Saturday 9 August 2014

Curtain Call

“From Stettin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Adriatic an "Iron Curtain" has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia…”
Winston Churchill: 5th March 1946

Having come across the quote on numerous occasions I’d never really paid it much attention, but a few years ago I saw a programme on Deutsche Welle about someone taking a bike trip along the former East German border, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I didn't pay it much attention at the time, but it started to come back into my mind as I looked to plan a “big trip” for 2012 – Why not travel from Stettin (which only after a bit of hunting around did I find out was now Szczecin in Poland) to Trieste?

It was very obvious early on that to try and squeeze that into a fortnight would be an almost impossible task if I actually wanted to spend time in any of the places I was planning to go through.

So I split the trip up into three, uneven, but doable bits without even considering the finishing date.

In 2012 I started in Szczecin (Stettin) on the Baltic and travelled round the edge of what had once been the DDR

In 2013 I travelled through some of the areas most impacted by the Iron Curtain – Dresden left with a hole in its city centre as a reminder of what “The West” had done, Prague and Budapest – scenes of the brutal repression the Warsaw pact handed out to people who didn't toe the line and through the former Czechoslovakia a country that following the fall of communism decided to go one stage further and without any bloodshed or fighting simply dissolve its marriage and let its two nations go their own way.

As I started to plan for 2014, the final leg through the former Yugoslavia and down to the Adriatic at Trieste, it suddenly started to dawn on me quite how important a year this is.

It was, after all, in Sarajevo in 1914 that a single shot sparked the bloodbath of the First World War as Europe ripped itself to shreds.

And, it was just 15 years ago that American and British planes were “strategically bombing” Serbia in an attempt to bring an end to the ethnic wars that had torn Yugoslavia apart.

But, perhaps most relevantly to my journey down the Iron Curtain were the actions that took place on May 2nd 1989.  25 years ago without consulting anyone the Hungarian government decided to open its borders with Austria; it dismantled 150 miles of barbed wire and with it opened the flood gates.

Whilst democracy movements had already started to take hold in both Poland and Hungary by then, this was the first hole being punched in the Iron Curtain, a fatal hole that just 6 months late on November 9th saw Berliners dancing on the top of the Berlin Wall.

25 years on and there are a host of new or newly-independent countries.  Some like the Czech Republic and Slovakia achieving this amicably and smoothly, some like the Baltic States and Slovenia after some fighting and sadly in the rest of the Balkans through years of horrific war.

But, what’s clear, 25 years on from the curtains collapse, and 15 years on from the end of the wars in the Balkans, Europe has stitched itself back together.

From Szczecin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic it’s been an interesting, and at times eye-opening journey through a part of the world that once looked like it had disappeared for ever.

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