As part of an ongoing series, our content team share their favourite railway experiences in destinations across the world. This edition sees content writer Jack recount his time steaming up the snowy mountains of Germany in a furious winter's blizzard. Keep an eye on future editions of the Journey for more railway tales from the GRJ content team!
The Harz Mountains never get much of a nod when people compare
the mountains of Europe.
Sure, you've got your Alps, your Pyrenees, your Scottish Highlands, your Dolomites. You've got your Carpathian Mountains, the Tatra range and the odd peak rising above Spain. But the Harz Mountains in central Germany don't often appear on the mountain maps of Europe, and it's such a shame because this alluring range of forested slopes, river valleys and quaint German towns is truly something special.
I ended up here just a few weeks before Christmas, and it was probably the best time to stop off in the Harz Mountain region. Think idyllic postcard German towns, watched over by snowbound Gothic castles. Think frost glazed brooks streaming under railway bridges. Think merry festive atmospheres rising from cheery Christmas markets, like the smell of mulled wine against a black pudding German sky. It's Christmas made material.
Based in Wernigerode, I'd already immersed myself into the German winter. I'd hiked up to Wernigerode Castle through its forested hills and taken in the views. I accidently stumbled into a closed wildlife park on the outskirts of town in a blizzard. I'd sampled the soul-warming, hearty wares of the jolly Christmas market in the town centre, set against the backdrop of the golden rathaus lights. To truly become one with the inherent beauty that winter brings to these parts however, there was one final experience I was looking for. And that was to be found in the restored wooden carriages of the mighty Brocken Railway, one of the most striking and magnificent steam trains in the world.
Arriving at the station in Wernigerode, the stationery train and the old platform looked like a still from an old war film. Gentling chugging out steam, the locomotive is an impressive beast with a black cylindrical engine stretching out ahead of the red and cream carriages. It's a narrow gauge track with two of these trains running to Brocken Mountain each day during winter. Impressively, the whole train is adhesion based without cog wheels or other helping devices, meaning that even on the steepest hill, the power all comes from the engine itself. This fact is even more remarkable given the 1 in 30 incline along the steepest part of track. The interiors of each carriage are a delight, with sharp and nostalgic wooden finishes and large windows allowing me to fully appreciate the magisterial beauty of the scenes outside.
Following its departure from Wernigerode, the Brocken Railway carves a snaking route through the Harz National Park up to the summit of the indomitable Brocken. On its way, a landscape of incalculable timelessness unfurls itself, yielding a panorama of Brothers Grimm style forests, old-fashioned station houses and glittering frozen rivers. Gaping valleys peel away to vie for attention, competing against a sublime painting of distant peaks, dusted with sugar-icing snow. It's a masterpiece of north European natural beauty.
As soon as we left the station, a few flakes of snow started to fall. And then it really came down. The forest and trees quickly succumbed to a blizzard of white and the world turned into a wonderland before our eyes. These carriages being of older fare, the connecting sections had small adjoining platforms over the couplings where passengers could stand against outside. I spent my entire time here, with the snow quickly layering my jacket and head as we ascended through the mountains. Leaning out, you could look back and see the line of carriages twisting out behind you, pummelling through the snowstorm. It was incomparable and one of the most memorable travel experiences I've ever had.
What people often don't notice is the utter silence. Once your ears adjust to the chuntering of the steam engine and the rattling of the track, the blank canvas of wintery German landscape becomes almost a haven for solitude. I got several opportunities where I was the only one on the platform and it was sublime. It was peaceful, tranquil and comforting, and it was a side of winter that often gets forgotten in the face of festivities.
We never made it to the summit because of the heavy snow, so we stopped off at a half-way station to enjoy a quick beer at the bar. As the blizzard rose, there were few better places to be, and as the Brocken Railway began its journey home, there were few better ways to experience the special little touches of the season than from on board this superb train. This remains my favourite railway experience to this day, and I'd encourage anyone to give it a shot, whether you may prefer the deep snow of winter or the glorious colourful meadows of summer.
There are clips of my journey to be found on our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/GreatRailJourneys many of which are located under the videos tab. If you've been on a similar journey or even the Brocken Railway itself, let us know what you thought in the comments below!