All or Nothing: The Harz Region

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One of the steam engines approaches the top of the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz region

Monday 8th June
As we travelled from Goslar to Wernigerode we caught our first proper glimpse of the Brocken. The Brocken is the tallest mountain in the Harz region and besides its height is unmistakable due to the antenna placed on top by the soviets in the cold war when the region fell under East Germany so they could use it as a listening point.

We arrived in Wernigerode however the one way system was slightly tough to navigate. Whilst “Tina” held her nerve I lost mine and misunderstanding the instructions caused us to take a 5 minute detour. Eventually we arrived at our self catering accommodation and collected the keys off the owner who showed us around. We then walked to the Lidl across the road where we picked up sandwich supplies and food for a couple of dinners.

As we’d had a big lunch we had a quick bite to eat before I got my first opportunity to explore Wernigerode. For about 4 years my camera and I have been inseparable when on holiday because you never know when you will have an opportunity to snap the elusive “perfect” picture. Not everyone has that mentality, I have at least one good friend that is the total opposite and he tells me to take a photo with my eyes. As it was I made a conscious decision to leave my camera behind and as soon as we entered the market square I felt a sickening feeling of regret.

The “Rathaus” (town hall) was beautifully lit up by the sun which was slowly setting creating pinkish clouds in the horizon. We carried on the walk around the town and caught our first glimpse of the famous Harz Mountain Railway which we planned to use to explore the region over the following 4 days. Whilst I knew I would have ample opportunities to photograph the steam engines making the trip up to the Brocken I still felt mildly irritated at myself for missing the first opportunity.

It seemed a pleasant though quiet town and after passing through the centre we saw the “West Gate” of the old towns fortifications before continuing towards the smallest house (kleinist haus) where just around the corner there was a fantastic view of the castle (Schloss). Having walked around the town it seemed a good opportunity to find a beer house and we eventually settled on one where I had a Hasseroder schwarz-dunkel (stout).

That evening I noticed a framed newspaper cutting on the place we were staying. Whilst Google translate struggled to work it all out it appeared we were staying in a building with plenty of history and which had been a hospital at one point. Unfortunately all this caused my imagination to work in over drive so when my bed side light flickered (probably due to a dodgy wire) I immediately assumed my room was haunted.

Tuesday 9th June
I woke up earlier than planned the following morning perhaps because I was eager to start the day and explore an area my dad and Jenny had told me a lot about from a previous holiday. Dad and I walked to Wernigerode station and I was very impressed when he was able to speak to the person at the ticket office in German. Having brought a pass to last us 3 consecutive days we returned to the house and with Jenny walked back through town.

The Market Square was much more active than the previous night and there were a number of different market stands. We heard a distant whistle and the road barriers come down so we watched another train departing for the Brocken before walking back to the station. It was finally our chance to have a ride behind the steam engine and our plan was to travel from Wernigerode in the Northern Hartz region to Nordhausen in the south. The distance was about 60km however the journey there and back including a few hours to explore would take most of the day.

The train wasn’t as busy as I had expected considering it was the only one of the day where an easy connection to Nordhausen was possible. Whilst we were technically sat together I spent most of the time on the balcony taking in the views and dodging smuts thrown out from the locomotive as it powerered up the hillside towards Drei Annen Hohne. I am used to the little narrow guage trains of North Wales which are painted in different colours, have names like ‘Prince’, ‘Welsh Pony’, ‘Dolgoch’ and ‘The Earl’, look like models due to the way the Welsh mountains tower over them and therefore in my opinion have a certain romantic charm about them.

The German stereotype is to strive for efficiency and it is no surprise the engines follow that trend and regardless of type all the engines are black with perhaps a bit of red on the wheels. Even the oldest don’t have names and are referred to solely by number which also designates how useful it is. Whilst the engine that hauled us was both powerful and practical it didn’t have the same Welsh charm but it did make a fantastic sound and from a technical point of view it was probably a train enthusiasts dream.

The technical information is lost on me despite my love of fire and coal which it appears I’ve had from before I can really remember. My interest really came to the fore when half way up Mount Snowdon I burst in to tears and no matter what my parents did I wouldn’t stop until at the summit I suddenly went silent. I was certainly under 4 but still clearly remember the experience as do they as I believe I was often quite placid. We had been taken to the top by a evil diesel (reference to Thomas the Tank Engine which I was obsessed with as a child) but at the summit I’d seen a steam engine.

Back to the Harz where at Drei Annen Hohne our engine was taken off to take a train up the Brocken. The engine that had been at the back of that train was then transferred to the front of ours. It looked identical and I may not have noticed had it not been pointing a different way. It was also at Drei Annen Hohne that the few people that were on our carriage got off to transfer to the train going to the Brocken.

We carried on up the line and I carried on standing on the balcony until we reached a station called Ilfeld which I later realised was the settlement on the edge of the Harz. We didn’t have time to explore and instead immediately boarded a diesel railcar to Niedersachswerfen Ost. We were the only passengers and may have accidentally upset our driver when we tried to ask (in German) if we were going in the right direction.

Once we arrived in Niedersachswerfen Ost we had just over 30 minutes to walk around though it was pretty small with little to interest tourists and everything including the entrance to the station appeared closed. Having walked up to a church we returned and boarded a modern looking tram to Nordhausen. This was fairly busy however it was apparent most were locals and we were the only tourists exploring this stretch of the line.

With a few hours to spare we found a cafe where I had a refreshing Wernegrunger Pils. Refuelled we walked from the lower Stadt to the “Alt Stadt?” (Old town) at the top of the hill. Tragically in April 1945 20% of the towns population were injured or killed in an air raid attack and most of the old town was destroyed as a result. There were a few nice buildings including the Rathaus (town house). Ironically the oldest building was a church from 900AD which I’d initially I’d dismissed it as a point of interest because it looked fairly modern.

We returned back to the tram station and saw a steam engine arrive at Nordhausen Nord the official end of the Harz as our tram back to Niedersachswerfen Ost arrived. We thought we’d have to change again at Ilfeld but instead the driver (the same one from earlier) confirmed the railcar would took us all the way back to Wernigerode. We had pretty much the entire carriage to ourselves and whilst we mostly sat behind the driver it was a long journey so I did occasionally walk to the back as it had an observation window which provided great views.

It had been a long day and we finally arrived back in Wernigerode at 8.30 having completed the Trans-Harz Route in full. Once we were back home Jenny kindly cooked us all some pasta and mince which was lecker (delicious).

Wednesday 10th June
I woke up early again and so spent 20 minutes using Duolingo (an app recommended to me by Victoria) to help me learn German. After we had all had breakfast and were showered we walked to Wernigerode station so we could catch the steam train to the Brocken.

I hadn’t initially planned to stand on the balcony until Drei Annen Hohne where the route splits with one branch to Nordhausen and the other to the Brocken. Despite it being colder than the day before I couldn’t resist the temptation and by the time we arrived at Schierke it was was so busy I was given the ultimatum of stand or sit. I opted to stand which meant I got some fantastic views once we finally burst out of the forest on the final climb to the summit.

I was surprised at the speed we continued to go as we hugged the mountain side, looping round the outside on a steadily steep gradient. Slowly the antenna came in to view and then grew taller and taller until finally we were at the highest point of the Harz. It was as cold as I’d expected from summer trips up Snowdon and we had a bit of a walk around the top. Whilst it was cold the sky was initially clear so we had some good views and even when it became cloudy above the summit itself remained clear.

The original plan had been to walk from the summit to Schierke but the path was a lot longer than we had anticipated. We had been led to believe that one of the oldest engines on the line would be hauling a special consisting of the lines oldest carriages so we decided to wait for that before travelling back down. The engine wasn’t one of the mallets that the line is famous for which was slightly disappointing because they are quite unique and rare but it was still a good sight with the Harz region in the distance.

We caught the train back down to Wernigerode and as it wasn’t very busy I was able to move between a seat and the balcony when the views appeared interesting. It was warmer down the bottom so we decided to visit a miniature model village we’d seen a sign for. The walk was a bit further than I calculated but we eventually arrived.

I had recently been to Bekonscot model village with my cousins and nephew and even as an oversized child I still found it fascinating. Despite this and the description I approached this model village with low expectations hoping to be pleasantly surprised and I was. There was amazing detail on the buildings, quite a few of which we’d seen over the previous days. The highlight for me was the railway section where a miniature train travelled to the top of the Brocken, the engine uncoupled, ran round and took the train back down. Equally impressive was a model of Wernigerode Castle and a church we hadn’t visited that towered over me. By now the sun had come out and it was a very pleasant way to spend an hour.

We returned back to our accommodation where we had dinner before heading back out for a drink at the Kartoffelhaus which had looked interesting when we’d walked past on the first night. This time I did take my camera so I got a picture of the Rathaus and market square. The interior of the restaurant was quite unique and whilst it didn’t look original it would have been nice to understand the plaque which gave a history of the building. I was still attempting to have a different beer at each bar so this time I had the Hasseroder premium pills before we returned home.

Thursday 11th June
As with the other mornings I’d woken up earlier than expected which to me didn’t make sense because we were an hour ahead of UK time so I was actually waking up even earlier than usual. It would be nice to think I could keep the new sleeping pattern up when I’m home but I know from experience that I’ll quickly slip back in to my normal routine.

After two whole days of not requiring a car it was strange to set up the SatNav again and to resume my duties. There were however no issues in getting to Quedlinburg and “Tina” had no issues in getting us to the car park requested. The problem was the car park we’d set it to was only for an hour. Luckily whilst the second carpark we tried wasn’t overly convenient in terms of location there was a cafe and dad was able to ask (in German) for advice. Not only were we directed to a car park by the train station but the kind man gave us a map of the town.

The old town of Quedlinburg is also UNESCO listed and almost as soon as we started the walk up a steep path to the castle/church with a dramatic fortified wall to the right I admit I was almost instantly snapping away on the camera. We walked up to the old castle, now the site of a church but didn’t go in to the museum. Instead we went back down the hill in to the Market square which had another delightful Rathaus and sat to have a drink outside as it was already a hot day.

We had almost 3 hours in Quedlinburg before our train to Hasselfelde which had felt a good amount of time without feeling rushed even though at one point I realised dad was rushing us a bit because he thought our train left an hour earlier than it did. Instead we ate our sandwiches in a park before returning to the station. We had expected the section from Quedlinburg to Gernrode to be a diesel but because it was a Thursday it was steam.

At Gernrode we changed trains and were hauled by a locomotive known as the prototype because it is the one of its type as the war stopped construction of any more. This train took us all the way to Hasselfelde and as we were in the back carriage I spent the time on the back balcony. This gave great unobstructed views of where we had come from and when we went round corners good views of the loco working hard.

We passed other trains at Alexisbad the main base of operations on this route before arriving at Strassberg where a big party of school children got on. They got off a couple of stops later so I assume they were local to the area. Eventually we arrived at Stiege where we stopped a brief time before continuing to Hasselfelde. There wasn’t time to explore so instead we just stayed on the platform where we noticed a Welsh flag. I had heard about an agreement between the Ffestiniog Railway I used to volunteer on and the Harz railway so I assume it was to do with that.

At Hasselfelde the train moved to front and took us to Elsfelder Talmuhle. Initially we thought we were going to be stranded at Stiege for 50 minutes before it was confirmed we could stay on the train we were on as it would eventually return to Quedlinburg. Now we were at the front of the train so I only stood on the balcony for a few minutes because it was noisy, dirty and the view was blocked by the loco. It was still a rather unique experience though.

At Elsfelder Talmuhle we waited for a train heading towards Wernigerode and a diesel railcar heading towards Nordhausen before the train again changed ends to take us back to Stiege. Reaching Elsfelder Talmuhle meant we had only missed out on 3km of the whole Harz section which was quite an achievement from 3 days travelling. At Stiege the engine was again moved to our end and we eventually arrived back in Quedlinburg at 7.30.

After the road we wanted to take was closed and we missed the diversion sign and this delayed us back to Wernigerode by almost 10 minutes. It wasn’t until after 8.45 that we made our way to a pub / restaurant dad had spotted the previous day. Fortunately whilst Wernigerode had been quite a sleepy town the Hotel Altora was still serving food so I had a Harz style goulash with a Radeberger pilsner.

The drinks arrived in a way I never expected and instantly made the child inside me come out and decide there and then that if I ever have the money I will do something similar. As we sat talking we suddenly heard what sounded like a model train and as we looked over to the bar we saw one trundling down the tracks next to our table which we’d missed (or at least I had). But it was what the little train was carrying that impressed us because standing in the wagons were 2 beers and an orange juice. The bar staff were smiling. They’d obviously seen our type of reaction before. The food was delicious and I ordered a second drink so I could get a video of the train. Obviously Germans have a reputation for being efficient but this took it to a new level.

Friday 12th June
I woke up feeling slightly sad that my last full day in Germany had already arrived. We’d packed a lot in and no doubt Jenny and dad had slightly regretted bringing me along because I know I like to cram in as much as possible in to the time available. During the morning we planned to explore Wernigerode castle before joining a tour of the locomotive workshops for the Harz Railway.

On our way to the Schloss we stopped off at the tourist information centre in the Market Square so we had a map of where we needed to go. It was already feeling the hottest it had been certainly since Wuppertal not that it had ever been that cold (besides the top of the Brocken). The climb up the steep hill was also our first proper workout because despite a fair amount of walking much of it had been on fairly level ground through towns. My calf muscles were set to give way by the time we reached the top and I had to accept my fitness levels have plummeted since my 8km gorilla run in September.

We could have brought an audio guide for the castle but instead got a detailed guide book which gave the necessary information for the two tours. The castle had once been owned by Otto Von Bismarck, responsible for German unification in 1871 and whose name was ultimately used for the famous flag ship of the German navy in the second world war. The castle was also visited by various German Kaisers including the last Kaiser Wilhelm II who was forced to abdicate after defeat in the first world war.

The castle and Wernigerode were located in East Germany so after the war the castle was included as part of the soviets land seizures (war repatriation). Whilst it had already been opened as a museum before the war it had obviously closed and didn’t reopen until 1949. In recent years a number of the rooms had been restored to original condition as it was when owned by Count Otto when married to (his direct cousin) Princess Anna. The tours of the rooms were shorter than I expected but informative and well presented.

Leaving the castle we returned back to the town to enjoy a drink in the market square before making a quick visit to the tourist information so we could plan something for the afternoon. Fortunately the girl behind the desk was very helpful and advised us to go on a 3km walk to the Kaiserturm. First though we walked to Wernigerode Westentor (West Gate) so we could join a rare behind the scenes tour of the railway.

As we had expected all of the tour was in German however we weren’t the only people from the UK and a gentleman from North West Germany kindly translated some bits and explained soviet occupation meant Russian not English was still the second language in the region. A lot of the information was probably quite technical and I was almost relieved I could switch my brain off and wonder around just taking the pictures I wanted without pretending to listen. Inside we saw one of the mallets and another engine where he spent a good 15 minutes pointing to different parts. When we emerged outside he spent quite a bit of time talking and I made an effort to try to capture some phrase but gave up and went back in to photography mode. I was however glad to have had the chance to go inside and my dad gave me a brief synopsis afterwards as he’d spent most of the tour listening with our west German friend.

Leaving the railway for the final time we started the walk to the Kaiserturm. A group of children were ahead and appeared to be on the way to the most organised picnic ever as 3 of them pulled a cart of food up the hill and others carried blankets. I was deeply impressed and wondered how German efficiency would surprise me next. After over 2km walking up the hill my legs for a second time in a day were ready to fall off so we had a mini break before continuing our journey where we reached Waldgasthaus Armeleuteberg. Here I had a quick beer refuel opting for the Wolters pilsner before we walked the final 400 metres.

It turned out we could climb to the top of the Kaiserturm for free so we did and were rewarded with arguably better views  than at the castle. I went down first to get pictures of dad and Jenny at the top before we made our way back to the town. Jenny cooked some dinner whilst I lay on the sofa nursing my knees and attempting a bit of packing. After dinner dad and I returned to the Hotel Altora so we could enjoy one final beer and see the model train again. With that drink my holiday was over except for my 12 hour journey home (with 5 changes just to reach London) which so long as it went as planned I was excited about.

The Schloss (Castle) overlooking Wernigerode

The Schloss (Castle) overlooking Wernigerode

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Posted by Travels and Rambles

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