Travelling across the North European Plain, a vast sweep of two-dimensional terrain that extends from Brussels to Berlin and beyond, travellers might well give thanks for whatever modest hills punctuate their journey.
The Harz Mountains barely rise to more than one thousand metres, but seen from the flatlands to the north they appear mightily impressive: great, forested humpbacks that preside over the plains. The highest point is the Brocken, at 1,141 metres the loftiest elevation anywhere in northern Germany.
There is a little bit of the German soul reserved for the Harz Mountains. These hills boast strong literary associations. Goethe travelled thrice to the summit of the Brocken (as, indeed, did we last week). The poet Heinrich Heine made the ascent too, though he is more remembered for his lyrical accounts of journeys through the valleys of the Harz region, where he found a pre-modern simplicity in the lives of local miners and woodcutters.
Travel writers have long been seduced by any encounter with lifestyles unmediated by modernity and Heine's Harzreise (Harz Journey) is a fine example of such folly. Encountering an ancient, trembling woman crouched over her stove in a crumbling cottage in a mining valley west of the Brocken, Heine launched into a heady narrative on the soulful beauty of peasant lives coloured by the pure gold of intuition. "Her thought and feeling is without doubt closely interwoven with every corner of the stove," wrote Heine.
Thus were images of the Harz region inscribed on the German imagination. Throw in the detail that the legendary Faust went to the top of the Brocken to sell his soul, and you have a deep cauldron of folksy associations that make a pilgrimage to the Brocken summit a popular day trip for Germans from as far afield as Berlin.
Goethe and Heine both walked to the top of the Brocken, but since 1899 the challenge of the ascent has been diminished by a railway which winds up through the forests and then spirals around the mountain to reach the summit. The post-war border between East and West Germany cut through the Harz Mountains, so the train service up the Brocken was suspended during the Cold War years. Indeed, this month the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen (Harz Narrow-Gauge Railways) celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the reopening of the Brocken Railway.
Honesty demands that we admit that we used the train for our trinity of ascents to the Brocken, each one blessed by clear skies and remarkable views. Quite something for a hill which locals say is shrouded in fog for over 300 days each year.
The Harz region is a paradise for slow travellers, and that quality is sealed by the fine network of narrow-gauge railways which operate day in, day out to please tourists and provide valued links to remote villages in the hills. We chugged along deep valleys, stopped off here and there at tiny wayside stations serving villages with names like Sorge and Elend - names which mean Sorrow and Misery respectively.
Heine might once have feted such villages as places uncorrupted by modernity, and surely would have cursed the arrival of the railway that liberated these communities from isolation. We beg to differ. The railways of the Harz are social and economic lifelines, the very lifeblood of the communities which they serve. And they are a working museum, for the majority of trains are still pulled by steam engines. Don't expect great speed. We travelled 270 kilometres on various Harz routes last week. With average speeds of just 25 kilometres per hour, you will quickly realise that we spent quite some time on trains. We cannot claim to have stumbled on the 'pure gold of intuition' that so struck Heinrich Heine, but it was certainly slow travel at its best.
This article was first published as a hidden europe e-brief.