DAS TRAIN : Steaming through Germany's Harz Mountains on vintage railroads, and into a town with charisma

Deep in Germany's Harz Mountains, concealed for decades by the Iron Curtain, ancient Wernigerode is a polished gem of a city, rich in cobbled streets and impeccably preserved half-timbered buildings. It's also a railroad town.

Germany's now-unified national railway system (the Deutsche Bahn, or DB) runs through it, but Wernigerode's claim to fame among train buffs like me is the steam-powered Harz Narrow-Gauge Railways (Harzer Schmalspur Bahnen, or HSB), a scenic and countrified rail system that charges up mountains and rambles across meadows. The entire network totals only 82 miles, but the steep grades, sharp curves and leisurely stops to meet other trains and replenish the locomotive's water supply conspire to slow things up and make distances seem far greater.

Steam engines, largely vanished from the world's rails outside of museums, have a unique charisma, and narrow-gauge trains have a Lilliputian charm. (HSB's tracks are one meter wide, rather than the standard 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches.) So the promise of narrow-gauge steam easily persuaded me to bend a European itinerary into the Harz Mountains of north-central Germany last fall. (Though Americans seldom visit here, German tourists have been drawn to the Harz region's scenic beauty and rich history since the turn of the century.)

On a warm, sunny September afternoon I arrived in Wernigerode on a Deutsche Bahn local train after a journey of about 3 1/2 hours from Berlin. I then boarded a train of diminutive red-and-cream coaches lettered "HSB." Up ahead a shiny black locomotive steamed quietly, fragrant coal smoke curling from its stack.

With an urgent cry of its shrill whistle, the husky little engine lurched into motion. We were bound at a stately pace for Brocken, 2,900 feet higher in the Harz Mountains and minutely visible dead ahead of the puffing locomotive.

We threaded our way among startlingly picturesque shops and houses that fronted Wernigerode's winding streets. Once into the mountains, our engine began to "talk it up," its exhaust steady and loud to announce a climb that would continue all the way to Brocken.

The HSB has three parts, all operated as a single railroad. The Harzquerbahn (or Trans-Harz Railway) runs north-south from Wernigerode to Nordhausen Nord. At Drei Annen Hohne, the Brockenbahn (Brocken Mountain Railway)--my route this particular day--veers off toward Brocken. Farther on, at Eisfelder Talmuhle, the Selketalbahn (the Selke Valley Railway) branches eastward to Alexisbad and Gernrode, with lines to Hasselfelde and Harzgerode. Just as we curved onto the Brocken branch, we entered Hochharz National Park. Schierke, a few miles farther on, is as far as the highway goes, so the remaining empty seats on the train filled. The clientele was decidedly middle-age to elderly, but vigorous, outdoor types.

The coaches--clean and perfectly comfortable, if Spartan--had one great feature: windows that opened far enough for me to squeeze my head out and watch the locomotive churn and flail along, hoisted up the mountain on an alternating succession of curves. Here and there the deep evergreen forest broke away, and then the vistas were far and fine.

Approaching the summit, the train wrapped around the mountain in a tightening spiral. As we popped into the open, above timberline, locomotive exhaust barked louder, as if the engine were giving its last ounce of energy for the final climb. Here a trail parallels the tracks; hikers, many with walking sticks, exchanged waves with train passengers. Then suddenly the clamor ceased and we were there, on a bald summit that felt like the top of the world.

The trip, 21 strenuous miles all told, had taken one hour and 40 minutes. Peering from my coach window, I could see the orange-tile roofs of Wernigerode, a toy village far below.

The wind was biting, a definite premonition of winter, and I was glad for what warmth remained in the late-afternoon sun. The serious hikers that crowded the platform, waiting to return to Wernigerode after a day's outing, were ruddy cheeked and well bundled up.

In his masterpiece, "Faust," Johann von Goethe set the witches' sabbath in the Harz Mountains (Goethe visited Wernigerode in 1777), and Brocken does have an otherworldly, almost sinister quality--a barren landscape with whistling wind and scudding clouds. But the most ominous presence is a vast Sputnik-like tower and antenna that bristles skyward.

At 3,691 feet, the highest summit in the Harz Mountains, Brocken is in a part of former East Germany that bulged into the West. These two characteristics made it perfect for a top-secret Soviet listening post and radar location--which is what all the fancy electronics are about. As a result, Brocken was off limits and the line closed to passengers from 1961 to 1992. Judging by the crowds, people are glad to be able to go to Brocken again for the expansive views and fine network of hiking trails.

Back in Wernigerode, where I was staying at the Hotel Weisser Hirsch (the White Deer), I discovered the Marktplatz. Stepping into this cobbled square literally brought me up short--as if I'd been thrust into a movie set, only this place was real.

Across from the hotel was the Rathaus, or town hall, an exquisite orange gingerbread pile of late Gothic towers, turrets, bays and cupola that, in its current form, dates back to 1544. The Marktplatz was bounded by curving streets that spun off in various directions. Classic half-timbered architecture, which dates from the 16th and 17th centuries, was everywhere. (The town itself is much older, chartered in 1229.)

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Among flower boxes spilling blooms, I sat at a table in front of the hotel, ordered a half-liter of the local beer--Hasseroder Pils, beautifully rich and bracingly bitter--and watched night fall. The peace was pervasive. An ornate metal fountain spouted discreetly in mid-square, and every 15 minutes the Rathaus clock chimed. Puffy clouds turned pink. Townspeople, mostly couples, wandered across the square. Bicycles buzzed by--but no cars.

When it got chilly I retreated to the hotel's cheerful, cozy dining room. From a hefty, leather-bound, multi-page menu I selected sauerbraten, potato dumplings and red cabbage, one of my favorite meals further recommended by the fact that it was among the few items I could read on the German menu. (During its days under Communism, Russian, not English, was studied in East German schools.)

The evening was still fine when I walked out into the quiet Marktplatz after dinner. Because of the language barrier I felt myself a bit of a stranger in a strange land, set down out of place, and out of time, too, in this magnificently medieval setting.

I walked randomly, one narrow, crooked, mostly carless street leading to another. Conviviality spilled from houses and cafes, and I felt excluded yet comforted by its presence. Wernigerode, I thought was welcoming, bustling and cheerful, with none of the dour, defeated air I'd found elsewhere after the Iron Curtain rose.

After a fine buffet breakfast next morning at the Weisser Hirsch--rolls, cheeses, jams, cold meats, fruit and more--I made the short walk to the Wernigerode Westerntor station to explore some other lines of the HSB.

Privately built in the latter 19th Century--in narrow gauge to better negotiate the mountainous curves and grades--the Harz railroads at first served primarily the mining and timber industries. In 1949, Deutsche Reichsbahn (East Germany's nationalized railways, now incorporated in the Deutsche Bahn) took over the system.

Once aboard a Nordhausen-bound train, I retraced the previous day's route as far as Drei Annen Hohne, where we were one of three trains arriving at once--indicative of both the high frequency of service and the exemplary timekeeping that allows such clockwork connections. *

One of them was hauled by a hulking red diesel--the fly in the steam-lover's ointment. In the late 1980s, for freight service, the railroad bought 10 standard-gauge diesels and stuck them on narrow-gauge wheels. Freight service has now dried up, so the diesels share passenger duties with 17 steam locomotives.

Beyond Drei Annen Hohne the scenery gradually changed from mountainous to bucolic. Passengers became scarce as we rattled along through pleasantly rolling hills that admittedly lacked the excitement of mountains and steep grades. One memorable moment of drama did remain, however. It came at 4:24 p.m., as I left Alexisbad, bound for Nordhausen, where I'd leave the HSB. Also scheduled out at exactly 4:24 was the train for the branch to Harzgerode.

The two trains marched out of town neck-and-neck, on parallel tracks; our train was diesel-hauled, the Harzgerode train ran behind steam. We growled, he barked; we blatted, he hooted the spine-chilling, unmistakable hoot of the European steam locomotive. Engine crews shouted and waved back and forth until, finally, the branch line fell away from the main line and the other horse in harness disappeared off into the woods, leaving behind a fragrant pall of coal smoke.

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GUIDEBOOK

Deep in the Harz

* Getting there: The Harz Mountains are centrally located in Germany, about midway between Frankfurt and Berlin. Frankfurt is probably the most practical and economical port of entry: Delta, United, Lufthansa and Air New Zealand all offer nonstop service from LAX. Current advance-purchase, round-trip fares begin at $918 (plus taxes). Other domestic carriers, such as American, have connecting service. From Frankfurt, the Deutsche Bahn national railway system connects to the Harz Narrow-Gauge Railways (Harzer Schmalspur Bahnen, or HSB) at Nordhausen and involves several train changes; the journey to Wernigerode takes about 5 1/2 hours by train or car.

* Getting around by train: The Harz Mountain Narrow-Gauge trains run year-round, though trips from Wernigerode to Brocken are reduced in winter from seven to five daily. The narrow-gauge system is not included on the Eurailpass or German Rail Pass, but fares are modest; a round-trip ticket from Wernigerode to Brocken costs $25, for example. My all-day Wernigerode-Alexisbad-Nordhausen ramble, on lines catering to locals more than tourists, was even cheaper: $18.50. Trains are one class and seats are unreserved. There is no food service, but there is a restaurant atop Brocken.

* Where to stay: A double room with breakfast at the Hotel Weisser Hirsch (Marktplatz 5, Wernigerode, Germany 38855; telephone 011-49-3943-32434; fax 011-49-3943-33139) costs $105-$125. Two other choices that I did not visit are Gothisches Haus (Marktplatz 2; tel. 011-49-3943-3750, fax 011-49-3943-375537), also on the town square, with rooms for $180 with breakfast; and the Zur Post (Marktstrasse 17; tel. 011-49-3943-32436, fax 011-49-3943-32436, which costs $63 for a room without bath (plus tax). Because of limited English, reserving by fax is the best policy.

* Touring: A guided tour of Wernigerode in English is possible if arranged in advance through Tourist Information Wernigerode, Breite Strasse 12 (fax 011-49-3943-32040).

* For more information: German National Tourist Office, 11766 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 750, Los Angeles, CA 90025, (310) 575-9799; fax (310) 575-1565.

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