The Harz Mountains in Germany are a place of myth and legend. The hills, forests, narrow gorges and rushing streams of the Harz are the setting for stories of witches, giants, devils, elves and princesses. Most famously Goethe made the Brocken, the highest mountain in the area, the site of the gathering of witches on Walpurgis Night (30th April) in Faust:
Now to the Brocken the witches ride; The stubble is gold and the corn is green; There is the carnival crew to be seen; And the Squire Urianus will come to preside. So over the valleys our company floats, With witches a-farting on stinking old goats.
To say people in these parts take their witches seriously is a bit of an understatement. Witches abound – in shop fronts, wood carvings and in backyards. So it makes sense that one of the best ways to experience the region is on a hike along the 97km Hexensteig, or Witches Trail.
Start/Finish. We started our hike at the western end of the Hexensteig at Osterode am Harz, travelling there by train (closest major town is probably Hannover). We ended the hike at the eastern end at Thale, but immediately left Thale to spend a night in Quedlinburg, a UNESCO world heritage site (40 minutes by bus).
Organisation. We usually prefer to organise our own trips and hike independently carrying our packs ourselves. Sometimes, however, the hassle of organising your own trip combined with only a marginal cost saving means that such an approach is pointless. This was one of those occasions, so we decided to use the services of Wandern im Harz (www.wandern-im-harz.de/) who booked all our hotels and transferred our luggage each day for the very reasonable price of 455 euro per person for a four person group (we were joined on this trip by friends, Mary and Kevan). This price included accommodation, breakfast and lunch for 7 days. The organisation and choice of accommodation (a combination of landhaus’, pensions and small hotels) was first rate.
English. English speakers are not common in this region (Australians are even less common, if the startled laughs of the locals are anything to go by). We got by with a mix of Rob and Mary’s halting German and smiling a lot.
Maps/Waymarking. The path was generally well marked with witch symbols and town distances at various points, but we occasionally had to resort to using the map to check our way at crossroads and when descending off the track into small towns in the valleys for our accommodation. We were provided with the Schmidt Buch Harzer Hexen-Steig 1:30000 map which covered the entirety of the trail.
Kaffee and Kuchen: Importantly on each day, save the first, we were able to split the hike up with a kaffee and kuchen stop. Kaffee and kuchen is one of the great joys of hiking in Germany and Austria. Our favourite stop on this hike was probably the Dammhaus on the second day.
Time. We took 6 days to walk the trail, with no day longer than 19km and the maximum height gain in any day no greater than 560m. The trails were a mix of old forestry tracks and walking paths and, when the getting to and from the trail to hotels was added to the trail, our walk totalled about 107km. The trails were generally fairly well groomed, with only some short rocky sections on the third and last days. Without packs it was fairly easy going, leaving plenty of time to enjoy the scenery and the kaffee and kuchen. The time taken could be shortened to 4 or 5 days, but if we had done so it is unlikely we would have enjoyed the trail as much as we did.
Day 1 Osterode am Harz to Riefensbeek (13km) – wood carvings galore. We walked from our hotel the Zum Roddenberg on the other side of town along the Sose Stream past the 12th century Alte Burg (old fortress) to the official start of the trail (240m above sea level) adding about a kilometre and a half to our day. We followed the waymarked road, ‘the Hundscher Weg” up and out of town. Eventually the road turned into a forestry track and we were to continue on forestry tracks for the rest of the day. Ordinarily that wouldn’t make for very exciting hiking but in this case the locals had livened up the scene with a variety of wood carvings interspersed along the track. The first major carving of an old woman carrying a load of wood was accompanied by a carving of a 4o kilo load of wood which hikers were invited to try to lift. This provoked a vigorous debate about whether little old ladies actually did carry 40 kilo loads and, if so, how far they carried them. If little old ladies were carrying baskets of wood for great distances good luck to them – I struggle if my modern rucksack has more than about 15kg. We headed up to Eselplatz a major crossroads with picnic tables, before heading down and then back up to the high point of the day at Mangel-halbor Tor (535m above sea level). From Mangel-halbor Tor we left the Hexensteig and descended down to Sosestausee and from there followed a path along the stream to Riefensbeek and our accommodation for the night, Landhaus Meyer.
Day 2 Riefensbeek to Altenau (18km) – along the channel system. Our day began with a hike back up to the Hexensteig. Once back on the Hexensteig it was a short walk along forestry tracks until we were at the start of where we joined the Upper Harz mining water management system. Now a world heritage site, the Upper Harz mining water management system is a network of ponds, small channels, tunnels and underground drains developed over a period of 800 years to enable water power to be used in mining and metallurgical processes. Primarily built between the 16th and 19th centuries, the water system covers an area of over 200 square kilometres. Over the next two days we came on and off paths which followed the small water channels giving us a small sample of the greater whole. It probably doesn’t sound great to say that you walked along a ditch for a couple of days, but they were old ditches and unbelievably picturesque. For me they were probably the highlight of the Hexensteig. At about the 13km mark we had a break at the Dammhaus. From there it was about 6km to Altenau and our accommodation at Landhaus am Kunstberg.
Day 3 Altenau to the Brocken (18km) – crossing into the former East Germany. The day was all about getting to the top of the legendary Brocken, which at 1141m above sea level is the highest mountain in Northern Germany. Hikers have been coming to the Brocken since the first recorded ascent in 1572. Its status as a recreation area was briefly interrupted in the days of East Germany when the summit was sealed off with a 3.6m high concrete wall and used as a listening post to spy on West Germany. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall there was a demonstration walk which led to the dismantling of the wall and the area was opened up once again for recreation purposes, with more than a million people now biking, hiking, or taking a narrow gauge steam train to the summit each year. For a mountain hike it is remarkably easy. We left Altenau and rejoined the Hexensteig travelling along the canal path for about another hour. At that point the Hexensteig headed up hill and became more of a mountain path until we reached Torfhaus, the national park headquarters and time for a kaffee and kuchen break. From Torfhaus it was about a 2 hour hike along a wide path, populated with mountain bikers and hikers up to the Brocken following alongside, for part of the way, the tracks for the steam train. For much of the way the gradient was reasonable, only really increasing as we neared the summit. We were very fortunate with clear blue skies on both the day of our ascent and the next morning, which was unusual as the Brocken is shrouded in mist for an average of 300 days a year.
Day 4 The Brocken to Konigshutte (17km) – a descent with herbal liqueur. The day’s hike was nearly entirely downhill – perhaps the easiest 17km we have ever walked. The descent off the Brocken started with a tarmac section of about 4km before we entered the forest on walking tracks and re-emerged at Drei Annen Hohne, the start point for those taking the train up to the summit. We had brief stop for kaffee and kuchen at the train station before we headed off on unsealed roads into the forest. About 2km out from Konigshutte we stopped for lunch only to find that the lunch pack we received from the Brocken Hotel contained not only the usual roll, fruit and chocolate but also a shot of the local herbal liqueur. Only Kevan was willing to take the local approach of combining walking with spirits and confirmed that it was indeed very alcoholic – he seemed even more mellow than usual for the balance of the walk. A short walk past some waterfalls and we were at our destination, Koningshutte where a small festival complete with marching bands was underway (which made for a nice, if somewhat noisy, introduction to the town).
Day 5 Konigshutte to Wendefurth (19km) – “wall running”. A quick look at the map before setting out revealed the only English words on the map “wall running” just before the destination for the day, Wendefurth. Apart from idle speculation as to what “wall running” may be, the day’s walk was probably the least interesting of the entire trail. We started along forestry tracks following a waterway and dam which supplied the drinking water for the area before heading up over a hill and descending into Rübeland where we diverted off the track for a kaffee and kuchen break. We returned to the track and followed a stream around to the small town of Neuwerk, where the locals had really got into the witch theme. After Neuwerk the path got narrower and there were a number of ascents and descents off the stream until we left it to head up hill into the forest. We eventually commenced our descent arriving at a view point across a dam. As we crossed the dam wall the meaning of “wall running” immediately became apparent. On the face of the dam wall was a rather hesitant face first abseiler – more wall tottering than wall running. A few hundred metres on from the dam wall and we were at our hotel for the evening.
Day 6 Wendefurth to Thale (19km)- the gorge and the end of the trail. Nearly the entirety of the day’s walk was along a trail which followed the Bode River. At the halfway point of Treseburg we stopped for our traditional kaffee and kuchen break before continuing along the path, which became increasingly more spectacular. As we continued the path became narrower and the sides of the canyon steeper and higher, until we eventually emerged and headed into Thale. At this point we left the wilderness and entered a slightly surreal world – there was a small theme park filled with children and off slightly into the distance some thermal baths where the norm, apparently, was for patrons to be naked. Don’t, however, let that put you off – even if you don’t feel up to a 100km hike a visit to Quedlinburg and a half day walk on the gorge out of Thale should make the highlight list of any trip to Germany.
Quedlinburg. We opted not to stay in Thale but to take a short bus trip across to the neighbouring town of Quedlinburg before heading out the next day. Quedlinburg resembles the fairytale German towns of my childhood imagination. It is now a world heritage site recognised as a classical example of a European medieval town, with more than 650 timber framed houses. We stayed in the Hotel Theophano, right on the square and had a celebratory dinner and beer (or water in the case of Mary) at the Brauhaus Ludde. A great way to end a great hike.