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Pedaling the Iron Curtain

The former border zone is now a wildlife preserve with quirky museums and monuments.

GEISA, Germany — With map in hand and a rented five-speed, I set off on the Iron Curtain Trail for a spontaneous weekend of history and natural splendor, hoping to glean some insight into the condition of the German soul two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Today, neither camouflage-green jeeps nor soldiers are anywhere to be seen along the former front line of the East-West conflict, now a vast wildlife preserve that stretches from the Barents Sea all the way to Black Sea. Instead it is an affable menagerie of bicyclists, hikers and roller-bladers who populate this 4,225-mile path that zigzags through the continent.

The Iron Curtain Trail, which traverses 20 countries from the Finnish-Russian border in the north, through Germany, Central Europe and the Western Balkans, ending on Bulgaria’s coast, is a rich playground for both the naturalist and history buff. Oblivious to the wrath of the superpowers, a rich diversity of flora and fauna flourished in and around the border zones.

Although I thankfully didn’t run across any bears, wolves or lynx, the abundant bird life had me dismounting every five minutes to flip through my fraying, 1954 edition of Roger Tory Peterson’s classic bird guide, more current half a century later than the famous ornithologist could ever have imagined.

Because it obstructed normal travel and commerce in areas that abutted it, the Iron Curtain inadvertently isolated ecosystems and protected wildlife. Thus when the East-West border was dismantled, remarkably pristine biotopes emerged from one of modern history’s most ignominious creations. The persistent efforts of environmental groups, Green parties, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and local municipalities transformed the swath into a natural park and an experiment in environmentally sustainable tourism called the Green Belt.

The narrow asphalt path in central Germany’s picturesque Rhon region skirts thick bogs and shade-dappled woodlands, often straying from the former path of the Iron Curtain itself to pass through quaint hamlets or follow gurgling brooks. As in Berlin, where today few traces of the wall remain, along the trail vegetation has mostly overgrown the old military roads and, with the exception of a locked and crumbling guard tower or two, most other evidence of the recent past. But from one end to the other, the trail is punctuated with commemorative monuments, quirky museums of many shapes and sizes (and irregular opening times), and even sculpture parks — most but not all pertaining to the route’s Cold War past.

Peddling along the trail, one quickly gets the impression that 20 years isn’t all that long ago, and stories about life along divided Europe’s frontier are easy to come by. In between the diminutive, well-preserved medieval towns of Tann (former West Germany) and Geisa (former East Germany), I stopped for an apple juice at the pension Zur Pferdetranke (At the Horse Trough) whose stout, wooden picnic tables at the edge of a freshly tilled field looked particularly inviting.

It doesn't take long for the proprietor, Gabriele Herrlich, to begin talking about her East German childhood. In the communist state, border regions were depopulated sperrgebiet (prohibited zones), where police and military were ubiquitous. “We were stopped and questioned constantly,” she recalls. In the 1950s, whole villages were forcibly repatriated. Those considered “politically unreliable,” who might have tried to flee or to help others do so, she says, were relocated.