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Friday, 18 January 2013

Europe Trip 2012/13 - Christmas at Wernigerode

23rd December.
Two days to Christmas, now we really had to get our food shopping or do without! A couple of hundred metres up the road from the stellplatz is a large Kaufland supermarket we thought should surely cater for our needs - and it was open on a Sunday afternoon!

With a sense of foreboding we approached the fresh meat counter. It was swiftly apparent that our bird might already have flown – would a frozen turkey thaw out in time? Just then a young assistant revealed a solitary fresh goose, he had just stuck a “30% off” sticker on it. Giving scant thought as to whether it would fit in our little gas oven, Sue snatched it up and it was in the trolley before you could say “Daddy Christmas!”

An hour or so later we had a trolley full enough to feed the many, with several fall back options on what to serve with the goose – cranberry sauce?... gooseberry sauce?... plus enough cheese and cakes to keep us going till Easter! 

24th December 
Christmas Eve in Germany really seems to be the family event; wandering around the town in the late afternoon, there were barely a handful of pedestrians about and we were hard put to find a café open. A small group was admiring the wooden nativity scene on the steps of the town hall – such a contrast to the inebriated hordes we mingle with in our Cornish town. 

Placed by the Town Hall steps for everyone to share 

Wandering around we poked our heads into the Johannis Kirche just as the throngs of worshipers arrived. The pews were all lit with a candle at each end, such a serene and positive atmosphere.

Candlelit carols in the Johannis Kirche

 The Christmas market has gone, but the Town Hall still shines

Wernigerode has some atmospheric streets

We tried to get a table in the Hotel Atora, a reasonably priced traditional hotel restaurant near the train station, but they were absolutely fully booked. Back to the van for beans on toast! 

25th December 
No white Christmas for us, it rained intermittently all day, the wind sometimes lifting enough to rock the van, the temperature hovering just below 10 degrees. Worse still, Sue had finally succumbed to the bug that had been creeping up on her for days. Chicken noodle soup, bread and cheese, washed down with Lemsip and honey. Mmm … not a bad Christmas dinner! 

26th December 
Sue was still poorly. I went for a long walk to get some tissues from the only garage that was open. 

27th December 
Sue recovered enough to cook the goose! With its legs cocked up in the air it was shoehorned into the oven, given a royal roasting, and served up with cranberry sauce out of jar - not bad actually, it was succulent and tender and tasted a lot like duck!

Is it a goose?...is it a duck?...is it a bird? 

28th December 
At last a fine sunny day arrived for our Harzer Schmalspur Bahnen narrow gauge steam train trip up to the Brocken. This 1142 metre summit is so often shrouded in mist and clouds that is has long been associated with legends of witches and the devil – a recurring theme in the Harz Mountains. It is also the origin of the ghostly apparition known in mountain areas the world over as a Brocken Spectre: in fact an optical illusion caused by the climbers own shadow.

We elected to take the 1155 train, but so did the rest of the tourist population in Wernigerode, there was a queue for tickets stretching right out of the door of the booking office! By the time departure was approaching, the solitary and increasingly nervous looking ticket clerk gave one last glance at the clock behind her – declared the magic words – and triggered the mad rush out of the door and across the platform. By the skin of our teeth we managed to get a seat.

The Harzer Schmalspur Bahnen in all its glory

A rare day - the Brocken can just be seen on the skyline, left

The first few stations, passing through the outskirts of Wernigerode, are on the flat and the train emptied a bit, then started to climb through the trees, stopping the road traffic at a couple of level crossings. Just before Drei Annen Hohne we got our first glimpses of snow in the forest. After a change of trains a young German couple assured us that on a normal year the snow would have been right down in the town – we really had missed out on a White Christmas!

A girl in a ski suit came through the carriages with a ticket machine, her glasses steamed up with the cold; we coughed up 64 euros for two returns – not cheap, but these kind of excursions rarely are. There was now only one more station before the summit and the snow deepened and clung to the trees as we made the last long rising turn before the terminus. Walkers descending the mount waved and ran alongside the train taking pictures; coal-flavoured smoke streamed over the roof and into the carriage.

The Brocken Terminus, old border station behind 

The red and cream carriages only have a door at each end, steel platforms and steps covering the link between the two; as the engine slid to a halt we descended into Siberia – the cold literally took our breath away! I looked in awe at the ice tentacles plastered to the signposts and plugging the loudspeaker cones along the platform. Yet, looking down onto the valley floor, all was green and lush – unreal.

The ice sticks to everything up here!

Down below, all is green! 

On the pinnacle there is also an old East German border radio-listening post and radar station, used by the Stasi and Russian military during the cold war – at which time it was of course off limits to civilians. The big radar dome and red and white radio mast added to the otherworldliness, it could have been a James Bond set! 

After a few photos, the bitter wind drove us into the steamy cabin, where cold and hungry travellers were in a room-long queue for bratwurst, chips and beer. A guard from the train, dressed in traditional black uniform with brass buttons and shiny top hat, was lovingly clutching a grandchild, his hands and face still black with soot.

By the time we had eaten the early return train had long gone and in anticipation of getting a good seat as the next one arrived we joined the accumulating crowd fifteen minutes early. Twenty minutes later, the crowds had doubled on the wind-blown icy platform but there was still no sign of the train. Chilly. The sun had now dropped out of sight below a thick mist. Even chillier. The café was now throwing out the last of its customers before it closed. Even chillier still…

The train 'll be along soon... honest! 

Despite having dressed for the cold (we had sweltered in a hot carriage on the way up) and jumping from foot to foot for the last 20 minutes, we were now getting seriously chiiilled. With our backs to the wind like penguins, my rucksack was white over with fine powdered snow and ridges of frost were sprouting from the seams of our clothing. Nobody, not even our friendly German couple, had a clue what was happening as we foot-stomped and huddled in the approaching darkness.

Another 15 minutes passed and we were starting to feel a bit desperate: there had obviously been a problem; what if they couldn’t get another train up – nobody seemed to know. It was now nearly dark; this was getting serious, and with the café closed, where was the crowd going to take cover if the train didn’t come?

At last, above the cries of some miserable children and a low, heartfelt murmur of relief we heard a muffled steam whistle! A few seconds later the engine appeared out of the gloom – wow, were we stiff and cold!

I hope I'm not dreaming! 

The scramble to get on board was justifiably fierce, some reluctant latecomers even having to stand outside as once everyone was on board the aisle between the seats was packed with standing passengers.

Under dim battery lights too dark to read by, we descended in a slowly thawing fug of hot breath and throat-catching coal smoke – was the romance of steam travel wearing thin?

No, it was alive and well, we enjoyed a long and interesting conversation with our German friends and when we finally stepped back on the platform, it all seemed like a bit of an adventure from another world, we just legged it back to the van for some hot soup!

The work goes on at the terminus


29th December 
Feeling the effects of our exposure on the Brocken, indeed feeling rather “brocken”, we nominated this a recovery day. 

30th December 
Though it was a Sunday, we took the plunge and left the stellplatz to get some more Autogas. I was confident the Aral station on the Dornbersweg would be open – as it had been on Boxing Day – and happily, mission was accomplished in under half and hour; we even managed to return to the same spot.

Safely back on this super little stellplatz 

I was well pleased, stunned even, with the performance of the new tyres on wet muddy grass. As we pulled off for the first time after days of heavy rain, the van faltered and I thought: “the tyres are slipping – not so good after all”. In fact, the rear brake pads had seized to the rusted discs, but amazingly the tyre’s grip was good enough to snap them off the discs and drive us easily through the sodden mud to the tarmac. Our old Michelin Camping XC’s wouldn’t have stood a chance, just dug themselves into the ground!

Now that's a pretty good grip! 

Later, we wandered into town and there were plenty of people about, milling around a little mini Christmas market and the coffee shops. There was also a historical “middle ages” mittelaltermarkt set up in a small square to entertain children and adults alike, with the enthusiastic balladeers from the Christmas market still giving it their all.

Wernigerode's smallest house! 

In need of refreshment, I ordered two gluhweins in the Café Burgstrasse (cushions and blankets provided) but somehow we managed to get Apfelzimtgluwein – or applejuice gluwein – which didn’t taste bad, but didn’t have quite the same warming affect as we were anticipating!

Later still, some large and very noisy firework displays fired up – they start celebrating early in this part of the world! 

31st December 
On New Years Eve the shops closed at 1300. The fireworks started early – and in earnest – as soon as it got dark: an endless succession of crackles, whizzes and bangs, but not much in the sky that we could see. Towards midnight the tempo increased and on the stroke of the hour all hell was let loose: every garden, every carpark, all around us, even some of our fellow motorhomers were letting off good sized fireworks – we cringed and gasped as they whistled past our roof! From the continuous snap of Chinese crackers to the crump, crump of heavy mortars, it was the nearest I have experienced to being in a war zone. This intensity lasted a full half hour before starting to fall off, but there was intermittent bangs and whizzes still disturbing our slumbers at 0300. 

1st to 5th January 
The infamous seasonal bug laid me low as it had done Sue; we both ran out of steam, and it was fortunate that we were in such a cheap and well set up stellplatz with fresh water still available, for we weren’t able to do much more than feed and water ourselves. 

6th January 
This was the last day of the Christmas market held in the courtyard of the Schloss Wernigerode and although we had held out for a dry or even sunny day, we nevertheless had to make the pilgrimage in the rain. From a little square near the old town, we boarded the SchlossBahn or road train up to the castle for a return fare of 5 euros a head. This shuttle service goes every 25 minutes in the holiday periods; every hour at other times, and also departs from the main municipal car park and the Wernigerode Westerntor HSB station.

The jolly man with his little train takes you to the magic castle! 


The Schloss has to be one of the most delightful Disneyesque confections we have ever come across: with the walls of the circular tower lined with fairy lights, the ornate woodwork and slated roofs above – on a crisp night with a dusting of snow, it’s hard to imagine how it could more enchanting. In the pouring rain and bitter wind however – it was still charming.

There is the magic castle! 

Entry was 7 euro; we walked through a candlelit alleyway into the tiny courtyard filled with little stalls selling goodies and refreshments. We soon warmed ourselves up with a gluhwein and a crisp bread roll packed to overflowing with roast ham and pickled cabbage. 

 A large gluhwein and a pork roll please! 

The tour of the interior of the castle is split into two, each one bringing you back into the courtyard. English language sound-guides are available, but most of the rooms have some English scripts to read. Unfortunately photography is banned inside and I was on the receiving end of some very sharp German invective from the chapel balcony!

The centrepiece and most impressive part is the Banqueting Hall, with its wall paintings, wooden ceiling and a fabulous chandelier. The blue silk wallpaper-lined bedrooms were also notable for the quality of the wallpaper and curtain hangings, re-created by specialists from tiny remaining fragments of the original. Maintenance and restoration of the Schloss is now in the hands of a management company and they have obviously done a huge amount in the last decade or so.

As we came back into the yard for the second time, a metal cauldron in the centre had been lit with a wood fire and children were excitedly baking twists of bread on wooden sticks. This is certainly a place to bring the family for a magical experience – if you can get the weather right!

Mum...will I have to eat this when it's burnt?

Next: A quick tour of the Harz Mountains

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