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

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the opening of the railway to the Brocken, the highest summit 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 daily, taking about 1hr 40mins. But there’s an alternative: a once-daily year-round service leaving Nordhausen mid-morning and taking just over three hours to reach the summit. The northern route from Wernigerode and that from Nordhausen, well away to the south, converge at Drei Annen Hohne, a railway junction high in the Ziller valley on the eastern flank of the Brocken.

Quite apart from the appeal of a longer journey for the same price, there is good reason for favouring the Nordhausen option: it includes a gorgeous 90-minute stretch from Ilfeld to Drei Annen Hohne through the finest scenery in the Harz mountains. In my opinion, this section of the route, following the Harzquerbahn (Trans-Harz Railway), is even better than the final steep climb to the summit of the Brocken.

Literary connections

On a bleak off-season day, there are few takers for the 10.33am from Nordhausen. There’s an anxious moment as departure time approaches when several engineers gather around the steam engine. Is there a problem? After much clanging of oily spanners, the train chugs out of Nordhausen and climbs up towards the forested hills. Beyond Ilfeld, the hillsides tilt ever more sharply and, in the still air, steam drifts down over the claret-and-cream carriages.

Dense forest shrouds the narrow gauge track.
Dense forest shrouds the narrow gauge track. Photograph: Dieter Mobus/Alam

A cheerful ticket inspector asks if we need something strong for the journey. This is the infamous schnapps, which is a mainstay of the train to the Brocken. We pass on the offer, but the crew member reassures us that she’ll be back later if we change our minds.

We are blessed with an empty train, but on spring and summer days the ride to the Brocken is immensely popular. When the first trains arrived at the summit in 1898, Germany’s intelligentsia had mixed feelings. The literary establishment disdained the arrival of the hoi polloi in one of its most sacred spaces, echoing John Ruskin’s opposition to the intrusion of the railway into some of England’s most revered landscapes. For the German literati, the Brocken was not just any mountain, but the very summit that had been immortalised by Goethe in Faust.

An old half-timbered house in Nordhausen.
An old half-timbered house in Nordhausen. 
But the Harz Club, a voluntary association founded in 1886 to promote public access to the hills, welcomed the influx of visitors. As the first flood of tourists spread out over the top of the Brocken, a club spokesman suggested that there was still ample space for those wanting to experience the quiet of the Harz.

A route for tourists and locals

Poet and essayist Heinrich Heine’s 1825 account of a Harz journey (Die Harzreise) painted a picture of idyllic lives lived by woodsmen and peasant folk – though the reality might not have been so rosy, as village names like Sorge (sorrow) and Elend (misery) suggest. Our train stops at both; the latter has a tiny museum on the railway platform recording aspects of everyday life in the area prior to German reunification in 1990. At one point the railway passed within 700 metres of the fortified frontier. So for 30 years from 1961, when the Berlin Wall and inner-German border were strengthened by the East German authorities, no passenger trains climbed to the top of the Brocken.

A view to the Brocken in summer.
A view to the Brocken in summer. 

Speed is not the name of the game. Our train chunters through forests at a pleasant 20mph, and station stops are leisurely affairs – a chance for a chat and a smoke on the platform, and an opportunity to take photos of the vintage train and its immaculately preserved steam engine.

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