This restored steam-hauled railway criss-crosses the Harz and the former border between Germany’s East and West.
In many parts of Germany the train still plays the role of local bus service, holding rural communities together with trains that seem to stop at every other cow pat. And just occasionally it performs this function in spectacular, old-fashioned style, as in the Harz Mountains. Here, the towns of Wernigerode and Quedlinburg in the north and Nordhausen in the south, spanning the borders of Lower Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia, are linked by a unique, privately-run railway the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen (HSB).
What makes this narrow-gauge railway so special is the fact that the vast majority of trains are hauled by steam locomotives, in a year-round service. It’s a network of 140km, connecting some of the most charming of towns, and for enthusiasts and for hill-walkers there’s the extra bonus of the terrain, for the trains climb up and over the Harz range, working spectacularly hard under great pillars of steam. There are few places anywhere in the world where you can experience at such close quarters the charisma and power of steam as the huge tank locomotives tackle the steep gradients. And it is not just for tourists: schoolchildren, commuters and shoppers rely on the railway.
Wernigerode is the heart of the HSB, where the locomotive workshops and largest engine shed are located beside Westerntor station, and the trains leave the town with much ceremony and clanging of bells.
Long-haul passengers have to change trains
Otherwise, key stations are Drei Annen Hohne, up in the forests, and Eisfelder Talmühle on the high Harz plateau, and passengers who want to travel from one end of the network to the other are likely to have to change trains at one or other of these two stops.
At Drei Annen Hohne a lot of walkers get on and off, particularly because a branch of the line climbs all the way up the Brocken (1,125metres) from here. This is called the Brockenbahn.
Between Drei Annen Hohne and Eisfelder Talmühle, the junction for the line to the east ending up at Quedlinburg, the landscape is mainly forest. The Quedlinburg route – a longer journey, the Selketalbahn – gets progressively more pleasant and pastoral as it first crosses the high plateau and then descends, ending up in a town famous for its cobbled streets of timber-framed houses.
Meanwhile Nordhausen (on the Harzquerbahn) is a bit more prosaic, with the trains sharing the line with the local tram service for the last few stops. The town was the site of a concentration camp during the Second World War, providing labour to the V2 rocket factory, and as a result it was heavily bombed by Allied forces.
Getting There: International airports are at Hanover, Berlin, Leipzig and Erfurt. International rail connections are via Cologne from Brussels (Thalys), which connect with the Eurostar from London. See our Travel page for airlines, rail and tour operators.
Harz Railway site, in German only.
Harz Mountains general website, which also has details of the Harz as a ski destination.