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DAS TRAIN : Steaming through Germany's Harz Mountains on vintage railroads, and into a town with charisma

October 22, 1995|Karl ZimmermannBD/ Zimmermann is a New Jersey based free-lance writer and author of several railroad books.

WERNIGERODE, Germany — Deep in Germany's Harz Mountains, concealed for decades by the Iron Curtain, ancient Wernigerode is a polished gem of a city, rich in cobbled streets and impeccably preserved half-timbered buildings. It's also a railroad town.

Germany's now-unified national railway system (the Deutsche Bahn, or DB) runs through it, but Wernigerode's claim to fame among train buffs like me is the steam-powered Harz Narrow-Gauge Railways (Harzer Schmalspur Bahnen, or HSB), a scenic and countrified rail system that charges up mountains and rambles across meadows. The entire network totals only 82 miles, but the steep grades, sharp curves and leisurely stops to meet other trains and replenish the locomotive's water supply conspire to slow things up and make distances seem far greater.

Steam engines, largely vanished from the world's rails outside of museums, have a unique charisma, and narrow-gauge trains have a Lilliputian charm. (HSB's tracks are one meter wide, rather than the standard 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches.) So the promise of narrow-gauge steam easily persuaded me to bend a European itinerary into the Harz Mountains of north-central Germany last fall. (Though Americans seldom visit here, German tourists have been drawn to the Harz region's scenic beauty and rich history since the turn of the century.)

On a warm, sunny September afternoon I arrived in Wernigerode on a Deutsche Bahn local train after a journey of about 3 1/2 hours from Berlin. I then boarded a train of diminutive red-and-cream coaches lettered "HSB." Up ahead a shiny black locomotive steamed quietly, fragrant coal smoke curling from its stack.

With an urgent cry of its shrill whistle, the husky little engine lurched into motion. We were bound at a stately pace for Brocken, 2,900 feet higher in the Harz Mountains and minutely visible dead ahead of the puffing locomotive.

We threaded our way among startlingly picturesque shops and houses that fronted Wernigerode's winding streets. Once into the mountains, our engine began to "talk it up," its exhaust steady and loud to announce a climb that would continue all the way to Brocken.

The HSB has three parts, all operated as a single railroad. The Harzquerbahn (or Trans-Harz Railway) runs north-south from Wernigerode to Nordhausen Nord. At Drei Annen Hohne, the Brockenbahn (Brocken Mountain Railway)--my route this particular day--veers off toward Brocken. Farther on, at Eisfelder Talmuhle, the Selketalbahn (the Selke Valley Railway) branches eastward to Alexisbad and Gernrode, with lines to Hasselfelde and Harzgerode. Just as we curved onto the Brocken branch, we entered Hochharz National Park. Schierke, a few miles farther on, is as far as the highway goes, so the remaining empty seats on the train filled. The clientele was decidedly middle-age to elderly, but vigorous, outdoor types.

The coaches--clean and perfectly comfortable, if Spartan--had one great feature: windows that opened far enough for me to squeeze my head out and watch the locomotive churn and flail along, hoisted up the mountain on an alternating succession of curves. Here and there the deep evergreen forest broke away, and then the vistas were far and fine.

Approaching the summit, the train wrapped around the mountain in a tightening spiral. As we popped into the open, above timberline, locomotive exhaust barked louder, as if the engine were giving its last ounce of energy for the final climb. Here a trail parallels the tracks; hikers, many with walking sticks, exchanged waves with train passengers. Then suddenly the clamor ceased and we were there, on a bald summit that felt like the top of the world.

The trip, 21 strenuous miles all told, had taken one hour and 40 minutes. Peering from my coach window, I could see the orange-tile roofs of Wernigerode, a toy village far below.

The wind was biting, a definite premonition of winter, and I was glad for what warmth remained in the late-afternoon sun. The serious hikers that crowded the platform, waiting to return to Wernigerode after a day's outing, were ruddy cheeked and well bundled up.

In his masterpiece, "Faust," Johann von Goethe set the witches' sabbath in the Harz Mountains (Goethe visited Wernigerode in 1777), and Brocken does have an otherworldly, almost sinister quality--a barren landscape with whistling wind and scudding clouds. But the most ominous presence is a vast Sputnik-like tower and antenna that bristles skyward.

At 3,691 feet, the highest summit in the Harz Mountains, Brocken is in a part of former East Germany that bulged into the West. These two characteristics made it perfect for a top-secret Soviet listening post and radar location--which is what all the fancy electronics are about. As a result, Brocken was off limits and the line closed to passengers from 1961 to 1992. Judging by the crowds, people are glad to be able to go to Brocken again for the expansive views and fine network of hiking trails.

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