PRIYA GANAPATHY goes for a walk in a beautiful painted German town in the Harz region to discover its captivating history, architecture and legends
On a chilly winter morning I stepped out of HKK Wernigerode Hotel to explore the town of old brick buildings, stone-grey churches and half-timbered houses painted in myriad colours. Time had almost stood still in this town in Germany’s Harz district, renowned for its ancient Christmas markets and witch festivals. At the Marktplatz (Marketplace), I was treated to the loveliest homes and hotels I’d ever laid my eyes on. Wernigerode is defined by its idiosyncratic architectural style. Poet Hermann Lӧns called it “Bunte Stadt am Harz” or “the colourful painted town in the Harz foothills”.
Apparently, places in Germany suffixed with ‘rode’ indicate forests cleared of trees for tilling. The old city of Wernigerode was founded during the Great Clearings, nearly 1100 years ago by monks from a neighbouring district. They set up a chapel and a small castle to spread the faith in the Harz region. Locals claim the city was named after the Prior of the monastery. With abundant wood and rich mineral ores like gold, silver, copper and iron, the region saw quick growth in craft and trade. Most houses in Wernigerode have a half-timbered style and Wernigerode Public Gardens has a miniature section called “Little Harz” with a collection of 50 prominent landmarks in the Harz.
The canary-coloured Bimmelbahn, named after the tinkling ‘bimmeln’ sound made by the toy train, trundled cheerily along the narrow cobbled street, ascending to Wernigerode Schloss, the town’s most popular sight. Looming above the city, the castle is a 1.5km hike from the marketplace. The only other access is by foot or horse-drawn carriages, adding to its old world charm.
The fairytale castle blends neo-Baroque and neo-Gothic styles. Fronted by a sprawling garden, it commands a fabulous cityscape of red-roofed buildings punctuated by arrowheads of church spires. In the inner courtyard stone sculptures of griffins and fierce gothic animals guarded wide steps and stone walls riddled with creepers and vines.
A model of the original 12th Century castle, a former hunting lodge for German royals, is on display. The lavish interiors flaunt exquisite red and blue silk damask wall panels, monogrammed motifs, parquet floors, hunting trophies and gilded portraits. The grand Festaal (banquet hall) decorated with the stag crest of the House of Stolberg-Wernigerode spells out the opulence enjoyed by Kaisers and Dukes.
We noticed a raised deck with a special door. Back in the day, guests had to wear a special hat and thick cape called the ‘smoking jacket’ before entering the smoking lounge. This ensured they didn’t stink up the place with the odour of tobacco smoke clinging to their clothes. In 1950, the castle was refurbished into a museum and opened to public. Its unusual treasures include gifts, silverware, traditional dishes, recipes, menus and a book compiled by the French chef of the Stolberg family.
Wernigerode’s fascinating history came alive during the guided city walk with the genial Werner Kropf. Goethe, who wrote the classic “Faust” came here in 1777 at the age of 28 to study mining in the Harz. Mining’s loss was music’s gain! Till 1870 it was a small town of 6000 inhabitants and after the foundation of the German Reich, it saw great development. One of the factories that opened in the 1800s was Hasserӧder, the largest and most famous brewery in Germany, which still exists. They produce beer that Germans swear by – about 1million litres per day! In 1899, the railway network through 140km of the Harz mountains to the highest point Brocken, was completed.
Despite several fires, few Baroque style homes managed to survive and are comparatively prettier than the simpler new homes. But what the latter miss out in ornamentation, is made up for in colour. Perhaps the cutest house was Kleinstes Haus, Wernigerode’s smallest house which belonged to postal worker Mr Nettelmann. Wedged between two houses (they skipped building the side walls!), the home built in 1792 is just 3m wide with two rooms, a small hall and kitchen! In 1900, it still managed to house a family of ten. Today the heritage house has been converted into a museum.
Many houses are over 500 years old and retain remnants of Renaissance period artwork and woodwork with large overhangs, paintings and carvings. We saw a wonky house with a clever signboard in German nailed to its wall “There are not so many days in the year as there the number of years of this house!” Dating back to 1597, it stood crooked because the foundation was damaged by the flooding rains. Art, humour and beauty came together in these lanes.
We halted at the unusual Museum Schiefes Haus, formerly a water-powered mill built in Baroque style in 1680. It was built straight but today leans forward, earning fame as the Crooked Mill in town. Apparently its foundations too, eroded over the centuries as the little brook flowing alongside sometimes swelled into a flood. Today, it inclines 130cm, making it more tilted than the Leaning Tower of Pisa! It features models of mills inside. Its slope is so sharp it’s difficult to balance, like you would on a ship in the high seas. A landscaped Floral Watch designed in 1974 stands nearby.
Wernigerode’s historic Rathaus or Town Hall in the heart of town was originally built in 1277 as a Spielhaus (playhouse). People gathered here to meet and have beer, play cards every evening, watch theatre or celebrate a wedding. When Wernigerode became a town, they declared it a Marktplatz.
As it prospered, the administration decided on a makeover for the Rathaus in 1936. They invited a young 27-year-old architect brimming with new ideas from his wanderings around Germany to decorate the building. He moved the oriels lying around in a corner for centuries to the roof and added two oriel towers.
This stunning highlight became a signature of Wernigerode. Sitting pretty in shades of burnt orange, its Mayor Oriel windows (the Mayor’s office lies behind it) frilled by garden plants, the Rathaus is touted as the most beautiful Town Hall between the Atlantic Sea and the Ural Mountains. The inside story is that the administration short-changed the architect on his fee. So, he avenged it by ordering his craftsman to chisel images in the likeness of the administrators to publicly lampoon them. Enraged, they didn’t give him another project!
The building’s façade is beautiful with sculptural embellishments and the figures details even their costume and expression! One figure highlighted the typical attire of a farmer’s wife, another depicted a lumberjack with his axe. A row of wooden sculptures highlight the professions of the time – butcher, farmer, baker, miner, sweeper, the sixth was the artist himself, a carpenter, metalsmith, builder, potter, painter and a gunsmith.
The centrepiece is the gilded and tiered Benefactor’s Fountain, built in honour of those who rendered exemplary service and contributed to local welfare. Many of the town’s buildings have been renovated into restaurants. The magnificent Gothic Haus built in 1440 was converted into a heritage hotel and restaurant in mid 19th century and was transformed into a 4-star hotel in 1992.
Another timbered heritage hotel Weisser Hirsch or The White Deer, stands opposite the fountain. With 70 restaurants, hotels and cafés, the town is a popular holiday spot. Though Wernigerode is relatively small, it receives an astonishing 3 million visitors a year, of which a million stay at least one night!
Dampfladen (Steam Shop) stocks steam train souvenirs. The quirky 135-year-old bookshop Juttner’s Buchhandlung has 18 heavy bells hanging outside that chime everyday at five minutes past 12, 3 and 5pm in traditional folk tunes! Nearby, a metal sculpture of an owl and a hanging book highlight it as treasure-trove of wisdom.
Café Wein on Breite Strasse, the long pedestrian-only street, has a chocolate façade laced with pink flowers in its windows that made it look good enough to eat! Built in 1583 as a Renaissance style building, it has been run as a Viennese style café since 1898. The present owner Mrs Zeigermont is a gracious octogenarian who welcomes all her visitors personally. Her cakes are to die for!
The second marketplace of Wernigerode was also a venue for Walpurgisnacht, the night dedicated to the Witches of Brocken. Every year between 30th April and 1st May, thousands gather here dressed like witches and wizards. Marked by binge drinking, all night dancing and loud music, the festival marks the end of winter and celebrates the onset of spring. We could almost hear the Witches of Brocken Hill cackling and cheering us on for a cold night of revelry.
Getting there: Fly to Hanover (130km) and take a train to Wernigerode (2.5 hrs) by the German Federal Railways (Deutsche Bahn) and ‘Veolia’ Transport trains.
When to Go: Wernigerode has a busy calendar with the Town Hall Festival in mid-June and a Wine Festival in June end. The Chocolate Festival began two years ago and takes place in end October. The centuries old Christmas Market begins on 1st December and goes on till Christmas.
Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the November 2016 issue of Imperia magazine.