Not everyone would consider the Harz Mountain ranges in northern Germany a popular tourist destination. Yet those who have been there have come away enchanted by those mysterious mountain ranges made up of massive boulders and spooky rock formations; of dark cliffs and treacherous crevices; of witches, ghouls and folklore to chill the marrow in one’s bones.
Harz is a range of mountains 110 meters long and 35 meters wide. A small town called Thale in the Saxony-Anhalt region is a good starting point. The Saxons were ‘heathens steeped in myth and superstition’, and Thale transports us into a world of Saxonic make-believe.
Sculptures of Germanic Gods dot the landscape beginning with the Well of Wisdom near the Town Hall, which is presided over by Wotan the Father of Gods. Horse shoe impressions on the pavement lead us through the town via sculptures of dragons, serpents and winged horses.
But the beauty of Thale comes to life as we take the cable car to the top of the mountain which is 451 meters high. We soar over shaggy mountain ranges that are 300 million years old. The deep Bode valley separates the two high peaks. Goethe described this area as “the most mountainous rocky valley north of the Alps.”
The department of tourism has capitalised on the myths of this region, and turned it into a popular holiday destination for gullible tourists. The place is teeming with people of all ages and we are told that there is never a day between April and October when Thale is not crowded.
From the Cable Car station we climb up to the Hexantanzplatz (the witches’ dance floor). It is believed that witches from all over the Harz area congregate here on Walpurgis Night (May 1) for a time of revelry. White boulders encircle the area of the dance floor. In October, there is a special ceremony called the ‘long night of the witches’ after which, they take off on their broomsticks to Brocken the highest mountain in the region, for their winter hibernation.
In 1996, a local sculptor Jochen Muller added to the mystery of the place by installing his sculptures on the Hexantanzplatz. Urian, the devil now presides over the area with his friends a pig, a rodent and a dragon. A witch assigned to the devil bends over this ‘circle of evil’ on a large boulder, her nose sharp and pointed, her eyes hypnotic, and her shapely butt displaying a spider as a beauty spot.
From here, we move to the edge of the cliff that overlooks the Bode Valley. The river is 250 meters deep and is visible only as a thin stream. On the left bank is another rocky elevation called the Rostrappe which is 403 meters high. Standing at these dizzy heights, the legend of Princess Brunhilde comes to life.
Brunhilde was betrothed to an ugly giant king Bodo much against her will. But she fled from him on her horse along with her lover, and spurred the animal on to make that incredible jump across the Bode Valley. The horse landed on Rostrappe, and its hoof prints are still seen on the rock. However, the princess lost her crown which sank into the Bode River.
When the giant gave chase and tried to leap over the gorge, he fell into it and was turned into a black dog. Legend has it that the black dog still haunts the banks of the river, and guards the princess’ crown.
We now move to the Open Air Theatre on the other side, via numerous stalls selling expensive souvenirs and fast food. It is built like a Greek amphitheatre. Operas, dramas and concerts are held here during the tourist season.
The Walpurgi Hall is another attraction. It is constructed in the style of an Old German Block House. Over the gable is the head of the one-eyed God Wotan flanked by two ravens. They represent his thoughts and memory. Wotan drank from the ‘Well of Wisdom’, but had to sacrifice one eye for this draught of omniscience.
The Convent Wendhausen used to be the oldest religious centre in this region. In the ninth century, it was the starting point of Christianity. It was not an easy job to convert the pagan Saxons, who dressed up like witches and ghouls and painted their faces black, repulsing the advances of the Christian guards. Today, the convent is a Museum of History of this region and gives us an idea of life in medieval times.
The zoo near the Rostrappe is another place worth visiting. There are 70 species of animals — bears, wolves, wild boars and deer. But they are all in cages.
One can hike to the Rostrappe, but the climb is long and arduous with 18 steep turns. The chair lift is an easier option. It gives an aerial view of the hoof marks of Brunhilde’s horse on the rock. But the real bonus is the panoramic view of the dark cliffs with moss, fern and flowers bursting out of their ragged crevices; the devil’s wall which is a pile of grotesque shaped rocks near the town of Thale; of falcons diving down on unsuspecting prey, of buzzards darting through the underbrush; of raccoons and lizards and wild cats sharing nature’s bounty among those misshapen rock piles. This is surely an environmentalist’s delight.
There is fun for everyone at Thale. For the adventurous, there is the Toboggan Run which races through nine turns and four leaps, and plummets 1000 meters down into the valley. For hitch hikers there are numerous surprises at every bend. For children, this is a veritable fantasyland with games and tree trails on ropes and planks. And for the speed maniacs who come clad in their black leather suits and massive helmets like men from outer space, this is a race of a lifetime on their massive Kawasakis and BMW bikes.
The neighbouring towns or Wernigerode and Quedlingberg, and the foggy heights of the Brocken Mountain via the narrow gauge train, are other places worth visiting in this region.
The shops in Thale sell witch replicas in all sizes. However, one enters at one’s own risk. Even a wisp of wind is enough to set them all cackling like all hell’s broken loose. I run out with my fingers plugged in my ears.
“No”, I decide, “This is one souvenir I won’t be taking home.
Sunday Herald Travel. (Deccan Herald)