Full steam ahead for Harz

Saturday 14 January 2017

Jonathan recently returned from a fact-finding trip to the Harz mountain region of Germany, an adventure playground for hikers, cyclists - and steam train enthusiasts.

Harz steam train
My mountain bike ride is briefly halted by the steam train

A land of spectacular scenery, ancient fairy tales, dark forests, stunning medieval towns, a haven for walkers and cyclists - and it's all less than two hours away from the UK.

That’s the Harz mountain region of Germany, dominated by the 1,142m peak of the Brocken, the highest point in Northern Germany and snow-capped through winter and beyond.

It’s a place where nearly a million Germans visit throughout the year, yet it’s largely been off the radar for a UK audience.

But so closely aligned is it to everything we encourage at timeoutdoors - whether that's being at one with nature or getting an outdoor adrenaline fix - I had to go and see it for myself.

The German National Tourist Office put together an action-packed three-day itinerary to showcase the wide variety of activities on offer, and there was only one place to start - the Brocken.

Taller than any mountain in England and Wales, it completely dominates the landscape even though its peak is shrouded in cloud for 300 days a year.

Yet it’s incredibly accessible, with multiple well-made tracks and paths - and a narrow-gauge railway which goes to within a stone’s throw of the top, more of which later.

My walk started from Ilsenberg and straight away you are struck by two things; firstly the number of people making use of the well-signed trails, and secondly the variety of flora and fauna as I followed the rushing river through unspoilt forests.

Walk up the Brocken
Heading up the Brocken

The changing altitude corresponded with a range of landscapes - the ascent was 12km in total, but gradual all the way and took little over three hours.

And the rewards at the top are plentiful - there’s an alpine botanical garden, museum, hotel and more but it’s all about the view - so long as you’re lucky enough to be there on a day when the cloud lifts! 

The history of the mountain is fascinating - it was an out-of-bounds area until relatively recently as it lay within East Germany, right on the border, and was used for surveillance purposes by both the Russians and the German Democratic Republic.

And a link with further back in time was clearly illustrated by the cyclists with broomsticks tied to their bikes, who overtook me near the top. Witches and ancient fairy tales have long been a part of the Brocken and the writer Goethe even referenced the legends in Faust, considered by many to be the greatest work in German literature.

After the Berlin Wall fell in December 1989, the Brocken was re-opened to the public and since then the focus has very much been on tourism - over 1.3million people visit this area annually, and no wonder given all that it has to offer.

Also re-opened to the public after renovation was the Brocken Railway, which was my method of transport back down the mountain.

Brocken train
The train begins its journey back

With three branches, 20+ trains running each day at peak times and 132km of narrow-gauge track, it’s the largest network in Europe and connects the main towns, with Wernigerode, my base for the trip, the northernmost point. 

The spiral up the mountain is a tremendous engineering feat, and the hour-and-a-half return journey was like going back in time. Though, as you'd expect, the arrival and departure timings went like clockwork.

My second day in the Harz was all about transport on two wheels. The Tour de France may be starting in Germany this year, but while road cycling is popular, it’s mountain biking which is the star of the show here.

I’m very much at the novice end of the spectrum but my guide Stefan Wehner of Ein Harz für MTB found the perfect tracks and trails to suit, as well as helping out with a few photos including the one below and the main image at the top.

And it soon became apparent that this is a MTB mecca with trails ranging from easy to extreme as well as multiple bike parks including Braunlage, Hahnenklee and the Volksbank Arena Harz - with clearly-signposted routes for all levels, bike rental and even cable cars so you can focus on the downhill fun.

mountain biking with Stefan
Mountain biking in the Harz

And a cable car featured the next day as I made my way to Bad Harzburg, first taking in one of the region’s newest tourist attractions, the TreeTopTrail.

This was only opened in 2015 but already has been a huge success story, with children especially loving the adventure and its connection to nature. It's easily accessible and you get a bird’s eye view from 22 metres up.

And kids were also fascinated by my next port of call - the public feeding of the lynx population a little higher up above the town and accessed via a funicular.

The outdoor activities on offer were the focus for me but for many it’s the charming medieval towns, with Goslar a perfect example.

Goslar street
A typical street in Goslar

A UNESCO World Heritage city (indeed this region has the highest concentration of UNESCO sites in Germany), there’s enough to keep you occupied here for a week, and it’s not just about the past either, with the Mönchehaus Museum for Contemporary and Modern Arts one of the leading attractions.

So if you're after somewhere a little different but easy to reach, with loads to offer the outdoor enthusiast - everything from abseiling to ziplining, plus skiing in winter - then I'd heartily recommend it. 

[For more information check out www.harzinfo.de and www.goslar.de

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