Rail route of the month: a steam-hauled climb through Germany’s Harz mountains | Germany holidays

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the opening of the railway to the Brocken, the highest summit in Germany’s Harz Mountains at 1,142 metres. The Brocken line is part of a wider network of narrow-gauge railways – mainly hauled by steam trains – in the eastern half of the Harz region, which is a wonderful place to explore by rail.

Direct steam trains run to the Brocken from Wernigerode several times daily, taking about 1hr 40mins. But there’s an alternative: a once-daily year-round service leaving Nordhausen mid-morning and taking just over three hours to reach the summit. The northern route from Wernigerode and that from Nordhausen, well away to the south, converge at Drei Annen Hohne, a railway junction high in the Ziller valley on the eastern flank of the Brocken.

Quite apart from the appeal of a longer journey for the same price, there is good reason for favouring the Nordhausen option: it includes a gorgeous 90-minute stretch from Ilfeld to Drei Annen Hohne through the finest scenery in the Harz mountains. In my opinion, this section of the route, following the Harzquerbahn (Trans-Harz Railway), is even better than the final steep climb to the summit of the Brocken.

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On a bleak off-season day, there are few takers for the 10.33am from Nordhausen. There’s an anxious moment as departure time approaches when several engineers gather around the steam engine. Is there a problem? After much clanging of oily spanners, the train chugs out of Nordhausen and climbs up towards the forested hills. Beyond Ilfeld, the hillsides tilt ever more sharply and, in the still air, steam drifts down over the claret-and-cream carriages.

Dense forest shrouds the narrow gauge track. Photograph: Dieter Mobus/Alamy

A cheerful ticket inspector asks if we need something strong for the journey. This is the infamous schnapps, which is a mainstay of the train to the Brocken. We pass on the offer, but the crew member reassures us that she’ll be back later if…

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