Pedaling the Iron Curtain

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.

When the wall fell in 1989, people — above all West Germans — just began showing up, out of sheer curiosity. Herrlich and her husband started renting rooms in their farmhouse; by the late 1990s they were serving country-style meals typical of the Rhon region, which basically means a lot of succulent meat dishes. Today the Horse Trough — considerably more charming than its name implies — has 20 rooms and caters above all to hikers and bicyclists.

North of the Horse Trough lies my goal for the day, the Point Alpha Memorial, the site of the U.S. Army observation post that was responsible for surveying East German and Soviet troop movements at one of the Cold War’s hottest flashpoints. Nuclear-equipped Warsaw Pact and NATO divisions stared one another down over this protruding bit of the German-German border. Although it never came to military blows at the mouth of the legendary Fulda Gap — the western-most position of the East bloc’s forces — it was here, across these lush valley floors and rolling farmland that NATO’s chiefs expected the Soviet land invasion of Western Europe to come. And they were ready for it.

As it turns out, the memorial is a mile up a sheer incline that I vastly underestimate, causing me to shed two sweaters before giving up and walking the bike. Atop the windswept bluff, a little museum — with several dozen elementary school-age kids respectfully milling about — recounts the frontier zone’s development, from the casually marked boundaries of the postwar occupation zones to a complex, intimidating fortification composed of steel mesh and high concrete walls. The East German authorities turned the border into a mine-laced “death strip,” complete with attack dogs, trip-wire spring guns, anti-vehicle trenches and more than 400 armed guard towers.

Most of the families I met picnicking near Point Alpha on a glorious spring day were there as much for the stunning landscape as the history, but the history was important, too. Barbara Paul from nearby Bad Soden wanted her three kids to be able to grasp what Germany’s Cold War division meant for her family, which had fled from the East. Her 9-year-old boy affirmed that he thought he understood better now. “It’s cool here,” he says, ripping into a salami sandwich, “and beautiful.”

Andreas and Annette Kunz, a 40-something couple from Darmstadt, say that like many young West Germans at the time, they never thought Germany would be reunited — nor did they particularly want it to be. “I simply didn’t have much contact with the border or people from the East,” says Mr. Kunz, a salesman. “Honestly I didn’t think about it all that much.”

So this year, rather than vacation in Scandinavia, the Kunzes set off with car and backpacks to the Rhon, just an hour and a half from home. “We wanted to engage with the German-German history on a personal level, since we never really had,” says Ms. Kunz, a secretary, who watched the tumbling of the communist regime on television. “I thought for sure there’d be bloodshed. I still can’t believe there wasn’t. It was wonderful.”

As for my foray into the German soul, I was impressed by the trail users’ need to remember — or perhaps, not to forget — what Europe’s division had meant. They were eager to incorporate this historical imperative into a holiday that enabled them to both enjoy and remember at the same time.

More GlobalPost dispatches on Germany:

Eastern German problems play out on the pitch

Take my car, please

Hamburg wobbles, does not fall (yet)

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