Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Friday 15 March 2024

Steam trains - up a mountain and along a valley

 My trainspotting days are long gone, but they were in the age of steam, and something remains of the appeal of the steam engine which quiet, efficient electric trains just don't seem to have.  Our group had a strong contingent of serious anoraks, who knew a great deal about all that sort of thing and enthusiastically took up the option to explore as much as possible of the Harz network, with the rest of us tagging along for a couple of rides with the better views. (It wasn't just the engines that were old - the carriages were, I suspect, old third-class stock from East German railways - wooden seats and not much in the way of suspension, while the toilet facilities were the old-style trap that simply opened on to the track beneath).

The high point (literally) of the trip was to go up the Brocken mountain. Old legend has it that on Walpurgisnacht, witches would gather on the mountain for a "witches' sabbath" (sort of a springtime Halloween, but no doubt used in its time for the periodic persecution of supposed witches, as elsewhere). More recently, being such a handy high point so close to the border between East and West Germany, it became a listening post for surveillance and spying on Western transmissions, but also housed (as it still does)  a TV transmission tower. 

The train winds its way up through forests (sadly depleted since a blight struck much of it a few years ago,  as did some wildfires) to the - frankly rather bleak - plateau on top. Perhaps not surprisingly, the views from the top were almost entirely of enclosing clouds, so nobody wanted to linger.

Another day, we had more sunshine and a gentle ride through a river valley, to a quiet spa town and back. 

And it looked and felt like this:


Thursday 14 March 2024

More holiday snaps - Quedlinburg

As if Wernigerode weren't picturesque enough, our itinerary took us to Quedlinburg, an ancient town seemingly undisturbed (at least in its historic centre) by the ups and downs of much of Germany's history.

Half-timbered houses lining narrow winding streets (all remarkably uncluttered by modern street furniture and signage) and ornate doorways - we didn't get to see the castle, but it's easy to see why it's a tourist magnet.

Quedlinburg - the Market Square

Monday 4 March 2024

More holiday snaps - Wernigerode

 After our brief stop to ride the Schwebebahn, the trains took us to our base for the week, in Wernigerod: in the heart of the Harz, so to speak.

It's picturesque and traditional-looking, with plenty of half-timbered houses and flowers (it even has a floral clock, just as one used to see in the posher British seaside holiday resorts).

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It's outside the library, at least

Wien! Wien! Nur Du allein...

And there's a castle (of course). The local aristocrats had a long history, but their castle reflects a rebuild in the ponderous taste of the late 19th century - all dark wood and stuffed hunting trophies outside, and touches of pseudo-mediaeval fairytale outside:

The castle courtyard

One thing I couldn't help noticing was that in at least one place they had retained the old East German Ampelmann for the pedestrian crossing lights. Somehow he looks rather jollier than one would expect from a Communist dictatorship, which is no doubt why he was held in such affection:

But they also maintain a nod to the area's association with legends of witches and the like:

Saturday 2 March 2024

Floating in the air

Last year wasn't all lethargy. I'd been playing with ideas of training it deeper into Germany than I have so far, tempted by a new night sleeper service from Brussels all the way round to Prague, stopping en route at, among others, Bad Schandau in the "Saxon Switzerland". As a student in 1969, unexpectedly given grant to travel, I planned to stay there as part of a trip around the then East Germany, only to find that the authorities wouldn't allow it, for no specified reason: that hadn't stopped me taking a day trip there from Dresden, but the opportunity to stay there now looked attractive.

However, that sleeper service wouldn't start until this year, and looked expensive; while dithering about whether and where to stop overnight en route by day trains, somehow F*ceb**k kept serving up adverts for (you'd be surprised how many) companies offering train-based guided trips. 

One that caught the eye was to the Harz in the dead centre of Germany (but once divided between East and West), where there's a network of steam trains, one going up to the Brocken mountain, famous in literature for witches and the like. The itinerary had us stopping for a night in Wuppertal, not the most scenic of the Ruhr's industrial towns, but among transport enthusiasts, Wuppertal is famous for its "Schwebebahn" (floating railway) - suspended from a monorail high above the river and streets below.

Once on board, it's as prosaic as any surface tram ride, bar a little tilting, and it's not as though there's much to see, but it's a useful way of whisking people along without taking up road-space: