Not too far from Paris we were served a delicious breakfast at our seat, consisting of juice, coffee, rolls, a croissant with jelly, a chocolate pastry, several small pieces of cheese, ham and a prune fruit bowl.

The Thalys zipped through the countryside on a high-speed line with concrete ties and superelevated curves. There were more bumps than on the Eurostar, and when we passed another train, the air pressure between the two was noticeable.

In looking over my rail map, I saw we were to travel through Belgium, adding another country to our list of traveled lands. I really hadn’t noticed until then that Belgium was on the rail route to Cologne.

What I was already be-ginning to notice was that in Europe, modern, smooth-riding, comfortable passenger trains are taken for granted. You get on, sit in a comfortable seat, sometimes you’re served snacks, coffee or meals at your seat while the comfortable, clean trains zip you to your destination at great speed and on time. There’s little or no commotion about this feat, it’s just a fact of life.

I was getting a bit nervous that I might be enjoying this trip way too much already. It was easy to just sit back and relax, watch the scenery or read. My travel was in the hands of rail people who knew how to get me there on time and in style. I couldn’t help but think of the horror stories I’d heard about passenger train travel in the U.S., and I was glad I was in Europe.

Our train travel today would take about 9-1/2 hours, but I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. We’d get to see the countryside, with several train changes that would allow us to stretch our feet.

As we pulled into Cologne, from the train window we saw the tall, impressive two-spired cathedral in the city center near the station, something Marilyn had learned about in a high school German project, and recognized instantly. We had 41 minutes to wait at Cologne for our ICE train (InterCity Express) to Hannover. It was a chance to purchase a salami and/or turkey sandwich on fresh-baked bread in the station. Our train hadn’t appeared on the train schedule board yet, so I finally asked a DB agent who told us the platform was #2, and the departure time was 11:49 a.m, not 11:30. I guess you need to occasionally verify train information even in Germany.
The ICE is an all-white train with what seem to be even roomier cars than on the Eurostar or the Thalys. Certainly there were wider aisles, large windows, light interiors and plastic and cloth seats and armrests. The ICE pulled out right on time, headed for Hannover.

The weather alternated between sunshine and rain; station stops along the way included Remscheid, Wuppertal, Hagen and Dortmund. I watched the overhead illuminated board from time to time to see the speed of the train—it reached 200 kilometers an hour at one point. I liked the ICE because it was roomy, and the large windows helped us enjoy the countryside.

Probably the trickiest part of our entire journey was waiting for us at Hannover. As we left the ICE, we walked into the main train station area to find the typical train departure board, but our Regional Express (RE 3613) due to depart at 14:32 p.m. (2:32 p.m.) wasn’t listed on the departure board. Besides, Hannover station was a busy place, and everyone seemed to be in a hurry. As the minutes ticked away, and not having been able to determine which platform our train was to depart from, I scrambled up a platform stairway and asked a DB service agent for help. I knew time was getting very short, so I was anxious to find the right track quickly.

The DB agent, who spoke little or no English, looked at our schedule, grabbed Marilyn’s bags and motioned us to follow him as he hightailed it down one flight of stairs, and then shot up another flight of stairs to the tracks. As we ascended, I could hear the conductor’s whistle blow prior to departure, and my stomach knotted up when I realized that could be our train!

It was. The DB agent yelled to the conductor to wait as we literally jumped into the open car door, at which moment the train lurched forward and out of the station. Talk about a DB angel. We had one that day.

But now we were on the Regional Express, sitting in first class, out of breathe, but on board and on our way. This was the last train of the day, and it was still a two-hour trip to Wernigerode. The RE was a red two-car train with a distinctive whine, much like a gas-electric motorcar. It also could notch up the speed when the track allowed.

At Baddeckenstedt I spotted a small switch steam locomotive and an old coach on a siding near the station. I had no other information about it, but I did get a photo.

European steam engines


Prior to our trip I had read about the intriguing Harz Mountains, and the railway map showed we were going to be traveling next to them. The lush forests in the Harz are home to many wild animals, and the entire region is dotted with towns and tiny old burgs of historical interest.

One of the significant towns near the Harz is the imperial town of Goslar. This medievel village boasts the Royal Chapel of St. Ulrich, the Imperial Palace and nearby 1,000-year-old Rammelsberg ore mine. Our train made only a quick stop here, but it is on a future agenda for us to visit.

The Harz is home to the Brocken Mountains, the highest point in northern Germany, and they began to loom in the distance, complete with layers of white clouds stacked above the peaks. A few miles from Wernigerode, the stately Schloss (castle) Wernigerode, built in the 13th Century, appeared dangling off the edge of a high cliff.

The town of Wernigerode itself is known for its many half-timbered buildings, but the real treat for railfans comes as you enter the station area. Off to one side I saw three—count ’em—three 2-10-2 steam locomotives all in shiny black paint with red trim sitting at the engine facilities.

Steam locos

These well-maintained steam locomotives pull passenger cars through the mountains and forests of the Harz.

I had to remind myself that this was 2004, and that these coal-powered locomotives ran nearly every day of the year here, and have been for 100 years! This was the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen (, and it features an extensive network of rails running 60 km between Nordhausen and Wernigerode, passing many of the Harz Mountains attractions. Other steam rail branches sprout in other directions into the mountains, and you’d need three solid days to see it all. It’s definitely a destination for dampflok (steam engine) railfans.

Because of our schedule, we had planned to ride the 9:10 a.m. train to the Brocken Mountain, arriving at the top at 12:04. We would return at 1:33 p.m. and arrive back at Wernigerode at 3:20 p.m, enough time to explore the town.
Upon arrival at the new and modern Ramada-Treff Hotel (, just a few short blocks from the Harz steam train station and the DB station, we learned the Brocken line was closed the day before because of 110 mph winds at the top! We made alternative train plans that evening pending the outcome of the morning’s weather report.

After a delicious German supper at the Ratskeller in the center of town, we awaited the next day’s adventure. Early in the morning we asked the hotel clerk to call the railroad for us to see what the weather was like on the mountain.
Fortunately, the weather was clear, and there was no new snow or high winds, so we got to the station about 20 minutes prior to departure, enough time to check out the engine and cars. On the ready track was a 2-10-2 3-foot-gauge black-with-red-trim engine (very smart) with orange and white coaches; a snack car was also attached.

After having my picture taken in front of the locomotive (always a must), the train headed out (right on time) for the 1,125-meter ascent to the Brocken, the highest peak in northern Germany.

The Harz railroad owns 25 steam engines, 17 of which are used to provide rail service between 41 stations all year round. The oldest locomotive dates to 1897. On the entire line there are three major routes, 400 bridges and the only tunnel in former East Germany.

The trip over the line takes visitors past deep forests, over mountain streams, through meadows and along sheer rock cliffs. The steepest part of the line to the Brocken takes about 50 minutes from Drei Annen Hohne station, and during this portion the line passes through the Hochharz National Park.

Three steamers
At Drei Annen Hohne three steam trains are at the station at the same time---this in 2004!

About three quarters of the way up the mountain, snow began to appear on the right-of-way, and as the train chugged up the last few miles near the top, the landscape began to look like Antartica, with snow and ice caked on the mountains and trees.

At the top was a station, several restaurants and a viewing station, but we decided to take the next train down at 11:03 a.m. so we could change trains at Drei Annen Hohne for Eisfelder Talmuhle. That train left at 12:03, on the way down I think we were the only people on board besides the crew—we had our pick of seats.

The rest of the day we traveled by steam train through the forests and hills of the Harz; it’s a beautiful area with plenty of hunting, picnicking and hiking opportunities. We could have spent much longer investigating the various Harz rail lines, half of which we left unvisited.

The next day was another non-steam all-train day (and one bus), departing from the Wernigerode station at 8:32 a.m. One woman on the train, who spoke fairly good English, promised to send me details on the town of Heimburg, which the train passed from a few miles away.

We again changed to the intercity train at Halle, then to another regional express at Leipzig. I like the Leipzig train station—it’s such a grand structure. I had been there about four years earlier and toured the station with a railfan friend. We caught the regional express here at 12:05 p.m. (after downing a delicious bratwurst from a station vendor). This train took us to Chemnitz, where we boarded a regional train for a 35 minute ride to Grunhainichen-Borstendorf, which was a very small unmanned station at the end of the line near forests and a fast-moving mountain stream.

We departed the train, walked through the tiny station and boarded a waiting DB bus, which took us to Seiffen. This 1 hour 11 minute ride took us through very hilly country, over curving roads where the tree trunks were nearly into the roadway, and where the woman bus “agent” asked us how long we’d be in Seiffen. We thought she wanted to know our length of stay so she would make sure we left the area afterwards! But she and the bus driver were very friendly, and even called our hotel on their cell phone as we arrived at the bus stop in Seiffen to have them pick us up. Otherwise it was a two-mile trek uphill in the snow with our luggage to the beautiful 64-room Hotel Wettiner Hohe.

Our four-year-old hotel overlooked beautiful forests and hills (always ask for a “zimmer mit blick” [room with a view]); we planned on staying here three nights. Seiffen, near the Czech Republic border, is a remote spot situated in “the land of the toys.” It’s here that about 100 families have produced handcrafted Christmas toys and decorations for the last 300 years. The small industry yields a town full of wonderful wooden toys and Christmas decoration surprises, marked by great German craftsmanship, and a toy museum.

Candle store

Marilyn in Sieffen at a large outdoor pyramid and at a pyramid store.

The region is dubbed the Erzgebirge, and small treasure-filled shops line the street. But it’s best if you speak some German here, because we found no one in town who could speak English, except Katja Frenzel, a reservation clerk at our hotel. It also helps to know the phrase “Guten Tag.” We toured the well-known octagonal Seiffen church after which many of the decorations are fashioned.

You may have heard of the German nutcracker, the smoking man, the flower child, the candleholder angel, the Christmas pyramid, the German music box, candle arch and others—all lovingly made here in the old-fashioned German way.
The first evening we were the only people staying at the hotel (March was their off season), and we woke up the next morning to our own buffet breakfast in the dining room. Talk about being pampered! We were served muesli, yogurt, breads, meats, cheeses, two types of juice and coffee. At the hotel that evening we met our friendly 19-year-old chef who also knew some English and who had traveled to England for two weeks.

After loading up with toys, including some wooden toy trains, we had to depart this unusual village and head for Frankfurt for our flight home. While at Seiffen, we had considered visiting the 3-foot-gauge steam train of the Fichtelbergbahn at Cranzahl, a 17-kilometer line to Oberwiesenthal, and the railway’s management graciously sent us tickets. But without a car, transportation in that part of Germany is only by bus and train, and the 40-mile trip would have taken about 3 hours. We decided to take a pass on this steam train and try to visit it on a future trip.

We caught the 9:46 a.m. bus from Seiffen and reversed the process to get back to Chemnitz, where we caught the 12:02 p.m. regional train to Nurnberg. This city has another German station I love! The grand train shed allows light to pour through onto the many tracks, and both the passenger and train activity is vibrant. Our InterCity train departed on time at 3:34 p.m, and we traveled the last two hours and five minutes by train, arriving at the main Frankfurt train station.
Our hotel was directly across the street, and we prepared for a quick “night on the town,” settling on the Ristorante Rustico near the downtown pedestrian plaza. We ordered a four-cheese pizza and a salmon/pasta/zucchini entree, and our favorite Pilsner beer. The atmosphere was quiet and warm inside the little cafe. Outside was chilly as we returned to the hotel, and we realized this year spring had not come early to Europe.

After breakfast we decided to get a few last shots of the trains at the station, and noticed that the station clock was an hour ahead of what we had on our watches. A thought struck us that perhaps Germany had “sprung” forward, and we had lost an hour. Sure enough, that was the case, and we scurried back to the hotel, checked out and boarded the S Bahn to the airport.

Our flight on American had been overbooked, and we toyed briefly with the idea of staying another night and getting free tickets on another future flight—return tickets to Europe perhaps? After 10 days away and a business to run back home, we decided we just couldn’t stay another day longer.

We landed safely on U.S. soil and were already dreaming about what our next European adventure might be. This trip was fun, exciting, and a lot less harried than we thought it would be. The people we met were friendly, even when we could only manage a few words in their language. The trains were excellent. On a scale of 1 to 10, we had to rate all of them a 10. They were punctual, clean and fast. Next time we’ll try to tour more of the small steam lines near Dresden. There are several of them worth investigating for a railfan. If you’re tired of trains in the U.S., try Europe. They have thousands of trains worth riding, and you’ll gain an appreciation of European history at the same time.

We’ll always remember this trip. It was a golden opportunity to meet people from other countries and see things we never thought existed or knew about. That’s what makes travel so exciting.

back to page one