Renewing her acquaintance with quaint towns, forested hills, witches, mines and a mysterious mountain Gillian Thomas made a return visit to Germany’s Harz Mountains.
When I first visited Germany’s Harz mountains, the forested range of hills south-east of Hannover were cut in two by the Iron Curtain which separated West Germany and the German Democratic Republic in the east.
It meant I could only get tantalizing views of the Brocken, the Harz’s most mysterious mountain with its legends of witches and devils. 1141 metres high, it is the area’s highest peak, a landmark standing out for miles around.
Amongst the trees you could make out an eerie row of watchtowers standing at regular intervals along the border, guarding the barren strip of no-man’s land which then cut an ugly swathe across the hillsides.
Goslar has colourful half-timbered buildings
Not so long ago I returned to the Harz and based myself at the 4-star Achtermann Hotel in the little town of Goslar on the region’s northern fringe. It proved to a particularly attractive place to stay, boasting hundreds of colourful half-timbered buildings on narrow cobbled streets and squares with the narrow Oker river running through it.
Driving up into the wooded hills, I was pleased to be able to cross the former border unhindered and also to find that its infamous strip of no-man’s land has been turned into a walking trail, part of the Green Belt Germany. It runs for 75 kilometres through the forests and features many rare wild flowers which have grown back in profusion since it was opened.
Sparsely populated, largely forested
For its natural unspoilt landscapes, the whole Harz area has been designated a National Park. Sparsely populated and largely covered in forests, it is home to a huge variety of birds and animals including red deer, wild boar and even lynx which were re-introduced in 2000. Criss-crossed by trails of various lengths, it caters for serious hikers as well as afternoon strollers.
Many routes are also suitable for mountain biking. One of several challenging long-distance paths is the 94-kilometre Hexen-Steig – Witches’ Trail – which passes the Brocken as it runs east-west across the Harz between Osteroder and Thale. To walk up to the actual summit, a nine kilometre route starts from the Park’s visitor centre in Torfhaus where there is also an exhibition on the local wildlife.
The Brocken – a haunt of witches
A less strenuous and highly scenic alternative route up is provided by a historic narrow-gauge railway built in the1890s. Regular services pulled by steam trains run throughout the year from several small towns. At the top a museum features two very different aspects of the Brocken – its forbidding role as a border post during the Cold War and, more entertainingly, as the haunt of witches who, according to legend, frolic there on broomsticks.
They are said to dance around bonfires and worship the devil, especially on Walpurgisnacht, 30 April. Locals join in these jollifications in a big way, parading noisily around the villages on broomsticks with black top hats and long-pointed noses to drive the witches away and welcome spring.
Once a mining community
Situated on ancient trading routes across Europe, Goslar’s prosperity stretches back centuries though its real heyday was about five hundred years ago when there were many small mines in the Harz. The biggest and most famous was the Rammelsberg just outside the town. The profits gleaned from extracting copper, lead and zinc paid for a remarkable collection of fine buildings – medieval, renaissance and baroque – which still survive today.
The mine had been worked continuously for over 1000 years when it closed in 1988. Now its buildings, still with all their equipment, have been turned into a museum with an excellent exhibition about the area’s mining history over 3000 years. You can also go underground into the mine, clanking along a dimly-lit 500-metre line on a small yellow train once used by the miners. Inside, it is damp and noisy as guides demonstrate how the rock was drilled out and loaded onto trucks.
A walking tour is not to be missed
I also recommend a walking tour of the Upper Harz Water Management System in the hills nearby. This may sound a less than exciting outing but is not to be missed as it takes visitors around an ancient network of lakes, dams and narrow canals high in the hills amongst pine forests.
Recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage area, the network which spreads over 200 square kilometres was created as a pioneering community project around 500 years ago when many small copper mines were scattered around the Harz taking their power from water mills. Ponds and streams were dammed to feed the canals which channelled the water to them.
Many of the mines continued to operate, later with electricity, until the 1980s when the copper ran out and commercial mining stopped. Altogether 100 lakes and ponds, 310 kilometres of narrow canals and 20 kilometres of underground wooden piping have survived. Long and short trails are marked around them with explanation boards about their history – soon to be translated into English.
On the eastern side of the Harz, out of reach on my original visit, I enjoyed being able to drive east from Goslar over the former border to explore Quedlinburg, one of Germany’s best preserved small medieval towns.
Having escaped World War II bombing and largely ignored for over 50 years during its time behind the Iron Curtain, it boasts even more half-timbered buildings than Goslar.
Its magnificent 1000-year old hilltop cathedral, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, has a glittering treasury with the golden boxes, jewellery and hand-painted manuscripts that were presented to Otto I, Germany’s first king, in the 10th century.
But the town still has lingering reminders of its communist past. Many of the shops seemed to me to have an old-fashioned feel and I experienced some bureaucratic form-filling when checking into the Schlossmuhle Hotel. But it is definitely one of the most interesting places to have emerged from the East German past.
Harz Tourist Office in Goslar: www.harzinfo.de