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Floating rail, steam and scenery in the Harz (2023)


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I've had it mind for some time to explore a bit more in Germany the old-fashioned way - by train. While dithering about whether and where to stop overnight en route by day trains, somehow F*ceb**k kept serving up adverts for (you'd be surprised how many) companies offering train-based guided trips.

One that caught the eye was to a part of Germany I've never been to and hadn't considered: the Harz in the dead centre of Germany (but once divided between East and West), where there's a network of steam trains, one going up to the Brocken mountain, itself famous in literature for witches and the like. So on a whim I booked and turned up as directed, to join a group of about a dozen (almost all of a certain age) at silly a.m. at St Pancras for the Eurostar to Brussels, changing there for Cologne and at Cologne the short ride to Wuppertal.


The itinerary had us stopping here for a night. It's not the most scenic of the Ruhr's industrial towns, but the reason for staying there was for the transport enthusiasts, among whom Wuppertal is famous for its "Schwebebahn" (floating railway) - suspended from a monorail high above the river and streets below.

Once on board, it's as prosaic as any surface tram ride, bar a little tilting, and it's not as though there's much to see, but it's a useful way of whisking people along without taking up road-space:


After our brief stop to ride the Schwebebahn, the trains took us further on, via Cologne again to Goslar and thence to our base for the week, in Wernigerode: in the heart of the Harz, so to speak.

It's picturesque and traditional-looking, with plenty of half-timbered houses and flowers (it even has a floral clock, just as one used to see in the posher British seaside holiday resorts).


Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It's outside the library, at least


Wien! Wien! Nur Du allein...


The Town Hall

And there's a castle (of course). The local aristocrats had a long history, but their castle reflects a rebuild in the ponderous taste of the late 19th century - all dark wood and stuffed hunting trophies outside, and touches of pseudo-mediaeval fairytale outside:


The castle courtyard

One thing I couldn't help noticing was that in at least one place they had retained the old East German Ampelmann for the pedestrian crossing lights. Somehow he looks rather jauntier than one would expect from a Communist dictatorship, which is no doubt why he was held in such affection:

But they also maintain a nod to the area's association with legends of witches and the like:


As if Wernigerode weren't picturesque enough, our itinerary took us to Quedlinburg, an ancient town seemingly undisturbed (at least in its historic centre) by the ups and downs of much of Germany's history.

Half-timbered houses lining narrow winding streets (all remarkably uncluttered by modern street furniture and signage) and ornate doorways - we didn't get to see the castle, but it's easy to see why the town's a tourist magnet.





Steam trains - up a mountain and along a valley

My trainspotting days are long gone, but they were in the age of steam, and something remains of the appeal of the steam engine which quiet, (usually) efficient electric trains just don't seem to have. Our group had a strong contingent of serious anoraks, who knew a great deal about all that sort of thing and enthusiastically took up the option to explore as much as possible of the Harz network, with the rest of us tagging along for a couple of rides with the better views. (It wasn't just the engines that were old - the carriages were, I suspect, old third-class stock from East German railways - wooden seats and not much in the way of suspension, while the toilet facilities were the old-style trap that simply opened on to the track beneath).

The high point (literally) of the trip was to go up the Brocken mountain. Old legend has it that on Walpurgisnacht, witches would gather on the mountain for a "witches' sabbath" (sort of a springtime Halloween, but no doubt used in its time for the periodic persecution of supposed witches, as elsewhere). More recently, being such a handy high point so close to the border between East and West Germany, it became a listening post for surveillance and spying on Western transmissions, but also housed (as it still does) a TV transmission tower.

The train winds its way up through forests (sadly depleted since a blight struck much of it a few years ago, as did some wildfires) to the - frankly rather bleak - plateau on top. Perhaps not surprisingly, the views from the top were almost entirely of enclosing clouds, so nobody wanted to linger.

Another day, we had more sunshine and a gentle ride through a river valley, to a quiet spa town (not that we had time to do anything but get the next train back.

And it looked and felt like this:

The last day was entirely free: some went to the aviation museum in Wernigerode, others visited the town history museum, and I had discovered there was a memorial site of a WW2 forced labour camp, and thought it might give me some idea of what life had been like for my father as a POW down a coalmine in Poland. As a volunteer effort I thought it very thorough and illuminating.

Overall, I thought it was a well-balanced trip, with the late afternoons and evenings free as well as the last day, and what a relief to have someone else organising all the tickets and dealing with hitches (though there were occasions when my German came in useful to our group guide). It was not least a relief to be in a group when the train back from Cologne to Brussels was an hour late and we missed our scheduled Eurostar (but they did manage to squeeze everyone on the next London train - just as well, as it was the last of the day!)

The package company and this particular package (others are available, but this was perfectly OK for my taste)

About the Harz region

The Harz steam railway

The memorial site
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For completeness, I've also looked at Byway, Raildiscoveries and Greatrail, and no doubt there are more.

And for comprehensive information if you want to do it yourself - Seat61, as always.

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