Friday, April 12, 2013

I Traveled Alone Behind the Iron Curtain
During the Cold War.

By Paul Iorio
This is the transit visa that enabled me to get through the Iron Curtain,
August 20, 1976. The border crossing, as shown on the visa stamp, was
Edirne, which is at the intersection of Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece.
I was entering Bulgaria from Turkey.

The Iron Curtain is back!

Not the physical curtain, of course, which remains on the proverbial scrap

heap of history.

But the subject, which is as hot as ever -- and not just because of the death

of Margaret Thatcher, who (as we all know) ran the U.K. when the curtain

began to fall in eastern Europe.

There's also a brand new movie by director Martin Persiel, “This

Ain’t California,” about skateboarders in East Germany during the


That flick follows author Anne Applebaum’s critically acclaimed book “Iron

Curtain,” released late last year, and an off-Broadway musical called

“Iron Curtain,” which opened to raves the year before. IRON CURTAIN BOOK OF LATE 2012


Still, with each passing year, there are fewer and fewer people who

actually have first-hand remembrances of the curtain itself -- and

fewer still who went to the region on a U.S. passport in that era.

I did.

As an adventurous 19-year-old American college student, I traveled

alone by local train behind the Iron Curtain in 1976, journeying non-stop

from Florence, Italy, to Istanbul, Turkey, crossing the entire length of

both the former Yugoslavia and Bulgaria and venturing through Thrace

and European Turkey.

And then I took the whole trip again in reverse!

My non-stop trek spanned fifty-two hours, two time

zones and over two thousand miles in August '76,

following the route of the original Orient Express -- though

this was no Pullman sleeper. The train was a ramshackle

thing, barely better than refugee boxcars for much of the

voyage; through most of Yugoslavia, I couldn't even find a

seat and had to sleep on my suitcase in the crowded corridor.

I also soon found that the tough reputation of the cops of

communist Eastern Europe was well-deserved -- though I was

skeptical about that fact before the trip. As I naively joked

in my journal when I passed into Slovenia: "I must be in

Yugoslavia by now. It's dark, so I can't see the oppression

and lack of liberty." (It was also, incidentally, too dark

to see that I was missing what some call the best scenery

of the region: the Julian Alps of Slovenia.)

My attitude was less jokey several hours later in Zagreb when

the Yugoslav police took me off the train for no apparent reason

(probably because I was one of only two Americans on board the

train that day), forcing me to leave my luggage onboard. Through

the language barrier, I think the cops were claiming I didn't

have a transit visa -- even after I showed them my transit visa.

As I wrote in my journal at the time: "And so off the train

I went" -- to the harsh glare of people who had stony

"Tito/Khrushchev" epressions on their faces.

The other person booted from the train was a bearded hippie

who claimed to be a Stanford University student; he started

getting loud about what he called the fascist behavior of

the cops, and I asked him to shut up before he got us

in deeper trouble.

We were detained outside a small side building, a sort of

mini-police station, where an officer confiscated my passport. After

waiting for around ten minutes, the train made noises as if

it were starting to leave Zagreb, and, impulsively, I bolted toward

the tracks, even though I didn't have my passport and hadn't been

given an ok from the police to re-board.

But no one stopped me. I wasn't hit by a hail of bullets! And

just before I reboarded, some stranger handed me my

passport. "Mysteriously received my...passport again

as...I was running back to the train and was handed

it by a man," I wrote in my journal at the time. "Mysterious

totalitarian forces at work."

I didn't see the Stanford student get back on the train and

assumed he was now in the clutches of some nasty Croatian cops.

As the train left Zagreb, I sat down and started writing about

what had just happened. But a Yugoslav police officer came into my

train car and stood a short distance from me, staring at me in a

menacing way. When I put away my pen and paper, he walked away.

Through the train window, parts of northern Croatia looked

sort of like a Communist Norman Rockwell painting, with peasants,

in classic red style, harvesting a field by hand with sickles.

As the train approached Belgrade, the landscape became increasingly

urban in a very gray way.

"The entrance [to Belgrade] is utterly filled with trash, and

as you approach it, one sees drab but...modern buildings

and a superhighway," I wrote in my diary.

I snapped this photo of Belgrade, then the capital of
Yugoslavia, from the train in '76.

After Belgrade, the scenery became unexpectedly spectacular,

thanks to the thrilling peaks of the Balkan Mountains (one of

the most underrated ranges in all of Europe). But just before

Bulgaria, the landscape became downbeat again, full of "empty

roads, solemn faces, dreary check points," as I wrote in my

journal at the time.

This part of southern Serbia, between Bulgaria and

Kosovo, remains the most desolate, lonely and abandoned

area of the world I've ever seen.

Despite the oppressive presence of police and soldiers, the

civilians on the train were lively and uninhibited throughout

the Balkans.

At one point, in southeastern Serbia, five very friendly rural

Serbians (with a couple black puppies) insisted -- absolutely

insisted -- that I take a picture of them and their dogs, so

I did. In return, they gave me a couple Yugoslav

cigarettes, three swigs of vodka -- and their addresses so I

could send them the pictures.

Here was the scene on the train in southern Serbia just
before the Bulgarian border when five Serbian guys insisted
I snap their pictures!

Just before the Bulgarian border, I found a seat in a

compartment that was like a mini-United Nations. I sat

across from a confident and exuberant Libyan man (with

extremely white teeth) who said he was on his way to

study electrical engineering in Bulgaria. Also

in the compartment were a soft-spoken guy from Copenhagen

and two French men (one of them looked like rocker Ron Wood,

the other said he was a Sorbonne professor of Islamic

civilization and French). They were talking to each other

in English, French and other languages.

As the train crossed into Bulgaria at Dimitrovgrad, I

experienced the toughness of the Bulgarian border soldiers,

widely regarded as the most ruthless in all of eastern Europe

at the time.

With rifles at the ready, the Bulgarian guards were

harsh and humorless. "At the Bulgarian border, the

guards had Hitler mustaches, as all traces of Western

Europe (as well as humor or smiling) disappeared

completely," I wrote in my journal after entering

the country.

Passing from Yugoslavia to Bulgaria, I could feel the

difference between a police state (the former) and a military

state (the latter). The first was harsh, the latter potentially


I soon passed through Sofia, which seemed like an extremely

insulated and subdued city; the locals at the train station,

in old-fashioned clothing and uncomfortable-looking shoes,

approached the train and gawked curiously at the train as if

they were looking at visitors from another planet.

This is the farthest behind the Iron Curtain that anyone could
get back in '76: Sofia, Bulgaria. I shot this from the train.

Several hours later, at the exit border -- the tense checkpoint

near the three-way intersection of Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece --

the armed Bulgarian cops became even more unfunny than they

had been at the entry border.

"Long wait at the Bulgaria/Turkey border," I wrote in my journal

that night. "Soldiers all around checking bags, shining

lights....It is pitch black and probably midnight."

In the distance, I saw the silhouette of a tank. A rumor,

later proved false, circulated that the train was being

delayed because war had broken out between Greece and

Turkey over Cyprus.

After an anxious period, we were finally allowed to proceed

into western Turkey, back into NATO territory. "The train

starts into the Turkish black night, soldiers waving goodbye,

and I go back to my compartment and sleep," I wrote in my diary.

To my surprise, a few yards away at a train window, there was

that Stanford student who I had mistakenly thought was left

behind in Zagreb the day before; he was looking out the window

and singing the Rolling Stones's "Satisfaction."

It was a few hours before sunrise on my third day of travel, but

Istanbul was still over 12 hours away.

After Bulgaria, entering western Turkey felt like someone had

opened a window and let in light, air and birds. I was now in

westernmost Turkey, aka Thrace. After the monochromatic Balkans,

Thrace seemed to come alive in vivid Technicolor like something

out of "The Wizard of Oz." .

"At sunrise, I wake and see...Turkey," I wrote in my journal.

"The train is moving at a snail's pace, stopping every twenty yards

or so. The scenery is unlike anything I've seen before. The

mountains are sometimes rocky or green or barren like a desert...

There are great stretches of huge yellow sunflower fields stretching

for [what looks like] miles. The people all wave as the train goes

by, and the animals get more exotic and plentiful: goats,

gazelles, unnamables, roosters, huge flocks of sheep."

Western Turkey and Thrace came alive in color after traveling
through the gray Balkans. Here's a photo I shot of the area
west of Istanbul.

Fifty-two hours after boarding the train in Florence, I arrived

in Istanbul at three on a hot afternoon in August, burping

Lambrusco, profoundly tired and somewhat dehydrated. I checked into

a cheap hostel ($5 a night) in the Sultanahmet neighborhood

where American hippies -- who had almost certainly taken a

plane, not a train, to Istanbul -- were outside singing

Paul Simon's "Homeward Bound" as someone played guitar.

After five days in Istanbul, it was time to return to Florence. I

considered taking a quick flight back, but (being a broke student

back then) went to the train station and took the whole trip

behind the Iron Curtain all over again.

This time, I fell sick just before the Bulgarian border

and remained sick all the way home (and for a week after

returning to Florence), sleeping through most of the

ride back.

No food or beverages were sold onboard and Americans

weren't allowed to exit before their destination, so I

was left with nothing to eat or drink except

whatever I had with me (which was some bad carbonated

Lambrusco wine and stale cheese-bread (don't ask)).

In retrospect, I now see that the larger risks of the trip

came not behind the Iron Curtain but in running afoul

of Muslim traditions in Islam. (For example, some guy

chased me down the street with a stick in Istanbul for

shooting a picture of veiled women gathered in a doorway;

another man almost became violent when I didn’t show more

respect than I was already showing at Istanbul’s Pavilion of

the Holy Mantle, where the Muslim Prophet Muhammad’s hair and

teeth are on display (according to the Pavilion).

All told, my advice to anyone considering a travel

adventure like this (which, by the way, couldn't be

done today because there is no Iron Curtain): take

the plane!

After a 52-hour train ride, I finally arrived
in Istanbul.


Above, a photo I shot from Istanbul's Galata Bridge, August 1976.

* * * *

After crossing through Bulgaria, I arrived at the first stop over the
border in Yugoslavia (present-day Serbia), Dimitrovgrad, via this visa
stamp (left).


I got behind the Iron Curtain using this American passport.
But I applied for my transit visas (to Bulgaria and Yugoslavia)
through a third-party country -- Italy -- otherwise the visas
wouldn't have likely been approved.


Above are various items from my trip behind the Iron Curtain; at
center is my visa for entry to Bulgaria; clockwise from the top left
are a card for the hostel I stayed at, a pack of Turkish cigarettes,
an August 1976 calendar, my own notes about entering Bulgaria, a
ticket to the Topkapi, and a couple logos for regional publications.