I have never written about a destination in Germany. The omission has been glaring, but I do have a couple of excuses. First of all, it just so happens I don’t spend a lot of time in Germany and second of all, I’ve had a bit of a conundrum in that most towns that are big enough to have a real story to them were utterly destroyed in the second world war and are therefore relatively charmless. I’ve thought about the (rebuilt) walls of Nuremburg, the buzz of Berlin, the thriving center of Munich, but it’s never really worked out. I would very much like to write about the Wuppertal Schwiebebann, but while I’ve been to Wuppertal a couple of times I never managed to actually ride the Schwiebebann, and I’m loathe to make a journey to an otherwise dreary place just to take a half-hour ride on a weird train (although I’m dying to tell the story of Tuffi the plunging elephant).
Anyway, Wernigerode managed to escape the bombs and it is just big enough and interesting enough to have a good story of its own… plus, it is dominated by a perfectly wonderful and very Germanic castle and if you’ve read more than two or three of these things, you’ll know how much I like castles.
So Wernigerode it is.
The town is in Saxony, near the Hartz mountains. From the center of town you can see The Brocken, which the highest mountain in Northern Germany (don’t get your hopes up, it’s just a really big tree-covered hill with an ugly antenna on top). Since the mountains are common tourist destinations for Germans, Wernigerode gets two million day-trippers a year, who come through on their way to hike or just to visit the surrounding countryside. There is also the considerable wedding trade, since the town boasts a town hall dripping with Teutonic charm. German couples like to go there to tie the knoten.
But the most interesting thing about Wernigerode is not the influx of hiking/marrying tourists, it’s the influx of witches.
The Brocken may not be a very awe-inspiring mountain but it is witch central for many continental purveyors of the black arts. In fact, the entire Harz mountain range is suspect. Goethe had his witches fly there to conduct Sabbath ceremonies with Mephistopheles, and there are myriads of older tales featuring hags and sorcerers and assorted nasty magical creatures carousing on The Brocken’s slopes.
Since Wernigerode is the closest big town to the Brocken, and the natural starting point for those who want to visit, many people who come through have something to do with witches, particularly on the night of April 30, Walpurgisnacht, when the witches are supposed to dance and cavort on the peak.
Visitors who come through Wernigerode on witchy matters tend to fall into one of four categories:1. The visitor might be a witch (“she turned me into a newt!”). In this case, he or she has a good chance of being burned, at least from a statistical perspective, since hundreds of people were burned as witches in Wernigerode and its environs over the years. It’s true that things have calmed down considerably these last couple of centuries, but the long-term figures are not encouraging. This doesn’t stop them from coming. 2. The visitor might be a witch-watcher. What the hell, there are people who catalogue cows (or so I’ve been told). 3. The visitor might be a non-witchy cavorter, since Walpurgisnacht is a long-standing German tradition with overtones that would remind Americans of Halloween (think Halloween without candy but with rolling bales of flaming hay). 4. The visitor might just have come to observe the general sense of mayhem. Mayhem is rare in Germany, which is usually such a well-ordered place.
Wernigerode is itself well in line with German orderliness. It has impeccable streets, neatly ordered black cobblestones, well-tended parks. I was there in the fall and I had the distinct impression that there was exactly the right number of leaves on the ground: enough to give a crisp autumnal feel to the place but not enough to be anywhere near untidy. I couldn’t help but wonder if they didn’t somehow pick and choose which leaves to blow away and which to leave on the ground. Maybe they have special leaf blowers with ultra-thin, drinking-straw-like nozzles that allow you to choose your leaf.
And of course there is indeed the pretty little Germanic town hall situated on a pretty little Germanic central market square. Like the rest of the town, the town hall is built of a mixture of stone and wood, not too big (German buildings quickly reach the point of looming at you when they are too big) but not too small, with a nice clock that chimes away the hours.
A long aside… not far from the town hall is a bookshop with a big outdoor set of bells (glockenspiel) that pings away its own hourly tune (Annchen von Tharau—so I learned when I ran in to ask). In order not to compete with the official town clock, it does this five minutes after every hour. I can imagine the suffering of the glockenspiel’s owner—his only choices were either constantly being late or disrespecting authority. For a German in a quaint little city this is a serious dilemma. A Frenchman, for example, would have had no problem whatsoever with either option.
There is one building in Wernigerode that doesn’t shy away from a good loom, and that is the castle. It’s a doozy—a big old twelfth century monster of a castle perched on a pinnacle that takes up the Eastern part of the town. Like many castles of the period, it was burned and rebuilt a number of times, each time shedding some of its defensive stance in favor of prissy things like windows, but it still looms the ass off of most French castles. Plus, it has plenty of high pointy towers to hold sequestered princesses and long tunnels and portcullises and stuff. They should make a Lego version of this castle.
Having a castle like that loom above a medieval town in the middle of forested hills can easily give one the creeps, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Wernigerode has always been associated with witches. What the hell, maybe I’ll come by next April and join in the revelry myself.