hidden europe 35

Steaming through the Harz Mountains

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Taking water at Eisfelder Talmühle where the Selke Valley railway connects with the Trans-Harz route (photo © hidden europe).


The Harz Mountains lie astride the erstwhile border between East Germany and West Germany. The forested hills of the Harz preside over the North European Plain. The eastern portion of the Harz benefits from a legacy of East Germany: a wonderful narrow-gauge railway system. This is slow travel at its best, as we explore the Harz Mountains in autumn.

There was surely a time when the civic fathers of Quedlinburg were mightily proud of their railway station. True, they kept the railway at a distance, possibly a little fearful that such an icon of modernity would destroy the antique charm of Quedlinburg’s mediaeval centre. The first trains from Magdeburg arrived in 1862, and Quedlinburg was waiting to receive them. The only caveat in the welcome was that the railway should cross the River Bode well before reaching Quedlinburg and then remain on the south side of the river for the remainder of its journey through the borough.

Thus the town’s imposing Gothic Revival station with its cathedral-like grand facade is well removed from the centre of Quedlinburg. The stained-glass windows in the main atrium of the railway station depict local landmarks with the same reverence that biblical scenes are rendered in Europe’s great Gothic cathedrals.

In its heyday, the facilities at Quedlinburg station were as fine as the building in which they were accommodated. There was a restaurant and a hairdressing salon. They are long gone. The handsome station clock stopped at a quarter to four some years ago and the entire station nowadays has an air of benign dereliction.

The trains to and from Magdeburg still come and go. Most travellers alighting in Quedlinburg scuttle off into town, barely pausing to glance at the old station building. And the town has much to offer — so much in fact that before too long we shall devote a feature in hidden europe to this remarkable township. Few other places in Europe boast such a well-preserved late mediaeval townscape as Quedlinburg.

But for those who prefer not to linger in Quedlinburg, the town’s railway station has another draw. Platform three is the starting point for one of Europe’s most extraordinary train journeys, the five-hour run from Quedlinburg to the top of the Brocken. This is a slow travel extravaganza, a journey for those inclined to savour the ride as much as the destination. And there is time to enjoy the journey, as the trains chug through woodlands and valleys, for the average speed of trains on the Harz region narrow-gauge rail network rarely tops 20 kilometres per hour.

As mountains go, the Brocken breaks no records. This highpoint of the Harz Mountains reaches 1,141 metres and certainly presents no great challenges to regular walkers. Indeed, it is little more than a big hill, forested until the 1,000-metre contour and barren at higher elevations. But the Brocken commands a certain respect locally as the greatest elevation anywhere in northern Germany, allowing views over the Great North European Plain. And more widely it is feted for its literary associations. Those who climb the Brocken follow in the footsteps of Goethe and Heinrich Heine. And it was on the summit of the Brocken that the legendary Faust is said to have sold his soul to the Devil.

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