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Germany> Highlights of the Harz Mountains


A Karen Brown Recommended Itinerary

Highlights of the Harz Mountains

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Rising from the plains, the Harz Mountains are the tallest in northern and central Germany. The mountains' summits are not towering (they are more like rolling hills than mountains), but their sheltered valleys, cool blue lakes, green, forested slopes, and tumbling streams provide attractive scenery and plenty of opportunities for summer walks and winter cross-country skiing. Little resort villages nestle amidst the mountains; while sitting at their feet, three outstanding medieval towns (Goslar, Wernigerode, and Quedlinburg) vie for your attention with a parade of outstanding half-timbered homes, decorative town halls, towering castles, and interesting museums.

Recommended Pacing: Concentrate your first day's sightseeing in the charming town of Goslar and spend your first night either here, or in the resort of Braunlage. Follow this with one night in Wernigerode (two if you take the steam train into the Harz) or just visit Wernigerode and go directly on to the quaint, medieval town of Quedlinburg where-if you are not pressed for time-you can relax at the exceptionally charming Romantik Hotel am Brühl for a few days. (Note: If your journey begins from the north, consider a detour to the delightful walled town of Celle, just north of Hannover. Nestled in a region where horses are bred and orchids flourish, Celle is enchanting with its half-timbered, gaily painted houses and cobbled streets.)

Nestling at the foot of the Harz Mountains, Osterode's brightly painted half-timbered houses make exploring the historic city center an attractive proposition. (Follow signposts for Innerstadt Ring, park your car, and walk into the pedestrian precinct.) The historic Rathaus (town hall) was built in 1522, and beneath its ornate bay window hangs a whale rib that is supposed to protect the town from flooding and inclement weather. Continuing along the street from the town hall, you come to the Marktkirche (market church) on the Kornmarkt. The church dates back to the Middle Ages and until 1936 the town's nightwatchman lived in the little flat just below the spire-it was his job to sound the alarm in case of fire. Festivals and flea markets are held at the Kornmarkt along with the weekly market on Saturdays.

Leaving Osterode, follow signposts for Goslar (241): a dual carriageway takes you to the base of the mountains where a narrower, forest-lined road continues up into the mountains to the twin towns of Clausthal and Zellerfeld. At the top of the hill in Zellerfeld you find the Bergwerkmuseum, dedicated to mining in the Harz. Apart from displays of old-fashioned mining paraphernalia, rooms have been set up to give you a glimpse of eras long past showing how the miners lived and worked. Leaving the first museum, you cross a rustic courtyard to explore buildings full of old-fashioned wooden mine machinery and walk through a short length of underground mining tunnel. (9 am- 5 pm daily.) The blue-painted Marktkirche Zum Heiligen Geist(Holy Ghost Parish Church) with its stubby onion domes was built between 1636 and 1642 and is the largest wooden church in Germany.

From Clausthal-Zellerfeld the 241 winds down through vast forests to Goslar where a full day's sightseeing awaits you in this lovely city full of historic buildings. Try to park at the Kaiserplatz (signposted). Here you find the majestic 11th-century Kaiserpfalz (Imperial Palace), one of the largest non-church buildings in the country, now displaying military paintings in its vast hall. (10 am-3 pm, daily.)

Amble down the pedestrian-only cobbled streets, past timbered houses to the Marktplatz. Occupying a corner of the square, the old town merchants' guildhall is now the Hotel Kaiserworth where statues of German emperors guard the portals. Here you are only steps away from the Rathaus (town hall) with its Hudigungssaal (chamber of allegiance) displaying German emperors on the wall and the life of Christ on the ceiling. (10 am-4 pm, daily.) The different scenes on the clock on the market square represent the 1,000-year-old mining history of the region (the clock performs at 9 am, noon, 3 pm, and 6 pm). The tourist office is also located on the square.

Follow the cobbled street beside the Kaiserworth to the Goslar Museum with its exhibition of life in old Goslar-a geological overview of the Harz-and displays of minerals. One room contains art treasures from the cathedral and the Goslar gospel. (10 am-4 pm, closed Mondays.) Follow the tumbling River Gose past the Lohmühle (tanning-mill) with its ancient waterwheel to the Puppen Museum (Puppet Museum) in the basement of an antique shop on Hoher Weg. The Barock Café next door serves scrumptious cakes.

At Münzstrasse 11, the Tin Figure Museum is situated in the coach house of an inn built in 1644 and used as a stopping place for the mail coach. Here you see displays of over 1,000 little tin figures depicting historic scenes. (10 am-4 pm, closed Mondays.) Just round the corner on Jakobistrasse you find the Mönchehaus Museum of Modern Art in an imposing farmer's townhouse which dates back to 1528. It has exhibitions of modern art and works by the prize-winners of the Kaiserring, an art award given by the town of Goslar. Its garden is full of sculptures. (10 am-1 pm and 3-5 pm, closed Mondays.)

Leaving the town center, retrace your steps towards Clausthal-Zellerfeld for a very short distance and turn left for the brief drive to the Rammelsberger Bergbaumuseum. The Rammelsberg Mine on the edge of Goslar closed in 1988, the only mine in the world to have been in continuous operation for over 1,000 years (968 to 1989). Everything is the way it was on the mine's last day of operation. Don your hard hat and miner's garb and follow your tour guide (tours are given in German but several of the guides speak English and give bilingual tours) past the 10th-century waste heaps, down long, low (well-lit) tunnels to the 12th-century Rathstiefster gallery, visiting ingenious wooden water wheels used for removing water from deep underground. You emerge in a more modern tunnel to see the little yellow train that carried the miners deep underground. The tour concludes with a film (in German) showing activities at the mine. Plans are afoot to offer a tour where you not only don mining garb, but take your hammer and lamp underground to the face to mine your own rock sample. (9:30 am-4:30 pm, daily.)

Leave Goslar on the 82 signposted Bad Harzburg, which brings you onto the 6 (also signposted Bad Harzburg). As you go onto the dual carriageway, stay to the right as yours is the immediate first exit: the 498 to Oker. Oker is an industrial town and after passing through it you quickly regain the forests and the mountains as the 498 follows a tumbling stream up a steep grade to the Oker Dam. This wild valley is understandably a favorite walking spot for summer visitors and there are several parking places where you can also hike beside the tumbling stream. The road traces the dam for several kilometers to arrive in Altenau (an attractive resort town) where you turn left for the 17-kilometer drive to Braunlage.

Before reunification the resort town of Braunlage was on the border (the edge of the Harz Mountains as far as tourists from the West were concerned). Braunlage is now a central location to use as a base for explorations of the area.

The tragicomically named village of Eland ("misery") lies 7 kilometers from Braunlage where the well-paved road turns to cobbles. Turn left for Wernigerode, a 17-kilometer drive down Mount Brocken. It is said that on Walpurgisnacht, April 30, cackling witches astride their broomsticks gather on the summit of the mountain to cavort and cast their wicked spells.

Arriving at the northern foot of the mountains in Wernigerode, secure a parking place on one of the little side streets near the pedestrian Altstadt and make your way to the Marktplatz where you find the magnificent Rathaus (town hall) whose slender spires and intricate woodwork occupy one side of the square. The Oberfarrkirchof is a picturesque little nook behind the town hall. House number 13, the House Gadenstedt, dating from the 15th century, is one of the loveliest houses in the town. The nearby Kochstrasse contains the smallest house in town-its little door is only 1.7 meters high and the house is only 4.2 meters up to the eaves. Number 72 Breite Strasse was built in 1674 and you can hardly see the original half-timberwork for the amount of intricate carving that decorates it. A horse's head and horseshoes over the door of 95 Breite Strasse indicate that this was for over 300 years a blacksmith's shop, Krell'sche Schmeide. The museum contains a display of all things pertaining to blacksmithing and outlines the lifestyles of two families who lived here.  (1-5 pm, Wednesdays to Sundays; 10 am-3 pm, Fridays.) The tourist office is on Nicolaiplatz. High above the town, the Schloss Wernigerode dominates the skyline. While it is possible to walk up to the castle (a half-hour walk through the suburbs), a less strenuous approach is to take the little tractor-train from just behind the market place. A castle has been here since the 13th century but beyond the ancient portcullis what you see today is an ornate, 19th-century Baroquecastle-style home.

Guided tours are available in German or you can tour the castle with the aid of an English brochure and walk from one beautifully furnished room to another. (10 am-5 pm, closed Mondays except in the summer.)

Wernigerode is the headquarters of the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen (HSB), which operates the great little trains of the Harz that give you magnificent views of the mountains. Their brochure Great Adventures with Narrow-Gauge Steam outlines three railway adventures, two of which leave from Wernigerode.

The Harzquerbahn leaves from the Hauptbahnhof, and steaming between houses and gardens, the little train chugs into the forest, winding its way up through the trees as it climbs into the mountains. Following a long tunnel, the track becomes steeper and steeper as the train approaches Drei-Annen-Hohne where the track divides: the Harzquerbahn continues across the Harz to Nordhausen (three hours from Wernigerode) while the Brockenbahn begins the climb of the Brocken mountain. From Drei-Annen-Hohne the Brockenbahn train climbs ever steeper to the summit of the Brocken, offering magnificent views of the Hochharz National Park. (8 trains a day, May 28 to November 5, tel: (03943) 558162, fax: (03943) 32107.)

While this itinerary's next major destination, Quedlinburg, lies just 40 kilometers away across the plains, take a more circuitous back road through the mountains. Leave Wernigerode (with the castle on your left) on the 244 for the 7-kilometer climb into the mountains to the pleasant little resort of Elbingrode where the Büchenberg Mine Museum is found just outside the town. A tour of this former tin mine gives you insight into the working life of a miner in the Harz. (Tours: 10 am, noon, 2 pm, 3 pm-additional tours on weekends, open all year.)

A 5-kilometer drive brings you to Rübeland, a mountain village set amongst limestone cliffs and noted for its caves. Park near Baumans Höhle and choose between a tour of this cave system or Hernmanns Höhle, a series of caves found just across the River Bode. We chose Baumans because of the availability of a tour and were led on a 45-minute walk through passages to caves with magnificent displays of stalagmites and stalactites (the tour was in German and information in English was not available). We understood that the tour of Hernmanns was very similar, but included a pool that contained "cave fish," blind, white, eel-like creatures that live out their lives in darkness. (9:45 am-4:15 pm, daily.)

Cross the River Bode and leave Rübeland past the entrance to Hernmanns Höhle toward Hasselfelde. The road travels up through the trees, into a tunnel, and emerges on a dam with a vast tract of water stretching to the right and the valley falling away steeply to the left. Turn left on the 81 (signposted Blankenburg), and after 1 kilometer, pass through Wendefugh (a speck of a village), go up through the trees, and turn right for Altenbrak; following the River Bode as it tumbles down the most picturesque of valleys for 4 kilometers to the village of Altenbrak whose houses are straddled along the road. Carry on to the few houses that comprise Tresburg, where you turn right up the Bodetal Valley, following walking paths whose rustic little bridges span the tumbling little river, to Aldrode, a quiet farming community set high in the mountains. Turn right and a 5-kilometer drive across heathland takes you down to the tree-lined main street of Friedrichsbrun and on to Bad Suderode (8 kilometers), where nearly every old house (most in need of a coat of paint) has an ornate balcony.

Seven kilometers across the plain brings you to Quedlinburg. Cross the river (following signposts for Zentrum), then secure a parking place and walk to the Marktplatz, where you find the tourist office and the sturdy stone Rathaus (town hall). Within the old town there are 1,500 half-timbered houses, many of them crumbling and in need of restoration, looking much as they must have in the Middle Ages. The entire town center is an architectural gem. Map in hand, explore the little streets behind the Rathaus, venturing down narrow alleyways where you can touch the leaning houses on either side of the cobbled walkways to emerge on streets with elaborate, picture-perfect façades. On a low promontory just a short walk from the Marktplatz you find the Schloss Quedlinburg and the Stiftskirche of St. Servatius(collegiate church), which is considered the most beautiful Romanesque church in north and central Germany. It is a surprisingly spacious, simply adorned edifice built between 1070 and 1129. The treasury chamber contains valuable religious relics, and the room next to it contains fragments of a knotted wall hanging discovered in the 19th century. The adjacent Schlossmuseum houses 16th- and 17th-century Flemish and Italian paintings, and gives you an impression of life at the time of the founding of the Damenstift, a religious institution run for ladies by nuns. The terrace gives you a spectacular view of the town's rooftops. (9 am-5 pm, closed Mondays.)

The Klopstockhaus, a magnificent patrician home at the foot of the castle, has been used as a museum for over 90 years. (9 am-5 pm, closed Mondays and Tuesdays.) The Ständerbau (half-timbered house, Wordgasse 3), built in the 13th century, is the oldest half-timbered building in the town and was a home until 1965. The tiny rooms with all their nooks and crannies house an exhibition on the half-timbered architecture of Quedlinburg. (10 am-5 pm, May to September, closed Thursdays.)

From Quedlinburg, a two-hour drive finds you in Berlin, Potsdam, or Dresden where you can join the Exploring East & Middle Germany itinerary, or travel north to Hamburg and Schleswig Holstein-the Land Between the Seas.

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[ icon ] Tourist-Information Weimar (Markt 10)
Weimar, Thuringia, Germany
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[ icon ] Osterode
Lower Saxony, Germany
[ icon ] Buchenwald
Thuringia, Germany
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Saxony-Anhalt, Germany
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Lower Saxony, Germany
[ icon ] Quedlinburg
Saxony-Anhalt, Germany

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