Gravel Culture: Bikepacking along the Iron Curtain

Posted By Gravel Union On 26 January 2021

Adventure filmmaker Markus Stitz recently published his film about the joys of bikepacking alongside the former Iron Curtain. We got the inside-story on what inspired him to make the film.

Back in October last year, route planner and bikepacker extraordinaire Markus managed to find a small window of opportunity to ride the 700km route of the former Iron Curtain – the boundary demarcation between west and east Europe. The route Markus rode headed through the states of Thuringia, Lower Saxony, Hesse, Bavaria and Saxony and was completed shortly after the 30th anniversary of German reunification. Markus has set up a website for riders looking to follow his route – where you can find more details of the 'Grenzerfahrungen' (Borderline Experiences) Iron Curtain Gravel Trail.

We recently chatted with Markus about his life and some of the adventures he has got up to, but we thought the filmmaking part of our conversation fitted better here.

Gravel Union – How did you first get into filmmaking?

Markus - When I was student in Germany at the end of the 1990s, I studied applied media sciences. We had filmmaking modules as part of my course. I also did a short stint at the University of Sunderland doing a radio production and popular music course. Studying in Sunderland was a brilliant experience! The filmmaking surfaced very early on in my career because I also worked for a children's broadcaster while I was at university - I was literally watching television and being paid for it - I had to give my opinion if it's good or bad or suitable for children! For a long time after that the filmmaking died off again, but recently it came back. It's really nice to reactivate parts of your interests at a suitable time in your life, I think.

Gravel Union – Can you talk to us about the background to your latest film, Grenzerfahrungen?

Markus - If you look at the latest film, it's heavily influenced by two songs that I first heard when I was a ten year old child and the wall came down. We lived very close to the border, so basically we were able to watch West German television and receive West German radio stations. The music aspect is interesting – it’s reflected in the film very simply, very subtly. There are two German bands, one called City, and the other one is called Silly. City did a song which is called Am Fenster (which means “at the window”) - it's an utterly beautiful song. It's epic - there's even a 15 minute version of it! The interesting thing about music from East Germany [during this period] is that if you listen to the lyrics, you can always read two things into them. One would be the official reading, but to pass censorship, the songs couldn’t include any open criticism of the East German government.

But, if you read carefully into it, there was also a totally different meaning to the song. Some of those songs were so subtly written. Without that censorship, the artist would have never needed to do that - to basically write all their songs so there was an official meaning and a subtle, hidden one. I really wanted to use that City song for the film, but I also knew this was just going to cause a lot of headaches in terms of copyright. I didn’t use it, but one of the songs in the film has an element of strings in it. When I first heard that, it reminded me of the City song, so that's why I chose it for the film.

The Silly song is actually a super interesting story too. The route I’ve created goes past the birthplace of the singer Tamara Danz, who died very early in her life of breast cancer. She was one of the leading figures in the movement of 1989 to basically try and force the regime to back down and to open the borders. On their album, which came out in February 1989, there’s a track called Verlorene Kinder (lost children) It has utterly amazing lyrics about kids living in an apartment block in East Berlin, warming themselves up on a park bench [in winter] because they can't go anywhere warm. I was flabbergasted that anything like this was released in that time because it was obviously super critical, but it was also one of those albums that was released in both West and East Germany at the same time. The album was published in a time where I think the East German government knew something was going to happen and that they wouldn't be staying in power for that much longer. They obviously thought “we might as well just give in and accept that that is a matter of fact”.

When I did the journey, I had no idea she was actually born in a small village on the Werra River, which is very close to my route. All of this, in a way, is reflected in my film. What's really subtle in the film as well is that the final film is 11 minutes and nine seconds long - that's basically the 9th of November replicated as well. It was not planned as such, but when I was doing the first edit and I realised that for whatever reason the draft was 11 minutes and 30 seconds long - I wonder if I can get it down to 11 minutes and 9 seconds. So, there are some subtleties in there. You won't necessarily recognise if you watch it, but once you know that’s the story behind it, hopefully it becomes a little bit clearer.

Gravel Union – What is the Iron Curtain Gravel Trail?

Markus – The Iron Curtain Gravel Trail, covers 687km from the Dreiländerstein to the Dreiländereck, packing in 11,300m of elevation along the route. It is a section of the partially completed 7000km Iron Curtain Trail (also known as EuroVelo13). The Iron Curtain Gravel Trail is designed to be ridden on gravel bikes as a bikepacking route, but is equally fun on mountain bikes.

After successfully creating a number of bikepacking routes in Scotland since 2017, 'Grenzerfahrungen' inspired me to do something similar for Germany. You can find lots of information about the route on the website. I’m hoping to turn this into a new bikepacking resource for Germany. I spent about four weeks in October 2020 developing two journeys in Thuringia, and this is the first finished route.

For anyone who is interested in finding out more about Markus’ bike and the kit that he packed for his trip, he’s put together a short behind-the-scenes film:

Markus Stitz

Markus Stitz is a German-born route designer, filmmaker, photographer and writer, based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He caught the adventure bug while living in New Zealand and has explored Great Britain extensively since he moved here in 2009.