I've tidied the many typos that made it through into the first edition of Fragments, and so a second edition has been born. Also, Blurb has introduced a new book preview widget. If it works you should be able to see it below...
This blog is getting its highest ever visitor numbers thanks to the BBC website, which has published some photos from my bicycle ride along the Iron Curtain. As I write, the very front page of the site's UK version is displaying a gallery of pics from my new book (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_pictures/8429885.stm). I am not a little chuffed, and very gratified by the unexpected levels of interest in the project. I have received lots of interesting feedback at email@example.com. Thanks to everyone!
To see morephotos from the journey, with lots of accompanying text describing the route and the interesting people and places along it, you can view an on-screen preview of the book that I've produced: http://bit.ly/5JvJ2x (more details in the post below this one). It is also available for purchase here (and nowhere else, until I find a publisher) by following the relevant links.
To read my day-to-day record of the journey itself, scroll down the page a little for the last of the blog entries made on the road. For those with a serious interest, you could experience the whole journey from its shaky beginnings by scrolling to the bottom of this page and reading upwards: http://curtainrider.typepad.com/curtainrider/page/9/
The entire book can be viewed at this link (it can, of course, be bought, too; only a couple of euros/pounds/dollars of the purchase price gets to my pocket - I didn't do this for the money!). I'd be grateful for any feedback (firstname.lastname@example.org), and please do forward the link to anyone that might find the subject interesting.
I've also set up a Facebook page for the book, should anyone want to become a 'fan':
It's a year since I returned from my bicycle journey down the route of the old Iron Curtain. In the last post of the trip I promised to turn the material I had gathered into something more durable. It's taken me a lot longer than intended: I have been distracted by a new job, my first property purchase and a burglary that took all my photography equipment (but luckily not my photographs) and a laptop on which I'd written early texts for the book.
But I hope it will have been worth the wait and that it will get across the most interesting experiences of my journey. The 160 pages contain more than 150 photographs with captions and descriptions, arranged in chapters according to the countries of the section of the border (Germany-Germany, Austria-Slovakia etc.) Each chapter has an introductory text.
This is the book's front cover, showing an abandoned military watchtower at a spot on the border between Italy and Slovenia, near the city of Trieste. Below it I have copied the first few paragraphs of the introductory chapter. The story it tells will be familiar to those who followed the blog while I was on the road a year ago.
"EVERY YEAR in mid-August, on the edge of the German village of Wiesenfeld, crowds gather outside the house of Robert Hohmann. The visitors sing and make speeches. Robert used to want to play loud music over their speeches and go out to argue with the crowd. Now he ignores them.
Robert’s house lies near the geographical centre of Germany, in the rural state of Thüringen, just a few hundred yards from the line that divided the country for over forty years, from the end of the Second World War until November 1989, when revolution in East Germany led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification. The crowds that arrive in Robert’s road every summer come to commemorate Rudi Arnstadt, an East German border guard killed by a West German border patrol in 1962, at the top of the low hill that separated the two states.The memorial to the martyred 35-year-old captain stands in a small public garden opposite Robert’s house.
Wiesenfeld was a frontier village, on the eastern side of the dividing line, and Arnstadt was posted there just a few months before his death. On 14 August he was among a group of two hundred soldiers erecting new metal fences along the border.A year earlier East Germany had surprised the world with a highly-planned overnight operation to roll out the first barbed wire barricades between East and West Berlin. Since then it had been reinforcing its physical barriers to the West, in Berlin and all along what became known as the inner-German border. Tensions were high. At Wiesenfeld an altercation led to an exchange of gunfire in which a young West German soldier named Hans Plüschke shot Arnstadt dead.
The East German regime extracted full propaganda value from the affair: Rudi Arnstadt was made into a national hero who had died in defence of the socialist fatherland. Schools and roads were named after him. Hans Plüschke left the West German border guard in 1970, and given a licence to carry firearms at all times, as protection against reprisal missions sent across the divide. As the two Germanies grew apart, he built a quiet living as a taxi driver.
Today, nearly fifty years after Arnstadt’s death, and twenty years after German re-unification swept away the fences outside Wiesenfeld, several busloads of aging friends, colleagues and sympathisers still come each year to the Arnstadt memorial, to sing patriotic East German songs and reminisce about the good old days.
Robert has reason to resent the visitors. As the communist East German regime strengthened its grip on power after the war, agricultural land around Wiesenfeld was collectivised. By the end of the 1950s, Robert’s father was the only farmer who had refused to join the local cooperative. Since the regime wanted only politically reliable people in the sensitive frontier zone, the young family was forced to move away from the border, to the city of Magdeburg. When Rudi Arnstadt arrived for border duty a few months later, he was housed in the Hohmann family’s empty home.
Over thirty years later, after Germany had re-unified in 1990, Robert lost his job in Magdeburg. Eventually he decided to reclaim the family’s property and move back to Wiesenfeld, the village he had left as a toddler.He has renovated the old house and he and his mother now live a peaceful and happy life there. At first the annual arrival of Arnstadt’s supporters was a disruptive reminder of the past. Robert’s mother still finds their presence too painful and stays inside all day. Sometimes the visitors ask to visit Arnstadt’s old room. Robert refuses, but these days he feels pity, not anger, towards them. He says they are sad people with nothing left in life but the past. He often wants to challenge them on the East German regime’s treatment of people like his family, but feels reconciliation is more important. ‘The situation is over, you can’t change it. What happened happened,’ he says. ‘It’s a new time. We have to look to the future, to accept everyone and to work together.’
Meanwhile, Hans Plüschke never spoke publicly about Arnstadt’s shooting until, in 1997, on the 35th anniversary of the incident, he went on television to discuss his involvement for the first time. Seven months later, he was discovered dead in his car by the roadside, just a few kilometres from the spot where he had killed Arnstadt. He was murdered by a shot fired into his right eye–the same place his own bullet had hit Arnstadt. His killer has never been found..."
...if I didn't round off a visit to Berlin with a photo of this place.
So, voilà. I am on the overnight train back to Brussels and in a few hours will be hit by normal life again. Over the last 50 days I have cycled 3,623 kilometres along the route of the old Iron Curtain, from Lübeck on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic and around Berlin. I've had as many interesting experiences of people and places along the way. There may be another post or two to come here yet, but I will also be trying to put these adventures and others not blogged into a more durable form that might entertain and inform. I'll keep you in the know...
The Cold War sights of central Berlin are well-known (Checkpoint Charlie etc) but more interesting for me are the more mundane manifestations of the wall on the periphery of the city. West Berlin was an island of territory belonging to West Germany that was situated in East Germany. But around the edge of West Berlin there were also other tiny exclaves of western territory that East Germany put walls around. One of them is below. It's a weekend cottage settlement located on the East German side of the Heiligensee lake but belonging to the West German side on the other bank. To get to their waterside huts the West Berliners had to go through the full border control palaver. There is a wonderful 1970s archive photo on an info panel nearby showing a hippy Western couple with a barrow of garden provisions pressing the doorbell of a hatch in the wall, waiting to be let through by a no doubt shaven-headed border patrol officer. There were similar quirks in the border all around the city, including special transit routes for West Berlin to dump its rubbish on land leased from the East.
I love maps, and have done for as long as I can remember. As a kid on long car journeys I spent hours just gazing at the AA road atlas and reckon I could still identify 95% of Britain's major towns from an unlabelled street plan. A good map is a work of art and I often bore friends about how Belgium's 1:50,000 IGN series is a near masterpiece. One of the pleasures of this (and any) trip has been acquiring detailed maps of the places I travel through. It's fascinating to see how different cartographers interpret their local landscape, intellectually stimulating to use their work to navigate the terrain, and occasionally frustrating when features on the ground don't match what's on paper. My experience has been enhanced immeasurably by finding the right map at the right time, especially through the Czech Republic. The combination of Google maps and GPS receiver on my iPhone has rescued me from a couple of dark culs de sac but I still prefer to plot my route using the contour lines of a good old-fashioned topographical map.
While we're in Bad Radkersberg, and playing blog catch-up, this Russian (or rather, Soviet) war memorial is one of a number I've seen along the route. But there have been surprisingly few traces of the "evil empire", given the importance of its role in defining and maintaining the line of the Iron Curtain.
The Austrians seem a very sober people and many of their villages and towns have a solidly unflamboyant - frankly, dull - appearance. So this risqué garden ornament in Bad Radiersberg fairly jumped out at me. And that's the only reason I post it here.
From Maribor I travelled west along the river Drava, which meanders through alpine foothills parallel to the Austrian border for 70km before entering Austria just north of Dravograd. I knew that the road would have no significant hills (that's why I chose it, he he), but I also guessed it would be a fairly busy one, for that reason. And so it was. It was also one of the worst weather days of the trip - unremitting rain all day. The spray from the traffic meant my glasses were never clear for more than 30 seconds and when the light started to fade things got a little too hairy for my liking. The numerous signs warning of accident blackspots didn't relieve the anxiety. At one point I was able to switch to a path on the other side of the river, virtually traffic-free and with more ups and downs, a total contrast to the busy opposite bank. In a remote bend In this road I came across a house that looked like it hadn't changed since the 1920s. As I took a photo an old woman came out to get some firewood from the shed. She was also dressed from 1920s rural central Europe and could easily have been over 90. As she struggled back with the wood I wondered what kind of life she must lead and wished my language skills included conversational Slovenian.