Review: Harz Mountains
Escorted Tour - Rail
Lower Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia, Germany
Steam trains, medieval cities and wild lynx - all on one trip
With the simplicity of international e-ticketing and all inclusive specialist rail companies like Great Rail Journeys – travelling through Europe by train has become a pleasure in itself rather than just a journey.
My latest jaunt was to the UNESCO World Heritage packed Harz region of central Germany. A change of trains in Brussels left just enough time for some Belgium waffles and another change at Cologne allowed a fleeting visit to the magnificent Cologne cathedral. So, even though the journey took most of the day it was so comfortable and interesting that the journey really was a great part of the holiday.
The Harz Mountains were one of the rural dividing lines between East and West Germany and for Cold War enthusiasts there’s a creepy stretch of barbed wire fencing with a watch tower, preserved as a grim historical reminder.
The small 1,000 year old city of Goslar is a UNESCO World Heritage site as is the vast Rammelsberg silver mine, the source of the city’s great wealth. Silver was discovered here in 968 and although it’s no longer an active mine going down into its bowels is an fascinating tourist experience.
The Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich III built the huge Goslar Palace whose cavernous Grand Hall was for centuries the world’s largest indoor space. It houses Heinrich’s bronze throne, forged in 1066, and nowadays holds concerts and cultural events.
The town’s cobbled streets are lined with around 1,500 half-timbered houses. The minuscule Gose river turns a watermill as it flows through the heart of the city and along its sides are beer gardens and cafes. Houses in the market square are full of surprisingly risqué Gothic wood carvings that peep from the eaves – angels, demons, animals and mythological creatures alongside chubby milkmaids (Butter Hannah) scratching their bare backsides and naked dwarves excreting silver coins.
If you want to see the market square’s Glockenspiel, a clock tower where a procession of mechanical figures re-enact the history of Goslar; it comes to life at 12.00, 15.00, 18.00, and 21.00 every day, but you will need to organise your timings better than we did, as we missed it twice.
The medieval city seems miraculously preserved since the days when it was the treasure chest of the Holy Roman Empire (1039 to 1339). The preservation however, is a reminder of WWII, because due to the presence of WWII POW hospitals Goslar was spared the bombs that destroyed many other medieval German cities during the second world war.
The highest mountain in the Harz region is the Brocken, famous in Germany for where Goethe’s Faust was taken by the devil after selling his soul. It’s an eerie place, shrouded by mist for most of the year. There are several steam trains pulling vintage carriages and its possible to stand on the open air platforms that connect carriages for the full coal smoke experience. Rising to 3,690 feet the train gradually passes through deeper snow, with fairy tale smothered fir trees, until the top which is deep with drifts and at – 6 degrees is bitter cold. Unfortunately, the mountain top wasn’t as atmospheric as I had hoped because there were hundreds of people, a hotel and a couple of cafes but the views were stunning.
Although just a few miles from Goslar, Quedlinburg is on the other side of the old Cold War border in what was previously the GDR. Unlike Goslar, where residents moved out to modern homes on the edge of the medieval town, Quedlinburg’s residents still live in the medieval centre.
Quedlinburg is a rare 1,000 year old city that never had a major fire so it has an exceptional architectural heritage of Romanesque and half-timbered buildings, many of remarkably high quality. Buildings of all styles and epochs make Quedlinburg an ideal place to study the development of half-timbered building techniques and styles through the ages. With more than 2,000 half-timbered houses from six centuries and its medieval urban profile the whole city was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status as an “extraordinary example of a medieval European city.”
Quedlinburg’s abbey church of St Servatius, is where Henry I (i.e. Heinrich I) was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor in 919 and he was buried there in 936.
This remote historical fact led to a bizarre twentieth century turn of events. Heinrich Himmler (head of the SS and Gestapo ) believed he was the reincarnation of ancient King Heinrich I. Himmler descended on Quedlinburg with his thugs and ousted the bishop. He took over the abbey in what is believed to be an attempt to create a new bat-mad Nazi religion based on magical links to the first Holy Roman Emperor. What strange sights these ancient cobbled streets have seen!
If you are in the Harz Mountains and are interested in wildlife you shouldn’t miss the opportunity of visiting its impressive Lynx enclosure. It’s near Bad Harzburg where in summer months buses take visitors to see one of the most beautiful but elusive creatures on the planet. What’s special about the large lynx enclosure is that it is the public education arm of a reintroduction programme that has seen lynx returned to their native habit, over a hundred years since the last one was shot by hunters.
The reintroduction of native wildlife made extinct by man (also called rewilding) is a fascinating story and Britain has recently reintroduced beaver back into the wild and may do the same with lynx later this year.
Practical trip details:
I travelled with Great Rail Journeys on their Rail Discoveries trip (tel: 01904 527180) a 7-day escorted group holiday to The Harz Mountains from £795pp. The price included all rail and coach travel, hotel accommodation with Maritim Hotels, excursions to UNESCO sites Goslar and Quedlinburg, a steam-hauled journey on the heritage Brocken Railway, plus free time in Braunlage – from where I made my own way to the Lynx enclosure.
If you prefer to travel on your own, Great Rail Journeys Independent can organise all the practical details for an unescorted trip.
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This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.
Silver Travel Advisor Recommended Partner: Great Rail Journeys