“That's a strange place for a big slab of concrete,” I said to the squirrel. It was jutting out of the snow, an oatmeal pancake sprinkled with icing sugar, looking exceedingly out of place. The squirrel watched me curiously as I released the bindings of my cross-country skis and bent down to sweep away the snow. The concrete slab was large, square and familiar.
I stood up and looked in the direction of the Wurmberg, the area's popular ski hill (when there's enough snow) and then back towards the Brocken – the witchy peak hidden behind the trees. Not only was the slab of concrete out of place, but so was the 30-metre-wide chunk of forest that was missing along this stretch. Young fir trees, their skinny tips about head high, were starting to cover this once razed area, and in a few more years, the divide will no longer be visible. But for now it remains a silent reminder of Germany's division in the last century.
There wasn't much snow, but enough for cross-country skiing. It was too early in winter for the branches of the fir trees to be crusted with snow and hanging almost vertical under the weight. It was just me and the squirrel, and the frozen prints of what I hoped were lynx or wildcats, but were probably just foxes.
And there was the slab, the sturdy foundation of what was once an observation tower, looming over the former border between East and West Germany, where the grim drapery of the Iron Curtain hung. It sliced the Harz right down the middle, with the Brocken surrounded by a three-and-a-half-metre concrete wall and used as a communications spying outpost. The Brocken railway station even served as quarters for border troops and the Soviet Red Army.
But that was twenty years ago, when the Harz was a Cold War frontline and the Brocken, secure behind the wall, remained only accessible for westerners through performances of Goethe's Faust and the writings of Heinrich Heine. This devilish, mist-enshrouded peak was thought to be lost forever. Had Goethe had foreseen the future? That the only way to get to the peak was to ride there on a wine barrel in league with the devil?
Ironically, it was during communism that the area, falling from grace as a tourist attraction, experienced much needed regeneration. Many species that had been hunted almost to extinction and rare plants that had been trampled on were allowed to thrive again. Moors deepened and thickened, trees grew with raw abandon and the surrounding forest became a mysterious wilderness again.
Which now makes this drab slab of concrete even more out of place. The squirrel knows something but keeps its mouth shut. This miniature, furry Mephistopheles cocks its head, inquiring if I might want to make a pact, sell my soul for another ten centimetres of snow. Or maybe it simply thinks I have a nut or two to offer. I don't, but the way the squirrel still lurks there so fearlessly it makes me think other visitors might. Did the death strip border guards feed the squirrels? Did they stand on top of the tower taking pot shots at innocent deer? Did they dream of skiing to the west, like some dramatic James Bond style escape, ducking under the barricade, jumping over the tank traps and shushing away to freedom as bullets dug into the snow?
Probably not. But they presided over this stretch, and perhaps in their boredom, recorded the minuscule growth of each tree in the vicinity, all the while exaggerating their recent misadventures in nearby Wernigerode and Quedlinburg. From up so high, they probably didn't even see the squirrels or take note of what animals had left tracks in the snow, and the very idea of skiing the patrol road was fanciful. Yet, here I stand, doing that very thing.
The toot of a steam train scares the squirrel and he ducks between the trees. Towards the Brocken, a puff of smoke is snaking over the tips of the firs. I head towards it, skiing up a long hill, following the old border but not chancing on any more concrete slabs. Higher up, the snow is deeper, covering the trees, and at Dreieckiger Pfahl, groomed trails lead invitingly in all directions: to the creekside Rote Bruch trail, the hilly Achtermann loop, the lengthy and exceedingly pretty trail that ends at the hamlet of Schierke. Or the straight downhill run to Oderbrück heads to a restaurant that bakes sublime apple cake. But the toot of the train sounds again and I hope the view from the peak is worth the climb.
The smooth, straight tracks sliced by skiers have been trampled on by walkers, and one red-faced woman, spindly and sinewy even in a thick down jacket and driving her Nordic walking sticks into the snow with possessive intent, remarks to me, coldly, as she passes on her way down, “This is a hiking trail.” But her husband following a few paces behind, perhaps feigning distance, gives me a warm, don't-mind-her smile, and the sight of a few other skiers – okay, one skier – further ahead spurs me on.
The trail, Goetheweg, follows the train tracks and it's not long before a black steam engine curls around the bend and chugs into view. The coal shoveller is doing most of the work, sweating in his blackened undershirt while the driver, all silly hat and cheesy grin, is having most of the fun, his arm cradled on the window, one hand yanking the whistle. The train to the Brocken leaves from Drei Annen Hohne station and is part of a broader narrow gauge network that runs from Wernigerode to Nordhausen, where a V2 rocket factory was located in the mines of nearby Kohnstein.
The passengers crowding around the windows and leaning over the railings at the back of the wagons are enjoying the view but I'm glad to be on skis. There's no reward in being shuttled up a mountain, quaint train or not, especially when that peak, at just over 1,110 metres, is an easy two to three hour climb, on foot or on skinny planks.
Fog normally enshrouds the peak, sometimes creating the eerie phenomenon called the Brocken Spectre, and this rare clear day has walkers scurrying to the top to take in the view that extends in all directions.
The peak is crowded. It's a 10 kilometre walk from Bad Harzburg, but most people cheat by taking the train or parking their cars at Torfhaus or Oderbrück and walking five kilometres from there. This purist clicked, shuffled and slid, and fell a few times, the 14 kilometres from Braunlage, the region's most popular base for winter sports. The town itself has very little of note and its drawing power is its proximity to numerous cross country trails and the Wurmberg peak, which has a 2.8 kilometre long gondola.
Further afield but with more historical interest and beauty is Goslar in the north and the UNESCO recognised old town of Quedlinburg in the east. While those two towns, and several others ringing the park, are worth visiting, they do not reveal the area's raw beauty and rugged landscape, and slabs of unidentified concrete aren't nestled between the historical buildings.
The park itself is as mysterious and devilish as Goethe claimed, where witches ride “a-farting on stinking old goats,” and the broad expanse left by the former east-west border, with its concrete bases and patrol roads, has added to its mystique. From the Devil's Pulpit or Witches' Altar rock formations to brushing away snow from the base of an observation tower, this natural wonderland lends itself to flights of fancy.
I'm sure the squirrels have answers, but not even a handful of nuts will make them tell.
The Harz is easily accessible with Germany's national railway operator Deutsche Bahn via Braunschweig and Magdeburg to north or Göttingen to the southwest.