In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. I was at school at the time and I wasn’t entirely sure what all the fuss was about. Fast forward through the years and despite – or perhaps because of – having studied it briefly, watched the odd Bond film and read plenty of spy thrillers (both fact and fiction,) I still wasn’t that sure.
At school, we dreaded the countries of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, not because of their ideology, but because those words were difficult to spell. Bulgaria was a womble (a fuzzy children’s toy.) Romania meant orphans and Dracula. And Hungary only featured in woefully bad Christmas cracker jokes.
I was still at school when Yugoslavia tore itself apart, the words Sarajevo and Belgrade standing in for war reporters, air strikes and the horrors of ethnic cleansing.
When I first visited Croatia in 2003, I found a land still lined with scars, where bullet holes and blasted buildings lingered between fresh fruit markets and sunshine-lit cafes. Yet I also found unaffected beauty in the rocks of Croatia’s coastline, chalked up great times with friends in Zagreb, and timeless warmth in the the amber streets of medieval Dubrovnik.
My trip to Hiroshima redefined my ideas of tying history to a place, while my travels though Austria made me realise once more the confused and empty bubble that marked out central and eastern Europe in the map inside my brain.
I knew more about the history and modern day life of islands far, far away like Australia, Japan and Cuba, than I did this chunk of mainland that lives so close to home.
So when InterRail invited me to travel through eastern Europe on a global Interrail Pass, I knew the time had come to find out more.
I created the #IronRoute, a great rail journey from Istanbul to Berlin.
It explored the theme of “east” and “west” as it used to apply to Europe, while also glimpsing a taste of those places as they are today.
It, when I was feeling fanciful, skirted along the hem of the Iron Curtain.