About this time last year I was planning to do some hiking (both wilderness and urban) in Germany, and was booking a train from Cologne to Leipzig when I started to wonder what might be in between. Despite many, many visits to Germany, I’d never really explored the middle of the country, away from the urban centres and well-known sites. So I opened google maps to central Germany, and searched “Castles”. One of the most interesting to pop up was Wernigerode in the Harz mountains. (Note: Unlike my other blog posts, these are phone photos, so apologies for the low quality.)
Wernigerode sits at the edge of a huge mountainous, forested area full of trails. It’s a resort town – one that’s still making the transition from its former East German character into a swankier new character. That, and its being off the main rail lines, means that it’s not ridiculously crowded and is still affordable (or at least it was in May). Arriving at the railway station, it’s just under a km to the centre which is easily walkable on a nice day. Otherwise you’ll need to take a circuitous cab journey, as much of the centre is pedestrianized.
The town itself is a classic half-timbered fairy-tale version of old Germany. There are charming shops and cafes, and you can still dine like a 100 year-old Prussian. I highly recommend doing that by the way. I was there during white asparagus season, and a meal of this seasonal dish accompanied by pork roast at the Löwenbräu am Kohlmarkt is a meal worthy of wearing Lederhosen and a ridiculous moustache.
There are a couple of charming squares, and even a local brewpub pumping out huge steins of classic German styles. I stayed at the Hotel Gothisches Haus – overall one of the nicest old-school hotels I’ve ever visited, complete with luxurious rooms, spa and fine dining. I got it for less than C$100/night, which cannot be typical. Given that the weather can be changeable in May, it might be a seasonal thing. But if you can get in there – do it!
But the real feature of the town is the access to the Harz mountains. Terrific trails abound, and I spent most of my three days there making the most of it. A good warmup hike is up to the castle, where you can take a tour that is more about how people lived during the castle’s heyday than about grand castle architecture.
Another great (and slightly steeper) walk is up to the Kaiserturm, which for touristic reasons is billed as Rapunzel’s Tower, complete with dangling hair. The views are great, and there’s a charming restaurant pub to catch your breath and up your blood alcohol.
But for serious hikers, it’s all about the Brocken – northern Germany’s highest peak – with multiple trails of varying difficulty. Non-hikers can take a narrow-gauge railway up to the top, especially if the weather is fine (it can be COLD up there). Hikers – pay close attention to weather reports and the advice of your local expert or concierge. The weather didn’t cooperate on my trip, so I only hiked the lower sections.
So if hiking is your thing, or if you want to relax in a charming German mountain town, Wernigerode is a great choice. This is especially true if you can visit during May or September when prices are low. I’ll be back in better weather, because there’s a Brocken that needs climbing.