I’d long wanted to visit the Harz Mountains area of central Germany to see the narrow gauge Harz railways (Harzquerbahn, Harzerschmalspurbahn) in action. They operate a modern system but must be unique in using a high proportion of steam traction on their services, including all trains up the 1141m high Brocken, the highest peak in Northern Germany. It would actually be more true to say that I was revisiting the area as I was last in the Harz in September 1974 and travelled on the railway from Nordhausen to Wernigerode. At that time it was in the old East Germany and the Brocken was very much off-limits to tourists and locals alike, being a cold war listening station on the west. The whole summit area was surrounded by a robust concrete wall.
2 February 2018
As we had an earlyish train to the Continent on 3 February, we’d booked a hotel for the previous night in London and decided to make a day of it. The weather was clear but cloudy so we decided to go up The Shard, and duly booked tickets on-line for 14:00. We turned up in good time and took the lift up to the 68th floor and then the stairs to the 72nd floor, which although surrounded by high glass panels is partially open to the elements. As was to be expected, the views were amazing and I was fascinated by the bird’s eye view of London Bridge station and its rail approaches. Back down on the 69th floor there was a bar, but it was too pricey to tempt us. Was it worth it? Well, it was certainly costly and they take every opportunity to try to get you to spend more money. We were also told afterwards about the Sky Garden at the top of the ‘walkie talkie’ building opposite, which is free. One for next time. Back down at ground level again we wandered past HMS Belfast, across Tower Bridge and down to the north bank of the Thames close to the Tower of London. It was now close to sunset with some nice colour in the sky followed by a lovely blue hour.
3 February 2018
After a fairly fitful sleep at the Jesmond Dene Hotel, close to St Pancras station, we had a relaxed start to the day catching the 10:58 Eurostar to Brussels. At St Pancras, we bumped into Justin, the Eurostar train manager off Twitter. The journey went well allowing us to connect with the 14:25 German ICE to Cologne and local connection from there to Wuppertal Hbf where we were staying the night at the InterCity Hotel, just opposite the station and in the midst of a mega building site to do with a new bus interchange.
4 February 2018
We spent the morning riding on the unique Schwebebahn (suspension railway) system opened in 1901; first travelling to the northern terminus, then along the length of the line to the southern terminus, and then back to the stop closest to the hotel. The railway runs along a route of 13.3 kilometres (8.3 miles), at a height of about 12 metres (39 feet) mostly above the River Wupper. It’s a very interesting system; with a mixture of new and older cars in service. The best seats are at the back where you have a grandstand view out the rear window.
We then caught the 12:16 Berlin ICE train as far as Hannover. Although we left Wuppertal on time, we were delayed 20 minutes at Hamm waiting for the portion from Essen to arrive and couple to our train. Despite, this, we made our connection to Goslar, and changed again for the final leg to Wernigerode. This was by no means the only occasion of poor timekeeping we experienced on Deutsche Bahn. The scenery had grown more and more appealing with the train running through a hilly snow-covered landscape with the trees also covered in snow. I went to the Harz narrow gauge station before dinner at the HKK Hotel, where we were staying, to see the steam locos on shed and the 18:00 arrival. This was very atmospheric; the mix of steam train, snow and darkness.
5 February 2018
Today, we were off to Goslar, which was in West Germany, just a short half hour train ride away. Wernigerode had been in the old East Germany. We had actually spent a holiday in Goslar in 1986 so it would be interesting to see how much we remembered. In the event, we could recall nothing at all! Goslar was founded on mining for minerals, but became a place where the German Emperors held court in the Middle Ages. The town is incredibly well preserved, escaping damage in the Second World war, with many half-timbered buildings as well as the Emperor’s Palace. We went on a two hour guided tour, which proved very informative. Then followed a welcome lunch of goulash and spätzle, washed down with beer followed by a stroll around Goslar. Just time then for a cup of hot chocolate before catching the train back to Wernigerode.
Back at Wernigerode, there were more opportunities to photograph the Harz railways steam locomotives before dinner; then after dinner a stroll to the market square, which looked absolutely magical following a recent fall of snow.
6 February 2018
Today dawned glorious and we set off on the 08:40 train to Halberstadt, changing onto the connection to Quedlinburg where we arrived at the rather down at heel station with time for a coffee before catching the Selketalbahn – part of the Harz railways – train to Alexisbad at 10:30. This was hauled by one of the big 2-10-2s and after the fairly flat stretch to Gernrode followed a stiff climb through the snow-covered forest. It was quite thrilling spending time on one of the open balcony ends listening to the locomotive working hard. On arriving at Alexisbad, we had a very quick connection to the railcar to Harzgerode.
At the Harzgerode terminus, we had time for delicious glühwein before catching the railcar back down to Alexisbad and lunch of goulash soup and cake in the hotel opposite the station. There was then time for a short walk before catching the railcar back to Quedlinburg. We then had time to look round Quedlinburg, a town consisting of a lot of attractive old medieval buildings, with time for a hot chocolate in a café on the market square. We caught the 17:33 from Quedlinburg back to Wernigerode with a change again at Halberstadt.
7 February 2018
Today was really going to be highlight of the holiday and fortunately the day dawned with the weather looking promising for a trip up the Brocken by steam train. We duly caught the 09:40 departure, which was fairly quiet until we reached Drei Annen Hohne at which point it got very busy and there was no chance of taking photos from one of the open verandahs. The landscape became more and more snow and icebound as we climbed up through the forest to the Brocken’s summit; this really must be one of the world’s great railway experiences. Fortunately, the weather was fine and clear, a fairly rare event on the Brocken. We had coffee and cake in the restaurant and then photographed a number of ascending trains. We also bumped into Nigel off Twitter on the summit! We caught the 14:51 train down to Drei Annen Hohne where we had to change for the Wernigerode train. Once back at Wernigerode, it was time for a very welcome glühwein at a cafe off the market square.
8 February 2018
On a gloriously clear morning, we started the long journey home by catching the 09:18 train from Wernigerode, changed at Goslar to Hannover, where we had ample time for coffee before the 12:31 ICE1 train to Cologne. This departed 10 minutes late and needing lunch we went to the dining car and had chilli con carne followed by pancakes washed down with beer, a very pleasant experience. On returning to our seats, we were very surprised to see our train pass Hamm Westfalen station without stopping and take the Dortmund route! The train had been supposed to split at Hamm with portions to Cologne and Düsseldorf. After Dortmund, where the train did split, we regained the original route at Hagen but arrival at Cologne was nearly an hour late, well after the time our connection was due to leave for Brussels Midi. We managed to catch the following Thalys train an hour later than planned but as we had no seats reserved we had to keep moving seats as people kept claiming the seats we were sitting in; I think we changed seats three times! We just arrived at Brussels in time to check in for our 19:02 Eurostar departure, which turned out to be 30 minutes late. We arrived at St Pancras at 20:27 and easily made our original planned connection to Derby at 20:55, reaching home at 22:45. So ended a short holiday, which will long remain in the memory!