William Crossley hits the heights in the Harz mountains, the historic heart of northern Germany

NOT missing a beat, despite the stiff gradient and spiralling climb, the steam locomotive eased its 100-tonne load up the final few yards to its destination, the snow-covered summit of the Brocken, the highest mountain in northern Germany.

This was the high point of my visit to the Harz mountains in every sense, almost 3,800ft above sea level on a snow-capped, wind-chilled summit at the end of a 20-mile train ride of almost continuous climbing up gradients as steep as 1 in 30, pausing only at the stations of Drei Annen Hohne and Schierke so that the water tanks of the powerful 1950s-built locomotives that work the line could be replenished.

The Brocken occupies a special place in German history. In legend it was the home of witches and the devil, helping to inspire Goethe when he wrote the play Faust, now staged in the summit hotel as a rock opera several times a year.

From 1961 to 1991 the mountain symbolised the division of Germany, out of bounds to the public because of its position on the border between West and East Germany and the listening posts perched at the summit operated by Soviet and East German intelligence agencies to snoop on the West.

While tourist traffic to the top of the Brocken is the Harz Narrow Gauge Railway's biggest moneyspinner, its network stretches for almost 90 miles through the rugged, tree-covered terrain that gave the region its name, from the medieval German word Hardt, meaning mountain forest, linking Wernigerode in the north - where I began my journey to the summit of the Brocken - to Nordhausen in the south and Quedlinburg in the east, providing a year-round public transport service, with lightweight diesel units and tram-trains sharing the tracks with the steam trains and helping to carry more than a million passengers each year.

Quedlinburg was only linked to the network's Selketal line in 2006, when a former standard gauge branch line from Gernrode was converted to the metre gauge track used by the Harz network, but a visit to the town shows why the local councils which own the railway were keen to make the connection.

Unlike many German towns and cities, it came through the Second World War unscathed, retaining its historic old town, packed with half-timbered buildings set along winding lanes clustered below the Schlossberg hill. This was once topped by a fortress, used by the kings of Saxony, though it is now dominated by the church and buildings of a medieval college for the daughters of nobles.

Unesco granted Quedlinburg World Heritage status in 1994, describing it as "an extraordinary example of a medieval European town".

Beyond the remains of the defensive wall which used to surround the old town lies a attractive ring of 300 Art Nouveau buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including houses, schools and business premises.

But Quedlinburg is not the only town in the region with Unesco World Heritage status. At the western end of the Harz mountains is Goslar, another settlement which escaped the attentions of Allied bombers and artillery during the war.

Here too, medieval half-timbered buildings dominate the heart of the town, which in the early Middle Ages was one of the most important settlements in the Holy Roman Empire, with a palace - the Kaiserhaus - set on a hill looking out across the town, providing a home for the emperors when they visited.

Over the centuries the palace complex fell into disuse, with its cathedral demolished and the Kaiserhaus left in ruins. With German unification in the late 19th century came a drive to rebuild the palace and the grand mural-lined main hall is well worth a visit.

Among the most impressive of the half-timbered buildings in the streets below is the Siemens House, the ancestral home of the family of industrialists, built in 1693 and combining a home, office, warehouse space and a brewery. While it was sold in 1778, members of the family bought it back in 1916 to use as an archive and venue for reunions. It can be visited by members of the public on guided tours of the town.

What made Goslar so important in the past was what was found in the rocks of the Rammelsberg mountain, just to the south.

For at least 1,000 years, and probably longer, men worked their way through seams rich in copper, lead and silver, until mining came to an end in 1988. In recognition of this unique history of continuous mining for so many centuries, the mine was also granted World Heritage status in 1992.

The surface complex of buildings constructed in the late 1930s now houses a museum and forms the starting point for tours inside the mine, on foot or using the old narrow-gauge train which took the miners deep inside the mountain.

Among the highlights of a tour is entering the underground chamber housing one of four large 19th-century water wheels which pumped water out of the mine and lifted ore to the surface for processing.

And some parts of Goslar and the mine complex may look familiar to film fans, with scenes shot in the old town and underground at the mine in 2013 for The Monuments Men, about the hunt for art treasures looted by the Nazis during the Second World War.


  • William Crossley travelled to the Harz Mountains with Rail Discoveries, which operates escorted tours to the region, priced from £795 per person for a seven-day holiday between May and October.
  • The package includes rail travel between London and Hanover, via Brussels and Cologne using Eurostar, Thalys and Deutsche Bahn ICE express trains, coach transfers between Hanover and the Maritim Berghotel Braunlage and to Goslar, Quedlinburg and the Brocken and Selketal railways, as well as a guided tour of Goslar's historic old town and six nights' accommodation at the Maritim Berghotel Braunlage, including breakfast and dinner.
  • For full details of the tour, see raildiscoveries.com/tours/harz-mountains-train-tour/ or call 0800 138 6300.
  • For more information about visiting the Harz region, see the following websites, which all have sections in English.
  • Harz Tourist Board: harzinfo.de
  • Goslar Tourist Office: goslar.de
  • Quedlinburg Tourist Office: quedlinburg.de
  • Harz Narrow Gauge Railways: hsb-wr.de
  • Rammelsberg Mining Museum: rammelsberg.de