The inscription on the picket shelter the place I ended to eat my Käsebrötchen made fairly the pledge. “Wanderer,” it stated (at the least, in keeping with Google translate), “I defend you from wind and climate, a saviour from evil palms.” Excessive? Maybe – however you want that type of promise when loitering with cheese rolls in these spooky components.
A hut was first constructed on this spot as a relaxation cease for medieval donkey drivers shifting items from the close by city of Osterode to the mines of northern Germany’s Harz Mountains. At the moment this newer constructing performs the identical perform, however for hikers – like me – following the Harzer Hexen-Stieg (Harz Witches’ Path).
Who may resist a path with a reputation like that? A reputation born from centuries of native folklore however on development now, when “witch lit” is sizzling – high 2023 titles embrace Emilia Hart’s Weyward and Margaret Meyer’s The Witching Tide, and a motion of older girls is reclaiming the phrase “crone”. It additionally appeared a perfect selection for autumn: the 60-mile well-laid path from Osterode to Thale (normally walked over 4 to 6 days) would nonetheless be pretty dry underfoot, mists would add additional ambiance, cosy inns and hearty pork suppers could be ready every evening and ghost tales would unfold. What I discovered was fascinating and haunting – in surprising methods.
I’d left Osterode at midday, church bells chiming over the market sq.’s buskers, butchers, florists and fishmongers. And I quickly found that individuals right here have leaned arduous into the witching theme: pointy-hatted effigies leered from each different backyard and window ledge.
However out within the countryside, it was all about historic trade. The Higher Harz is without doubt one of the oldest and most essential mining areas in Europe, labored for silver, lead and copper for the reason that early thirteenth century and now a Unesco world heritage web site. A complete of 107 ponds, 195 miles of ditches and 19 miles of waterways had been constructed to energy the mines. The witches’ path follows a few of them, crossing outdated dams and streams, and following channels lined with berry bushes.
My favorite remnant was in Altenau, the place I stayed the primary evening on the Landhaus am Kunstberg guesthouse. Right here, one of many ponds has turn into Waldschwimmbad Okerteich, an enormous, forest-fringed wild swimming pool, open all day, yr spherical, totally free – and chilly. A pre-breakfast plunge, when solely the wagtails had been round to listen to me yelp, primed me for the subsequent day’s stroll.
I favored the remainder of Altenau, too. Tourism started to develop right here within the late nineteenth century, leaving a legacy of good-looking villas. The primary avenue has a bakery, brewery, mannequin practice retailer and outlets promoting witchy paraphernalia. From right here the path falls in keeping with the Goetheweg, the route that traces the footsteps of German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who first climbed the close by 1,141-metre Brocken in December 1777. Over a number of visits, this panorama seeped into his works – not least Faust, wherein the Harz’s highest peak turns into the playground of revelling witches.
The Brocken continues to be a spooky place, for a lot of causes. Not solely is it wreathed in mists as much as 300 days of the yr, it was lengthy shrouded in secrecy, too. The East-West German border bisected this area; after the Berlin Wall went up, East German authorities closed off the Brocken’s summit plateau and used its highly effective communication masts to spy on western Europe. I walked previous stays of the concrete barricade in addition to an inscribed stone memorial marking the second, in December 1989, when Germans bought their mountain again: “Brocken Free Once more!”
Lately, the spookiest facet of the Brocken, and the western Harz, is its forests. I wasn’t ready for the devastation that has been wreaked by the hole-boring bark beetle. In locations it’s a bit Halloween, hillsides blanketed in stands of skeletal spruce; elsewhere, severed stumps sit bleakly amid the groundsel and willowherb. The results of local weather disaster have left non-native spruce, planted right here in monocultural swathes for hundreds of years, more and more prone to the beetles’ assault.
Atop the outcrop of the Trudenstein – named for its resemblance to a Drude, a witch-like determine linked with nightmares – I met a person on vacation from Hamburg. Collectively we seemed out throughout the smitten panorama. He shook his head wistfully: “The Harz was so lovely as soon as.”
It will likely be once more. In lots of areas nature is being left to restore itself, new progress sprouting among the many decaying timber; some locations are being actively replanted with native species equivalent to sycamore, willow and maple. That is, declare the indicators, “nature’s constructing web site”. And, as I continued alongside the Harzer Hexen-Stieg, the way in which turned much less cursed and more and more bewitching.
It was undeniably romantic to detour off the path to experience the Brockenbahn practice from the mountain’s summit all the way down to Schierke, the place I stayed in a single day, and take it again up the subsequent morning to choose up the path. Lengthy sequestered behind the iron curtain, the narrow-gauge line up the mountain is barely modernised, and nonetheless hauled by steam engines. The conductor walked the aisles promoting schnapps from a basket, whereas the loco’s toots and vapours drifted over the regenerating uplands. Then, as we walked past the station at Drei Annen Hohne, the Harz began to point out its brighter colors.
Granted, it began with a storm, otherworldly thunder rumbling inauspiciously across the hills. However past Rübeland, becoming a member of the Bode River, the rain stopped, the valley sides began to squeeze in and leafy inexperienced feathered the banks. Then, as if from a fairytale, Bodetaler Basecamp Lodge appeared. As soon as a retreat for workers of the GDR’s state-run TV firm, it’s now a hip hostel-hotel. Its proprietor, Heiko Uelze, served me wild venison bolognese for supper. In my good river-terrace room, I used to be serenaded to sleep by the Bode’s gurgle and woke to a low fog swirling above the water.
This ultimate part of the path, from Bodetaler Basecamp to Treseburg and Thale was the best of all. After strolling unsteadily above the Rappbode valley on the world’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge, I plunged into thick woods. Fungi flourished, leaves fluttered, rock crags rose greater and better. Actually there was magic right here: it reached its zenith as I crossed the Satan’s Bridge and walked under twin granite crags, the Rosstrappe and the Hexentanzplatz. Legend has it that Princess Brunhilde fled an enormous by leaping between these outcrops on a white stallion.
Ravine vaulting will not be my speciality, and I hadn’t time to ascend each, so I selected to climb the Hexentanzplatz, or Witches’ Dancefloor. In centuries previous it was the location of pagan rituals to honour forest goddesses. When such rituals had been banned by Christian invaders, Saxons dressed as witches to scare them away. At the moment, it’s a theme park, extra kitsch than witch. However the views again down the valley, in direction of the Brocken, had been spellbinding nonetheless.
The Harzer Hexen-Stieg finishes at Thale, under the Hexentanzplatz, however my journey led to Quedlinburg, quarter-hour additional by practice – and in addition the top for a lot of alleged witches. It’s claimed that in 1589 as many as 133 had been burned right here in a single day. Lately, Quedlinburg is extra Disney than Grimm. It’s the best-preserved medieval city in Germany, with greater than 2,000 timber-framed homes leaning collectively in a pastel-painted huddle beneath a hilltop fort and the tomb of Germany’s first king. There are fewer witches within the present outlets, extra vacationers within the cafes.
However maybe this can be a story much less of witches’ magic and extra of Mom Nature’s. It is a place had been you may see the results of the local weather disaster, however the place, with time and care, these legendary forests – so central to German tradition and id – could develop again higher than earlier than.
The journey was supplied by Macs Journey, which presents five-day and eight-day journeys on the Harz Witches’ Path from £505pp B&B, together with Brockenbahn tickets. The German vacationer board supplied practice journey on Eurostar (single from £39), Brussels-Berlin Eurosleeper (single from €49), and Deutsche Bahn (single Berlin-Osterode from about €30)