The Iron Curtain: from "death strip" to cycle trail

BERLIN (Reuters Life!) - Twenty years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, a project to convert the former “death strip” into a cycling path is picking up speed.

A man on his bicycle makes his way as the sun rises over the Alster lake in the northern German town of Hamburg April 2, 2009. REUTERS/Christian Charisius

The new cycle trail, which will run 7,000 km (4,350 miles) from the Barents Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south, is aimed at promoting eco-tourism along the former militarized zone and tapping into booming interest in cycling holidays.

Michael Cramer, a German Green party member of the European parliament, is spearheading the project to complete the trail, which is supported by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

“Cycling tourism has seen double-digit growth each year for the past two decades,” said Cramer. “With this trail we hope to improve sustainable cross-border tourism and reduce CO2 emissions in the tourism sector.”

His efforts were rewarded when the parliament earmarked 300,000 euros ($394,800) of its 2009 budget to support the network of 12 EuroVelo trails as well as the “Iron Curtain Trail” (ICT), which is due to become a 13th long-distance route.

Cramer said his inspiration for the ICT came during a visit to Boston, MA in 1998. After seeing the Freedom Trail there, which connects important sites from the struggle for American independence, he thought the concept might work in Europe too.

Like the Freedom Trail, Iron Curtain Trail route planners are linking historic sites and markers. Riders should experience a history lesson on the half-century division of the continent.

“In Berlin it was dumb for us to tear down the entire Wall,” said Cramer, who worked for a decade in the Berlin senate to create the Berlin Wall cycling path. “The most common question from tourists today is, ‘Where was the Wall?’.”

With the already completed inner-German bike path along the former border between East and West Germany, and now the Iron Curtain Trail, Cramer hopes to better preserve this chapter in European and world history.

Completed sections of the trail that follow established routes are already drawing cyclists. Over the Easter weekend, Cramer met Greek, Bulgarian, and Turkish cyclists for a 70 km ride along the Greek-Bulgarian border.

“People fought along this border for hundreds of years,” said Cramer. “Now they ride bikes there.”

Reporting by Jacob Comenetz, editing by Paul Casciato