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Throughout Germany, trains play a vital role in the movement and transportation of people and goods, intricately holding towns and cities together. But gone are the days of luxury rides on steam engine trains as they have been replaced by more high speed, modern trains… or so I thought.
Located in the Harz Mountains in northern Germany, historic steam trains dating back to 1898 are alive and well. Considered to be Germany’s largest network of narrow-gauge railways, the principal towns of Wernigerode, Quedlinburg, as well as Nordhausen are all linked together via the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen (HSB), criss-crossing through the states of Lower Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia.
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When I first discovered the unspoiled medieval half-timbered towns of Quedlinburg, Wernigerode and Goslar were all relatively close to each other, I knew it would need to be more than just a day trip. So we decided to make a weekend out of it and I got even more excited like a giddy little girl when I learned the towns were all connected via historic steam trains. I knew I wanted a ride because after all, how often does one get the chance to ride a steam locomotive?
Except for a short period, due to some destruction caused during WWII and the division of Germany, the lines were no longer in use until after the reunification of Germany in 1990 as it was all located all within Soviet Occupied Germany, later known as East Germany. (For more information on the Steam Trains) For this reason alone, the survival of the historic locomotives is partially in thanks to the fact that Communist East Germany never had the money nor the incentive to modernize. Today, they’re the best preserved steam trains in Germany!
What makes these steam trains so special is that it connects some of the most charming towns in the region and provides tourists and hikers alike a chance to hop aboard the train for a ride up the steep terrain of the Harz Mountains. There are few places left in the world where you can be transported back in time and enjoy these old-fashioned locomotives through the beautiful countryside. But here in this region, it’s not just for tourists, but locals still rely on these steam trains every day as a means of transportation.
At the heart of the entire network is Wernigerode, a half-timbered town located along the German Timber-Frame Road (Deutsche Fachwerkstraße), where you can hop aboard the Harzquerbahn railway, the historic steam trains that chug-a-lugs their way through the Harz Mountains up to the Brocken. From the stationmasters to the porters, there is no lack of pomp and ceremony as the train leaves the station with a blowing of the horn and a blow of a whistle to give the all clear. What could possibly be more of an idyllic railway?
Not only is the Harz Region considered to be a “Mini Black Forest“ to the northern Germans, but it is also shrouded in mystique and legends of witches and warlocks cavorting about with the Devil himself up at the Brocken on Walpurgisnacht (April 30th) every year at Hexentanzplatz in Thale, also known as the Harz Mountains witches festival.
The Brocken is the highest point in the Harz region, which lies at the heart of the Harz National Park. Steeped in European folklore, the Harz Mountains are known for some of Germany’s greatest literature and art, most famously Goethe’s Faust.
As legend would have it, witches and warlocks descend upon the Harz by flying broomsticks and goats up to the Brocken. They exchange tall tales of evil deeds and cavort with the devil himself who maligns God, his angles and his teachings. For centuries, the surrounding locals lived in fear of running into a witch and to protect themselves, they hung crosses and herbs on their houses. The most superstitious would crack whips to ward off any evil forces.
Today, the tradition continues and include witches dancing around a fire to drive out the winter and greet the coming of spring. If this would help shoo away the cold German winters, I would be up there too frolicking around to welcome spring.
Other main points to hop aboard the steam locomotives are Drei Annen Hohne up in the mountains and Eisfelder Talmühle on the high Harz plateau. Passengers who are interested in traveling from one end of the network to the other must change trains at one of these two stations.
For those interested in doing some hiking, most visitors get off at Drei Annen Hohne as a branch of the line climbs all the way up the Brocken (1,125m) from here. This is called the Brockenbahn and you can see many hikers walking along the paths following the train tracks, waving as the train passes by.
Along the Quedlinburg route on the Selketalbahn, the journey is a bit longer but is more pleasant as it passes pastures before ending in the UNESCO World Heritage town famous for its cobbled-stoned streets and half-timbered houses and being the first German capital.
Taking a ride on the Harzquerbahn, you’ll go through Nordhausen, a town which was heavily bombed during WWII as it was the site of a concentration camp with forced labor in the arms industry in the V2 rocket factory.
The historic train ride (from Wernigerode) takes around 1 hour 40 minutes to arrive at the Brocken. You will have about 2 hours up at the top before your return journey, which is enough time to explore, unless you plan on hiking back down the mountain. I entertained myself by chumming it up with some local witches.
With a whooh-whooh on the hooter, our train set off, chug-a-lug-lugging around the mountain to gain height as I quietly sang “She’ll be comin’ around the mountain when she comes”. It’s almost mandatory and a right of passage to hang out on the front and back balcony of each wagon, feeling the wind in your hair and taking in each bend and the surrounding nature. You’ll smell the unmistakable smell of sulfur floating through the air, puffing up in a cloud of smoke trailing the entire length of the train. Try not to be outside when going through any tunnels as the smoke from the engine with engulf you and is terrible to breathe!
You can book seat reservations by online prior to your visit. You will email with a woman who will reserve your tickets. She will ask if you want the normal train or the special train. Not knowing there wasn’t much of a difference between either train, we opted for the special train, forking out 44 € each for a round trip ticket. However, our ticket included free entry into the Brocken Haus Museum.
Up at the Brocken, you can walk around and follow many different hiking trails. You can also take a tour of the Brocken Haus Museum to learn about the history of the region and how the Brocken was used by the DDR to spy on Western Germany and the rest of Europe via listening posts.
It’s hard to imagine that only a few decades ago, East German soldiers were spying on not only their own people but on the rest of Europe. They would also regularly board the trains looking for potential dissidents trying to cross the border. The penalty for getting caught would be to get shot without any hesitation. A watchtower stands as a grim reminder of the dark past near the station Sorge – meaning “sorrow”.
Should you get hungry and not have a packed picnic, there is a canteen style restaurant up at the Brocken, although I warn you, prices are much more expensive up here than down in town.
Also located at the foothills of the Harz Mountains is yet another unspoiled medieval half-timbered town with over 1,800 houses is Goslar, located along the railway route.
We thoroughly enjoyed our ride aboard the steam trains, and the experience was much more different than I had imagined. I was still under the impression that they would have been a bit more luxurious, although had we sat in First Class, maybe it would have been.
It’s definitely a minimum of a half day trip up and down to the Brocken, so I wish we would have been better planned and brought our own picnic as eating up at the Brocken was very expensive, even if the food was delicious. Had we been interested in hiking or not trying to out run the incoming storm, it could have really be a full day trip.
I also wish I would have known not to wear a brand new dress aboard the train as by the end of the day it was covered in black soot. Luckily, it washed out without any problems. I probably looked like the only crazy person up at the Brocken in a dress whereas, once again, everyone else was in hiking gear. Sound familiar? Ya…because I had the same experience in Lucerne going up to Rigi-Kulm on Europe’s first BergBahn. When will I learn?
Where to Stay:
With any booking of a hotel in the town, you’ll be entitled to a small coupon book (Gästekarte) good for surrounding activities, restaurants and shops! Be sure to pick it up from your hotel at check-in!
You can also purchase the HarzCard for 29€ which includes entry to over a hundred regional attractions for 48 hours. You can also up it to 59 € for 4 days.
⭐⭐⭐⭐ Hotel Theophano – located in the heart of the historic town, this half-timbered hotel is family-owned and offers a sauna! With higher prices than other hotels, it’s still VERY affordable for the region!
⭐⭐⭐ Hotel zur goldenen Sonne – located just a few minutes walk from the Markt and within easy walking distance of the St. Nikolaikirche offers cozy and simple rooms at an affordable price.
⭐⭐⭐ Altwernigeröder Apparthotel – We opted to stay here, located in the center of Wernigerode, just feet from the Altes Rathaus. Rooms were affordable and comfortable apartment-style rooms. Also here, you’ll find Das Altwernigeröder Kartoffelhaus!
⭐⭐⭐Novum Hotel Brusttuch – Just across the street from the Marktkirche and the main square, this 16th century building is one of the loveliest in the town! The rooms are decorated in a classy decor and even has an indoor pool!
⭐⭐⭐ Hotel Kaiserpfalz – Just a two minute walk away from the Imperial Palace, this hotel is warmly decorated in country style decor, typical of the region.
If you’re interested in visiting Germany and are looking for more information, I highly recommend using the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide! Without these guides, I would be lost! This is my travel Bible!