A bike tour makes for a great vacation. It keeps you healthy, lowers your carbon footprint, and gives you a completely different perspective on the world as you pedal through it. From the seat of your bike more so than from a car or train, you can fully immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, and smells surrounding you.
Due to these inherent benefits, few other trails necessitate bike travel more than the Iron Curtain trail. With its unique blend of history, culture, and natural beauty along a 7,650 km route, the Iron Curtain Trail is best experienced at a bike’s casual pace.
Beginning in Norway and ending at the Black Sea on the Bulgarian coast, The Iron Curtain Trail winds its way through twenty countries as it traces the length of the Iron Curtain, a boundary dividing Soviet and non-Soviet countries during the Cold War from 1947 until 1991. Bikers can wander through museums documenting Soviet era life, visit centuries-old castles, sip beer in thriving city centers, soothe muscles in natural spas, and cool off in the many scenic rivers and lakes.
Given the history, the Iron Curtain boundary may not initially seem like the ideal path for a scenic bike tour, but here’s the best part: The trail runs through Europe’s Green Belt, a region that, oddly enough, developed only because of the Iron Curtain.
The two are inextricably linked. With no development and little human activity along the dangerous political border for nearly 40 years, plants and wildlife were able to flourish. This created an ecologically precious strip of land worthy of conservation and sustainable development. The Green Belt’s biological significance, combined with its culture and history, makes sustainable tourism a perfect fit.
Along its length, the trail winds past museums, historical markers, old check points, and watch towers, as well as cultural heritage sites, a variety of landscapes, national parks and reserves, and thriving urban centers. By promoting local communities, illuminating a complicated past, and connecting natural areas, travelers will develop an understanding of the troubled past as well as an appreciation for how these countries have proudly moved forward.
True, 7,650 km is quite a distance, but don’t get too overwhelmed and count yourself out just yet. You don’t need legs of steel to enjoy the Iron Curtain Trail. Luckily, it was designed to be done in sections by bikers of all ages who may not have the resources to devote to such a lengthy adventure. A few days or even a week will guarantee you still have a great experience.
To understand a bike tour of this magnitude would require reading an entire guidebook…or three. So to make it easy, here’s just a taste of what this European bike tour offers, divided up by regional sections of the trail, that will hopefully inspire more research.
The Northern Region
The bike tour begins in the extreme northern Europe near the Norwegian town of Kirkenes. A good starting point is the Borderland Museum which showcases the lives of the everyday civilians during war time.
Heading south through Finland, the trail goes through Oulanka National Park, a region of rugged geography with a diversity of plants and animals, pine forests, river valleys, and an unlogged boreal forest. Further south the trail leads to Lahemaa, Estonia’s oldest National Park, and then the Pärispea peninsula, which has a cemetery housing sarcophagi dating back to 500 BC.
The Baltic Coast
From Scandinavia, the trail heads west along the Baltic Sea coast towards Latvia. After passing by missile launch sites and atomic bombproof bunkers in their original condition, the trail leads to Jūrmala. This resort town is known for its beaches and spas, which is great news for tired legs!
Soon you’ll find yourself passing along the cliffs, forests, and sandy beaches of the Polish coast. Rest in the coastal town of Frombork and visit Copernicus’ astronomical observatory. From there you’ll pass through Gdansk, where a solidarity movement formed in the 1980s, contributing significantly to the fall of the Iron Curtain.
As the trail continues west, two existing bike trails come together and head south into Germany, along the East-West Germany boundary. Along this section you’ll find more commemorative sites and preserved border installations than any other part of the trail.
Once in the Czech Republic, the restored lookout tower at the former Pomezí checkpoint offers great views of the surrounding countryside. The Slovakian leg of the journey is the shortest at only 90km, but it offers many opportunities to commune with nature.
You’ll pedal through riverside routes towards the Záhorie Protected Landscape Area, a lowland area of pine forests, alluvial forests, and meadows and onward towards the wetlands of the March-Schwemmland Nature Reserve.
In Hungary you’ll can visit a sculpture park near Rajka with works by Hungarian, Austrian and Slovakian artists before pedaling into the town of Hegykó, where you can soothe your aching muscles in its thermal pools.
Finishing at the Black Sea
As the trail turns east towards the sea, the scenery and culture shifts slightly. In Strumica, Macedonia you’ll find a lively community with settlements dating back to 7000 BC.
From here you’ll pass over scenic hills before huffing and puffing up the Prevedena Pass at 1,167m. You’ll cycle briefly into Turkey before arriving in Bulgaria where you can enjoy a celebratory soak in the warm Black Sea!
The Iron Curtain Trail offers travelers a wealth of adventures set against a unique backdrop of political history, diverse cultural heritages, and natural wonders. While the Cold War may have been a troublesome time in world history, interactive experiences such as this are imperative to understanding, honoring, and moving forward.
Because the trial crosses through 20 countries and along the Russian border, be sure to closely check rules and visa requirements before embarking. Now get out there and ride!
Check out our Travel Ideas section for more destinations to inspire your next bike tour adventure!