The Harz Mountains are 2,226 square kilometres of medium sized mountains and forest that seems to have been spit out of the ground of middle Germany. Circling the Harz are the cities of Hannover, Gottingen, Wolfsburg, Leipzig and Magdeburg. Much of the Harz today is a national park and the area is home to a wide range of animals, fauna, amazing geology, caves and trails open to hikers and bikers. The Harz also has a huge industrial, social and military heritage.
The Harz do get a bad press by some because of the tendency for rain and there can be no doubt that the area is rich in rivers, lakes, reservoirs and 17 dams fed from the skies and the economic success of early Harz industry (and future) is built on the harnessing of Hydro-power. The Harz exports crystal clear water to a large area around it and at a turn of tap you can have some of the best water in the world to drink, wash up dishes in and rather luxuriously to pee into. Nonetheless and although I have been soaked to the skin in the Harz I have also spent days without seeing a drop.
The almost impenetrable Harz began to see settlement in the 800’s and became somewhere when silver was discovered at Goslar and this saw exports grow far afield throughout the middle ages. Despite it being designated by Emperor Charlemagne as a Royal Forest in the early 1200’s the area continued to see an expansion of mining, iron working, charcoal production (30,000 pits alone) and agriculture all of which led to a huge deforestation. Now bark beetles happily munch on less resistant trees that were introduced to replace the lost indigenous species. It remains in places a fragile landscape.
The great poet and writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe did much to place the Harz into the German mind-set and there are ‘Goethe Wege’ to be found across the country, but the one that recreates Goethe’s own ascent to the top of the Brocken, at one thousand metres the highest summit in the Harz in December 1777, is the most personal to the man. “So lonely, I say to myself, while looking down at this peak, will it feel to the person, who only wants to open his soul to the oldest, first, deepest feelings of truth.” It is said that only 200 plus people followed Goethe up this path in 1779 and now the number is over 200,000 per year (with the aid of a rack and pinion narrow gauge steam railway).
The Harz was built upon the sorcery and alchemy of metal working, and the mixing of the classical elements – earth, water, air, fire, and aether. Therefore it is no wonder that the area is alive with superstition and tales of witches enticing travellers off their path to their doom. It’s no surprise either to me that Goethe later in life wrote his ‘Faust’, the story of a man’s pact with the devil – the Harz has an edge to it that suggests it once signed a similar pact.
As you cycle or walk about the Harz you don’t have to go far to see remains of redundant metal mines (not coal) and industrial earthworks now overgrown by trees. The towns of Clausthal, Zellerfeld, Bad Grund, Sankt Andreasberg, Lautenthal, Altenau and Wildemann became major mining centres and around 30 more villages had some direct connection with the mining of metals or metal smelting (some areas remain heavily contaminated). The Harz was for many centuries one of the most important mining areas in the world.
The last working mine closed in 2007 at Bad Lauterberg and the area has witnessed a huge decline with abandoned factories and iron works plentiful to see. But, despite the polluted soil in some areas the Harz is well known in Germany not only for its marvels of water management, but also for its pure air. In some towns such as Sankt Andreasberg you must pay a daily ‘Kur Tax’. This tax helps pay for the provision of cures such as hydro therapy, clean air and the maintenance of trails. To an outsider this all seems very odd and it is.
Doctors and Nurses
The place I know the best in the Harz is Sankt Andreasberg and the town is dominated by an ugly modern ‘Kur Haus’ at its centre. The now closed ‘Rehbergklinik’ set a tad out of town became the biggest employer after the closure of the ‘Samson’ (Once the deepest mine in the world and now open to tourists and features working electricity generating turbines from 1922), ‘Red Bear’ and ‘Catharina Neufang’ silver mines. The ‘Rehbergklinik’ had offered treatments from before the First World War and cared for generations of patients until it shut its doors in 2007. The Rehbergklinik like many others across Germany closed when German health insurance companies declined to continue referring their clients to them for the healthsome effects of the pure mountain air. A memorial remains in the clinic grounds placed there by the Hanseatic League of northern coastal cities remembering those who died in WW1 and who had links to the clinic.
Other clinics are owned and operated by trade unions and the like, a Hamburg based trade union wanted to use the Rehbergklinik, but were told by their associated insurance company to use a more local clinic.
The nearby city of Gottingen contains a large number of hospitals and clinics and subsequently features a large military cemetery (as well as smaller ones). Similarly, the nearby Harz with its many clinics is pockmarked by ‘Kriegsgräberstätten’. In Sankt Andreasberg’s church yard lie the remains of 15 German and two Imperial Russian dead from WW1, and added since are 77 Germans, both military and civil, plus two Soviet soldiers from the second. Almost all of the latter died in April 1945 when the German army vainly tried to prevent the Americans from taking control of what SS Reichsführer, Heinrich Himmler had declared the ‘Harz Fortress’ (some units fought on even after the surrender in May). At the Rehbergklinik there is also a small military graveyard (Kriegsgräberstätte) containing 12 dead, one a nurse who all died in the last month of the war. In addition to the dead of April 1945, many tombstones in the main cemetery show dates of death ranging from after the surrender of German forces through to the late 40’s. As in the Gottingen ‘Friedhof’ some war victims took a long time before finally succumbing to their injuries.
A bitter heritage for the Harz Mountains is the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp and there were 100’s of forced labour camps of mixed size across the area and all being subcamps of the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar. The Nazi regime fed increasingly more and more of humanity into their death grinder as they desperately tried to put off the inevitable for as long as possible in case a new ‘wonder weapon’ might save them at the last minute. The most well-known site is at Nordhausen where many of the prisoners at Mittelbau-Dora worked and died when the Nazi’s forced them to dig deep into the mountains to provide protection for the manufacture of the V1 and V2 ‘vengeance’ weapons. The Nazi plan was to take the manufacturing of weapons into bomb proof underground factories and the Nazi fetish for concrete knew no bounds! Although the Allies couldn’t bomb the bunkers and underground factories they could attack the bridges, roads and tunnel entrances that led to them and thus many Harz communities were destroyed in the process, as well as the deaths of forced labourers in the many work camps.
When the Nazi regime finally surrendered in May 1945 Germany was split into two and the border between Soviet controlled East Germany (GDR) and West Germany ran through the Harz. The ‘Brocken’ (home of legendary witches and a steam train) was occupied by the Russians who promptly closed it off to civilians and erected a signals and observation post atop it. I can remember many years ago standing (below) the 800m Wurmberg Mountain in West Germany and over my head was a ski jump pointing toward the border and just a short ‘flight’ away across the death strip GDR border guards kept an eye on me as I chatted to a combined group of west German border guards and NATO soldiers who happened to be passing. Sadly the ski jump has recently been demolished.
Cycling the old internal border is quite an adventure I am told and it is now mostly a green belt running across modern Germany – check out the Grenzstein Trophy for a few insights about riding the remnant of the internal border.
Where once there was the internal border – At the Grenz under the Ski Jump
The decline of the mining industry in the Harz placed greater emphasis on the tourist economy and in addition to hikers seeking the ‘pure air’, others took advantage of the mountains to ski. Winter sport resorts dot the Harz, but with climate change resulting in fewer deep snow falls some locals have turned to summer pursuits, and today purpose built mountain bike centres can be found (Wurmberg Mountain and Sankt Andreasberg being two) and waymarked routes take you through the forests and mountains.
The Harz is a funny place, full of interesting things and of course ‘pure air’ and it draws people from Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany to it, but the area feels a decade out of kilter. It goes further than just stuffy menus and some appalling modern architecture because you do get the feeling that some Harz residents are a wee bit insular in nature.
You can take this as just a peculiarity of (some) locals and it hasn’t stopped me from enjoying the Harz or the many cyclists who just pedal in an area that is brilliant for MTB’s, gravel and road bikes.
1. Go down and then up the steep gravel path where once the Oder Valley Railway ran.
2. Ride up the long and steep main street of Sankt Andreasberg – Dr Willi Bergmann Strasse (over 18%).
3. Visit the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp.
4. Ride the old GDR border. (well, a bit of it)
I wish I had had my SLR with me, nonetheless these pictures taken on an old borrowed compact I hope show something of the Harz and particularly the area around Sankt Andreasberg.
Also pictures here
and in the UK
Betteshanger Cyclo-Cross (the end of mining in Kent)