I was reminded of children’s literature when visiting the Saxe-Anhalt region in East Germany, the former GDR. Hearing fables of witches’ dancing places, visiting the Timber-Frame Road, and exploring the Gothic-Romanesque Naumburg Cathedral, one recollects works by Walt Disney, the Harry Potter series and JRR Tolkien. The latter famously taught Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. I suppose we, the Germans and the British, are all Saxons.
Saxe-Anhalt is still virgin territory for British tourists, but it is cheaper and less touristy than the classic trio ‘Berlin, bratwurst and beer’ of Germany.
Witches, giants and princesses
Walpurgis Night, the German Halloween, is celebrated on 30th April (the pagan Beltane festival), when women dress up as witches (hexen) and dance. Up on the Rosstrappe hill in the Bode valley, there is a witches’ dancing place or Hexentanzenplatz.
This is the site of the legend of Brunnhilde, a princess forced by her father to marry a giant. The giant brought along a white horse to take her away, which Brunnhilde used to escape on her wedding night. The giant chased after her until they reached the witches dancing place, where Brunnhilde spurs on the horse to leap over the river towards the Brocken mountain where her true love awaits. The giant falls into the river and dies while Brunnhilde’s horse leaves the imprint of an enormous hoof in the mountain.
This tale was told by two old guides as we climbed the mountain, pointing out the dents in the rocks representing the horse’s hoof.
If you take the cable car to the forested top at Rosstrappe, you can visit an atmospheric wooden Witches’ Hall where enormous dark paintings recount the tale of Faust, his deal with the devil and the virgin Gretchen. In the Harz mountains, you can hike many trails such as the 100km Hexenstieg, or witches’ path. Camping isn’t strictly allowed, but you can make a bivouac.
The Wicked Queen at Naumburg Cathedral
Naumburg Cathedral boasts the ultimate medieval babe, Uta von Ballenstedt, declared the most beautiful woman of the Middle Ages, upon whom Walt Disney based his depiction of Snow White’s Wicked Witch.
This cathedral is unusual in that it has both Romanesque and Gothic styles. How to tell the difference? Romanesque is stylised while Gothic is more organic and natural. There are also modern stained windows and artworks.
Our guide was 12 years old when the Berlin Wall came down and explained that the cathedral survived the communist regime because it attracted foreign tourists.
We were taken into a secret room where exists one of the few remaining ‘chained libraries‘ dating from 1486. Books were expensive and a target for thieves. Rare and large reference works were chained to a shelf, enabling students to read the book but not leave the library with it. Chained libraries and forbidden books are mentioned in Harry Potter and Game of Thrones.
We got to look at precious manuscripts. The oldest book was a charter from the year 936, which had a wax seal and weighed 46kg. Most of these ancient books were made of parchment, that is calfskin. It takes around 1,200 calves to make eight books. The philosopher Nietzsche attended school in Naumburg and we saw his report card. He was fairly clever but not good in French obtaining only a 4 out of 10 mark. To arrange a tour, book here.
Steam train up to ghostly Brocken mountain
The coal-fired narrow-gauge steam train (built in 1899) journey to the top of Brocken mountain was another experience reminiscent of children’s literature, say The Railway Children or again Harry Potter. The journey from Wernigerode takes one and a half hours, travelling through spruce forests (timber used to construct mineshafts in nearby metal and silver mines) and tiny half-timbered railway stations. We sat on red leather bench seats drinking miniatures of the local herbal liqueur, Schierker Feuerstein, sold by the ticket collector in a basket. If you sit at the back of the train, you can see the curve of the tracks with the puffing locomotive carriage at the front.
Throughout the train you can smell the coal that used to be from Russia but is now, since the Ukraine war, imported from Poland. I visited the engine car, watching as burly lads effortlessly shovelled coal into the flaming red firebox.
The train spits fire, which is bad for the spruce forests during a drought. In fact the return train was cancelled as it had caused a massive forest fire on the way up.
On arrival at the windy top of Brocken, the highest mountain in the Harz region, giant pretzels and drink beer is sold. As it is on the border between East and West Germany you can visit the Stasi museum, showing the listening posts where communist soldiers would listen to the West. The Brockengarten (alpine garden) has 1,600 plants from all other the world, some dating from the ice age. Goethe visited before the arrival of the steam railway, in 1809, spending days walking and climbing. He drew inspiration for Faust from the spectral landscape… ‘Now to the Brocken the witches ride’.
The Timber-Frame Road
Wernigerode is a medieval market town that is part of the extensive German Timber-Frame Road. Virtually every building is half-timbered, with chamfers, an overhanging first floor, typical of the Middle Ages. Half-timbered means half a log was used, as opposed to a whole round trunk. In between the wall is filled with wattle and daub.
Wernigerode was so clean, so perfect, it felt like being on Main Street, Disneyland. I ate a foot-high gooseberry meringue pie in a tea shop. Magical.
The capital of the region is Leipzig, where I dined at a 15th-century beer hall, Auerbachs Keller, another of Goethe’s haunts. While the interior and the service were atmospherically German, the food was, to be frank, very heavy, and the menu very limited. Dumplings feature a great deal. I had difficulties in getting meat-free food in this part of Germany and survived on cheese sandwiches foraged from the breakfast bar.
Wolves and beavers
Little Red Riding Hood is evoked by the nature reserve Mittelelbe Biosphere. This is primarily an education centre for children, with both live and stuffed beavers and hands-on woodland experiences. Wolves have been reintroduced to the area, while beavers, whose numbers had reduced to 90 families only, have soared to 3,000 families with nature protection. Beavers are shockingly large rodents, up to 35kg, the size of an 11 year old, but are vegetarian, surviving on bark and water plants. Their only natural predators are the wolves.
Gondola banquet and GDR wine
I was served an extraordinary sunset banquet/dinner while being rowed around in a gondola on a lake at Lake Worlitz, with a mullet-haired East German helmsman. Book the gondola ride or a catered dinner, which costs 68€ per person including wine. The romantic gardens are inspired by both English and French designers.
We drank local wine from Freyburg in Saale-Unstrut, the northernmost wine region in Germany. Despite this, it is known as the ‘Tuscany of the North’ due to the warm microclimate. When visiting the steep regimented vineyard at the Freyburg-Unstrut winery, we stayed in an ‘eco’ wine hotel, Freylich Zahn, with restaurant 51º that served some of the best food I ate in the region. The wine route of Saale-Unstrut survived the communist era because a few private wineries managed to keep going. The wine we tasted was white, rosé and half-dry from more than 60 different varieties of grapes.
Grim tales of a communist recent past infused with paranoia contrast with ancient fables full of romance, danger and gothic imagination in this former East German region. There is history and culture, architecture and nature, religion and paganism. Unspoilt, cheaper and somewhat undiscovered by the British tourist, Saxe-Anhalt is definitely worth visiting.
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