Like Germany itself, scenically rugged Harz highlands terrain was split down the middle for four decades prior to 1989’s historic reunification, administered by two states: federal Lower Saxony and easterly GDR’s Saxony-Anhalt. That twist of geopolitical fate affected the region’s three most attractive old towns.
Goslar, crammed full of 1,500-plus half-timbered houses and public buildings, remained Wessi. With a comparable number of those Fachwerk standouts, Quedlinburg—a UNESCO World Heritage Site, dominated by twin-towered, utterly Romanesque Stiftskirche St. Servatius and its 10th-12th-century church treasury—wound up on the socialist side.
So did Wernigerode (pop. 35,500, municipally chartered in 1229), tucked at 240-meter/787-foot altitude into northern Harz foothills and clustered between the rocky, rushing Holtemme and Zillierbach Rivers. To get there via rental car through the spruce-forested national heartland, figure on 85 km/52.8 miles westward from Magdeburg, or (partially by way of the speedy A-395 Autobahn) 99.5 km/61.5 miles heading south from Wolfsburg, the Volkswagen-founded Autostadt.
Exploring Wernigerode on Foot
In town, find your way to the central Marktplatz for a visual jolt. Pow! There stands Germany’s arguably most fanciful, picturesque town hall. Let’s call it fairy-tale Gothic, the kind of old world Rathaus you’d imagine as a Hansel and Gretel or Little Red Riding Hood backdrop. Dating from 1544, this bell-towered wonder is fronted by a matched pair of bay-windowed, flower-boxed pinnacles that narrow to pointy spires resembling witches’ hats. Look closely to discover dragon-head rain spouts at sharp-angled roof edges. Wooden images of medieval guild merchants poke their noses out from beneath the eaves.
Tear yourself away, because there’s more to see within compact, walkable, in-town dimensions. Focus on Breite Strasse, lined with tilting house fronts. Inscriptions and symbols carved onto crossbeams keep evil spirits out and good fortune in—a regional superstition. A sculpted horse’s head marks the Krell’sche Schmiede blacksmith’s shop, at #95 since 1678. Erected four years earlier, the residence at #72 shouts for attention with its complete top-to-bottom splurge of Baroque ornamentation. To take a Kaffee break, you’ll have no trouble spotting Breite Strasse #4’s colorfully painted, cutely decorated, Café Wien, opened in 1583. Choose weather-dependent indoor or streetside table service; think about treating yourself to a thick slice of Baumkuchen layer cake.
Cross a few narrow streets to reach 13 Oberfarrkirchhof: the extra-big 15th-century Gadenstedthaus, sporting a peaked-roof balcony. Then, for contrast, turn to nearby Kochstrasse, where Wernigerode’s tiniest dwelling contains merely eight square meters of living space, entered by a 1.7-meter mini-front door. Visitors seeking “collectibles” take note: the town has become well-known for its workshops producing creatively designed porcelain items and artisan glassware.
So what could more fittingly complete this evocative scene than a hilltop castle? Sure enough, neo-Gothic Schloss Wernigerode, Count Otto zu Stolberg’s legacy, covers the Agnesberg heights, looming above east-side treetops. The triple-turreted, period-furnished behemoth—on 10th-century foundations, dramatically floodlighted at night—includes a museum that backtracks through feudal Harz history (€4.50 admittance).
Departing from the dinky little Westerntor Bahnhof, the steam-powered HSB Harzquerbahn travels on narrow-gauge tracks for day trips into the Hochharz National Park’s undulating landscape. The train chugs through tunnels and provides glimpses of waterfalls, gorges, limestone caves, granite escarpments and Bode Valley woodland glens dappled with white anemone blossoms (blink twice and you’re deep inside Little Red Riding Hood’s enchanted forest!).
Although the century-old rail line extends all the way south to Nordhausen for a three-hour excursion, its most-traveled branch amounts to 17 km/10.5 miles. Destination, from Wernigerode via Drei Annen Hohne: the Brocken, unmissable at 1,142-meter/3,747 feet—high-enough altitude for use as a former Big Brother listening post and radio-transmitting promontory, encircled by electrified barbed wire, lookout perches and other such GDR-maintained “protective measures.” Off-limits throughout the Cold War years, mountain-summit access was resumed in 1992. Pertinent displays, artifacts and Harz natural-history dioramas fill Brockenhaus museum galleries, open daily year-round.
A different kind of spookiness pervades the place during annual April 30th/May 1st Walpurgisnacht, as conceived by Goethe in an episode of Faust. That’s the evening when a fog-bound Brocken plateau becomes the Hexentanzplatz—illuminated by bonfires to reveal present-day, make-believe witches absorbed in pagan revels, with broomsticks ready for takeoff.
Contacts: Wernigerode Tourismus GmbH, Marktplatz 10, 38855 Wernigerode, tel +49/03943/553/7835, fax 553/7899.
Harz Mountains Tourist Board Markstrasse 45, 38640 Goslar, tel 5321/340/40, fax 340/466.
Harzquerbahn railroad history, route, timetables.
Wernigerode Hotels: Four-Star Standouts
A pair of wood-framed Fachwerk beauties are ideally situated on the market square, with straight-ahead views of Wernigerode’s irresistible Rathaus. Jörg Wieland’s family runs the 49-room, spotlessly clean Weisser Hirsch, built 1539-44, nicely outfitted with sauna, restaurant and gemütlich outdoor café (serving locally brewed Hasseröder pils beer), plus an underground parking garage. Singles €79-95, doubles €115-149.
A bit more upscale and dressy, the 116-room Gothisches Haus is imbued with a 15th-century pedigree, features the gourmet-caliber Bohlenstube restaurant as well as an historic Weinkeller and welcomes guests to deluxe spa facilities. Singles from €89, doubles from €118.
Overnighting in the National Park
Across from the railroad station in Drei Annen Hohne, the three-star, 40-room Der Kräuterhof features a big-windowed, painted-ceilinged dining room, also sauna, solarium and direct access to hiking trails. Singles €47, doubles from €75.
Eating in Wernigerode
Ample choices despite the town’s relatively small size. Best for Harz culinary specialties and woodsy atmospherics: Hexen-Kessel, Breite Strasse 15, tel +49/03943/634/314. Also Schlieper’s, Burgstrasse 7, tel +49/03943/632/179, and Altwernigeröder Kartoffelhaus, Markstrasse 14, tel +49/03943/949/290.
In addition to the foregoing, several Kaffeehaus establishments are appealing. An outdoor table at Dieker, Marktplatz 6-8, treats patrons to picture-perfect views of the Rathaus. Charming, too: Louisen-Café, Breite Strasse 92, and Kummelsches Haus, Breite Strasse 72.