Rail route of the month: a steam-hauled climb by way of Germany’s Harz mountains

Rail route of the month: a steam-hauled climb by way of Germany’s Harz mountains
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This yr marks the one hundred and twenty fifth anniversary of the opening of the railway to the Brocken, the very best summit in Germany’s Harz Mountains at 1,142 metres. The Brocken line is a part of a wider community of narrow-gauge railways – primarily hauled by steam trains – within the japanese half of the Harz area, which is an excellent place to discover by rail.

Direct steam trains run to the Brocken from Wernigerode a number of occasions every day, taking about 1hr 40mins. However there’s an alternate: a once-daily year-round service leaving Nordhausen mid-morning and taking simply over three hours to achieve the summit. The northern route from Wernigerode and that from Nordhausen, effectively away to the south, converge at Drei Annen Hohne, a railway junction excessive within the Ziller valley on the japanese flank of the Brocken.

Fairly other than the attraction of an extended journey for a similar value, there may be good purpose for favouring the Nordhausen possibility: it features a attractive 90-minute stretch from Ilfeld to Drei Annen Hohne by way of the best surroundings within the Harz mountains. For my part, this part of the route, following the Harzquerbahn (Trans-Harz Railway), is even higher than the ultimate steep climb to the summit of the Brocken.

Literary connections

On a bleak low season day, there are few takers for the ten.33am from Nordhausen. There’s an anxious second as departure time approaches when a number of engineers collect across the steam engine. Is there an issue? After a lot clanging of oily spanners, the practice chugs out of Nordhausen and climbs up in the direction of the forested hills. Past Ilfeld, the hillsides tilt ever extra sharply and, within the nonetheless air, steam drifts down over the claret-and-cream carriages.

Dense forest shrouds the slender gauge monitor. {Photograph}: Dieter Mobus/Alamy

A cheerful ticket inspector asks if we want one thing robust for the journey. That is the notorious schnapps, which is a mainstay of the practice to the Brocken. We go on the provide, however the crew member reassures us that she’ll be again later if we alter our minds.

We’re blessed with an empty practice, however on spring and summer season days the trip to the Brocken is immensely widespread. When the primary trains arrived on the summit in 1898, Germany’s intelligentsia had blended emotions. The literary institution disdained the arrival of the hoi polloi in considered one of its most sacred areas, echoing John Ruskin’s opposition to the intrusion of the railway into a few of England’s most revered landscapes. For the German literati, the Brocken was not simply any mountain, however the very summit that had been immortalised by Goethe in Faust.

An old half-timbered house in Nordhausen.
An outdated half-timbered home in Nordhausen. {Photograph}: Alamy

However the Harz Membership, a voluntary affiliation based in 1886 to advertise public entry to the hills, welcomed the inflow of holiday makers. As the primary flood of vacationers unfold out excessive of the Brocken, a membership spokesman urged that there was nonetheless ample house for these desirous to expertise the quiet of the Harz.

A route for vacationers and locals

Poet and essayist Heinrich Heine’s 1825 account of a Harz journey (Die Harzreise) painted an image of idyllic lives lived by woodsmen and peasant people – although the truth won’t have been so rosy, as village names like Sorge (sorrow) and Elend (distress) recommend. Our practice stops at each; the latter has a tiny museum on the railway platform recording points of on a regular basis life within the space previous to German reunification in 1990. At one level the railway handed inside 700 metres of the fortified frontier. So for 30 years from 1961, when the Berlin Wall and inner-German border had been strengthened by the East German authorities, no passenger trains climbed to the highest of the Brocken.

A view to the Brocken in summer.
A view to the Brocken in summer season. {Photograph}: Zoonar GmbH/Alamy

Velocity will not be the secret. Our practice chunters by way of forests at a nice 20mph, and station stops are leisurely affairs – an opportunity for a chat and a smoke on the platform, and a possibility to take pictures of the classic practice and its immaculately preserved steam engine.

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Throughout an extended cease at Drei Annen Hohne, the practice crew inform us how the Harz Railway community survived as a historic oddity in what was a difficult-to-visit a part of East Germany. “There have been all types of restrictions on who may come right here in these days,” says the practice driver.

Now this narrow-gauge community is valued as a premier-league vacationer attraction and there may be discuss of extending the community west throughout the previous inner-German border. “It’s not only for vacationers although,” provides the motive force. “With year-round companies, we’re a lifeline for distant communities within the hills.”

The network of tracks serves villages in the eastern Harz mountain region.
The community of tracks serves villages within the japanese Harz mountain area. {Photograph}: Stefan Dinse/Alamy

From Drei Annen Hohne our practice makes the punishing ascent to the summit of the Brocken. The practice climbs ever extra steeply, steadily circling the summit and affording, in good climate, views from all angles of the weird assortment of buildings and aerials that adorn the highest. Not for us: every little thing is swathed in fog. Two foxes scavenge by way of a garbage bin on the platform on the summit station. A definite scent of fried meals wafts from the adjoining cafe. A poster proclaims {that a} rock opera referred to as Faust will probably be carried out on the summit from late summer season this yr. I replicate that on this occasion, the pleasure of the journey on the ten.33 from Nordhausen actually does eclipse the deserves of the vacation spot.

Journey particulars

A return journey to the summit of the Brocken from any station on the Harz narrow-gauge community prices €51. Three days is ample to discover the complete community and there’s a helpful three-day go for €99. These premium fares apply on itineraries which embrace the railway to the summit. Different fares are very less expensive. All trains are second-class solely. Interrail passes will not be accepted. Notice that whereas all trains to and from the Brocken summit are steam-hauled, companies on different routes could also be operated by diesel railcars. Discover timetables and different info on the Harz narrow-gauge network website.

Nicky Gardner lives in Berlin, the place she is co-editor of Hidden Europe magazine. She is co-author of Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide. The seventeenth version of the e book was printed in 2022. It’s accessible from Guardian Bookshop.

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