The Harz Mountains in Germany is a beautiful area to visit but what makes it even more appealing as a rail holiday destination is its narrow gauge railway which travels through stunning landscapes. Harz expert Dan May never tires of steaming through the Harz Mountains and in this blog he shares his experience of leading a tour to the region.
The Harz Mountains of Germany are shrouded in mystique and legend, the peak of the range and the highest mountain in Northern Germany is the Brocken. Legend has it that Witches and Devils preside over the mountain, especially on Walpurgis night (30th April), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote of the legends and witches in his tragic play Faust.
I have been to the mountains, and more specifically the network of railways which criss-cross the region several times over the past few years, sometimes on company business leading tours and also for private holidays. The most recent of these was in October 2012 when I lead a tour to the HSB Autumn Steam Gala. The Harzer Schmalspurbahnen (Harz Narrow Gauge Railways) is a network of three fascinating metre gauge lines connected together to form a mecca for steam lovers.
Although it is possible to make the journey from London to Wernigerode by train in a day, (and even from Bangor in North Wales, my home station, for the hardy traveller) it is not recommended. A much easier, stress-free start to your Harz holiday would be to break the journey en route and enjoy a stay in Cologne or Aachen.
I travelled down to London the day before the tour officially departed, allowing me a leisurely morning to get to St Pancras in plenty of time for the 12.58 Eurostar. Check in closes half an hour before departure time but it is worth wandering around St Pancras to see the contrast between its Grade 1 listed building and the regenerated parts of the station. Eurostar is now the gateway to Europe and there is a comfortable waiting room with a couple of coffee shops and a newsagent the other side of security to relax in before departure. There is no rush to get up to the platform as everyone has reserved seats and Eurostar helpfully place signs along the platform telling you which coach is which on this long 18-coach train.
For someone like me who enjoys train travel the tour began when we left St Pancras and travelled across London, under the Thames, passed through Ebbsfleet International into the Kent countryside reaching speeds of 186 MPH before slowing to 100 MPH as we approached the tunnel. When we emerged from the tunnel and wound our watches forward an hour the speed of the train increased as if to catch up the time. Having passed through the French and Belgian countryside it was remarkable that our Eurostar arrived in Brussels station just over 2 hours after departing London.
Changing trains in Brussels is relatively straightforward; we took the “Shortcut” for quick connections (down the escalators situated between coaches 11 and 16). Finding the platform for the connection on the Thalys train was simple as the Maroon logo is easy to spot - as were our seats. The journey time along the new Belgian High Speed line is just over an hour to Aachen. On arrival we had a short transfer to the Ibis Aachen Marschiertor and after checking in, we still had time to enjoy this lovely spa-town with its medieval buildings and impressive cathedral where the former German Kings were crowned.
The next morning our journey continued by regional train to Cologne; there were no seat reservations but this wasn’t a problem as it was only a short journey. In Cologne we changed trains to a glistening white ICE, the German State Railways (DB) flagship train. Each platform has a diagram of the train showing where on the platform you should stand so that you are in the right place for the carriage the seat reservations are in. With a maximum speed of 200 MPH we were whisked across Germany to Hannover in around 2 hours 20 minutes. From Hannover we took the bi-hourly regional train to wonderful Wernigerode. This train snakes its way south and as we approach Wernigerode the forest covered mountains of the Harz become visible.
Our hotel was located in the centre of town, easy walking distance from the station, but with luggage and after a day of travelling a transfer was welcomed. The Weisser Hirsch (White Hart) hotel is pleasantly situated on the Market Square, this cobbled square is traffic free and the town hall or Rathaus is opposite with a picturesque fountain in the centre. There are plenty of places to eat in Wernigerode - the Kartoffelhaus which as the name suggests offers a wide selection of potato based cuisine (although they also offer standard dishes from across the region). Across the market square from the hotel is the Ratskeller, a restaurant in the cellar of the town hall, and just round the corner is the BrauHaus, a micro-brewery with a fine selection of food. Plenty of dining choices in addition to the excellent restaurant in the hotel!
After a very comfortable night’s sleep in the hotel’s spacious bedrooms and a hearty feast from the ample buffet breakfast it was time to enjoy some steam at HSB’s main terminus in Wernigerode (adjacent to the mainline station). Here we joined the special train operated by the supporting society to the HSB (Die Interessengemeinschaft Harzer Schmalspurbahnen) The historic green carriages are easily identifiable from the standard red and cream trains of the HSB standard services. At the end of our special train there was a wagon which operated as a make-shift buffet car –its side door sliding open at every station we stopped at to sell a wide variety of refreshments from coffee to beer, cake to sandwiches - all very tasty!
We journeyed by steam from Wernigerode up the lush valley side to Drei Annen Hohne where we paused to allow and observe the red and cream service train pass in both directions – giving some of us time to enjoy the “buffet wagon” delights while others were tempted by the traditional hot Bratwurst served from the platform kiosk.
Our special train then made the ascent up the Brockenbahn to Schierke, the last town before the climb up the Brocken, the Harz Mountains’ highest peak. The final climb spirals up and around the mountain affording some spectacular views on a clear day. We were expecting snow, being October, as on previous visits the depth of snow was measured in feet! However on this occasion it was so warm I was strolling around in a T-Shirt, and more memorably the view was breathtaking. We were very lucky as there are only around 50 days a year when you get a clear view from the top of this 1,141 metre high mountain. As well as the view there is a mountain-top museum giving the history of the Brocken and its role as a listening post in the cold war. Our return journey meant we could sit back again to enjoy the fantastic rail network that winds through gorges and forests and alongside rivers and lakes.
The next day our green train departed Wernigerode as before but dropped us off only a few miles up the line before reversing back around the corner and then with an almighty chuff, stormed past us to give us an amazing opportunity to take photos and videos of this remarkable steam engine and train. Our pack of photographers were then treated to a passing goods train with all different types of wagons including transport wagons specially designed to carry standard gauge hoppers on the narrow gauge network. This “cat and mouse” journey continued all the way to Eisfelder Talmühle where the HSB had arranged for the service trains to stage a double arrival into the station for us – more great pics were taken. Also passing us from the Nordhausen direction was one of the HSB’s fascinating railcars – as a steam enthusiast we felt thoroughly spoilt! Our special green train, shadowed by the accompanying freight train headed onto the Selketalbahn to Stiege with its interesting balloon loop that turn trains. The Selketalbahn feels very different to the rest of the network, there are some very steep sections and the route is mainly surrounded by trees following the route of the river Selke. We pass the site of a WW2 ammunitions factory and at Strassberg we had a very picturesque run past as this section of the railway is sandwiched between the road and the river. There were many more run pasts as we made our way to the attractive UNESCO World Heritage town of Quedlinburg. Our return to Wernigerode was by bus and fellow travellers all agreed that the day had been impressive, fun and unforgettable.
On the third day we again departed Wernigerode on our heritage green train, travelling via Drei Annen Hohne and Eisfelder Talmühle before heading towards Nordhausen where the society had arranged a historic tram tour of this urban, university city. This tram boasted an onboard bar, used for private functions, unfortunately it remained closed during our tour! The tram network was impressive, particularly the section where you head straight for the front door of a shopping centre before making a sharp 90 degree turn just before you think you’re going to crash through the doors! There was just enough time to catch a quick bite to eat before it was time to board our steam train again back to Wernigerode.
The fourth day in Wernigerode was a free day, which we spent exploring its ‘olde worlde’ charms, with its gothic buildings and castle overlooking the town. The castle is fascinating and there is a “road train” which runs every 20 minutes from the Market Square to the castle, saving the walk up the hill! The original castle dates back to the 12th Century and today houses a museum with often changing exhibits.
It was sad to leave behind the Harz picturesque towns, stunning scenic countryside, fairytale history and (as a steam enthusiast) its wonderful narrow gauge railway network, but everyone left armed with plenty of memories of this photogenic destination captured on their cameras. AND the holiday wasn’t over yet! We took a morning train from Wernigerode to Hannover on a regional service with just a couple of coaches and no reservations, before a leisurely change at Hannover to the high speed intercity white ICE service for Wuppertal. During the 2-hour journey some took the time to visit DB’s travelling restaurant where the food in the BordRestaurant is served on china plates and linen covered tables and is delicious - I can recommend the Chilli con Carne!
We arrived in Wuppertal on Platform 1 – an ideal alighting point as it was a short walk directly off the platform and across the road to the hotel - the InterCity. On check-in the hotel issues a travel pass valid for the local area, which is quite huge! The pass also allows free travel on the famous Wuppertal Suspension Railway (Schwebebahn) so it was ideal to make a round trip on the Schwebebahn during our one-day visit to the city.
Our final day of the tour was a relaxing rail journey home via a regional service to Cologne and the international ICE to Brussels before an easy transfer to the Eurostar Terminal at Bruxelles Midi for the final leg of the journey to St Pancras.
The Harz Mountains are one of my favourite places to visit in the world because it is a destination that has all the ingredients for the makings of a fabulous holiday – a wonderful landscape, interesting towns, culture and history. The icing on the cake for me is the hospitality offered by the HSB and the amazing railway network and their annual Autumn and Winter Steam Galas are a perfect reason to keep going back.
Why not join the next Harz Autumn Gala and experience this part of Germany first hand.