Compared to the Pyrenees and the Alps, the Harz Mountains are no more than a ripple in the flatlands of northern Germany. But they are a welcome relief to those who find little appeal in the two-dimensional landscapes that mainly prevail in this part of Europe.
The Harz region is easily accessible from Hamburg or Berlin (both less than 150 miles away) and it makes the perfect stopover for jaded travelers who need a little greenery to offset a string of stays in big cities.
When we published our Manifesto for Slow Travel in 2009, we had a hunch that the Harz region might well be a slow travel paradise, and it was a theory we put to the test last week when we wandered gently through the mountain landscapes that so appealed to German writers like Goethe and Heinrich Heine.
The Harz is a region of seductive beauty that is laced with historical associations, some fact and others utterly fictional. It was on top of the Brocken, the highest summit in the region, that the legendary Faust is said to have sold his soul to the devil.
But for visitors today, the prime asset is the splendid network of narrow-gauge rail routes that connect villages in the eastern part of the Harz. One line even climbs to the very summit of the Brocken. That route is operated exclusively by steam-hauled trains, and heritage steam locomotives also feature on the majority of trains elsewhere on the Harz network.
The Harz narrow-gauge network connects with regular standard-gauge German rail services at three points: Quedlinburg, Wernigerode and Nordhausen.
Local journeys on the steam trains through the Harz region are a chance to relax, an opportunity to savor the landscape. We made a one-way journey last week from Quedlinburg to the top of the Brocken which took just over five hours. Yet this kind of travel is utterly therapeutic, an antidote to the speed of modernity. We made other train journeys through the region, stopping off here and there at remote villages and wayside halts.
Special fares apply on that section of line which ascends the Brocken, but even if you are reluctant to splash out to make the journey to the summit, there are some very fine journeys to be made on other rail routes in the area. We especially like the 20-mile stretch from Drei Annen Hohne south to Eisfelder Talmühle. And another gem is the steep climb south from Gernrode, where the train chugs through the forests and crests a ridge to drop down to Alexisbad in the Selke Valley.
Schedules and Fares
Trains run day in, day out throughout the year over the entire Harz network. Service levels are trimmed during the winter months, but even in the worst of winter weather you’ll still find plenty of options for creative journeys exploring this beautiful region of Germany.
Fares are sensibly priced. The return fare from Quedlinburg to the summit of the Brocken costs €28 – not bad for an 11-hour round trip that allows enough time on the Brocken to get lost in the mist and negotiate the price of your soul with any passing devil.
For a modest supplement of just €5, the Brocken Card allows travelers to make another return journey of their choice anywhere else on the Harz narrow-gauge network within a week. That could be a short hop or another long journey: Quedlinburg to Wernigerode, for example, is a 10-hour return trip.
Those who really fall in love with this magnificent region might sensibly opt for the €49 five-day ticket which allows unlimited travel over the entire network including multiple trips to the Brocken.