The Harz Mountains are known for their scenic beauty and a varied landscape of soft, sloping hillsides enriched with steeper ascents and sporadic rock formations. It is the perfect location for hiking, climbing, birdwatching or skiing, depending on the season. According to the legend, the national park is also the focal point for the Brocken witches. In the midst of the area, witchcraft, myths and magic envelop the highest mountain, Brocken, which in particular draws the witches on one special occasion every year.
Ainnelise Niyvold Liundbye UPDATED: 20 JAN 2020
The hilly landscape in the Harz Mountains is our destination for a few days of refreshing hiking. Happy to know that the weather forecast for the next couple of days definitely is in our favour, we ignore the few raindrops in the air.
In all the villages we drive through, we come across enchanting half-timbered houses, cobbled streets and a history that often goes as far back as the Middle Ages. The Harz region in particular features several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, among others a couple of exceptional fairy tale towns.
A tortuous hairpin road, which twists through the light green forest, is our access point to the small village Hohegeiss near Braunlage. It is one of these small, pretty villages in the Harz Mountains surrounded by softly sloping valleys.
The houses have neatly decorated fronts with lovely flower pots and whimsical figures arranged at the entrances and in the gardens. The first witch, we spot, sits in a garden and looks real nasty.
Brocken witches in the Harz Mountains
The fairy tale legend about the Brocken witches absolutely still exists. Brocken is the highest peak (1,142 m or 3,747 ft) of the Harz Mountain range and also of the entire Northern Germany. Atop the mountain the weather is usually unexpectedly harsh. A vast majority of the days it is wrapped in a thick mist which emphasizes the spookiness of the mountain in accordance with its witch myths.
The majestic Brocken (or Blocksberg) has for many years been connected with fabled, creepy witches as well as unearthly and gruesome devils. The German writer and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe referred to the witches in his work Faust.
” Now to the Brocken the witches ride, the stubble is gold and the corn is green…”
Being a nature loving personality, he hiked around the Harz Mountains and used his imagination to describe how the eerie witches came and danced on their broomsticks around Brocken on Walpurgis Night, April 30th. Goethe is, maybe not surprisingly, just one out of a number of German writers who have used the Harz forests, quaint rocks and mysticism as a reference in their writing. Another fairy tale character who has her roots in the compelling Harz Mountains is the Wernigerode Castle’s famous Rapunzel.
According to the number of witches we see in front of houses and gardens in the Harz villages and towns, the Harz witches absolutely still thrive! On Walpurgis Night they ride on their broomsticks towards Brocken and the location of former heathen sacrifices, and this is where they, dancing around a bonfire, worship the Devil. That night the Harz people participate in the occult event in the villages and towns, dressing like witches and devils and attempting to expel the witches with fireworks.
Clues to the witch legend can be found everywhere in the area. Numerous Harzhexen are displayed outside the local shop. It is tiny witch puppets riding straw broomsticks – the traditional Harz souvenir!
Brocken – where the witches dance
The locals also all know about the Brocken Spectre of the Harz Mountains. It is the sudden apparition of a climber’s shadow, cast on the mists below him while mountain climbing. The shadow may at some light angles appear enormous. Such sightings on the Brocken Mountain have nourished the imagination of the Brocken Spectre.
Brocken with its enchanting hillsides, forests and rock formations is all ready for discovery. In particular, one peculiar rock deep inside the Brocken Mountain forest has given rise to the mythical witch legend which has reached far beyond Germany’s borders.
A small gauge steam train, the Brockenbahn, enables visitors to get from picture-postcard Wernigerode to the railway station on the flat top of Brocken. Hiking to the very summit is also a possibility, but that is definitely a more demanding option, and, what’s more, it is said to be very cold up there most of the year! The top of Brocken is historic since it in 1935 was the location of the first television tower in the world, broadcasting the Olympic Summer Games in Berlin in 1936.
We are in the Harz National Park which was declared a united national park in 2006. Besides being an area for nature conservation featuring an extremely rich biodiversity, different ecologic biomes and distinct vegetation zones, it is also a much loved area for sports practitioners. There is an intricate pattern of hiking trails which are frequently used by both locals and out-of-town hikers.
Setting out from Hohegeiss in the Harz Mountains along the winter skiing track Grosse Ebersbergloipe, we discover a landscape which is varied with both soft hills and more demanding stretches of rougher downhill terrain. The altitude and general winter climate combined with a certain probability of snow provide excellent opportunities for cross-country skiing across the valleys here in winter. Alpine skiing is definitely also an option at the downhill stretches of the Harz Mountains. However, some winters, like this year’s winter, fail to deliver the required amount of snow, so there is unfortunately no ski guarantee!
The signposts for skiing tracks are not the only signposts we come across. The Harz Mountains are also packed with signage for hikers and mountain bikers. In the afternoon, when we are hiking from Braunlage towards the top of Wurmberg, we are nearly turned over by a couple of proficient mountain bikers on a whirlwind descent down the narrow, twisting and uneven trail full of intertwining and dangerous tree roots!
After a long, ascending hike through the dense forest to the summit of Wurmberg, we reach the small lake with an astonishing view of the misty, surrounding landscape and the, at this time of the year, empty gondola ski lift, the Wurmbergseilbahn.
The old border between East Germany and West Germany
We are actually terribly near the border between the two German states Saxony-Anhalt (Sachsen-Anhalt) and Lower Saxony (Nieder-Sachsen). Not only are we close to a present-day border, but also the historic border between the German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik / DDR) and the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland / BRD), or simply East Germany and West Germany.
Brocken ended up on the East German side of the border which at the time made it inaccessible to the West Germans! A new television tower was built here by East Germany and the area then came to serve the Red Army and was used for Russian listening posts. The equipment could seemingly reach 400 km (250 miles) into West Germany to spy on telephone conversations! Later, the East German secret police, Stasi, took over the place.
Just where we stay in Hohegeiss, we are only a stone’s throw from the old border. A few streets to the side we find the Grenz-Imbiss and a signpost for the historic border from before the German reunification of the East and West Germany in 1990. The remarkable ‘Kolonneweg’ still esists. It used to be the last, well-guarded East German road before the tempting freedom in West Germany. A road that separated German families for 45 years!
The Harz has cave bears inside the mountains
Next morning we set off from Rübeland for a 20-kilometre (12 miles) hike through an astonishingly varied and alluring landscape. Rübeland surprises us with bear statues at many central locations. It is not until we, all of a sudden, from the trail glance into a dark cave, which is closed off to the public with an iron gate, that it dawns on me that there have been cave bears inside the mountains here! In fact, in the Baumann’s Cave (Baumannshöhle) and Hermann’s Cave (Hermannshöhle) numerous bones of cave bears (as well as cave wolves) have been digged out since the first escavation in 1892. The bones originate from at least 25 distinct bears from probably two different bear populations.
It is not hard to follow the Witches’ Trail (Harzer-Hexen-Stieg), since eerie, witch-dressed figures holding on to solid broomsticks stare at us all along the small road out of town. The trail is really awesome, disclosing the weirdest, old tree trunks and labyrinthine roots, hidden, trickling mountain streams, as well as locks and dams of the Bode Lake and Rappbodetalsperre.
Locks, dams and mining in the Harz Mountains
The waterways and locks are all part of the Oberharzer Wasserwirtschaft, the hydropower system, formerly crucial to undertake and maintain the regional mining activities. The mining has spanned widely throughout the years, finding both copper, galena (lead) and silver ores. It has unquestionably been a very productive mining district. The downside, at the time, was the danger involved in working there. There have throughout the years been several severe incidents in the mines. Fortunately, with the abandoning of the mining, the underground perils of collapsing mining corridors finally came to an end.
On our hike towards the great Rappbode Dam we all of a sudden spot an old mining carriage in between the trees. Looking up the steeply sloping mountainside we then detect the rails continuing all the way up. The vegetation covers most of it, but it is seemingly all still there – left for the future.
After a great hike through the light green forest and along refreshing streams, where we fill up our water bottles, we eventually reach the impressive dam. This is definitely one of the highlights of the hike: the Titan RT suspension bridge from 2017, which at the time of construction was the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world with a suspended length of 458 m (1,502 ft)! However, a few months later it was already outdone by a new Swiss suspension bridge.
Even if it is a calm day, the bridge swings considerably when we walk over it, and we must hold firmly on to the railing! There is no need to participate in activities like bungee jumping / gigaswing or trying the megazipline which are also available here for more adrenalin seeking people.
The lower level hike around the romantic lake Oderteich with breathtaking views surprises us with astonishing sights of the dying forest. It was a phenomenon or syndrome known from the eighties. Back then the forest death across larger areas of Germany was believed to be due to acid rain and air pollution from the industries. Later, the tree death has additionally been blamed the bark beetle and a couple of devastating storms. The forest is now recovering, but the heat and drought during the last years’ summers haven’t really been in its favour.
From a hiker’s point of view the trail is very interesting, though. It goes right across the network of visible roots among bare, upright trunks, sometimes broken and sometimes even completely turned over, displaying the enormous roots. It is like treading into an adventure world with supernatural creatures. With a bit of imagination the landscape does not contradict the vision of spooky witches circling around on their broomsticks! It is absolutely surreal to walk here, but this is today also a side of the Harz Mountains!
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