Rail Route of the Month: A Steam Climb Through Germany’s Harz Mountains | Holidays in Germany

Jhis year marks the 125th anniversary of the opening of the railway to the Brocken, the highest peak in Germany’s Harz Mountains at 1,142 metres. The Brocken line is part of a wider network of narrow-gauge railways – mainly hauled by steam trains – in the eastern half of the Harz region, which is a wonderful place to explore by rail.

Direct steam trains run to the Brocken from Wernigerode several times a day, taking around 1 hour 40 minutes. But there is an alternative: a year-round, once-daily service leaving Nordhausen mid-morning and taking just over three hours to reach the summit. The northern route from Wernigerode and the route from Nordhausen, far to the south, converge at Drei Annen Hohne, a railway junction high in the Ziller valley on the eastern flank of the Brocken.

Regardless of the appeal of a longer trip for the same price, there are good reasons to favor the Nordhausen option: it includes a magnificent 90-minute stretch from Ilfeld to Drei Annen Hohne through the most beautiful landscapes of the Harz mountains. In my opinion, this section of the route, following the Harzquerbahn (Trans-Harz Railway), is even better than the last steep climb to the top of the Brocken.

Literary connections

On a gloomy day out of season, there are few takers for Nordhausen’s 10:33. There is a moment of anxiety nearing departure time when several engineers gather around the steam engine. Is there a problem? After many clinks of oily keys, the train leaves Nordhausen and climbs towards the wooded hills. Beyond Ilfeld, the hillsides steepen more and more, and in the still air, steam descends on the burgundy and cream cars.

Dense forest envelops the narrow gauge track. Photography: Dieter Mobus/Alamy

A cheerful ticket inspector asks if we need anything solid for the trip. It is the famous schnapps, which is a mainstay of the train to the Brocken. We pass the offer, but the team member assures us that she will come back later if we change our minds.

We are lucky to have an empty train, but in spring and summer the route to the Brocken is extremely popular. When the first trains reached the top in 1898, the German intelligentsia had mixed feelings. The literary establishment scorned the arrival of hoi polloi in one of its most sacred spaces, echoing John Ruskin’s opposition to the railway’s intrusion into some of England’s most revered landscapes . For German scholars, the Brocken was not only any mountain, but the very peak that had been immortalized by Goethe in Faust.

An old half-timbered house in Nordhausen.
An old half-timbered house in Nordhausen. Photography: Aliyah

But the Harz Club, a voluntary association founded in 1886 to promote public access to the hills, welcomes the influx of visitors. As the first influx of tourists spilled over the top of the Brocken, a club spokesman suggested there was still ample space for those wishing to experience the calm of the Harz.

A road for tourists and locals

1825 account of the poet and essayist Heinrich Heine on a trip to the Harz (Die Harzreise) paints a picture of idyllic lives lived by woodcutters and peasants – although the reality may not have been so rosy, as village names like Sorge (sorrow) and Elend (misery) suggest. Our train stops at both; the latter has a small museum on the railway platform recording aspects of daily life in the area before German reunification in 1990. At one point the railway passed within 700 meters of the fortified border. Thus, for 30 years from 1961, when the Berlin Wall and the inner German border were reinforced by the East German authorities, no passenger train climbed to the top of the Brocken.

A view of the Brocken in summer.
A view of the Brocken in summer. Photography: Zoonar GmbH/Alamy

Speed ​​is not the name of the game. Our train chasers smash through forests at a pleasant 20 mph, and station stops are leisure matters – a chance to chat and smoke on the platform, and a opportunity to take photos of the vintage train and its perfectly preserved steam engine.

During a longer stop at Drei Annen Hohne, the train crew tell us how the Harz rail network has survived as a historical oddity in what was a hard-to-visit part of East Germany. East. “There were all sorts of restrictions on who could come here at that time,” the train driver explains.

Today, this narrow-gauge network is considered a top tourist attraction and there are talks of extending the network west across the former inner German border. “It’s not just for tourists,” adds the driver. “With year-round services, we are a lifeline for remote communities in the hills.”

The trail network serves villages in the Eastern Harz mountain region.
The trail network serves villages in the Eastern Harz mountain region. Photograph: Stefan Dinse/Alamy

From Drei Annen Hohne, our train makes the arduous ascent to the summit of Brocken. The train climbs steeper and steeper, gradually skirting the summit and providing, in good weather, views from all angles of the odd array of buildings and aerials that decorate the summit. Not for us: everything is shrouded in fog. Two foxes are rummaging through a trash can on the platform of the summit station. A distinct smell of fried food emanates from the adjacent cafe. A poster announces that a rock opera titled Faust will be performed at the summit from late summer this year. I think in this case the enjoyment of the trip on the 10.33 from Nordhausen really overshadows the merits of the destination.

Trip Details

A return trip to the top of the Brocken from any station on the Harz narrow gauge network costs €51. Three days is enough to explore the whole network and there is a useful three-day pass for €99. These premium fares apply to routes that include the railroad to the summit. The other fares are much cheaper. All trains are second class only. Interrail passes are not accepted. Note that while all trains to and from the Brocken summit are steam-powered, services on other routes may be operated by diesel railcars. You can find timetables and other information on the website of the Harz narrow gauge network.

Nicky Gardner lives in Berlin, where she is co-editor of Hidden Europe magazine. She is co-author of Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide. The 17th edition of the book was published in 2022. It is available from Guardian Bookshop.

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