The view from the Brocken
by Nicky Gardner
The media focus this month is very much on Berlin, as we mark the 25th anniversary of the success of East Germany's quiet revolution of 1989. The people of the German Democratic Republic gently nudged the ruling Socialist Unity Party from office.
The British Guild of Travel Writers (BGTW) has this year discovered that there is very much more to eastern Germany than Berlin, a city that is "poor but sexy" in the words of its retiring mayor Klaus Wowereit. It's not just Berlin that's poor. Much of eastern Germany remains conspicuously less wealthy than the western Bundesländer. But, as BGTW members discovered in Thuringia during our AGM in January, no-one comes to eastern Germany for glitz and gloss. The region offers something very much better.
Integrating the two halves of Germany was never going to be the work of a moment. Even now, 25 years after East
Germany relaxed its restrictions on travel, the eastern Bundesländer still have a very different look and feel from the west. And many travellers rather prefer the eastern variant of Germany to the west. The east is often less pushy, more comfortable and altogether more relaxed. It's also a lot cheaper - and they know how to make solyanka in the east.
The Harz Mountains are a good spot to take the pulse of the two Germanys. This region of quiet valleys and forested hills lay astride the inner-German border. Cast back 60 years and the region's celebrated narrow-gauge rail network crossed the line of the border. But capitalism has its way of degrading community assets and the railways in the western Harz were closed. Happily, East Germany recognised the importance of public transport infrastructure and the railways survived. Today, the Harz narrow-gauge rail network is a trump card for local tourism. No other part of Europe can boast a comparable offering of year-round steam trains - with some lines relying very much on locals as well as visitors.
Even in the worst of winter weather, steam trains still chug to the top of the Brocken
- once a closed military area, but one which was quickly reclaimed by the people in the political changes of 1989/90. That journey to the summit is nowadays a very fine excursion by train. But any trip on the Harz railways is a chance to catch the spirit of a region that deserves to be far better known by visitors to Germany. It is a thought worth pondering as we watch the showpiece memorial events in Berlin this month and reflect on the changes of the last 25 years.
About the Author
Nicky Gardner lives in Berlin, where she is co-editor of hidden europe magazine.
Photographs ©hidden europe. Top to bottom:
- Steam train at Eisfelder Talmühle
- Narrow-gauge railway on top of the Brocken
- Alexisbad station on the Harz narrow-gauge railway network
You can see a gallery of images of the narrow-gauge railways of the Harz Mountains by clicking here: