The Harz Forest. Land of spectral giants and mysterious moots. A folk-tale, Hansel & Gretel world of wicked witches, deep pine forests and Rapunzels letting down their hair. A place where underground, in the mines, men make fires to wrench the earth’s riches from her bowels and overground, those riches are spent by great princes of legend.
Fifteen hundred half-timbered houses. A nine hundred year-old fountain carved with groteques eating (or are they spitting out…?) humans. Water wheels and cobblestones, obscene carvings on merchant’s houses and fine paintings on palaces where kings once toasted each other with drinking horns and tales of the darkness beyond the city’s walls.
Another city, this time with 2069 half-timbered houses. A city of a convent queen, a girl of eleven who created a sanctuary in the mountains that would be snatched by a Nazi maniac, then rescued, only to slumber under Soviet dictat until the Wall came down.
A great iron monster glides through this land, spitting fire and steam, bringing romance and folk lore of its own.
The Harz mountain range resonates with emotion as much as it palpitates with history, nature and beauty. There is something primeval about the majesty of rock that climbs towards the sky. Something treacherous, something hidden. Yet as grey boiler-suited men polish and oil in the morning sunshine at Wernigerode’s 19th century railway station, there’s a comforting cosiness in the heat and the steam as their venerable charges are brought up to steam for the day’s work.
With the spotless efficiency of people who know the mountain, the engineers prime not one, but three engines. Two have been fired merely to provide heat for the carriages. It’s going to get cold up there.
True, there are anorak-clad rail acolytes who have travelled far to see the 25 steam trains of the Harz Narrow Gauge Railways, but there are regulars too. Regulars for whom the Brocken Line is just a good way of getting to school or work, shops or friends.
It wasn’t always so accessible. During the years when the Harz were divided by the Iron Curtain, Brocken’s railway continued to chuff to the summit, but was off limits to all but the Soviet army. Remnants of East German days still cling – old research stations, TV towers and, perhaps more charmingly, in Brocken Splitter, a triangular-shaped croquante chocolate triangle not unlike a tooth-busting version of Toblerone.
For its low-lying, early valley-sections, the train potters through villages at a stately pace. Bumbling streams and bare back gardens with straggles of creeper, covered wood piles and carefully stored parasols, signs that, in the summer at least, this place becomes a heady paradise of plant life and alpine sun.
The train hugs the road, occasionally hooting to warn a pedestrian. Level crossings, station-halts, an ex-soviet factory, stark and unloved. What happened to the workers? Perhaps the Wicked Witch of the West…
Most tourists join the train at Drei Annen Hohne; there will only be one more stop before the serious climb begins. It’s bitterly cold, and yet almost impossible to sit inside in the cosy, steam-heated carriage while there are balconies either end, upon which more than just the witnessing of a train journey is taking place.
Here the smuts fly, the wind whips. The smoke stings, the whistle sears as every next bend arises. It’s climbing now, the Brocken line. Streaks of sunshine filter into glades of pine, burning hazy stripes across the retina. Occasionally the train bursts into an open spot. A valley of mist-clinging firs lies without. Across the yawning fir-filled chasm the dark shadows of the Brocken’s younger siblings still loom, cloaked in early morning silhouette.
The cold numbs the fingers, chills the throat, dessicates the eyes. An elderly lady appears with a basket, a kind of inverse Red Riding Hood. Her wares: tiny glass miniatures of Schierker Feuerstein, a herbal bitters of 35% proof, local speciality of Schierke, the train’s last stop. The firewater’s progress down the gullet can be traced by the heat.
The odd spots of snow that have been dotting the trackside are beginning to join. Sun sparkles on smooth coverlets over outcrops and over water racing down stream. The whistle blasts again. If you’re quick you’ll make it to the other side of the balcony for another shot of that engine.
Christmas card territory has begun in earnest. Pine trees sag under the weight of snow; small birds flutter startled from the whistle’s squeal. In a clearing German soldiers are on manoeuvres. They stop to point and take Instagram shots. Further up a scowling local spits disapproval of whipper-snappers and their easy ride to the summit.
The trees are fewer now. Those that still cling to the mountainside wear wintry overcoats too heavy to allow them to dance in the icy wind. They sit, stolid, waiting for the melt, whenever that may be.
Glimpses of the summit begin to gleam in the sun, punctuating the half-and-half of white snow and blue sky. The red and white rocket of a Soviet TV transmitter; a little wooden station hut. It’s bright, but there is darkness ahead.
Somewhere up there is the little crop of granite boulders where Faust is taken by the Devil on Walpurgisnacht to see the witches dance. Somewhere out there is the silhouetted monster, the Brocken Spectre, a natural phenomenon where the sun projects an exaggerated shadow of the observer onto the top of clouds. This mountain, for all its sunshine and sparkling snow-jewels, hides black secrets.
The train pulls into Brocken Station’s freshly-swept platform. Tourists and locals alike spill out into virgin snow to gaze across a Brothers Grimm world of pine valleys and distant peaks. The stories are ancient, yet somehow not so old after all.
Rail Discoveries 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.
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