The first Walpurgis that Michael can remember being celebrated publicly was in 1990, the year of German reunification. Saxony-Anhalt was part of Communist East Germany and Schierke was just over a mile from the highly militarised border, within a no-go zone that you needed a special permit to enter. The Bracken was split between East and West, and there was no official Walpurgis Night during the years of Communist rule. Michael says friends and families met up quietly to mark it, but the event was discouraged in East Germany. One reason is that it clashed with International Labour Day, on. 1 May. Another is that the Communist leaders feared its citizens meeting up en masse in case it led to political demonstrations.
Here are some sore heads aboard the 9.40 train from Wernigerode as it heads up to the Brocken the next day. A conductor helpfully goes from car to car selling tiny bottles of berry schnapps as a pick-me-up.
The steam engines that ply the narrow-gauge track in the Harz Mountains are beneficiaries of the end of the Cold War. Just as the East German government was preparing to replace them with diesel ones, the Berlin Wall fell. Now, the area has one of the largest steam-railway networks in the world, carrying a million passengers a year over its 87 miles of track. It’s a leisurely 90-minute journey up, switchbacking through deep forests that seem to press in on the train. The air is filled with the smell of coal and hot oil. Now and again, views open up towards the lowland of Saxony-Anhalt. As the train climbs, woodlands of beech and birch give way to spruce and fir.
When we reach the summit, it is bare of trees and in places covered with deep snow. The most unearthly thing is an old Cold War listening station: a golf-ball-shaped radar dome that’s now a museum.
In 1961, when the Berlin Wall was built, a similar one went up on top of the Brocken, dividing East and West. The steam trains stopped running and any witch foolish enough to come here would have been seen off by the Soviet soldiers guarding the listening post. Today, the only remnant of that wall is in the museum.
On our way back down, the locomotive stops at Schierke. Here, Walpurgis festivities continue, though some people are heading unsteadily back to the shuttle buses that brought them. It might just be the contrast with the icy summit of the Brocken, but it does feel as though spring has gained a decisive foothold in the valley: the beech leaves seem to have unfurled all at once on the command of an inaudible abracadabra. Winter’s been banished for another year.
WHAT IS WALPURGIS?
Walpurgis Night is an annual festival based on traditional pagan celebrations that sees people dress up as witches, devils and demons for a night of merrymaking in late April. In northern Germany, it takes place primarily in the Harz Mountains, with the biggest celebrations in Schierke (29-30 April), Thale (29 April—1 May) and the Hexentanzplatz (30 April), with festivities in more than 20 towns and villages in the region.
There are variants in other countries, such as the Czech Republic’s Bonfire Night-esque Paleni carodejnic (Burning of the Witches) and Sweden’s Feast of Valborg, with the huge Cortege parade in Gothenburg a focal point.
Airlines including Air Berlin, BA and Eurowings, fly from London to Hanover, a 90-minute drive from Wernigerode. Air Berlin also flies from Birmingham and Manchester.
To retrace this itinerary through the Harz Mountains, you’ll need to hire a car. For a more whistle-stop trip, trains link Hanover and Wernigerode and Wernigerode and Thale.