Forget Frankfurt, Nuremburg and Cologne; their Christmas markets may be ginormous but they are also tacky, overcrowded and located in desolate cities that to paraphrase Prince Charles and Max Seebald were destroyed twice over, once in the war and again by modern architects.
To experience the true charm of German Christmas markets you need to travel to the mountains and undulating hills of the Harz region. Here you will find three of Germany’s oldest medieval market towns within 40 miles of one another, which were left miraculously unscathed both by the destruction of World War II and the wanton neglect of the communist era. And what is more you can reach two of them along one of Europe’s most romantic steam railways.
The magical heart of the Harz region is the medieval town of Wernigerode, whose old town square boasts Germany’s most beautiful timber framed town hall (Rathaus), which dates back to 1427. I’d opted to stay at the family run, 250 year old Weisser Hirsch Hotel, right opposite the medieval town hall and both the room and the restaurant offered a view that would not have looked out of place in a Disney movie version of Hansel and Gretel.
I’d arrived with my wife and our five year old daughter in the last week before Christmas and our little one could not wait to get out amongst the twinkling lights of the market stalls to start throwing snowballs. As we ventured out of the hotel past the giant Glockenspiel, it was snowing steadily and we could hear a small group of school children singing Christmas carols. But the best part of all was that the many market stalls, selling all manner of hot drinks and food from wild forest berry Gluehweins, to Eggnog punch, roast pork and crackling sandwiches, and countless types of sweet biscuits and pastries, were all but empty. It felt distinctly like we were gate crashing the local’s private Christmas party. The cold night air was scented with an incredible array of aromas including grilled bratwursts, roasted meats, sweet pancakes, plus all manner of mulled wines and hot alcoholic beverages. After the obligatory snowball fight and taking my daughter on some of the rides we settled back into the cosy hotel bar to watch the snow continue to fall over this wonderful medieval winter scene and enjoy some lovely nightcaps including a Schneeball (Snowball – made up of Wild berries, Eggnog and cream), a Schneemann (Snowman – made up of wild berries, schnapps and cream) to name but a few of the enticing varieties that you could also find at the market.
The next morning we set off for the highlight of the journey the HSB (Harzer Schmalspurbahn – the Harz regions narrow gage steam railway). We walked five minutes from the market to the little railway station of the Westentor (Western Gate) in the old town. The station has a sweet little old wood panelled waiting room adjacent to the ticket office. Our objective was the most scenic of all the 140 plus kilometres of steam railway in the Harz Mountains; we were headed for the highest steam railway station in Germany at the Broken (pronounced Brockn) mountain at 1125 metres. The train predictably arrived bang on time, but thankfully it was half empty and easy to find a comfortable window seat from which to take in the view.
We pulled out past one of tower gateways of the old city walls and could look back towards the Schloss (Palace) that stood imposingly on the hill above the town. The train trundled on past many lovely old wood timbered houses and former imperial era residences until the medieval town scape gave way to football fields buried under three feet of freshly fallen powder snow, before the train then disappeared into dense pine forest. It was a very picturesque journey past streams and little waterfalls; my five year old was ecstatic as she was the first to spot a magnificent stag which stood aloof on an outcrop staring down at the train as it passed only 20 yards away. Up and up we climbed getting a full view of the engine and carriages in front of us as we rounded each curve. The train hugged the mountain side on the right as we peered down steep bluffs to our left into the valley below. You could see the temperature outside drop as we passed the 600 metres mark at the little railway station of Drei Annen Hohne, where some families got off with skies and sledges to begin a speedy descent, or to go hiking from one cosy hut to another. The trees below this level were laden with snow but above this point the landscape was transformed. The mountains were a single blanket of white, no other colours were visible. It had snowed so heavily that the trees were encased in snow, their branches bowed under its weight and the big chill during the night, at these higher altitudes, had turned the snow to ice.
The train pulled into the last stop before the peak at Schierke, at 685m. We were then informed that due to the heavy snows of the last night and the icy temperatures of minus 18 it was taking a little longer to clear the track up to the top than expected. I was amazed the 120 year old train was running at all. If this has been the UK the entire country would have ground to a halt. We were invited to exit the cosy and well heated train to stamp our feet, take a hot chocolate and a snack at the Alpine style ski hut alongside the track. Our respite in the café however was not to last long as shortly after our food arrived a punctilious lady railway worker came in to tell us we had five minutes to get back on the train if we wanted to make it to the summit today! We hastily bundled up most of our food into our napkins and headed for the door. Everyone aboard was now all smiles and anticipation while munching on the goodies they’d managed to retrieve in their napkins.
The train had the last and most difficult part of the climb of some 440 metres over 14 kilometres to go to reach the summit. We passed through more dense pine forest and high snow drifts, the trees were all a mass of snow and ice, ghostly in the steam of the train and the layer of cloud and fog that blanketed the upper part of the mountain. After just over half an hour we reached the summit. It was bitterly cold as we exited the train. The array of ski huts, the listening station and the hotel at the peak resembled Ice Station Zebra, or a polar outpost with snow drifts covering doors and windows. The wind at the top of the mountain blew the snow into your eyes, causing a white out, a lunar landscape of sheer whiteness. Some passengers staggered off in the direction of the mountain top museum, whereas we headed straight for the viewing tower, or to be more precise its cake shop, at the highest point on the mountain, to order another round of hot drinks and some local Baumkuchen chocolate cake. Miraculously the bad weather moved off to the east as were sitting there enjoying our sweet little feast and the array of colours that came into view was breath taking. The mountain was now bathed in crystal clear blues, set against the pure white powder of the recent snow and the dark greens of the trees in the valleys around the frozen lakes.
As we waited on the train to make the last the descent that day, the clear night sky was aglow with the vibrant sharp colours of a winter sunset, whilst simultaneously a full moon began to rise and bathe the snow in a beautiful silver blue light. As we rounded the first major curve, a little way down from the summit, I stepped outside on to the gangplank between the carriages to get a better view and a vast vista opened up before me of rolling low lying peaks stretching out as far as the horizon, across which the last rays of the sun were setting. The colour contrasts in a crystal clear night were simply stunning. As I continued to ponder the wonders of view, the conductress passed with a basket full of schnapps and sweet liquors that warm the heart and set your breast bone on fire. After my stint on the frozen gangplank this was more than welcome. For those with a sweet tooth I can recommend the Heizerschluck Waldbeer Liqueur (warming dram of forest berries)!
The trip was made all the more special because even in peak season, in the week before Christmas, everywhere had remained far from crowded. You can book late (there was still availability in the run up to Christmas) and it was exceptionally good value for the time of year (see links at the end). It was also inspiring because for decades this summit was part of the Cold War death strip that divided Germany and Continental Europe and was closed to all but the most diehard of East Germany’s communist border guards. It was the last place along the border to be stormed by locals, eager to tear down their stretch of the wall, on 3 December 1989. The whole region has subsequently been transformed into a giant nature reserve.
For those who want to explore more of the ‘Great one among the little ones,’ the motto of the HSB railway network, there are many other wonderful historic towns and villages along the ‘Strasse der Romanik’ (Romanesque Road) in the state of Saxon-Anhalt, which has the amusing motto of ‘the state where people like to get up early!’ Another must see destination on this route is Germany’s first defacto capital, the UNESCO World Heritage town of Quedlinburg, which has the largest number and the greatest variety of timber framed houses in Germany, its own wonderful Christmas market and a fortified Palace (Pfalz) & Cathedral which rises above the town and dates back to the early 10th century. When we arrived at the Pfalz on a Friday morning at 11.00 we had the entire place to ourselves and appeared to be the only foreign tourists at the wonderful little Christmas market in front of their ancient Rathaus. The other and the largest of the three medieval Christmas markets in the Harz Region (also a UNESCO World Heritage site) is Goslar, just over 25 miles to the west of Wernigerode. Goslar’s beautiful medieval Christmas market is spread out across three lovely squares, with a near life size nativity scene including all the animals you’d expect (and some you wouldn’t like a lama) at the foot of the main church.
Getting there: With BA or Lufthansa from London Heathrow to Hanover. Then by hire car, with e.g. Avis or Europcar, the 103km from Hanover to Wernigerode takes around an hour.
The trains: www.hsb-wr.de (recommend the adult return ticket from Wernigerode to the Broken or a family day ticket for 2 adults and 3 kids to travel the entire length of the railway)