THis year marks the 125th anniversary of the opening of the railway to Brocken, a 1,142-meter peak in Germany’s Harz Mountains. The Broken Line is part of a wider network of narrow gauge railways in the eastern half of the Harz region – served mainly by steam trains, making it a wonderful place to explore by rail.

Direct steam trains run several times daily from Wernigerode to Brocken, taking approximately 1 hour 40 minutes. But there is an option: the once-a-day year-round service leaves Nordhausen mid-morning and takes more than three hours to reach the summit. The northern route from Wernigerode and from Nordhausen, farther south, joins the Drei Annen Hohne, a high railway junction in the Ziller Valley east of Brocken.

Apart from the appeal of a longer journey for the same price, there’s good reason to favor the Nordhausen option: it includes a magnificent 90-minute stretch from Ilfeld to Drei Annen Hohne via great views over the Harz mountains. In my opinion, this section of the passage, following Harzquerbahn (Trans-Harz Railway), is even better than the final steep climb to the summit of Brocken.

Literary relation

On a dark day in the off-season, there are few takers for the 10.33am from Nordhausen. There is an anxious moment as the departure time approaches when several engineers gather around the steam engine. Is there a problem? After several clangs of oily spanners, the train pulls out of Nordhausen and climbs into the wooded hills. Beyond Ilfeld, the hills slope more sharply and, in a still breeze, steam drifts above the claret-and-cream carriages.

Dense forest covers the narrow gauge track. Photo: Dieter Mobus/Image

A cheerful ticket inspector asks if we need something strong for the journey. This is the infamous schnapps, which is a mainstay of the train to Brocken. We pass on the offer, but the crew member assures us that he’ll be back later if we change our minds.

We are blessed with an empty train, but the Brocken ride is extremely popular on spring and summer days. When the first trains arrived at the summit in 1898, Germany’s intellectuals had mixed feelings. As the literary establishment scorned the arrival of the hoi polloi in one of its most sacred places, John Ruskin echoed his opposition to the intrusion of railways into England’s most revered landscapes. For German literati, Brocken was not alone any mountain, but the very peak immortalized by Goethe in Faust.

An old half-timbered house in Nordhausen.
An old half-timbered house in Nordhausen. Photo: Alamy

But the Harz Club, a voluntary association founded in 1886 to promote public access to the mountains, welcomed the influx of visitors. As the first flood of tourists spills over to the top of Brocken, a club spokesman suggests there is still plenty of room for those wanting to experience the Harz’s tranquillity.

Route for tourists and locals

Poet and essayist Heinrich Heine’s account of the 1825 Harz journey (Die Harzreise)) painted a picture of an idyllic life lived by woodsmen and farmers – although the reality may not be so rosy, as village names such as Sorge (sorrow) and Elend (sorrow) suggest. Our train stops at both; On the railway platform of the latter is a small museum recording aspects of daily life in the area before German reunification in the 1990s. At one point the train went within 700 meters of the fortified border. So for 30 years from 1961, when the Berlin Wall and the inner-German border were reinforced by East German authorities, no passenger trains rode to the top of Brocken.

A view of Brocken in summer.
A view of Brocken in summer. Photo: Zoonar GmbH/Alamy

Speed ​​is not the name of the game. Our train travels through the forest at a leisurely 20mph, and the station stops are fun affairs – a chance for a chat and a smoke on the platform, and an opportunity to take photos of the vintage train and its immaculately preserved steam engine.

During a long stop at Drei Annen Hohne, the train crew tells us how the Harz railway network survives as a historical oddity in the must-see part of East Germany. “Back then there were all kinds of restrictions on who could come here,” says the train driver.

Now the narrow-gauge network is prized as a premier-league tourist attraction and there is talk of extending the network west across the eastern inner-German border. “It’s not just for tourists though,” adds the driver. “With year-round services, we are a lifeline for remote communities in the mountains.”

A network of tracks serves villages in the eastern Harz mountain region.
A network of tracks serves villages in the eastern Harz mountain region. Photo: Stefan Dinsey/Alamy

From Drei Annen Hohne our train makes a punishing climb to the summit of Brocken. The train still climbs very steeply, slowly circling the summit and in good weather, views from all angles of the quaint collection of buildings and airplanes adorning the top. Not for us: all is shrouded in mist. Two foxes climb out of a garbage can on the platform at Summit Station. The distinct smell of fried food from the cafe next door. A poster announces that a rock opera called Faust will be performed at the summit from late summer this year. In this instance, I reflect that the enjoyment of the 10.33 journey from Nordhausen truly eclipses the quality of the destination.

Travel details

A return trip to the summit of Brocken from any station on the Harz narrow gauge network costs €51. Three days is enough to explore the entire network and there’s a handy three-day pass for €99. These premium fares are applicable to itineraries that include rail to the summit. Other fares are much cheaper. All trains are second-class only. Interrail passes are not accepted. Note that while all trains to and from Broken Peak are steam-hauled, services on other routes may be operated by diesel railcars. Find timetables and other information at Harz Narrow Gauge Network website.

Nicky Gardner lives in Berlin, where she is co-editor Hidden Europe magazine. Co-authored by Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide. The 17th edition of the book was published in 2022. It is available from Guardian Book Shop.


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