertently the first time, while in search of Soviet era tourism sites and intentionally three months later traveling the back roads researching Estonian handicrafts.
The routes in both countries parallel the western shorelines of the Baltic Sea. In Estonia, I began in Narva on the Russian border where you can sit on the Narva River watching fishermen on the Russian side and the long line of vehicles on the bridge trying to enter Russia.
The route travels into Lahemaa National Park, the country’s oldest national park, whose bogs are lined with trails. It traverses Altja, a traditional Estonian village and goes into Vihula, a manor from Estonia’s German era, now an upscale restaurant/hotel and makes its way through an abandoned, graffiti-ridden former Soviet naval base.
Heading south, the route passes through Estonia’s capital city of Tallinn. Tallinn is the site of a KGB Museum in the secret 23rd floor of Hotel Vir. The city also houses an Occupation Museum that traces Estonia’s history of annexation into the Soviet Union and the Song Festival Grounds, where Estonia’s Singing Revolution was inspired.
Following the coastline past a former Soviet missile launch site and another Soviet naval base, there are ferries to the islands, including Kihnu where the flat geography lends itself to easy biking. The route takes you past the island’s museum showcasing the knitting and weaving traditions that survived Soviet times.
Crossing into Latvia, riders/walkers begin in the beautiful Vidzeme Biosphere Reserve before passing a bomb shelter in Ligatne, the Sigulda prison and the abandoned secret Soviet town of Sagrada 1. The route then heads into the capital of Riga. There, much of the Latvian Soviet era has been retained for tourists to experience including the KGB headquarters and prison, a museum dedicated to the Soviet resistance movement and Latvia’s Occupation Museum.
EuroVelo 13—The Rest of the Trail
Cycling/walking through Kaliningrad (a Russian enclave that can be more easily accessed than Russia itself) through Poland to Germany takes travelers to the most complex Soviet border. This border section is the one that divided the country into two parts and goes by its own name, the German-German Border Trail.
An established biking/walking route, this part of the Iron Curtain Trail is well marked with memorials, commemorative markers in towns that were physically divided during the Soviet era, still standing observation towers, occupation museums and parts of the concrete wall dividing the country. A side route takes travelers through downtown Berlin, the most well-known divided city where the wall came down on November 9, 1989. The wall has become a canvas for artists.
The trail travels south through ten more countries, its southern route requiring travelers to criss-cross between Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey before ending in the resort town of Carevo (Tsareveo), Bulgaria at the Black Sea.
The entire route is 6,462.26 miles long; a journey through 20 countries and past fourteen UNESCO World Heritage sites. Whether traveling its entire length, taking the trip in stages or meeting up with it at way points, EuroVelo 13, the Iron Curtain Trail, is a European heritage experience.
The comprehensive EuroVelo 13 website has maps, explanations of each stage, a short history of each country and a newly launched app. For more about what to do along the way, see Ann’s article on Iron Curtain Tourism and her experience of checking out the Tallinn Music Week.