The main aim of the 2018 Tour de Travoy is to cycle along the Iron Curtain which for most of the 20th Century formed a barrier between between Western and Eastern Europe. The term “Iron Curtain” was first popularized by the former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in a speech he delivered in the USA in March 1946. In his famous speech, he said “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”.
The Iron Curtain in 1946. Churchill was right in describing the Iron Curtain as spanning across Europe from the Baltic to the Adriatic . However, in his speech he said the Iron Curtain started at Stettin, now known as Szczecin on the Polish-German border. You can see from the map above that the Iron Curtain actually meets the Baltic Sea at Travemunde on the East German – West German border. Technically, he should have said “From Travemunde in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” But West Berlin, at that time, was controlled by British, American and French forces and up until 1948, westerners could easily cross anywhere along the East German – West German border and travel to anywhere in Eastern Germany. It was only when you got to the Polish – German border that travelers were restricted from travelling on-wards. So perhaps this is why Churchill deemed the “Iron Curtain” as starting at Stettin (Szczecin).
2018 Tour – Part 1 London, England to Stettin (Szczecin) in Poland. This year’s planned route involves leaving from Barnet in north London, and then getting the overnight ferry from Harwich to the Hook of Holland. From there, the plan is to make my way through the Netherlands to Arnhem and then across the border to Munster, which is claimed to be the bicycle capital in Germany. From Munster, I plan to go to Bielefeld and then onto Hamelin, famous for it’s Pied Piper. Then onto Salzgitter before making my way to Checkpoint Alpha on the old East German border.
Checkpoint Alpha on the A2 motorway between Hanover and Berlin in November 1989. Checkpoint Alpha was the first of three Allied checkpoints on the road to Berlin. The others were Checkpoint Bravo, where the autobahn crossed from East Germany into West Berlin, and most famous of all, Checkpoint Charlie, the only place where non-Germans could cross by road or foot from West to East Berlin. On this trip, I am hoping to visit all 3 old checkpoints but from Checkpoint Alpha, the plan is to first head north along EV13, the Iron Curtain Trail to the famous Volkwagen factory in Wolfsburg.
A Volkswagen Beetle leaves the production line at the Wolfsburg factory in March 1946. The Volkswagen factory was built in 1938 by Nazi Germany to manufacture the VW Beetle Type 1 the so-called “People’s Car”. Only 1,200 or so were built before the outbreak of World War 2 during which the factory was converted to produce military equipment. In 1945, the factory was taken over by the British Army who resumed production of the VW Beetle. Incredibly, within a few months of the end of the war, over a thousand Beetles a month were buing built at Wolfsburg. By 1955, over a million Beetles had been built and in 1972, it surpassed the Ford Model T as the most built car in the world at over 15 million. It is arguably the most iconic car of the last 70 years and yet had the Volkswagen facory been located just 2 miles further east in East Germany, the Volkswagen Beetle almost certainly would never have been built at all. While the Beetle was universally loved, the East German version of the Beetle, called the Trabant was generally despised. The Trabant was built in Zwickau about 200 km further east than Wolfsburg and on this trip I am hoping to visit both Wolfsburg and Zwickau and compare and contrast the Beetle and the Trabant. But first I plan to follow the Iron Curtain Trail northwards to Travemunde on the Baltic Sea, then eastwards to Swinemunde before turning south to Stettin (Szczecin) along the Polish border.
Iron Curtain across Europe. The section of the Iron Curtain between Stettin and Triestse referred to by Churchill in his speech was only a small section of the border between East and West. In all, the Iron Curtain ran for over 10,000 km from Kirkenes in the north of Finland on the Barents Sea to Resovo in Bulgaria on the Black Sea. Over it’s 44 year existence from 1945 to 1989, about 1,000 people were killed trying to cross from East to West. With the collapse of communism in 1989, the Iron Curtain was slowly dismantled first in Hungary and then eventually across every country in the Eastern Bloc. Many of these former communist states joined the EU in 2005 and became part of the Schengen zone which allows for free travel between member states. So in the space of 16 years, the Iron Curtain went from being the most fortified and guarded border in the world to vanishing altogether with only a few traces left behind here and there.
EV13 – The Iron Curtain Trail. In 2009, to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain, a cycle route was inaugurated along the whole length of the Iron Curtain. Most of the route makes use of tracks that were constructed for troops and army vehicles to patrol along the border. While work is still ongoing on the northern and southern sections of EV13, the central section from Swinoujscie near Stettin (Szczecin) in Poland to Felsoszolnok in Hungary is mostly complete and well signposted.
Eurovelo cycle network across Europe. EV13 is just one of about 15 long distance cycle routes that criss cross across Europe. Near Felsoszolnok in Hungary, EV13 joins up with EV9 which runs from Gdansk on the Baltic Sea to Trieste on the Adriatic. EV9 between Felsoszolnok and Trieste mostly passes through Slovenia and it is this route I plan to follow to complete part 2 of the 2018 Tour de Travoy.
2018 Tour – Part 2 Stettin(Szczecin), Poland to Trieste, Italy. From Stettin (Szczecin), the plan is to head south to Berlin for a few days. Technically, Berlin is not part of EV13, the Iron Curtain Trail but no other place is more synonomous with the Cold War. There was no more vivid an image of the divide between East and West than the Berlin Wall and in my opinion, you cannot do a tour of the Iron Curtain without also visiting Berlin.
East German troops patrol along the Berlin Wall in 1986. For 16 years between 1945 and 1961, the easiest place to cross over the Iron Curtain was from East Berlin to West Berlin. So many Germans had crossed from East to West that the population of East Germany had dropped by about a quarter. To stop the exodus of East Germans, in August 1961, the communist authorities decided to build a wall around West Berlin. Initially, the wall was just a crude fence but in the years that followed, it was extended and reinforced. The Berlin Wall remained in place until November 1989, when it was first breached after the collapse of communism in East Germany. In the months that followed, most of the Wall was demolished but parts were left in place as a reminder of the Cold War and in my opinion, no visit to the Iron Curtain is complete without also visiting what is left of the Berlin Wall. From Berlin, I hope to return to Checkpoint Alpha and resume my tour of the official Iron Curtain trail but first I plan to visit a location where the simple act of nailing a pamphlet on a church door also caused Europe to be divided in two, over 400 years before the Iron Curtain.
Martin Luther nails the 95 Theses to the door of All Saints church in Wittenberg. On October 31st 1517, Martin Luther nailed a pamphlet on which he had printed 95 theses or complaints about the practices of the Catholic Church to the door of a church in Wittenberg. His main complaint was against the sale of indulgences (paying money so that sins would be forgiven) which were being heavily promoted in Germany at that time in order to fund the construction of St. Peter’s Church in Rome. This simple act of nailing a pamphlet to a door set off a chain reaction which caused the church to split in 2 between northern Europe, which turned mostly Protestant and southern Europe, which by and large remained Catholic. While the Iron Curtain did not even survive 50 years, the division between Catholic and Protestant continues to this day, over 500 years after Luther’s decision to nail a pamphlet to a door. I too, will face an admittedly much smaller decision in Wittenberg depending on how well the tour is going. If I am on schedule, I plan to return to Checkpoint Alpha but if I am behind schedule, then I will head towards another checkpoint instead called Point Alpha about 200 km south of Checkpoint Alpha as this will save about 2 day’s cycling.
Point Alpha checkpoint in Geisa near Fulda. Point Alpha was the westernmost point in the Iron Curtain and it was here where the Iron Curtain was fortified the most as this was where the Allies expected the Russians to attack Germany had World War 3 broke out during the Cold War. From Point Alpha, the plan is to then to follow EV13, the Iron Curtain Trail southwards to the Czech border and if I have the time to then visit the Trabant factory in Zwickau about 50 km inside the Iron Curtain.
The first Trabants ever produced leave the factory in Zwickau in 1958 . No vehicle symbolizes the Iron Curtain as much as the Trabant and over 3 million of them were produced at the Sachsenring factory in Zwickau between 1958 and 1990. The factory in Zwickau no longer produces cars but it continues to supply parts for Volkswagen and Audi. In fact, the first Audi cars were produced in Zwickau before the company relocated to Ingolstadt in Bavaria. Audi was founded by August Horch in 1910 and the company’s first car factory was in Zwickau. There is a car museum in Zwickau named after August Horch which promotes the history of car manufacturing in Saxony and this year they are having a special exhibition to mark the 60th anniversary of the Trabant . If I get the time, I also hope to travel first to Zwickau and then to Ingolstadt just like the Audi company did at the end of World War 2 but first, I plan to head back to EV13, the Iron Curtain Trail and to a small town called Modlareuth near the German – Czechia border..
Divided village of Modlareuth near the German – Czechia border. Modlareuth is only a small village but it was nicknamed “Little Berlin” as it was divided in 2 by the Iron Curtain. One month after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a pedestrian crossing was opened at Mödlareuth in December 1989 as shown in the photo above. Six months later, the wall in Modlareuth was knocked down using a bulldozer but a portion has been retained as a memorial and is part of the museum in the village. There is little trace of the Iron Curtain to be seen anywhere along it’s length but here in Modlareuth at least, a small portion remains in place.
As train staion in Czechia. From Modlareuth, it is only about 20 km or so to the border with the Czech Republic, which is now known as Czechia. Another 10 km along the Iron Curtain trail brings you to the small town of As. It was here in 1951 that one of the most famous escapes from East to West took place. Czech trains would normally stop at a small barricade at the train station in As but one day, a train with 110 passengers on board smashed through the barricade and kept going for about 1 km until it has crossed over the border into West Germany. As for me, I plan to keep going for about 150 km along the Iron Curtain trail before crossing the Czech border into Germany at Furth im Wald.
Furth im Wald is famous as for the world’s largest walking robot. The world’s largest animatronic robot is a dragon that is the centre-piece of the annual Drachenstich play in Furth im Wald. The Drachenstich play is loosely based on the story of Saint George slaying the Dragon. Since 2010, a remote controlled dragon known as Tradinno has played the part of the dragon. It is over 50 feet in length and is in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest walking robot in the world. It is powered by a 2 litre turbo diesel engine and also has liquid gas canisters in it’s mouth to spit a flame of fire over 5 feet away. It has wings which it can lift in the air but unlike the dragons in Game of Thrones, it cannot fly, which is not surprising as it weighs 11 tons..
Audi HQ in Ingolstadt. From Furth im Wald, I plan to leave the Iron Curtain trail behind and instead make my way through Bavaria to Ingolstadt where the Audi HQ is now located. Before World War 2, Audi was based in Zwickau in East Germany but after the war had ended, the company upped sticks and moved 300 km or so south west to Ingolstadt to avoid being taken over by the communist East German government. From Ingolstadt, it is then onto another “Autostadt or car city, namely Munich for a week-end to meet up with family.
BMW HQ in Munich. In all, myself and some relatives are hoping to spend 3 days in Munich and visit the BMW Museum, the Allianz Arena and the site of the 1972 Olympics. We are also hoping to take a day trip to Salzburg in Austria and Neuschwanstein Castle and if we get time also to travel to Stuttgart to visit the Mercedes Benz and Porsche museums.
EV6 cycle route through Austria. After a weekend’s break in Munich, the plan is to make my way back to the Iron Curtain trail along the Austrian – Czechia border. However, to save a few day’s cycling, I may instead make my way along the Danube on EV6 before returning to the EV13 Iron Curtain trail near Vienna. EV13 then passes through Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia before then making it’s way across the Hungarian border to the small town of Sopron. The town may be small but it was here that the collapse of the Iron Curtain began in August 1989.
Foreign minsters of Austria and Hungary cut through the Iron Curtain near Sopron. In August 1989, the governments of Austria and Hungary agreed to hold a picnic near Sopron during which the Iron Curtain would be opened for 3 hours allowing citizens from each country to travel back and forth. At that time, Hungary was one of the few countries East Germans could travel to on holiday so hundreds of them made their way to Sopron to attend the picnic and when the border was opened, they streamed through the opening to the West. The Hungarian border guards did not open fire and let the East Germans through. Although the border was subsequently resealed, a chain of events had been set in motion that led, less than three months later, to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of the Iron Curtain.
EV9 cycle route through Slovenia. From Sopron, it is only a short distance to the border with Slovenia. It is here I plan to leave EV 13, the Iron Curtain Trail and join EV9, the so called Amber Trail, which leads directly to Trieste in Italy. Unlike most other Yugoslav states, Slovenia survived the fall of the Iron Curtain and the subsequent break-up of Yugoslavia relatively unscathed. The country joined the EU in 2004 and 3 years later became part of the Eurozone. Most other Eastern European countries along the Iron Curtain still retain their own currencies so it will be interesting to compare the Slovenia’s development since then compared to it’s neighbors.
2018 Tour – Part 3 Trieste, Italy to Cherbourg, France. The third section of the 2018 Tour de Travoy is by far the toughest section. I plan to spend the best part of a month in the Dolomites tackling some of the most famous climbs in the world.
Mountain High – 50 of the greatest climbs in Europe. There are a total of 15 Italian climbs included in Daniel Friebe’s book Mountain High, 10 of which are in north-eastern Italy. Most of the 10 climbs are in the Dolomite region of Italy and I am hoping to climb all 10 on this year ‘s tour. I hope to start with Monte Grappa near Venice before then tackling the Zoncolan. From there I plan to make my way to Tre Cime di Lavaredo, the Passo Giau and the Passo Pordoi before tackling the route of the most popular sportive in Italy, the Maratona des Dolomites. Then it is onto the Passo Fedaia (Marmolada) before tackling the fabled Stelvio pass with it’s 48 hairpins, which is regarded by many as the best climb in the world.
Passo dello Stelvio. With about 1,800m to climb from Prato del Stelvio to the summit, it will be also one of the longest ever climbs attempted by Travoy. The previous record was also around 1,800m from Martigny to the summit of the Grand Saint Bernard during the 2016 Tour de Travoy. If I have time, I then hope to also tackle the Passo de Gavia and the Mortirolo before making my way to Lago di Como and the relatively small climb of the Ghisello.. From there, the plan is to make my way to Turin and a visit to the last car factory on this year’s tour.
Fiat 500’s and other models at the Fiat factory in Turin in 1957. Fiat was founded in 1899 and by 1920, almost 90% of the cars in Italy were made by the company. In 1923, work was completed on the Lingotto factory in Turin which at that time was the largest car factory in the world. It was also unique in that cars were built from the ground up on a line that spiraled up the building before finished cars emerged onto the roof where they were tested on a purpose built test track. Over 800 Fiat model were built here between 1923 and 1982 when the factory was closed and later converted into a shopping centre.
Colle delle Finistre. From Turin, the plan is to tackle the Colle de Finisterre and it’s 8 kms of gravel tracks near the summit. Afterwards, I hope to cross either Mont Cenis or Mont Genevre into France. If I have the time, I then plan to complete the Marmotte route again and also climb the Col de la Madeleine and maybe the Semnoz on my way to Annecy to see the first mountain stage of this year’s Tour de France. Last year I completed 17 major climbs and this year being 2018, I am hoping to go one better by climbing 18 (12 in Italy, 6 in France). That is actually more major climbs (Cat 1 or Haute Categorie) than is in this year’s Tour de France and as a result, just like last year, I will only have enough time to see one mountain stage of this year’s Tour.
Stage 10 of the 2018 Tour de France. I am hoping to make it to Annecy in time to see the start of Stage 10 in the Tour de France, the first stage in the Alps. In 2017, I made it to the Col d’Izoard in time to see the last stage in the Alps of last year’s Tour. This year there are a total of 3 mountain stages in the Alps but I will only get time to see the first day as I have to catch a ferry from Cherbourg to Ireland the following Monday. It takes at least 5 days to cycle from the Alps to Cherbourg as the total distance is almost 1,000 km so I have to leave the Alps by Wednesday or I will miss the ferry.
New Irish Ferries boat, the WB Yeats. I will probably only have time to see the Tour for one day before having to make my way to Cherbourg to get the ferry back to Ireland. This summer, Irish Ferries are launching a new boat on the France – Ireland route called the WB Yeats. Unlike most ferries which only sail between Cherbourg and Rosslare, the WB Yeats is due to sail between Cherbourg and Dublin Port. This will save me a day’s cyclimg from Rosslare to Dublin and with over 6,000 kms to cover on this year’s tour, every little helps. The 2017 Tour de Travoy will come to an end with a 300 km spin between Dublin and Donegal via Fermanagh. I will have to cycle home mid-week when the main road through the North , the A5 is very busy with trucks and traffic. So instead, I will take a longer but quieter route through Fermanagh with an overnight stop at Lough Erne near Enniskillen.
G8 leaders attend the 39th G8 summit at Lough Erne near Enniskillen in June 2013. Of course, Lough Erne is famous as the location for the 39th G8 summit in 2013 attended by the leaders of USA, Russia, Germany, UK and others. Russia first attended the annual G8 summit in 1997 and was due to host the 40th G8 summit in Sochi in 2014. But after Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, the other G7 leaders decided to organize their own summit in Brussels and not invite Russia. Russia has not been invited to any G8 summits since so in years to come, historians may well look back on the 39th G8 summit at Lough Erne as the end of an era.
Lough Erne from the air. Of course, it is too early to say if the 39th G8 summit at Lough Erne will mark the end of a 20 year period of East – West co-operation but one thing for sure, getting to Lough Erne after travelling through 9 countries on this year’s tour will hopefully mark the end of another Tour de Travoy. This tour will be my fourth major tour in 4 years and while, on paper, not as tough as last year’s tour, it will still be quite a challenge. With over 6,000 kms to cover in 2 and a half months, I will need to average 90 km a day unlike last year, when I had more time and only needed to average 60 km a day. I will probably have to cycle every day no matter the weather if I want to get to every place and climb mentioned above. Elanor Roosevelt once said that you should do something that scares you every year and this tour certainly scares me especially the section through the Dolomites. But having cycled the Route des Grandes Alpes last year, I am forlonly hoping that this year’s route will be slightly easier.
Section of the Iron Curtain from the air. The Iron Curtain is now the Green Curtain in many parts of Europe. It is incredible to realize that what was once the most guarded and fortified zone anywhere in the world has been transformed in the last 30 years into a greenbelt nature reserve along most of it’s route. I am looking forward to visiting many landmarks associated with the fall of the Iron Curtain and re-living many of the events I witnessed on TV almost 30 years ago.
2018 Tour de Travoy menu. The 2018 Tour de Travoy will be quite a meal with over 6,000 kms to travel and 18 major climbs to tackle. But the main focus of this year’s tour will be the fall of the Iron Curtain, which is arguably the most historical international event to have happened in my lifetime. Gil Scott Heron once famously sang in the 70’s “The revolution will not be televised – the revolution will be live”. But the revolution that brought down the Iron Curtain was televised and it was live thanks to 24 hour news on satellite TV, which had only started a few years earlier. I remember well that the sudden downfall of the Iron Curtain was totally unexpected at that time, only watching it from so far away, it felt more surreal than real . The fall of the Iron Curtain certainly was the end of an era and hopefully by the time this tour is over, those historic events of almost 30 years ago will feel more real and less surreal.