Best of the Harz Mountains
Wernigerode and the Brocken
The Brocken, at 3,647 feet (1142 meters), is the highest point in northern Germany and gives a panoramic view over the Heinrichshohe, Konigsberg and other surrounding sub peaks, over the descending hills and out onto the flatlands surrounding the Harz Mountains.
Or it’s a panoramic view IF the clouds don’t have it under visual lockdown. Just as we Coloradans like to say that Denver has 300 days of sunshine a year, the folks in Saxony-Anhalt aver that the Brocken is cloaked 300 days a year in fog and mist, and that is a part of its gothic magic.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe hiked up this mountain more than once in the 18th Century (his first ascent December 10, 1777), and it was here that he placed his scene of witches reveling on Walpurgis night. Many of us know it as the Night on Bald Mountain scene from the movie Fantasia. Today hundreds of “witches” from all over the world come up here to party on Walpurgis night; it’s a big local festival. Long before Goethe, of course, the Brocken lived in legend as a place of witches and devils, and it’s easy to see why.
One can take the narrow gauge railway up the Brocken from the nearest City of Wernigerode, or go by bus or car to the high village of Drei Annen Hohne and catch the train up from there — or hike up from there. From the village, it’s a moderate 6-7 kilometers to the top. We came with daypacks, raincoats, sweaters and jackets and gloves and warm hats, because the yearly average temperature at the top of this thing is about 37 degrees Fahrenheit.
Our hike in July began warm and sunny enough, along pleasant walking paths up through a dark Teutonic fairy-tale forest of spruce trees, growing cooler and darker until it began to look like there must be a forest fire somewhere, smoke drifting down through the trees, but it was clouds and tendrils of witchly mists that closed warningly around us as we approached the forbidden peak.
The trees become dwarf trees on a
landscape carpeted by sedge, a landscape from the ice ages, and then we were above tree line hiking in fog. Among the attractions at the top are a visitor center and museum and, of course, restaurants where one can find warm food and fine beers.
The Harz Mountains, a patch of highlands some 60 miles long by 20 miles wide, sometimes reminding Americans of our own Great Smoky Mountains, has that other-worldly atmosphere of Germany’s Black Forest with storybook cities and towns of medieval half-timbered houses surrounding the Harz National Park, winding roads, hiking trails through alpine mountain scenery and, of course, charming hotels and restaurants with the best of Saxony-Anhalt fare.
While the Brocken broods in cloud above, it’s a sunny summer day in the little city of Wernigerode down below and quite simply the best place to stay for a Harz Mountains vacation. “I come here every year,” said one Swedish tourist we met in the town. “It’s my favorite vacation.”
Oh sure, there are other charming towns of Der Harz. Quedlinburg, which has more of those quaint half-timbered houses than any place in Germany, is farther out on the flatland. Goslar is a popular vactation city as well, but it lies on the northwestern end of the Harz, farther from the action. Bad Harzburg, a popular spa town, is closer in, but not nearly as charming, our German advisers told us.
Wernigerode, meanwhile is tucked up into the edge of the mountains virtually in the shadow of the Brocken, a fairytale town with the slopes rising from it’s edges and charming enough to be a primary filming venue for the new movie, The Monuments Men, that hit the theaters last February.
We stayed at the Gothisches Haus, a listed historic hotel of half-timber design that opens onto Wernigerode’s historic central market plaza. Though more than 700 years old, this 4-star hotel has an interior and rooms made new and comfortable and elegant. Among the fare we sampled in its restaurant were pan-fried pike, perch fillet with sugar peas and chorizo risotto, and spinach and bread dumplings with chanterelle in cream.
The streets of old Wernigerode make concentric circles around this city center, which has plenty of great restaurants secreted along its narrow, cobbled streets, ranging from the restaurant Hoa Loan, an asian spot said to be where the cast of The Monuments Men dined, to the Brauhaus. On the German Web site Restauran-Kritik.de under Wernigerode restaurants, the Brauhaus has a dark and woody interior of booths and bar and an outside street dining area where I had something I never imagined encountering: a head-cheese main course that was exquisite.
Among the must-do’s in the city is the Wernigerode Castle and its museum, on a hill above the town, and you can easily walk to it from the city center to the edge of town and uphill through the woods. First built in the 1100s, expanded and changed since then, it also provides great views over the surrounding countryside.
Other nearby attractions can be accessed on foot, and scenic drives can take one to every other attraction of the Harz from Wernigerode.