The Hexenstieg in the Harz, Germany’s northernmost mountain range, is one of the country’s top hiking trails. During the Cold War period, the Iron Curtain (aka the frontier between east and west Germany) ran right through the heart of the Harz, and the region (a restricted zone in the east, a neglected dead end in the west) was largely bypassed by the post-war economic development on either side.
As a consequence, it nowadays provides a more rugged and authentic hiking experience than many of the German trails further west.
For anybody who wants to sample the Harz, the historic city of Goslar is the perfect entry point – not least because it complements the experience of an authentic German forest with the experience of an authentic German Old Town, one of the largest and most fully preserved in the country.
Goslar had its heyday in the 11th century when it became, for all practical purposes, the capital of the Holy Roman Empire.
The buildings that give the Old Town its unique charm, however (and that have earned it the UNESCO’s World Heritage Status), come from a slightly later period, the time of the Reformation, when it was a prosperous hub of the trade in precious metals and slate (both mined in the Harz mountains) between the Rhineland and the German provinces further to the east.
The town experienced its low point in the 19th century when many of its historic buildings were, quite literally, crumbling away.
The visiting poet Heinrich Heine was only one of many contemporary Germans who were scandalized that the old Cathedral had been razed to the ground, with only the entry hall left standing. (He also found the streets too narrow for his taste and the sidewalks as “bumpy as Prussian hexameters”.)
With the arrival of the railways, however, the Old Town was soon prettified into a popular retirement town and, more recently, a holiday destination for (mainly elderly) Germans.