Ray Kershaw, The Daily Telegraph, August 06, 2013
How many jolly Germans will fit upon a mountain top? Half the nation, it appeared. The beer and bratwurst stalls were heaving. Children guzzled candyfloss; grannies sucked ice creams. They came on foot and on bikes, on jingling horse-drawn buses, but mostly they arrived on the whistling and wheezing narrow-gauge steam railway that every 20 minutes hauled up another eight packed carriages. It felt like a giant party high in the blue sky.
We’re on the summit of the Brocken, and the Brocken for most Germans is no ordinary peak. Steeped in European folklore, the Harz Mountains’ fabled crown has starred in some of Germany’s greatest literature and art. Here the Brocken Spectre prowls - the watcher’s own shadow projected on the clouds by a trick of mountain light. On May Day Eve, Walpurgis Night, all the world’s witches meet for the orgy that damned Goethe’s Faust.
Every crag hides a giant, goblin or gnome. Yet no Brocken legend is half as bizarre as the curse laid on the mountain by the ogres from the east.
Kept conspicuously visible is the swathe of cleared forest that for 500 lethal miles switch-backed from the Baltic to Czechoslovakia. Like a nightmare rollercoaster barbed with twin electric fences, automatic guns and mines, from 1961 it formed the literal Iron Curtain that divided not just Germany but also the planet for nearly 30 years. The Brocken summit was the hub of the Cold War’s frontline. Its fortress bristled with antennae for eyeballing the West. No right-minded witch would ever have flown near.
The enduring image of reunification is the crumbling Berlin Wall but for millions of Germans the freedom to climb their iconic mountain was the fulfilment of an impossible dream. The day the fences fell, 100,000 people trekked to the top. Some summer Sundays 50,000 still ascend. We watched many pose for snapshots by a boulder inscribed: DER BROCKEN WIEDER FREI (free again) 1989.
The Harz National Park is now a vast playground. The old traffic-free border zone evolved into a rich wildlife reserve. Lynx have ousted witches as the national park’s emblem but those Faustian weird sisters still know how to strut their stuff. Walpurgis Night resembles Halloween, Guy Fawkes’ and Hogmanay combined. Mephistopheles reigns. Stark-naked covens cavort around fires. Fireworks erupt. Faust - The Rock Opera plays on the Brocken’s summit. You can buy pointed hats and brooms. Yet not all the magic’s black. Below the witches’ peak cluster some of Europe’s most bewitching cities.
Countless German towns love to bill themselves as “märchenhaft” but wandering wide-eyed around Goslar (pictured below) we find “fairytale” an adjective difficult to fault. Miraculously preserved since the days when it was the treasure chest of the Holy Roman Empire, the medieval city gleams as if brand new.
In 968 silver was discovered in the Rammelsberg mine. Emperor Heinrich II constructed a mammoth palace nearby . In its cavernous Grand Hall, for centuries the world’s biggest indoor space, is Heinrich’s bronze throne, forged in 1066. Beneath his life-sized effigy a golden casket holds his heart “because wherever I go my heart stays in Goslar”.
The town’s half-timbered lanes drip with geraniums. The sparkling Gose stream, hemmed with beer gardens and watermills, tumbles through its heart. In the lovely market square crowds pack the cafés near the town hall where risqué Gothic carvings peep from the eaves: chubby milkmaids scratching their bare bums, naked dwarves excreting coins. By the thousand-year-old fountain the balmy evening air takes on a highland chill.
Eastwards the road zigzags up 3,000ft into Germany’s sylvan heights. As the ancient industry was silver , the Harz is riddled with old mines, spawning Cold War rumours of subterranean routes between the two worlds. The right-hand edge of my battered Harz map – souvenir of an earlier trip – abruptly collides with a heavy red line. Beyond seems terra incognita. The map’s graphics matched exactly the gash on the ground. Eastwards you could travel 8,000 miles and still be in the Soviet empire.
We are on the German Unity Road but across the old border it still feels like another country. We pass ancient towns with castles; atmospheric hamlets in cave- dotted limestone gorges. Driving into Quedlinburg (pictured below) it is love at first sight. With 1,300 pre- 16th-century buildings, a bit down-at-heel but totally lived-in, it’s like a ragged Cinderella awaiting its Prince Charming to say how wonderful it is.
Beneath the crag-perched castle we wander all day gawking at tempting restoration-ripe houses; at night we get lost in the dimly lit lanes. In the town hall’s historic Ratskeller we devour roast venison with Quedlinburg dark beer - perhaps one too many - but then our lopsided inn, Zur Goldenen Sonne, whose rooms have tilted for six centuries, would make even judges doubt their sobriety.
The city is a terminus of the Harz narrow-gauge steam railway. Belying its toytown charm, it is a proper working railway. Numerous small stations make the jolly trains a perfect way to see the eastern Harz. The 100-mile network winds through forests and gorges, alongside rivers and lakes, to culminate above the clouds (or frequently in them) at 3,551ft on the Brocken summit.
Before reaching the Brocken the line passes the two villages that were nearest the fence: the inauspiciously named Sorge and Elend - Misery and Worry. Sorge’s new museum preserves a mile of the feared death zone, complete with wire and watch towers. The sign that welcomes us to Misery now seems more quaint than ominous.
Did you know?
Thanks to its POW hospitals, Goslar was spared the bombs that destroyed many other medieval German cities in the second world war.
After Schierke village, a pretty Alpine-like resort, our engine corkscrews up the Brocken’s 2,000ft escarpment. On the enormous summit plateau sunbathers are picnicking away from the throng that surrounds the shunting trains. An imposing museum has replaced the grim fort but our aim is to find the Devil’s Pulpit Crag, the scenic setting of Faust’s orgy.
Three decades before, my young son on my shoulder, I’d seen it from the Würmberg, the Brocken’s shorter twin. Just across the great divide, a safe 100 yards into Nato’s hemisphere, its summit was the closest you could get to the fence. Signs spelled out the consequence of taking one more step. West Germans peered pensively at their emblematic mountain which their own history had rendered inaccessible.
The Würmberg then boasted one of the planet’s strangest sights: the ski jump to nowhere - ultimate symbol of a world cut in two. Overhanging the fence, any desperate defector from capitalist servitude could have soared like an eagle to socialist equality. It seems nobody tried. Today a World Ski Jump venue, both its take-off and landing are in the same state.
Descending on Goethe’s path we lingered awhile by a vestige of the fence between the Brocken and the Würmberg. In the pine-scented stillness the only sound is birdsong. All quiet on the Western Front. Not a wicked witch or border guard breaks the magic mountain’s spell.
Why don't we like Germany?
Earlier this year Bee Rowlatt, who will appear in Make Me A German on BBC2 tonight, asked why so few of us visit Germany. Her article prompted a staggering response from readers. Read it here.
BA (0844 493 0787; britishairways.com ) flies Heathrow to Hannover, Flybe (0871 700 2000 - calls cost 10p per minute; flybe.com ) flies from Manchester, Birmingham and Southampton to Hannover; KLM (0871 231 0000 - calls cost 10p per minute; klm.com ) has reasonably priced connections from many British airports.
Trains from Hannover airport to Goslar take 90 minutes ( www.bahn.com ) €40/£34 return.
The Harz is a good region for exploring by car: P&O Ferries (0871 664 2121- calls cost 10p per minute; poferries.com ) has daily overnight sailings Hull/Rotterdam. DFDS Seaways (0871 522 9955 - calls cost 10p per minute; dfdsseaways.co.uk ) has daily overnight sailings Newcastle/Amsterdam. Stena Line (0844 770 7070; stenaline.co.uk ) has twice-daily sailings Harwich/Hook of Holland.
The Harz Narrow-Gauge Railway (0049 (0) 3943 5580; www.hsb-wr.de ) covers all the highlights of the eastern Harz - principle termini in Quedlinburg and Wernigerode. Day tickets covering the whole network, including the Brocken summit, cost €42/£36 - children half price; family tickets for two adults and three children cost €81/£69. Three- or five-day network passes cost €64/£55 and €99/£85 - children half price. Good bus services from Goslar get you around the western Harz.
The Harz region is a walkers’ paradise; well-marked forest trails lead from everywhere to everywhere. Longer-distance walks are The Witches Way, 60 miles east to west, and The Old Border Way, which follows the old fence for 50 miles.
Russell Hafter Holidays (01946 861652; walking-in-germany.co.uk ) has several Harz walking tours with baggage transfers from £660, including rail from London. Goslar Tourist Office (5321 78060; goslar.de ) arranges two-night hotel and city sightseeing packages from €109/£93 per person.
When to go
From spring green to autumn gold, the region has attractions all year, including winter sports. Gets crowded during German school holidays, mid-July to mid-August and mid-October.
Where to stay
Altstadt Hotel Restaurant Gosequell £
Goslar. A cosy family-run inn that was the Guild of Chefs headquarters in the 16th century. Also has an excellent organic restaurant, good for game and trout. (5321 34050; www.hotel-gosequell.de ; doubles including breakfast from €92/£79; packages from €119/£102 per person).
Goslar. The 500-year-old medieval guildhall, a much-photographed feature of the lovely market square, is Goslar’s best four-star address with a top-class gourmet restaurant. (5321 7070; brimstone.kaiserworth.de ; doubles including breakfast from €122/£105).
Zur Goldenen Sonne £
Quedlinburg. Oozing modernised medieval charm, the ancient inn is so lopsided we had to rub our eyes. Also has a good restaurant. (3946 96350; hotelzurgoldenensonne.de ; spacious doubles including breakfast, from €79/£68).
Hotel Schloss zum Markgrafen £££
Quedlinburg. A listed palace with breathtaking views over the city and luxury accommodation (3946 81140; schlosshotel-zum-markgrafen.de : doubles including breakfast from €150/£129; three-night all-inclusive package €370/£318 per person).
Brocken Hotel ££
At an altitude of 3,737ft on the very summit. With its own observatory, the stars are so close you’ll be tempted to pocket one. You may also see a witch. (9455 5120; brockenhotel.de ; doubles, including breakfast, from €120/£103).
Where to eat
Bräuhaus Goslar £
Goslar. Cosy and cheerful with robust local dishes; good house-brewed beers and German wines by the glass (Marktkirchof 2; 5321 22155; www.brauhof-plaza.de ).
Goslar. The old watermill’s streamside garden makes an idyllic setting for lunch or a drink. Specialises in game; the local Gose beer on tap (Worthstrasse 4; 5321 43402).
Quedlinburg. Deep in the vaults beneath the town hall that dates from 1350. Traditional German food as good as it gets at bargain-basement prices. Where the locals go. Closed Weds. No credit cards (Markt 1; 3946 2768).
The inside track
The glockenspiel on Goslar’s market square performs at 9am, noon, 3pm and 6pm.
A horse-drawn-carriage tour of ancient Goslar from the market square costs €4.50/£3.80 per person.
The World-Heritage-Site Rammelsberg Mine, to which Goslar owes its existence, offers various short trips from €7/£6 and an exciting four-hour underground safari to a sparkling wonderland of medieval galleries €65/£5 6 - places limited, book ahead (5321 750121; rammelsberg.de ).
See Henry Moore’s Goslar Warrior statue on the Imperial Palace lawn.
Wander into Quedlinburg Town Hall - no one will stop you - to see the breathtaking medieval glass, staircases and panelled halls still used by the council.
A stroll around Quedlinburg night or day is a magical experience; one of those rare places whose harmonious whole transcends its parts. Guided 90-minute evening tours cost €7/£6.
Schierke village, the last train stop before the Brocken, offers two days of Walpurgis Night black magic from April 30, including “witches, warlocks, fireworks, brimstone, erotic frenzy and Mephistopheles himself” to celebrate the birth of spring ( schierke-am-brocken.de;anddie-walpurgis-schierke.de ).
Wernigerode completes the trio of the Harz’s winsome medieval towns. Easily accessible on the Harz railway, it’s steeped in Brocken witchery and myth ( wernigerode.de ).
Tickets sell out months in advance for Faust – The Rock Opera in the Goethe Theatre at 3,737ft on the Brocken summit - weekends April to May and September to December; from €77/£65 including train and meal. Online booking ( www.hsb-wr.de ).
Along the Wall and Watch Towers by Oliver August (Flamingo).
Goslar information (5321 78060; goslar.de ).
Quedlinburg information (3946 905624; quedlinburg.de ).
Sorge Old Border Museum - open Tuesday to Saturday - admission free ( grenzmuseum-sorge.de ).
What to bring home
If flying broomsticks aren’t for you (you’ll need the spell to power them) there’s a witches’ liqueur in witch-shaped bottles, Harzer Hexen, allegedly made from Brocken herbs. Sparkling crystals and minerals from deep beneath the Harz make spectacular table decorations.
Quedlinburg still has 25 per cent adult unemployment and can’t afford to renovate its numerous treasures. Buy a house and help it out. They don’t come much cheaper.
What to avoid
Sunny Sundays on the Brocken unless you like crowds - although they do add to the fun.
Freezing on the Brocken. Pack warm clothes. Swept by all the winds of Germany, temperatures can plummet even on the warmest day.
If you’re driving avoid getting lost in Goslar’s and Quedlinburg’s medieval labyrinths. Find your hotel on foot and ask directions how to drive there.
Turning your ankle on Quedlinburg’s cobbles. High heels could be your downfall in the picturesque lanes.