Great Rail Journeys: What the Iron Route is All About


Dec 02

From Istanbul to Berlin: Zig Zagging Across the Former Iron Curtain by Train

The iron route describes a train journey between Istanbul and Berlin, zig-zagging back and forth across the former Iron Curtain.

This is its story.

If you're looking for logistics on booking a train ticket from Istanbul to Berlin then head here.

The Inspiration Behind the Iron Route and the Great Rail Journey

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.

A Journey Made Possible by Eurail

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.


The Museum of Communism (situated above McDonalds) is as good a place as any to delve into the topic. What is communism? What was it about? Why did people think it would work? Why didn't it? Read the full article about the Museum of Communism in Prague here.

Sopron, Austria and the Fall of the Iron Curtain

In the end, the Cold War didn't end with one big declaration. It ended through a series of movements that began in a field. Read the eye witness account here of the beginning of the end and holding the iron curtain in your hand here.

Budapest and Rethinking Democracy

A walk from the House of Terror, home to the Nazis and then the Stasi, to the golden Houses of Parliament provides plenty of time to stop and pause for thought. Read what democracy looks like here.


A divided, literally, city at the end of World War Two. Read the Berlin Wall in Vienna.

Interrail IronRoute Map




About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.

  • Linda says:

    It’s so interesting how different generations view the world. I remember a school trip to Germany in 1962, standing in the parliament building in Bonn and thinking how cruel it was that Germany was divided as it was, yet my father,less than twenty years before that had probably been dropping bombs around the area I was visiting. There was no question of visiting Berlin to see the wall which had not long been constructed, emphasizing the tearing apart of so many families. It would have been much too complicated. There is no way of explaining the impact of John Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. If Obama strode the Korean border tomorrow and made a similar statement it would have less emotion for several reasons.

    As for Ljubljana – ten years on from that visit to Germany, in 1972, I went on my first skiing holiday to Bled in Slovenia, only it was Yugoslavia then, of course. It was a bad winter for the infant skiing industry there, because there was no snow, but our assigned guide was happy to show us around as much as he could, drinking much slivovica (hmm not sure on that spelling. It’s what Wikipedia says, but am not convinced), which lowered my apprehensions about discussing politics, and he warned that however the West may see the area, if Yugoslavia fell apart then there would be much bloodshed. I wondered, another 20 years on, what happened to him.

    I will be following your journey – one way or another! – with much interest!

    • Abi says:

      That’s such an interesting perspective…I’m a few days into this trip by now (apologies for the slow response, it’s been hectic!) and already I feel a big fog of ignorance begin to clear…Growing up, you learn that this country is this, that country is that and it takes a little while to realise how fluid boundaries really are – now and throughout history.

      Thanks for following along!

  • Martha says:

    Very nice post. I also didn’t know about Ljubljana until I met my former office mate who was from there. It’s a bit sad that we know so many places in the west of Europe but hardly any in the East.

    • Abi says:

      Very sad (but here’s a sneak preview – Ljubljana’s wonderful!)

  • Bloody awesome idea for a trip Abi, I’ll be following along with great interest. :)

  • This sounds like a really interesting trip. And I will admit I am quite ignorant about this part of the world, so I look forward to learning from your stories and photos.

  • Philip says:

    I look forward to reading about more of your journey. Croatia is on my short list for travel in ’12.

    • Abi says:

      Croatia also has a stunning coastline (which I won’t be visiting on this trip.) Haven’t heard anyone go to Croatia and return disappointed yet…

  • Amanda says:

    Very cool trip! Many of these places are on my own travel list for next summer.

    • Abi says:

      Well, then, I hope I uncover plenty of useful information, then!

  • Jade Johnston - says:

    Good luck on the trip! I am totally jealous!

  • This is such an amazing idea. Eastern Europe and its history from WWII on are one of the only historical/political topics that truly enthralls me. I am really excited to read these stories coming …

    • Abi says:

      It was such a blank spot for me – I think because as I was growing up, it wasn’t yet considered history…

  • Steph says:

    Very cool- I’d love to do something similar. An Ljubljana is a gorgeous little city. You’ll love it!

    • Abi says:

      I’m a few days in, now – and you’re absolutely right about Ljubljana! Gorgeous.

  • Sebastian @ says:

    I’ve been living in Bulgaria for the last 4 months and traveled a bit through the former Soviet union. I learned a lot about the history of Eastern Europe. I will follow your trip with high interest!!

    • Abi says:

      Oh, I wish I’d known this when I was in Bulgaria. I’m sure I could have learned a lot from you.

  • Emily says:

    This sounds like an amazing adventure–can’t wait to hear about it! I’ve never been to Eastern Europe, only Western, but can’t wait to explore it.

    • Abi says:

      Thanks. I’ve been to a few of the cities before but not many, and not like this. I’m really looking forward to how it turns out as well!

  • Some of Our Favorite Female Travel Writers — Go! Girl Guides says:

    […] posts by Abi you shouldn’t miss : Where in the World is Ljubljana and A Beautiful […]

  • What a great trip, Abi!
    A couple years ago I spent a couple months going from Istanbul to Romania, Budapest, Bratislava, Krakow and finally Berlin. I really love Eastern Europe and tend to think it’s more gorgeous than the west. A lot of it still has that ‘fairy tale’ medieval appeal I love (at least the parts not destroyed or rebuilt into Communist blocks).
    Enjoy this great journey!

    • Abi says:

      Thanks Lisa – I only wish I’d been able to reach Romania. Impossible to do everything at once – but great to hear that there’s always more of the world worth seeing.

  • You’re visiting some of my favorite places, as well as some of the places I’ve been trying hard to visit these past few years–I can’t wait to follow along!

    • Abi says:

      Not quite as adventurous as your current round the world extravaganza but one step at a time!

  • Alexa Meisler says:

    IronRoute seems very interesting. I never had a problem traveling with trains and the trains in Europe are very accommodating for travelers. And the cities you’ll be visiting will have a lot to offer for sure especially with avid history buffs like yourself. Thank you for sharing!

    • Abi says:

      Yep, it turned out to be a great way to see Europe. I’d definitely do something like that again…

  • LaurieAnn says:

    Hi Abi:
    I’ve been fascinated by Central/Eastern European history for years now and just found your blog. I’d like to know if there’s a way for me to follow your entire Iron Curtain journey posts from start to finish at this late date. If you could post a link it would help the low-tech senior.
    Thank you;
    Laurie robinson

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