|The train is a fully-restored steam engine dating back to the 1880s.|
I suppose you could call northern Germany’s Brocken Railway Line “the little engine that could” after the famous children’s story, but that would be doing it a disservice. I like to think of this train as “the little engine that does” — an old black steam engine that hauls vintage passenger cars up a steep mountain, only to return and do it again, time after time.
The Brocken Railway Line is part of a network of narrow-gauge railroads that service more than 20 towns and villages in the former border area between East and West Germany, about three hours west of Berlin. The trains are a throwback to a more romantic time when travel was an adventure and, perhaps, more fun.
On my recent trip, I arrived at the Drei Annen Hohne station early in the morning, part of a group of travelers waiting to go to the top of the Brocken, the mountain made famous by Goethe in his epic novel, “Faust.” Goethe, who visited the area in 1777, describes the 3,743-foot peak of the Brocken as a gathering place for witches on certain nights of the spring — and the years have done nothing but burnish that idea. In fact, every year on April 30, local villagers dress up like witches and devils and ride the rails from town to town in celebration of the Walpurgis Night pagan festival.
It was cold the day of my train ride, so I bought a chocolate bar and a steaming hot cup of coffee at the station. Outside, the train, a fully-restored steam engine dating back to the 1880s, stood next to the platform, puffing and waiting for its passengers to board.
The trip up the Brocken usually takes about 50 minutes, but as you climb, you are often subject to the vagaries of the shifting weather in the mountains. That was certainly true in our case.
It was snowing lightly when we left but, by the time we reached the top, we were in the middle of a full-blown blizzard. You couldn’t see more than several feet in front of yourself. A few in our group joined hands and walked the last few yards from the station to the mountaintop restaurant, slipping and sliding all the way. It was not the kind of thing you normally did in street clothes.
Once safely inside the restaurant, we brushed ourselves off and thawed out with a hot lunch of bratwurst and beans. Then we took a tour of the facility, which includes an old radar dome used by the East Germans to spy on the West during the Cold War.
The trip down the mountain was less eventful than the trip up. I spent part of the time standing on the platform between the cars, taking in the gorgeous snow-packed countryside and enjoying the fresh air. During the summer and fall months, the view from the top of the Brocken is spectacular, a wide panorama of the Harz Mountains that stretches in every direction for miles.
This area is also part of what has become known as the Green Belt, an 865-mile long strip of protected habitat that runs along the former border between East and West Germany. Despite the political depredations of the Cold War, this stretch of country remains relatively pristine and preserved.
That night, having arrived safely at the bottom of the Brocken, I stayed in Wernigerode, a lovely town that features a twin-spired Town Hall and a town square famous for its glittery Christmas market.
In the morning, I did some urban sightseeing, walking the cobblestoned streets and peering into the store windows. As I walked back through the town square, farmers were setting up booths and getting ready to sell their produce and fresh meats to the locals.
This part of Germany is indeed scenic and quaint, but the main event for travelers like me will always be a trip up the Brocken on one of the old steam-driven trains.
In fact, the entire train line, which was declared an historical monument in 1972, has become something of a magnet for die-hard train buffs from all over the world. On the railway’s Web site, there is an invitation for anyone over the age of 18 to ride in the locomotive with the engineer and fireman. But there is also a warning: “The trip is at one’s own risk. We recommend dark and older clothes.”
The Web site should have also added another warning: Dress warmly and be open to the unexpected; you never know what you’re going to find at the top.