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Walpurgis Night – Revisiting the Witches’ Trails

Walpurgis Night – the night of witches or, in German, Walpurgisnacht– is held at the transit from 30 April to 1 May in much of central and northern Europe. May 1 is the feast of St Walpurga, the patron saint of countrywomen and servants, and patroness of conjurers. Legend has it that this is the last time witches can celebrate their heathen festivals after the darkness of winter, and they have the whole night to do so.

One of the most popular sites for this ritual is Brocken, the highest summit in the Harz Mountains (some 50 km from Leipzig, Germany). This peak is often shrouded in dense fog, endowing it with an air of mystery. It even gives rise to an unusual effect known as the Brocken Spectre – an optical illusion that can appear in any fog-clad mountains, by which an enlarged shadow of the observer, surrounded by an iridescent halo, is reflected onto the clouds. The effect is actually created by the diffraction of cloud droplets. This also helped to magnify the legend of the witches in the place mentioned by the German writer, Goethe, at the beginning of his best-known work, Faust, when he describes the scene of the witches’ night celebration on the slopes of the Harz mountains. On Walpurgisnacht, participants assemble at Brocken around a large bonfire and spend the night singing and dancing. The festive ritual is purported to drive off evil spirits. Witches’ night is celebrated at all villages in the Harz Mountains, where the inhabitants dress up as witches and demons, while street markets, fireworks, parades and concerts are organised. Check out the programme listing all the Walpurgis Night activities in Harz.

The Harz Mountains – Following in the Witches’ Footsteps

Accounts from the Harz are not limited to witches. This mountain range in Lower Saxony is an impressive nature reserve featuring some of the really beautiful spots. The mountain trails wind their way between steep cliffs and valleys, ash forests, and networks of villages, palaces and castles dating from the time of the Saxon Dynasty. It is northern Germany’s resort of choice for cross-country skiing and hiking, traversing the natural habitats of the red brocket, deer, lynx and wild boar, as well as the white-throated dipper, black stork and peregrine falcon.

The Harz is criss-crossed by a network of over 8,000 kilometres of well-signposted nature trails, making it a paradise for hikers. While the Harz National Park itself is practically uninhabited, you will come across a few hamlets and restaurants offering genuine, typical German cuisine – the stellar dish of the region is roast potatoes with spices. One of the trekking routes, known as Harzer Hexenstieg (Witches’ Route), is a trail running some 100 kilometres from Osterode, through Brocken, as far as Thale. Halfway along the trail, at a place called Torfhaus, the witches’ trail forks along a stretch known as “Goethe”. Indeed, the poet and playwright walked this same route some 200 years ago.

Fairytale Villages in the Harz Region

The Harz Mountains are also dotted with some charming 16th-century villages, rich in history and legend. Of these, we have highlighted the following:

Goslar. At the foot of the Harz range lies this picturesque medieval town, known as the “Rome of the North”. It was the residence of German kings and emperors until 1253. The historic town and the old Rammelsberg mines, situated on the edge of the town, are listed as World Heritage sites. Also listed by UNESCO is the nearby Upper Harz Water Regale (Oberharzer Wasserregal), one of the world’s largest and most important pre-Industrial Revolution energy-management systems. Its 107 dams and reservoirs and over 300 kilometres of water channels provide a stunning backdrop for the Harz mountain hiking trails.

Wernigerode. This, the nearest town to Brocken is noteworthy for its striking hilltop castle and its medieval houses elaborately adorned with wood carvings.

Thale. Situated in the picturesque Bode Gorge, overlooked by the Hexentanzplatz, a lofty hilltop which can be reached by cable car. Hexentanzplatz, meaning “witches’ dance-floor”, was once a place of worship in Saxon times, sacred to the forest and mountain goddesses. Here you will find various landmarks associated with witches’ legends, in addition to the Walpurgishalle Museum.

Quedlinburg. Just 10 kilometres from Thale lies Quedlinburg, the first capital of Germany and an important town during the Middle Ages. It currently holds the largest concentration of half-timbered buildings in the country. An interesting fact is that this town was ruled by women for 800 years.

You aren’t scared, are you? Come and see it for yourself. Check out our flights here.

Text by Scanner FM

Images by Olli Henze | Σ64 | Mundus Gregorius | GerturdK | Mathias Liebing |  JuTe CLZ | Marco Hamersma

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