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’m still not all that sure.
Then there’s Ljubljana. Never mind about worrying about how to pronounce it, I’d never even heard of it until I read Paulo Coelho’s Veronika Decides to Die. (Incidentally, the trigger for the heroine’s suicide attempt is a journalist who can’t place Ljubljana.)
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 earlier this year made me realise once more the confused and empty bubble that marks 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 this year, when InterRail invited me to travel through eastern Europe on a global Interrail Pass, I knew the time had come to find out more. And besides, the weight of a fictional girl’s suicide attempt in Ljubljana was becoming too much to bear.
#IronRoute is a rail trip from Istanbul to Berlin that aims to explore the theme of “east” and “west” as it used to apply to Europe, while also getting a taste of those places as they are today. It’ll skirt along the hem of the Iron Curtain (hey, indulge me here) as shown in the map below.
I know from talking to some of you over the last few weeks that I’m not the only one a little sketchy on my geography of Eastern Europe.
Fear not. Sit back, relax, and let me make a fool of myself on your behalf.
Education this way comes, hopefully with a huge dollop of entertainment and maybe even some intelligent observations. I don’t expect you to hold your breath, but I would like to invite you to follow along online…#IronRoute on Facebook
Update – I’m back! You can find the round up of information about the Iron Route over here. Enjoy!
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com