The shape of post-war Europe was determined at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences in 1945 – unwittingly, to some extent, because the reality of division between East and West was much more profound, more brutal and more permanent than had been envisaged by the western leaders.
A year later, when the Soviet Union was officially and popularly still the heroic ally in the victorious war against Hitler, Winston Churchill in his Fulton speech stated that an ‘Iron Curtain’ had descended across Europe; rarely has a statesman bestowed on language a phrase which was to have such widespread and potent use.
Quite suddenly, and to most observers quite unexpectedly, the Iron Curtain vanished in the autumn of 1989. The barbed wire came down, minefields were cleared, watchtowers disarmed. But this removal of the physical barrier was merely symptomatic of profound changes in the lands behind the Iron Curtain, where governments and institutions collapsed and the lives of tens of millions of people were fundamentally changed. Soon free elections were held, Germany was united and market economics prevailed, binding ‘East’ Europe – which we have now learnt again to call Central Europe – to the rest of the free world.
This tour is a study of one of the most fascinating and bizarre episodes in recent European history in the form of a thousand-mile journey through the heart of Europe from Lübeck on the Baltic to Trieste on the Adriatic, more or less along the line of the Iron Curtain. Of the divide itself scarcely a trace remains, but we visit places affected by the division and by its ending, and those in which the history expressed by the Iron Curtain was made. There are side expeditions to places significant in the history and life of this great swathe of Europe.
The principal themes of the tour are history and contemporary affairs, and it is on these that the lecturer’s discourse will concentrate. But the tour does nevertheless provide an extraordinary range of visual pleasures. Passing through seven countries, there is much to see in a variety of towns, cities and villages. Having been on the road to nowhere for most of the post-war period, many places escaped disfiguring over-development, and now energetic restoration is doing wonders to the areas formerly in the East. Moreover, the journey for most of the way is scenically enthralling. The obvious concomitant are long coach journeys, an average of 100 miles per day.
The designation after place names (W) or (E) refers to their location west or east of the Iron Curtain.
Lübeck. Fly at c. 1.30pm from London Heathrow to Hamburg (British Airways). Drive to Lübeck (W), the great port on the Baltic, leader of the Hanseatic League and home of Thomas Mann. One of the loveliest cities in Germany, there are mediaeval gateways, Gothic churches and splendid merchants’ houses. First of three nights in Lübeck.
Lübeck. A leisurely morning exploration of the city includes St Mary, the largest of brick Gothic churches, and the town hall. Afternoon at leisure to explore the mediaeval town, with the St Annen Museum of mediaeval art and furnishings, and the Buddenbrooks House. Overnight Lübeck.
Wismar. In GDR times the neglect of Wismar became increasingly obvious, despite its worldwide international shipping links. Now its former vitality has returned, as a glimpse at its market square will show. It was, in the 14th century, as important as Lübeck in the Hanseatic League and in the 18th century became Sweden’s most important port on the southern Baltic coast. Overnight Lübeck.
Marienborn. Drive to Marienborn for a guided tour of the zonal border, here the marshalling yard of East-West traffic; though abandoned to weeds, it retains the extensive installations of border control and there is now also a fascinating border museum. Overnight Quedlinburg (E).
Quedlinburg. Two thousand timber houses in Quedlinburg’s ‘new’ town, all fortunately spared from WWII, show the best of the Fachwerk style from the 14th to the 19th century. The Romanesque church at Quedlinburg possesses a marvellous treasury, key pieces of which had been purloined by a Texan soldier who kept them at home until his death in 1980. They were returned in 1993. Overnight Quedlinburg.
Weimar. Remote from warring factions in the big cities and redolent of the great names of German culture (Bach, Goethe, Schiller, Liszt), Weimar (E) gave its name to the constitution which ineffectively governed Germany for 14 years after the First World War. There is free time in the afternoon: select from the ducal palace (with picture collection), the ‘Herder’ church, the Bauhaus Museum and Goethe’s house. Continue south from Thuringia (E) to Bavaria (W). Overnight Coburg.
Coburg, Cheb. The ducal house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha supplied an amazing number of consorts to royal houses throughout Europe. In Coburg (W) see the Ehrenburg, home of Prince Albert. In the afternoon cross into the former Kingdom of Bohemia, now in the Czech Republic, and visit the charming town of Cheb (E). First of two nights in Mariánské Lázne.
Mariánské Lázne. Spend a leisurely day in Mariánské Lázne (E), once (as Marienbad) one of the most fashionable spa towns in Europe. With opulent 19th-century hotels, apartments and parks, and set among pine-clad hills, it exudes a melancholy grandeur. Now in the former Habsburg Empire, there is a new range of historical perspectives to consider, including the impact of the 1938 German occupation of the Sudetenland. Overnight Mariánské Lázne.
Plzeň, Cesky Krumlov. Continue through South Bohemia, a region of rolling hills, woods and lakes. Since the Middle Ages there had been a German-speaking majority in the area until they were expelled after the War. Visit the recently opened General Patton Museum in Plzen, which examines the final days of WWII in the area, and then the Baroque theatre in Cesky Krumlov (E). Overnight Cesky Krumlov.
Vienna, Bratislava. Enter Austria and cross the Danube for one of the briefest visits to Vienna (W) in the history of tourism. Visit the splendid Belvedere Palace, scene of the 1955 treaty which saw the withdrawal of the Soviets from Austria, and now home to the national collection of Austrian art: mediaeval, Baroque, Biedermeier and Secessionist, Klimt and Schiele. An afternoon walk takes in buildings most significant to post-War Vienna, ending at The Third Man Museum. Drive to Bratislava (E) in Slovakia, the ‘youngest’ capital city in Europe. Overnight Bratislava.
Bratislava, Sopron. Bratislava (Pressburg), has a sequence of restored streets and squares but has also retained something of a pre-1989 feel. Continue to Hungary and visit the Andau bridge, the escape route for over 70,000 Hungarian refugees in October 1956. Visit the site of the August 1989 pan-European picnic, used by several thousand East Germany holidaymakers then in Hungary to escape to the West. Overnight Sopron (E).
Sopron, Ják, Köszeg. See the Gothic Goat Church, the 17th century fire tower and the Storno collection of 19th century art and furniture in Sopron. The rest of the is spent driving through Hungary close to the border, scene of the flight of 200,000 refugees after the 1956 uprising. Stop to visit the Romanesque church at Ják (E), and small town of Köszeg. Cross into the Austrian province of Styria from where Cossack troops were forcibly repatriated in 1945. Overnight Graz (W).
Graz, Udine. An enchanting streetscape with outstanding buildings across undulating terrain makes Graz one of the loveliest towns in Central Europe. A morning walk reveals the splendour of the Gründerzeit architecture from the late 19th century, when Graz was at its most prosperous. Many earlier sacred buildings and contemporary public architecture will be seen as well, including the 15th century cathedral and the double-spiral staircase at the regional parliament building. In the afternoon drive through Slovenia towards the Adriatic and cross into Italy. First of two nights in Udine (W).
Kobarid, Gorizia. Most of the day is spent in Slovenia (E), until 1918 known as the Duchy of Carniola and until 1991 the most progressive and independent part of Yugoslavia. The Italian front in WWI hardly features in histories of that era, but the trench warfare in the mountainous area close to Kobarid (Caporetto) was as brutal as that in France. Visit the battlefields and adjoining museum, then drive to Gorizia, a town now divided between Italy and Slovenia. Overnight Udine.
Trieste. During six hundred years of Austrian rule, Trieste (W) became the largest seaport in the Mediterranean, and was bitterly disputed between Italy and Yugoslavia in the immediate post-war years. Overlooking city and sea, the citadel has Roman remains, fortress and Byzantine mosaics. Grand streets and squares with Neo-Classical buildings give rise to the epithet ‘Vienna-on-Sea’. Return to London Gatwick from Venice at c. 7.00pm.
£4,420. This includes: air travel (economy class) on British Airways flights (Airbus A319); travel by private coach throughout; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 1 lunch and 11 dinners with wine; admissions to museums and sites; all tips for restaurant staff, guides and drivers; all airport and state taxes; the services of the lecturer, tour manager, local and national guides. Single supplement £420. Price without flights £4,280.
In 2016: Radisson Blu Senator Hotel, Lübeck: a modern, 4-star hotel just outside the old city gates. Romantik Hotel am Brühl, Quedlinburg: is a restored heritage building near the historical heart, comfortably furnished. Romantik Hotel Goldene Traube, Coburg: a comfortable 4-star historic hotel. The Falkensteiner Grand Spa Hotel, Mariánské Lázne: a modern hotel in the centre of town. Hotel Růže, Cesky Krumlov: a characterful 5-star hotel in a converted 16th-century Jesuit Monastery. Radisson Blu Carlton, Bratislava: a modern, 4-star hotel on one of the old town squares. Hotel Wollner, Sopron: an old, established hotel in the centre, some rooms are furnished with antiques. Hotel zum Dom, Graz: a 4-star hotel in a 16th-century building with galleried courtyard (now roofed). Hotel Astoria, Udine: a well established four-star hotel in one of the principal squares of the centre of town.
Very long drives and frequent changes of hotel are a feature of this tour. Days begin at 8.30 or 9.00am; arrival at the hotel twice is after 7.00pm. However, there are three relatively restful days. There is a lot of walking. Average distance by coach per day: 101 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
'The lecturer was exceptional. We appreciated his lectures and his many kindnesses.'
'A mine of information on the Iron Curtain and its ultimate downfall.'
'The itinerary was well-balanced and interesting – nicely paced.'