Indulge my Britishness and allow me to begin with the weather. It all started with a terrible storm. Nonetheless, we decided to venture up the Brocken, the highest mountain in northern Germany at 1,141.1 MASL. Indeed, we were caught in terrifying thunder and lightning. Something that adds to the mythology of the Brocken is that more than 300 days of fog are recorded per year. As Jacob and I fended our way up the Brocken, we realised how unreliable the weather was turning out to be.
For the etymologists amongst us, the Harz mountains were first mentioned by Charlemagne’s son, Louis I, in 814 as the Harzgau. Harz comes from “hart” or “hardt” meaning hilly forest and “gau” means region or district. Before groups began to settle here, the land was made up of such dense forest that the region was essentially uninhabitable, hence why so many place names have the suffix “rode”, from the German “roden”, which means to clear forest.
Amongst the crags, deep valleys and the breadth of the Brocken, the Harz mountains have been embroidered with myths. The Grimm Brothers collected many of their stories from the Harz area and Jacob Grimm explores the Brocken and the witches who dance upon it in his book “Teutonic Mythology”. According to myth, the Brocken (meaning “lump” or “chunk”), also known as the Blocksberg (block mountain), has been a meeting place for witches for centuries. You can hike from Torfhaus (literally peat house) to the top of the Brocken along several paths, one of them being the Goetheweg. Along this path, you can follow the writer’s youthful footsteps to where Mephistopheles took Faust to join the witches. During the Middle Ages, there was a great deal of activity in the Harz mountains: emperors and kings profited from the young mining industry that provided areas as far as Mesopetamia with native minerals. Pagans fleeing the brutal Christianisation campaigns sought refuge in the Harz, bringing their mythology with them.
At first, the royal presence in the Harz helped conserve the natural wonder of the region. Charlemagne restricted access to the forests and placed the flora and fauna under royal protection. This, however, sadly ran its course. Ironworks, mining and deforestation put nature under a lot of pressure as an extensive supply of wood was needed. Above ground, houses were built for the workers and below ground the pits were extended. The wiped out forests were replanted with a spruce monoculture which to this day suffers bark beetle outbreaks. In the fiere face of climate change spruces are more likely to be weakened by extended dry periods and strong winds which may increase the frequency and intensity of the outbreaks in years to come.
The Harz is one of the heaviest rainfall regions in Germany and since an early age water power has been used to generate electricity, provide drinking water and prevent flooding. The area west of the Brocken is met by atlantic winds and experiences around 1,600mm of rain a year whilst the region east of the Brocken has only 600mm per year. The miners created water regale, a network of dams and ditches to store and transport water within the Harz. The word “regale” refers to the rights granted by royalty for the miners to use water for their mining purposes. Streams ran over water wheels that operated the pumps which moved water out of and away from the mines.
Goslar sits on the northeast lip of the Harz mountains and has the most old houses in Germany. Along with the 1000 year old Rammelsberg mine, which provided much of Europe’s copper in the Middle Ages, Goslar is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The 11th Century Kaiserpfalz is a royal palace that was used by German emperors throughout the Middle Ages and due to successful silver mining, the town remained wealthy for the centuries thereafter; During the second world war, Goslar had a large POW hospital, which preserved the town from damage. After the war, Goslar landed in West Germany which led to its healthy upkeep in comparison to the neglected towns East of the Brocken. During the Cold War, the Brocken itself was a designated military zone used by the GDR to spy on the west. The iron curtain may have stripped man of his freedom but in doing so, the roughly 1,400 km long Green Belt assured forty years of wonderful liberty for the environment.
On our last day, we ventured to Wernigerode, another medieval village with notably well restorated Fachwerk houses in comparison to the rest of former East Germany’s neglected villages. From the 12th Century castle we had a brilliant view of the Brocken.
We also had to go to the “Copper can”, Goslar’s smallest pub, and have Goslar’s smallest beer.