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Once upon a time in Goslar

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Once upon a time in Goslar
Photo: Rainer Dollichon via Wikipedia
16:46 CET+01:00
The fairytale town of Goslar makes a great base for exploring northern Germany’s Harz region. Campbell Jefferys visits the popular UNESCO World Heritage site in Lower Saxony.

Goslar’s tale is a simple one, involving a knight, a horse and a hill.

More than a millennium ago, a knight named Ramm tied his horse to a tree while he was hunting along a hillside. While he was gone, the horse impatiently dug at the dirt and exposed a large vein of silver. The hill was subsequently named after the knight and the town that sprung up next to it after his wife.

And so Goslar was founded in 922 from the chance meeting of hoof and hill. The story might be the stuff of legend, but the impact of the silver discovery is not. With a prosperous mine on the Rammelsberg, Goslar grew quickly into an economic and commercial centre.

In the 11th century, Kaiser Heinrich II of the Holy Roman Empire moved the imperial palace from Werla to Goslar. Many of the town's most impressive sights were built during this period, including the foreboding Kaiserpfalz palace, the expansive Breites Tor, the Marktkirche with its mismatching towers and numerous other churches and monasteries. By the Middle Ages, tiny Goslar was jam-packed with 47 church steeples.

Thankfully, many of those sights remain and are in excellent condition, having been spared from the bombs of war and the wrecking balls of progress. That's why the old town is now a UNESCO listed heritage site. Every gilded house and shuttered window, every shadowy nook and dusty cranny are links to 1,000 years of history. Hans Christian Andersen once stood in the main market square and said he felt “as if I were standing on charmed city earth, of which I had heard so much as a child in many fairytales.”

Almost two centuries later, Andersen’s impression still sums up modern-day Goslar perfectly. And its proximity to the Harz national park means visitors can have all the pleasures of a bustling small town, replete with rustic restaurants, a good choice of hotels and a bevy of medieval sights, while also being close enough to experience a bit of nature during the daytime.

The hills start right at the edge of town and are some of the nicest in the park. Mountain bike in summer, ski in winter, and hike all year round. There are golf courses, swimming lakes and ski hills all in a sprawling park full of deer, lynx, boar, foxes and all manner of birdlife.

The Harz of the matter

Buses trundle deeper into the park to the villages of Hahnenklee, Claustal-Zellerfeld, Schulenberg and Altenau, and further afield to Braunlage, St Andreasberg and Torfhaus, the main starting point for the hike to the highest peak in northern Germany the Brocken.

Those pleasant few days take on an easy rhythm: venturing into the park during the day, lunching at a village inn or picnicking on a bench, and then enjoying the quaint, jewel box old town in the evening. While Goslar does get a lot of tourists, namely the 'senior set,' for the most part they are day-trippers, unloaded from buses for a quick tour of the Kaiserpfalz and a piece of cake at a cafe on the market square. That means Goslar at night is reserved for the locals, once described by a chronicler of a 12th century Pope as “quarrelsome, obstinate and restless fellows.”

But this couldn't be farther from the truth. Goslar has hit on hard times in recent years, especially since the closing of the Rammelsberg Mine in 1988 (it is now a museum and a UNESCO World Heritage site), but the residents remain friendly and accommodating. They like to sit shoulder to shoulder, quaffing regional brews at the Brauhaus Goslar and the Worthmühle, and are welcoming of strangers who come in pink-cheeked from spending the day in the park.

One part of the old town that lends itself to a fairytale setting is a path that follows the Gose River, from where it enters the old town at the base of the Rammelsberg to where it leaves near the Breites Tor. Along the river, the houses are crooked and bent, curving with the narrow road. They seem to lean against each other for support, still jostling for position after sharing the space for over 500 years. The century old cobblestones have been made smooth by time, and the museum's old water wheel creaks and groans as the river trickles north.

In one of those gilded houses, Goslar's most famous son, chemist Albert Niemann, discovered cocaine. Another house on Bergstrasse belonged to ancestors of the Siemens family and is one of the most splendid in town. A few steps further is the Brusttuch, a half-timbered wonder with a slanted slate roof like a massive witch's hat. Inside, carved into the supporting woodwork, is the Butterhanne, depicting a girl churning butter with one hand and lifting her skirt with the other to moon the devil.

But that’s another fairytale for Goslar to tell.

Hotel tip

The Hotel Harzlodge is a twenty minute walk from the Marktplatz along the Gose River. Set just below the Rammelsberg, hiking paths into the Harz start from the hotel's doorstep. The recently renovated rooms offer excellent value and there is a bus stop out the front for connections to Hahnenklee and Claustal-Zellerfeld. Doubles from €60, including breakfast.

Dining tip

The Worthmühle is a bit like dining in some medieval living room, with small, low tables pushed up against even smaller windows that face the Gose River. You almost expect to see horses tied up out front and for some knight to come clamouring in, rattling armour and all. Hearty Harz specialties can be washed down with Gose beer.

Outdoor tip

From the base of the Rammelsberg, a number of paths lead up and over and around the hills of Wintertal, in what is one of the least used areas of the Harz. Depending on the season, and your inclination, ride, hike or cross country ski the ten or so kilometres to Schulenberg. Your reward is a massive, scrumptious Windbeutel cream puff, perhaps decorated as a swan with cream and cherries, at the Windbeutel Palast. But then you'll have to ride, hike or ski back to Goslar to work off all the calories.

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