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The Harz Mountains

Article by Sandra Lawrence

Photograph by Sandra Lawrence

There’s something luxurious - decadent, even - about travelling by train. Airports, once a place of romance and exotic promise, nowadays often mean long check-ins, overcrowding and uncomfortable seats. For European travel at least, it hardly seems worth the effort. It’s time to check out comfy seats, window views, easy arrivals - in the centre of town - and serious legroom…

Harz Mountain Range
Germany’s Harz Mountains National Park is almost entirely unspoilt forest. This is not least because of its former life as part-East, part-West Germany during Soviet times, leaving much of it hard to reach for many years.
The mountains enjoy their own, very special train service, but more about that later. For now, luxuriate in the Maritim Berghotel Braunlage, perched halfway up a peak in the quaint town of Braunlage. If it’s warm enough you can enjoy a swim; if the weather’s less kind, cosy-up in the English pub inside the hotel itself.

Land of Fairytale
Harz is the land of fairytale. The pine woods and decorated log cabins are straight out of Hansel and Gretel, and the plush ‘Harzhexen’ puppets on sale in craft shops provide the traditional witch. Rapunzel is easy to conjure in the medieval town of Goslar, where many houses were built without ground floor access or stairs, to prevent sacking in times of strife.

Rammelsberg Mine
The thousand year-old mines of UNESCO World Heritage Site Ore Mine of Rammelsberg, now a museum, reminded one early visitor, Johan von Goethe, of the devil. It was the miner’s practice of underground fire-setting that inspired the famous scene in Faust where Satan takes our hero to the peak of Brocken Mountain to see the witches dance.

Visitors today can see the ancient mines, simple oil lamps and tools used by the early miners and traces of colourful ores seeping through layers of slate. The great wooden waterwheel used to transport that ore to the surface and pump away treacherous water still sits deep below ground.

Just as fascinating are the displays concentrating on modern mining - the mine only closed in 1988 - showing how miners prepared for work. Don’t miss a row of taps - they may look like they’re for hand-washing, but they’re actually to dispense tea! The human side of mining - racks of clothes, a health centre and changing rooms - is given equal status with the engineering - including a newly restored funicular railway climbing the Rammelsberg and trucks that once transported the workers deep into the mountain.

Imperial City of Goslar
The Imperial City of Goslar, also a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the result of all that hard mining and best seen via a guided tour. The ‘nice’ side of the mountain, this medieval jewel escaped bombing in World War II and remains unspoilt. Founded by the famous king Heinrich II, its 47 church spires and 1500 half-timbered, slate-roofed houses look like something from an Advent calendar, but prepare for some surprises behind the doors.

Marktplatz Fotograf Stefan Schiefer Quelle GOSL

The gigantic Imperial Palace, a great hall its easy to imagine Wagnerian heroes feasting inside, is 1000 years old, though sadly its neighbour, a great cathedral collapsed in leaner times. In the market place a 900 year-old fountain still spouts water from some truly demonic heads, while a glockenspiel chimes the time of day. But just a minute…Take a closer look at those elaborate carvings on the houses above your head. Could that be? Surely not… A saucy milkmaid churns butter with one hand, scratching her bare bottom with the other. A hideous demon does unspecified but clearly repulsive things to a human victim while another chap literally defecates money. Earthy, funny - and not for the easily embarrassed. More sedate, you’ll also find meandering rivers, more water wheels and, for those with a slightly more recent taste in heritage, a still-trading Woolworths.

The great cathedral city of Quedlinburg is world famous for its stunning medieval architecture. If Goslar boasts 1500 half-timbered houses, the latest count in Quedlinburg is a staggering 2069, all gradually being spruced up after many years of decline. It, too, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Another pristine survival from World War II, throughout the Soviet era the town was part of the DDR. The medieval street plan wasn’t demolished for Soviet-style apartments because there wasn’t the money to do it. There also wasn’t the cash for any upkeep. Now the race is on to make Quedlinburg the stunning city it was in the 19th Century, when the ancient houses were joined by palatial villas owned by ‘Seed Barons’, wealthy on the back of a thriving horticultural business that survives today.

Brockenbahn Steam Railway
There is no description that can prepare you for the extraordinary ride on the Brockenbahn [] narrow-gauge railway to the top of Brocken Mountain, the highest of the Harz peaks. It’s only been re-opened to the public recently – until the fall of the Berlin Wall, the railway was open only to the Soviet army.

Harz Narrow Gauge Railway in Winter (c) M. Bein

At the picturesque town of Wernigerode, [], the distant turrets of Wernigerode Castle emerge from the morning mists. Engineers are already at work preparing the locos, bringing them up to steam, polishing them, filling them with water, coal – and for the carriages, heat.
Regular commuters and families on their way to school hop on and off as you travel through the lower towns, before the train begins chugging higher into the forest-clad mountains.

Stand on the outside platform to experience the full majesty of this ride. The mountain air, rushing past your face. The smell of the engines, even the taste of an occasional smut. The sound of the whistle as the train turns another bend. If you’re quick you’ll get a great photo.

In winter, as the train climbs, you’ll begin to see patches of snow and open areas with massive vistas across the valleys before, eventually, it’s all snow. In the spring you’ll catch the beginnings of alpine flowers and shoots from the deciduous trees. In summer those flowers are in full bloom, while in autumn reds, yellows and browns dapple with the deep green pine of the rest of the forest.

At the very top of the magical Brocken Mountain enjoy a coffee from the station hut, then take a short walk to the stones marking the tippy top. If the sun’s shining you’ll not see a finer view in all of Germany.

Getting There

Rail Discoveries  (01904 527180) offers a 7-day escorted group holiday The Harz Mountains from £795pp. Price includes all rail and coach travel, hotel accommodation with Maritim Hotels, excursions to UNESCO sites Goslar and Quedlinburg, a steam-hauled journey on the heritage Brocken Railway and a journey on the Selketal narrowgauge railway. Itinerary includes free time in Braunlage.

Regional departures and a door-to-door luggage service can also be arranged.

If you would prefer to explore the region on an independent basis, try GRJ Independent.



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