There are many places in Germany you can visit a mountain top. You’d be forgiven for thinking it gets a bit ‘seen one, seem ’em all’. Not so when it comes to visiting the summit of the Brocken in the Harz. Steeped in mystery, history and folklore the highest peak in The Harz is definitely not just another pretty mountain top.
First things first; to appreciate what the Brocken has to offer, you have to get up there. The best way to do that is using the Brocken Bahn. You could, of course, hike up to the summit from one of the hiking routes that begin in the pretty towns of the area. But if the alternative is relaxing in a carriage whilst a vintage steam train takes the strain…well, I know which I prefer. We picked up the train in Werginerode. We had intended to hang about after our trip up the mountain and explore the town but it didn’t play out like that…more on that later. It’s a shame we missed out, but best laid plans and all that.
It’s a cliché but this is one of those times when it really is about the journey as much as the destination. Taking the Brocken Bahn is not about getting from A to B as quickly as possible. The trains call at various stations along the route, you may have to change trains depending on where you start out from. The pace is slow and steady, the journey relaxing, the views across the Harz National Park breath-taking. Worth noting that there are no toilet or catering facilities on board. You’ll find these at each station along the way. Just remember to keep a few €1 coins for the toilets. It costs quite a lot to spend a penny these days.
Once at the top its easy to see why the tree-less summit has inspired tales of witches and goblins and other worldly shenanigans. The Brocken exists in its own, unique microclimate. That, combined with the fact that the Iron Curtain created a man-free and traffic-free zone for many years, means a variety of plants and animals thrive here. Development has been restricted. The boulder marking the summit is surrounded by plaques giving you the distance to major cities in Germany and beyond. Strolling the summit gives 365 degree views of the surrounding landscape. And what a landscape it is.
It isn’t just the natural beauty that draws the eye. The Brocken Transmitters create quite the contrast with the land that hosts them. Built in the 1930s, the original tower was intended for TV transmission, but the Second World War and subsequent events finished off that idea. By the 1970s when the second tower was built, the Brocken and its transmitters stood in the restricted border zone on the East German side, off-limits to all. Then used as a listening station and to house radar equipment, today, the structures house an observation deck and visitor centre. I think it’s a neat ending that a place once used as an instrument of division now welcomes visitors from all over the world.
The Brocken may be known for its association with witches and dark tales but it has also inspired some more light-hearted story telling. A series of posts aimed at younger hikers tell the tale of Albert and the White Deer, complete with cute 3D images. If you want to see all six stations and reveal the secret of the white deer, that involves a six kilometre walk ending at the Visitor Information Centre. Confession: I didn’t. So I’ll never know the story in full, just enough to share a cute find on a mountain side. Oh, well.
Having explored the summit, what goes up must come down. Mr THL decided it would be a nice idea to walk down to the next station and pick up the train from there. It hadn’t taken too long coming up. We had sweets to encourage/ bribe the kids. It started so well. A short way into the descent we stumbled upon a little bit of history, a sign marking the spot where the border between East and West was opened on the mountainside. The enduring image of reunification is that the destruction of the Berlin Wall but for many Germans, being able to trek up their beloved mountain was sweet freedom. It had been strictly verboten for some years.
It was all down hill from there, literally and metaphorically. The walk was longer than we thought. Halfway down the path took us down a steep, dried out riverbed. The kids loved it, lots of clambering and leaping. After an hour of that we came to a set of signs and realised we’d been following the wrong path. Time to pause and re-plot the course. To add insult to injury , the right path ran along the railway lines so the train I would have quite liked to have been sitting on at that point passed us by. More than once. And all of this with me wearing flip-flops. The moral of the tale?
Don’t listen to your husband Be prepared , buy a map. And maybe some hiking boots. With all that said it was worth it, for the full Brocken experience.
My reward for all that walking? Picking up the train, and a well-earned coffee, at the foothill station of Schierke. A satisfied sort of tiredness that you only get from a full days exploring. And the feeling that in spending the day on the Brocken, we’d really gotten to the heart of the Harz experience.