I felt will be content to lose myself for weeks here, hiking through the silent forest, eating picnics on the emerald moss and hoping to catch sight of one of the lynxes that were reintroduced to the Harz in 2001. Further down the valley, anemones were carpeting the forest floor and in the hamlet of Konigsruhe, a Hansel and Gretel cottage was offering food and lodging.
The Bode carves a deep gorge through the granite of the Harz as it emerges from the mountains into the town of Thale. On either side of the water, the rocks have taken on strange sculptural forms and there is something undeniably eerie about the landscape. Hexentanzplatz — the Witches’ Dance Floor — is a plateau overlooking the steep drop to the valley bottom. According to tradition, this is where the witches gather before flying to the summit of the Bracken.
Nowadays, the witches tend to arrive by cable car from Thale. Up on Hexentanzplatz, the traditions of Walpurgis Night are enthusiastically observed with a witch museum, the Witch’s Cauldron café, a Devil’s Grill Barbecue, an outdoor theatre, a year-round toboggan run, and stalls and shops doing good business in witch trinkets.
This area has long been exploiting its connection with Goethe’s legend and visitors to the sites he mentions have been arriving since the 19th century. In 1901, Walpurgis Hall was built to exhibit paintings that illustrate the story.
In a strange case of life imitating art, the workers who dug the foundations unearthed an ancient, possibly Bronze Age, stone sacrificial altar. It’s now on display in the hall’s entrance.
A 20-minute drive from Wernigerode, along winding mountain roads, sits the tiny village of Schierke. Parching on the Bode and surrounded by woodland, it has the distinction of being mentioned by name in Faust. The hero, Faust, and the devil Mephistopheles, to whom he’s sold his soul, pass through it on the way to meeting the witches on top of the Bracken.
On Walpurgis night every hotel and guesthouse in Schierke is booked solid. Life-size plastic witches are displayed in gardens and dangle from lampposts. A huge, two-day party is being held in the town park, along the banks of the Bode, where pigs turn on spits and a blacksmith with a beard like Thor is hammering belt buckles on his anvil. Local beer is drunk steadily all day and the regional food for sale looks like things a hobbit might cook: potato and plum dumplings from Thuringia; split pea and sausage soup; berry wines; sweet, fried cheese balls. From about midday, rock bands with a vaguely medieval flavour play on the big stage, while a cover band blasts out ABBA songs from a smaller one.
Outside town, silence reigns in the woods, broken only by the distant hoot from the narrow-gauge steam engine. There are still snowdrifts under trees and a chilly wind blows along the valley. Winter has the forest in its grip and it feels as if spring could do with some supernatural assistance.
At 4pm, 40 witches gather on the steps of Schierke Town Hall. They declare the building occupied, and invite people in for schnapps and sandwiches. Many in the crowd have gone to enormous effort to dress up, wearing robes, elaborate make-up, costumes and tinted contact lenses.
As dusk falls, the parade begins. Crowds line the route five deep as up to 400 villagers process up the main street. There are devils roller-skating, line dancing, playing bagpipes and throwing sweets to the crowd.
Leading the parade is a man in a sinister leather mask, who tells me he’s the chief devil and can only speak Devilish. In fact, his name is Michael Gebbert. He works in a local school and has been involved in organising the village’s Walpurgis events since 1995. At nightfall, as masked revellers crowd around a bonfire, Michael explains that, for him, Walpurgis is a celebration of victory over winter, but that it also has an added significance for his generation.