Germany is a bottomless pit of surprises when it comes to historic towns that I’ve never heard of, nor I suspect have many other British people. Wernigerode is yet another medieval town of timber-framed houses set amidst rolling countryside at the edge of the Harz Mountains. Sitting on top of a nearby hill, the dramatic 13th century Wernigerode Castle looks serenely over the town.
The showpiece Marktplatz is a picturesque square surrounded by half-timbered buildings, including a twin-spired Rathaus that understandably features heavily in the town’s tourist literature. The Wohltäterbrunnen, a highly decorated neo-Gothic fountain that adds a fairytale quality to the scene, sits in the centre of the square. It’s easy to understand why Wernigerode is known as the Pearl of the Harz.
The Rathaus dates from 1420, but the town had already been in existence since at least the early 12th century. The surrounding streets, filled with timber-framed buildings leading off from the Marktplatz, are medieval or later. It’s an attractive place, small enough to stroll around in half a day but which would probably make a rewarding and peaceful place to stay for a few days.
Like most towns in this region, Wernigerode grew wealthy from mining in the Harz Mountains and producing silver, lead and copper. Mining in the region dates back to at least the 10th century, by the 16th century the region produced around half of all of Germany’s silver. Vast fortunes were made, and the towns of the Harz became very prosperous.
Today, wandering the winding and empty streets of the Altstadt, it’s hard to imagine that this charming town had once been behind the Iron Curtain. Outside of Germany though, Wernigerode is probably most famous in Russia. Thanks to the town playing the backdrop to the Soviet version of the Baron Munchausen stories in a film called Tot samyy Myunkhgauzen.
The film was a massive success in communist Russia. Given that its hero is an outlandish troublemaker oppressed by a dull, grey and rigidly conformist society that many took as a satire on life under the Soviet system, it’s a miracle that it got past the censors. It was filmed in 1979, and used many Wernigerode citizens as extras. Which means that some who featured in the film are likely still living here.
Unlike nearby Halberstadt, Wernigerode came through the Second World War largely unscathed and pretty much all the medieval buildings are the originals. We spent a few hours exploring a town that felt deserted despite it being summer, and then made our way to the picturesquely located castle, walking steeply uphill through woodlands to reach the outer walls.
Here we finally found where all the tourists were, the castle was crowded. We didn’t have time to do the full tour, but drank in the amazing views of the town and surrounding countryside from the walls. The castle is over a thousand years old, but what you see today is largely a result of remodeling in the 19th century by the then owner, Otto Graf zu Stoltenberg-Wernigerode.
We walked back down forest trails and hopped in the car back to our base in Quedlinburg, on the way we passed one of the things that rivals the castle for popularity, the Harzer Schmalspurbahnen. A narrow-gauge railway operated by steam trains that carry passengers to the Brocken, the highest mountain in the Harz. This really is one of the region’s highlights.
Just another reason why you might chose Wernigerode as a base, and why a long weekend in the Harz will only ever be an introduction demanding a longer visit.