Witness to important stages of human history, the Harz Mountains, in the heart of Germany, not only has a network of hiking trails but also a clutch of cultural treasures recognised by UNESCO.
The Harz is the highest mountain range in Northern Germany and its tallest peak, the Brocken reaches 1,141m. By no stretch of the imagination are these alpine mountains but, after the flat plains of North Germany, they seem monumental. The border between former east and west Germany passed through here and, in Communist times, many of the summits were out of bounds, due to strategic reasons.
These days the 100km Green Belt Harz Trail traces the line of the original border and the Harz National Park has been established to preserve wildlife and nature. Many walking routes cross the park, including the Harzer Hexensteig or "Witches' Trail", and the Goethe Trail, which climbs to the summit of the Brocken from Torfhaus. If you're feeling lazy, there's a network of narrow gauge railways and you can take a vintage steam train to the top.
Of course, there's more to the Harz than hiking, most importantly its UNESCO World Heritage Sites, dotted in and around the mountains.
On the way to the Harz from Hannover is Hildesheim, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985. What's special here are St. Michael's Church and the Cathedral of St. Mary, both outstanding examples of early Romanesque architecture.
They were built by the 10th Century Bishop Bernward and St Michael's has a magnificent painted wooden ceiling depicting Christ's family tree. The Cathedral has just reopened, after a major refurbishment, and contains a 3.79m bronze Column of Christ. which shows scenes from the New Testament and 2 Bernward doors, also cast from bronze.
The region used to be important for mining with silver, lead, copper and zinc found in abundance. As a result the towns became rich and Goslar, with its narrow cobbled streets and 1000 medieval half-timbered houses, is also home to the 11th century Imperial Palace, built by Emperor Heinrich II. The marketplace even has a special clock tower, the Glockenspiel, where a procession of mechanical figures troop out to demonstrate the history of mining, 4 times a day.
Mines of Rammelsberg
If you want to see where the wealth came from, it's worth a visit to the Rammelsberg Mines, just above the town. Mining finished here in 1988, after 850 years of activity, and they began turning it into a museum.
It became the 1st German industrial monument to be given UNESCO World Heritage status, together with the town of Goslar, in 1992. They've just opened up the extraction plant to visitors, but their star turn is a journey underground taking one of the original mining trains.
You cram yourself into one of the tiny wagons and enter the darkness. Suddenly you feel the horror that the miners must have felt every time they set out on their shifts. There's a fear of derailment as the train weaves around the narrow tunnels, 500m into the mountain, but finally you come to a stop. Underground there's a demonstration of mining techniques and a tour of the imposing wooden waterwheels - these operated winches, to bring up the ore, and powered pumps to drain the galleries.
Upper Harz Water Management System
Before the age of electricity, water was the only source of energy for the mines scattered over the mountains. Construction of a complex system of ponds, channels and underground tunnels began in the 16th century to manage the water supply. Many of these have been preserved and you can use the 60km Harzer Försterstieg Trail to explore the remaining dams, ponds and ditches, many of which still channel water. In 2010 the system was added to Goslar's UNESCO World Heritage status.
On the other side of the Harz is Quedlinburg, a stunning example of a medieval European town, with over 1300 half-timbered houses built over 8 centuries. This has been a UNESCO World Heritage since 1994. Dominating the skyline is the Romanesque Abbey Church of St. Servatius, on Castle Hill, which contains the tombs of the first German king, Heinrich I and his wife Mathilde.
During WW2, Hitler's right hand man, Heinrich Himmler, decided to emphasise Nazi links to German heroes of the past so he turned the church into a shrine for the SS. Ironically, on liberation, an American officer spirited some of the church's valuable treasures back to his home in Texas. They were only rediscovered when his relatives attempted to sell them at a flea market and were eventually returned. They're now back on display in the church.
To the East of the Harz is Lutherstadt Eisleben, where Martin Luther was born and also died, his Bethlehem and Jerusalem. There's a museum here, established in the 17th century, on the site of the house where he lived for the first few months of his life. Unfortunately the original burned down in 1689 but on the ground floor they've reconstructed the rooms as they might have been.
He spent most of his life elsewhere but returned here in 1546 to mediate in a dispute between the Counts of Mansfeld. During a sermon, from the pulpit of the church of St Andreas, he was taken ill and died soon afterwards. As you'd expect there's also a museum containing his bedchamber with the original furnishings, although recent research shows it's not the original house. That was demolished long ago. Along with nearby Wittenberg, Eisleben has been a UNESCO site since 1996 and is one stop on the 1,200km Luther Trail, running through Thuringia, Saxony-Anhalt and Saxony.
UNESCO has a list of World Heritage sites in Germany.
Harz has information about the region.
Germany Travel has information about the country.
German Wings has a number of daily flights from Stansted to Hannover.
Hotel Hildesheim has good food and is a comfortable base in Hildesheim.
Hotel Der Achtermann makes a comfortable base in Goslar although some rooms are tiny and they charge for wi-fi.
Restaurant Steinberg Alm has a great view of Goslar.
Brauhaus Goslar serves its own beer.
Luthershcenke dishes up hearty Lutheran food in Eisleben.
Hotel Schlossmühle makes a comfortable base in Quedlinburg.
Brauhaus Lüdde serves its own beer in Quedlinburg.
All pictures copyright Rupert Parker.Suggest a correction