Dear fellow travellers
There are good moments to take the steam train that climbs to the summit of the Brocken in Germany's Harz Mountains. And there are less auspicious moments. The mid-morning departures are very busy with day trippers keen to make the most of an excursion that is one of the 'must-do' adventures for visitors. The more energetic among the excursionists elect to walk down from the top of the highest mountain in northern Germany.
The Brocken is a great rounded massif, tree covered at all but the highest elevations. So there is little of that sense of barren wilderness which one associates with even mountains of quite modest elevation in Wales, Scotland or Norway. The fact that a well-graded motor road leads right up to the summit of the Brocken at 1141 metres is a reminder that this is no serious mountain. The local national park authorities have sensibly closed the road to public traffic so, for those unwilling to hike up the Brocken, the only option is the train. And that train journey, which takes about an hour from the railway junction at Drei Annen Hohne, really is something special.
Drei Annen Hohne consists of little more than its railway station - a picture-perfect country railway junction in an idyllic rural setting - and an adjacent hotel. For many years the hotel was a holiday centre run by East Germany's ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED). After the political changes of 1989 and thereafter, the SED moved out of the Rosa Luxemburg Ferienheim and capitalism moved in. After several changes of name and ownership over the last 20 years, it now does good business as the Kräuterhof Hotel.
This region of east Germany has seen a lot of changes in the 25 years since the quiet revolution of autumn 1989. One big plus is that the summit of the Brocken has been reclaimed by the people. Under the SED, it was a military zone closed to the public - in part because of the proximity of the border with West Germany. The railway to the top has happily reopened.
By dusk to the Brocken
We have visited the summit of the Brocken on a number of occasions. But never was the journey up by train so memorable as last Sunday, when - very much on the spur of the moment - we joined a late afternoon train up the mountain. Where a few hours earlier the train would have been packed to the gills, we had the rare privilege of being the sole passengers on a train that could easily accommodate 300 people.
This train journey is always an interesting one, but all the more so on an empty train winding up through the forests as dusk falls. Suddenly the great blocks of moss-covered granite in the forest seem like eerie petrified monsters. Wisps of smoke from the engine curl up through the trees into the dark evening sky. Yes, the Brocken is a place to fire the imagination. Few other landscapes are so full of legend and mystery. This was the mountain where Faust made his deal with the devil.
Today is All Hallows Eve, a calendrical counterpoint to Walpurgisnacht which falls on 30 April. It was on that night that Faust struck his devilish pact, but All Hallows is equally steeped in occult meaning. So this evening special trains will steam up the Brocken for a performance of Goethe's Faust at the summit of the mountain. It'll be a rare moment to experience the Brocken by night. But, if you want to avoid the crowds, do as we did and take the last train up any day of the year and, with the weather on your side, you'll be in for a fine treat.
Why not take a look at the gallery of images covering the Harz Mountains region of eastern Germany on our website.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)
The line that runs to the top of the Brocken is part of the wider narrow-gauge network serving the Harz region of eastern Germany. Find out more on the Harz narrow-gauge railway website. The last trains of the day from Drei Annen Hohne to the summit this week are at 16.47 and 17.16. The winter timetable kicks in next week and then the last train is earlier, leaving Drei Annen Hohne at 15.46. The summit of the Brocken is very exposed and the winter winds and snow can be ferocious. Go prepared!