We have our first sight of the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen when the black-bodied, red-wheeled locomotive puffs across the road ahead of us on the edge of town, pulling cream and maroon carriages with open platforms at each end. The Thomas-Tank-Engine toot is accompanied by a nostalgic whiff of burning coal and oiled pistons. These will become a familiar feature on the holiday.
We have time to freshen up before the pre-dinner briefing when Ian outlines the highlights of the week to come and gives us a selection of leaflets about the area. The hotel manager also makes a welcome speech; in German, because this side of the mountains was in Eastern Europe during the cold war and English is not widespread, especially among the older people.
Day one (Monday)
After a hearty German breakfast at the hotel we set off on a walk into the old town, alongside the narrow-gauge railway track. Wernigerode is a delightful place for anyone with an eye for colourful half timbered houses, and the decorative touches which make each one different from the other. The Rathaus in the main square has fishscale slate tiles covering the steep undulating roofs, dormer windows and turrets of various shapes. It houses a savings bank with the tourist office where we can buy maps for the week.
There is an opportunity to explore the old town and have coffee in a Konditorei (Café Wien is a good place to observe the local characters while enjoying a slice of cake), before we catch the bus, using our free visitor passes, to the start of the afternoon walk from Drei Annen Hohne back to the hotel. There we visit the national park office and find out about the pine beetle which kills the spruce trees, also exacerbated by environmental pollution and monoculture. It turns out that Ian was a forestry researcher and we will learn a lot about trees over the next few days.
Day two (Tuesday)
The morning is clear so we head off on the railway for the Brockenberg which is the highest point in the Harz mountains at 1,141 metres. As the railway track winds up through the deciduous woods and pine forests we can see along the whole length of the train on the curves. On the way, it passes through the only tunnel on the narrow gauge network and circumnavigates the top of the mountain, before coming to a stop at the terminus with a long hiss of steam.
In the days of the DDR the mountain top was a military base and used for surveillance purposes. Some relics from the past still remain together with modern communication masts and dishes.
Patches of snow are lying in sheltered areas and the wind is quite cold so we do not stay long before heading downwards. The area is associated with tales of witchcraft and it was here on the mountain top that Goethe set the meeting between Faust and Mephistopheles in his famous work. The Harz also inspired the romantic poet Heinrich Heine after whom one of the paths is named, with extracts from his works displayed on signboards along the way. Several members of the group start to collect the ink stamps which can be found at special points on the route.
Day three (Wednesday)
As the weather is not so good, Ian decides to give us a free day to explore on our own. Some visit the Schloss on the hill above the old town in Wernigerode. Others take the train for a trip on the Harzquerbahn across the range or along a side valley to Quedlinberg. Like Goslar it is another important medieval town with half timbered houses and one of the early UNESCO world heritage sites. Both can be easily reached by the mainline railway for a day visit, and Goslar also has an old silver and mineral mine.
Day four (Thursday)
It was a good idea to have the free day yesterday because the weather is improving towards the Whitsun weekend. Today we set off on the steam train for the start of our interesting walk from Schierke back to Wernigerode.
The track takes us down past a number of rocky outcrops, called Kippen, which look as if piles of huge stones have fallen from the sky (or been hurled by malevolent witches according to local folklore). Some have metal ladders affixed and can be scaled for sweeping views over the rolling wooded hills.
Towards the end of the walk we come to an elegant Gasthof perched on the side of a steep river valley overlooking an impressive cascade of roaring waterfalls at Steinerne Renne. Further down the valley is a restored hydroelectric generating station on the site of a factory which changed hands several times over the years, and served as concentration camp for prisoners during the war.
Day five (Friday)
Our walk from Schierke takes us up over the border onto the Wurmberg which is the second highest point and located in the former FDR. The countryside is more open in this part of the national park with information boards about the unusual flora and fauna.
This is a winter skiing area with a café-restaurant at the summit, and in summer the cabin style cable car continues to run from Braunlage on the other side. We walk down into the town with time for shopping, sightseeing and refreshment before catching the bus back to Wernigerode.The journey passes through several small neat towns with plentiful amenities for outdoor tourism. These are filling up with visitors arriving for long weekend, and the sunshine brings everyone out into the street cafés so that the tables are full. A party of motor bikers checks in at the hotel wearing leather gear and riding big Harley Davidsons.
Day six (Saturday)
The railway is busy today and the 9 o’clock train out of town fills with good humoured Germans setting off in holiday mood for a day on the mountains. The ticket inspector makes better sales of the miniature bottles of local herb liqueur than on weekdays.
From Schierke our walk starts off along the Bahnparallelweg ascending gently towards the Brockenberg beside the railway track until we turn off and take a steeper path cutting off the loops to join a wide track just below the top. We then make our way down the main thoroughfare with families, cycling groups and horse drawn carts before branching off onto quieter paths to Drei Annen Hohne, where the bikers are congregating.
Some of the party return to Wernigerode by train, but others join the Bahnparallelweg again and walk down the comfortable gradient to Steinerne Renne; rewarded by periodic views of the steam engines on the railway below.
The coach to the airport does not leave until midday so there is time for a final stroll in the old town where stalls selling pottery and jewellery are set up on the market place in front of the Rathaus. We all agree that is has been a very enjoyable week.
If you like any or all of the following…
– riding on steam trains along single track narrow gauge railways
– walking along well made and way marked tracks through varied woodland
– ascending to low mountain tops with good views over the surrounding countryside
– walking in national parks and learning about nature conservation activities
– visiting sites of interest for industrial archaeology and the cold war
– strolling in historic medieval towns with half timbered houses and traffic free squares
– eating hearty buffet breakfasts and meaty dinners
…then the Harz is an excellent holiday destination.