Move over Berlin, make way for České Velenice-Gmünd

A Town (Still) Divided by the Cold War

Back in the late 1980s, this would be all of České Velenice I'd see from the train window. On some trips, we'd stop for an hour or more as the Czechoslovak border patrol went about its business. Photo by Mark Baker.
This modern map shows how the national boundaries of the Czech Republic and Austria slice through what was, at one time, one city. From 1948 to 1989, this was also the crucial boundary between East and West. Photo by Mark Baker.
The interior of České Velenice's train station still looks pretty good. The station was an important stop on the Franz-Josefs-Bahn in the 19th century, but was destroyed in WWII and rebuilt in prim Socialist-Realist style. Photo by Mark Baker.
The corridors of the České Velenice railroad station. During the Cold War, this was an important state police post, and the place still has a lingering sinister feel. Photo by Mark Baker.

Berlin was the most famous, but by no means the only city in Europe to be divided by the Cold War. The cartographers of the Iron Curtain were unforgiving in the aftermath of World War II when it came to separating residents from each other in towns all along the perimeter where the communist “East” touched the capitalist “West.”

One of those places was Gmünd, in Lower Austria, and its sister Czech town of České Velenice, which I knew from my train journeys up to Prague from Vienna as a reporter for Business International and the Economist Group in the late 1980s. At the time, the main Vienna-Prague rail line ran northwest from Vienna, passing through southern Bohemia on its way up to Prague (today the route starts to the northeast of Vienna and runs through Brno, east of Prague). The new route is longer, I guess, but quicker.

Traveling up from Vienna back then, Gmünd was the last stop in the west and České Velenice the first stop in east. The irony, of course, was that they were actually historically the same town. The two train stations were separated by machine guns and barbed wire but were just 3kms (2 miles) apart.

Until Czechoslovak independence in 1918, the whole area was known simply as Gmünd, a town that traces its roots back to the 13th century and has the Gothic and Renaissance architecture to prove its claims. The name “České Velenice” was adopted after independence to describe that part of Gmünd that fell to Czechoslovakia, though until WWII, the region functioned essentially as one city (albeit with differing languages and cultures).

It was only after the war and the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia that the border became real.

The handsome exterior of the now largely deserted České Velenice train station. Photo by Mark Baker.
This station once served as the main crossing for all trains running from Prague to Vienna. In the mid-'90s that busy service was diverted through Brno. These days, České Velenice serves just a handful of destinations. Photo by Mark Baker.
A narrow-gauge railroad once ran across this bridge -- today a hiking and cycling trail -- and connected the area around České Velenice train station to Gmünd's main town center (about 3km away). Photo by Mark Baker.
One for the bucket list: to cycle the 'Iron Curtain Trail,' part of which now runs between České Velenice and Gmünd. Photo by Mark Baker.

I still remember those train journeys from the late 1980s like they were yesterday. The first leg, the two-hour trip up from Vienna to Gmünd, would feel like any other Austrian commute. The train would be filled with school kids or businessmen or families visiting relatives in the provinces. Once we pulled into Gmünd’s small station, though, the train would shut down, the carriages would empty out, and I’d be left sitting alone for the short shuttle across the then-Iron Curtain.

We’d sit for a while, maybe a half hour or so, and the train would lurch back to life. We’d rattle on for a few minutes and chug our way into České Velenice’s far-more substantial station. The engineer would cut the motor again (but this time it felt real), the train would gasp, and then die. There was no telling when we’d continue on our way.

Fragments of České Velenice’s train station still haunt my dreams. In my mind’s eye, I see a nearly empty station, with a few workers washing the building’s windows or sweeping the platforms, but mostly devoid of any other passengers. The silence is palpable, pierced only by police whistles in the distance, a few muffled words between soldiers, and the inevitable banging up the stairs as the soldiers and customs agents board the carriages. At this point I know it’s only a few minutes until my compartment door slides open and I present my American passport to a startled agent.

Customs formalities were usually routine, and I never encountered any serious problems at the border. Once – though not on one of these trips – I was doing a favor for a friend by carrying several rolls of Polish złoty across the Czechoslovak border into Poland. Importing currency back then was strictly verboten, but I was seldom checked and happy to help out a couple in Poland who needed the money to buy a house. I’d completely forgotten about the money (which was hidden in some socks in my suitcase) until the customs agent pointed to my bag on the rack above my head and asked to take a look inside. I broke into a sweat and could scarcely lift the suitcase down without shaking. He made a quick search, found nothing, and wished me a pleasant journey.

Though I passed through Gmünd-České Velenice half a dozen times from 1987 to 1989, I never had any reason to get off the train and had no idea what the town was really like. When I saw on the map that a recent travel-writing research trip would take through the area, I knew this time I had to stop over.

These days, to move between České Velenice and Gmünd one need only walk a few feet and cross a bridge. No need to even show a passport. Photo by Mark Baker.
This photo shows part of the 'Iron Curtain Trail' as it threads its way along the old Cold War border between České Velenice and Gmünd. Photo by Mark Baker.
The old border post, looking into Austria from the Czechoslovak side. Photo by Mark Baker.
Houses now front the old border on the Austrian side along a street appropriately called 'Grenzgasse' (Border Street). Photo by Mark Baker.

On this trip, I’d be driving (and not taking the train). This was a fortunate choice because once I stepped into České Velenice’s oversized – and nearly empty -- train station, I realized that not many trains pass through here these days. The Vienna-Prague line was diverted through Brno some time in the 1990s, and it’s clear the station and town are still coping with the railroad relegation.

This must have been quite a climb-down for České Velenice-Gmünd. The town was one of the original stops on the historic Franz-Josefs-Bahn (the Emperor Franz Joseph Railway), which was the first direct rail line between Vienna and Prague in the mid-19th century. České Velenice owes its impressive station to its position along this important rail link.

Though the Iron Curtain was pulled down nearly 30 years ago and the pre-World War II “border-less” status between Gmünd and České Velenice has been restored, the two still feel very much like separate places. Indeed, the hulking, hideous Cold War checkpoint along the main road linking the two centers is -- incredibly -- still standing. The checkpoint is unguarded and unmanned, but its very presence is a stark reminder of recent history and perhaps reflects some lingering skepticism on the part of residents that open borders are really here to stay.

Or maybe residents are still uncomfortable with the fact that České Velenice and Gmünd are now, once again, essentially one place? It’s hard to say. It may take many more decades before residents of both parts of town fully re-embrace their shared geographic and historic identity.

For some reason, Austria and the Czech Republic have decided to retain this old Cold War border post. Photo by Mark Baker.
The presence of the former Cold War border post reinforces the sense that České Velenice and Gmünd are indeed two separate towns. Photo by Mark Baker.
Lots of places in town to relax, it seems. České Velenice Photo by Mark Baker.
The biggest industry in České Velenice these days appears to be sex for hire -- and many of the brothels look like palaces. Photo by Mark Baker.

Modern-day Gmünd, which incorporates the town’s historic center, appears to be the far more prosperous part of town. On my visit on a hot Saturday afternoon in August, the restaurants and ice-cream parlors along the main square were doing a booming trade.

Central České Velenice, by contrast, just a couple of kilometers away, was nearly empty. To be fair, this was always an underdeveloped part of Gmünd, even back in the day. Judging by the signs out front, most of the shops here cater to various border-town vices like gambling, prostitution, and garden gnomes. Most prices are denominated in euros (not crowns) and the parking lots are sprinkled with Austrian plates. It’s clear who’s doing the selling and who’s doing the buying.

I’ve never actually seen a town filled with so many grandiose brothels, but even these appear to be falling on hard times (scroll down beyond the map for more photos).

I have to say I was a little let down by my visit. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I suppose I was hoping that something of the European Union good-neighbor ideal (whatever that means) might have made more of an impression by now, and that commerce and living standards would be a bit more balanced.

The high point of my trip came when I got on my bicycle and rode through some of the fields surrounding the town that mark where the old Cold War frontier once stood. The EU’s “Iron Curtain Cycling Trail” follows an old narrow-gauge railway line that once linked the big train station in České Velenice with the historic center of Gmünd. It's only once you're out on the bike that you realize just how close these places really are to each other.

It’s a beautiful ride through unspoiled, open field, and as I was cycling I came up with an instant note-to-self, bucket-list aspiration: to follow this trail someday end-to-end. I think it would be a spectacular ride.

I wrote about some of the funny things that could happen on the train ride up to Prague from Vienna in an earlier post: Part 2: My Czech Friend 'Arno'

České Velenice -- at least on the outside -- has some of the most beautiful bordellos I've ever seen. Photo by Mark Baker.
Austrians cross the border not just for sex but for good Vietnamese food too. Like many Czech border towns, České Velenice has a sizable Vietnamese community that's absent on the Austrian side. Photo by Mark Baker.
The center of modern Gmünd is much more prosperous than the Czech side. This was always the center of commerce, as seen by the handsome 16th-century Renaissance buildings that still line the square. Photo by Mark Baker.
About the only thing to concern the residents of the more prosperous side of Gmünd is where to find the best ice cream on a hot summer day. Photo by Mark Baker.
A communist-era memorial to the victims of Nazism stands in a forgotten field behind the Vietnamese restaurant in České Velenice. Photo by Mark Baker.
Like all borders towns (at least all that I've visited), České Velenice has a higher than normal percentage of shops selling garden gnomes. Photo by Mark Baker.

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About the author

Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist and travel writer who’s lived in Central Europe for more than two decades. I love the history, literature, culture, and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

That's my aim with this travel website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

You’ll find a mix of stories here. Some will be familiar “what to see and do” travel articles on particular destinations. Others will be tales of “adventure” (usually with a comic twist) from life on the road. I'll also share tips about living in my adopted hometown of Prague and stories from a more-distant (but seemingly ever-present) past, when Central Europe was the “Eastern bloc” and I was a full-time journalist trying my best to cover it. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker