It must have happened when I was in full childhood, the magic years of 8, 9 and 10, when the world is unfurling and your bravado is real. My parents had dragged us several hours west in an ancient station wagon to Tweetsie Railroad, where an actual 1919 steam locomotive belched its way through the North Carolina mountains in an early version of a theme park. The train was attacked by black-clothed bandits on horseback, and when the marshals arrived, there was an obligatory shootout right on the train.
I remembered the gun battle for years — those were the days when realism trumped any worries about lawsuits — but what stuck with me far longer, for another five decades, in fact, was the train itself, an abstraction of power wrapped in a thick plume of white steam that pushed its way through the rocky countryside, its cowcatcher tossing aside anything in its path.
Now, a lifetime later, I stood outdoors on a cold, gray, moist December day in the railyard of the German village of Oberwiesenthal, watching another black engine, this one built in 1933, alternately belch jets of steam that raced along the tracks and gusts that enveloped its green passenger cars whole. And I wasn’t alone. The Fichtelbergbahn, one of three narrow-gauge steam railroads in this relatively obscure corner of eastern Germany, a couple of miles from the Czech border at the top of the Ore Mountains, attracts visitors from around Germany and the world.
Steam locomotives are impossibly romantic, and narrow-gauge engines, about half the size of an ordinary locomotive, are impossibly cute as well, in the manner of a pint-size version of anything, from a miniature horse to a pygmy hippo. But like many trains that run in mountainous terrain, the Fichtelbergbahn is smaller for a reason: Because it must make sharper than usual turns, its narrow-gauge track is about half the width of conventional rail lines, the two rails exactly 750 millimeters (about 21 / 2 feet) apart.
Put another way, explained Hans-Thomas Reichelt, the chief engineer with the Saxon Steam Railway Co. (SDG), which runs the Fichtelbergbahn and two other narrow-gauge steam railroads around Dresden, a narrow-gauge train can turn in a circle with a radius of just 50 meters (164 feet) — nearly two-thirds less than a normal-size locomotive.
That’s not to say that these 50-ton engines are anything less than cast-iron behemoths, with 1,300-gallon water tanks and a firebox that devours 180 pounds of coal on the uphill run and 130 pounds on the downhill. But their pared-down size somehow makes them more accessible, and during the three days I spent in Oberwiesenthal, there were many hours where I — along with dozens of others — stood milling about the railyard, photographing the engines as if they were some exotic zoo animal and the yard worker, who shoveled out coal dust through a hinged circular door on the front of the engine, its keeper.
Oberwiesenthal is an understated ski village of 3,000 and the highest town in Germany. A quarter-century ago, before the Berlin Wall collapsed, it was part of the German Democratic Republic. Until 1960, said Reichelt, the Fichtelbergbahn hauled uranium from the local mines for use in Soviet atomic bombs. Today, it hauls more than 200,000 sightseeing passengers a year between Oberwiesenthal and the town of Cranzahl about 11 miles away.
“It’s lovely, it’s romantic,” said Elaine Czwartynski as she walked around the yard with her husband, her granddaughter and her son, a commodities trader in Leipzig. Czwartynski grew up in rural northwest England in the 1950s, when steam trains linked most of the small villages in East Lancashire, and the Fichtelbergbahn’s smell of burning coal brought an instant rush of memories. “My father tells me he used to know the times of the train, and used the trains to tell the time,” she said. “When he heard the train whistle in the morning, he knew it was time to get up.”
Steam locomotive travel started in 1804 — the first intercity train line in Germany began in 1839 between Dresden and Leipzig, less than 100 miles away — and lasted into the 1950s — and well beyond in some countries. “You see the power a steam engine like this has,” said Reichelt. “You can feel it. You can see it. Fire and water come together and make something work. It’s elemental.”
I climbed into one of the passenger cars, which hold three to four dozen people. They’re clean, serviceable and warm, but not particularly distinctive. What I wanted to see was the engine, and what I really wanted to do was to ride at least some of the hour-long trip with the engineer. My interpreter, Siggi Barthel, had a word with Reichelt, and a few minutes later, I was climbing up into the cab.
Once inside, though, I almost jumped back out. Instead of a sleek interior with a dashboard of dimmed LED numbers humming with efficiency, I faced a blizzard of polished metal wheels that popped out from the gray wooden wall — some saucer-size, others as big as dinner plates. At least nine round gauges, their needles etched in the understated style of the 1930s, rose out of this skein of wheels and knobs, measuring steam and brake pressures and the temperature of the water in the boiler, which has to be refilled each trip. A glass tube — the kind used in a beginning chemistry class — monitored the boiler’s water level.
Amid this clutter, engineer Thomas Bauer and fireman Stephan Ebert were checking gauges and adjusting wheels, and trying to explain to me, with Siggi gamely interpreting, just exactly what they were doing. Bauer is a smooth-shaven, short-haired 40-year-old, whose leather cap rests just above his ears. Ebert, 60, is unshaven, with shaggy hair, and his glasses sit on the tip of his nose, lending an incongruently professorial look to a man whose duties include shoveling coal from the tender to the firebox. There, a fierce yellow blaze turns water into steam, which shoots into a cylinder, driving a piston back and forth (the “choo” is the sound of the steam exhaust leaving the train after each piston push). The pistons move the bright-red coupling rods, and the coupling rods turn the wheels.
Bauer and Ebert have been working together for nearly 10 years and reckon that they’ve made the two-hour round-trip journey between Oberwiesenthal and Cranzahl more than 1,000 times. “In the summertime, it’s incredibly hot; in wintertime, it’s incredibly cold,” Bauer said in his Saxon-accented German. The only way to see properly is to put one’s head out the side window, which the two men do constantly .
As the engine shoots thick white bursts of steam into the air, Bauer pulls a lever that sends a blast of steam hurtling into the bell of the train whistle, producing a high-pitched, breathy, slightly vibrato sound that resonates through the Sehma Valley, sounding like the baying of some mythical giant hound in an old black-and-white horror movie.
Then the “chug chug chug chug” starts, or rather a cross between a chug and a choo, at first slowly and methodically, then rapidly crescendoing in speed, until the choog-choog-choog-choogs are coming so fast that they’re barely perceptible, yet still keeping perfect four/four time, the second and fourth notes beating with slightly more emphasis, like a jazz drummer driving his brushes as fast as humanly possible. There’s a slight pause to the beat, and the dry, rasping steam whistle sounds again, settling over the choog-choog like a set of giant pan pipes, until the overtones abruptly fade and the rhythm returns.
Siggi suggested that we get off at the one stop that’s worth not missing, the village of Neudorf, which arrives exactly 50 minutes along the route. You can pick up another train to Cranzahl later — there are three to six trains a day depending on the season — or take a returning train back to Oberwiesenthal. (You can also drive from Oberwiesenthal to Neudorf in about half an hour along a narrow lane with no shoulders above the valley, admiring the tiny orange-roofed villages that lie below, each with a delicate church spire pointing skyward.)
The Ore Mountains became famous for their silver mines some 600 years ago, and many of the region’s rich traditions are at least that old. During the long Christmas season, wooden candle arches known as Schwibbogen, shaped like the entrance to a mine, light up virtually every window in every Ore Mountain town. In big cities like Berlin, explains Siggi, it’s easy to see who’s originally from the Ore Mountains, or Erzgebirge, since the tradition is fiercely maintained. Every Erzgebirger puts them in his or her windows at Christmas, she says, “from a cool hip-hopper to an opera lover.”
There are also Christmas pyramids, delightfully carved miniature carousels a foot or two high, capped with a set of horizontal fan blades that turn lazily as four lit candles at the base heat the air.
At the Huss compound just 100 feet from the train stop in Neudorf, you can buy all manner of Schwibbogen, Christmas pyramids and the region’s famous Räuchermännchen, the carved wooden “smokers” whose hollow interiors hold a tiny ball of incense that, once lit, sends out a trail of smoke through the carving’s mouth. Jürgen Huss, the rumpled entrepreneur whose family has lived in the area since the silver mines were active in the 15th century, runs the gift shop as well as an incense studio, where visitors sit on workshop tables making and rolling their own incense cones using powdered coal as a base, potatoes, flour and bottles of various natural scents.
Across the street is the Neudorf Suppenmuseum, recently restored and worth visiting if only to see what a soup museum actually is, although just the idea of a hot bowl of soup on a cold December day is motive enough to stop by. Inside there’s no soup, however, but rather a series of display kitchens from the 1880s to the 1960s, a collection of spoons — including a “dieting spoon” that’s hinged in the middle and collapses downward when you try to spoon up some soup — and a list of winners of the annual October soup competition. Last year’s winner: Bohemian sauerkraut soup with dumplings.
There are plenty of soups, including several prize-winners from the museum, if you walk about 100 yards down the main road to the Gaststub zr Bimmlbah’, which specializes in Erzgebirge dishes (heavy on potatoes and mushrooms) and features one room that’s a train coach from the 1950s. I had a tasty bottle of Glückauf, the local beer (“Glück auf” means “hello” in the Ore Mountains dialect), and a shot of Magenwärmer, a local herb-infused liquor.
It was getting late, so we caught the next train back to Oberwiesenthal. That night I visited the Cafe Central on the town’s main square. Cafe Central had been described to me as a “very GDR type of place” — people here and elsewhere in the former GDR still describe a restaurant with bad lighting, long tables and poor service as “very GDR” in the way that we would say that a restaurant’s style is “very 1950s” or “1970s.” And in fact the unadorned menu — two euros (about $2.75) buys you a third of a liter of beer; three euros ($4) gets you a half-liter — and the countless stuffed animals mounted haphazardly on the wall, including an enormous owl perched on a shelf in the corner, did have a certain unintentional retrograde charm.
Ditto the food, in particular the “Erzgebirgischer Kartoffelpuffer gefüllt mit Geschnetzeltem vom Schwein in Pilz-Sahne” — a large potato pancake stuffed with pork and slathered in a brownish-gray mushroom sauce, reminiscent of the best of Communist-era cuisine. (“Suddenly there were colors,” Siggi told me at one point, when I asked her what she remembered most after the GDR ceased to exist in 1990.)
According to the automobile club ADAC, the German equivalent of AAA, Oberwiesenthal is one of Germany’s best-value ski resorts, and little inns like the Pension Schanzenblick up the hill past the train station are popular with families.
“If you have little kids, everything’s within walking distance,” explains Cindy Beer, who has returned to Oberwiesenthal to help her family run the Schanzenblick after working in Berlin and Alexandria, Va., at a German food marketing organization.
Just off the main square downtown, breakfast at the Hotel-Gasthof Rotgiesserhaus included soft yellow cakes and raisin bread with white frosting, along with the usual assortment of German cold cuts, granola and clear pitchers of orange and apple juice.
Choral music played softly on the stereo, and there was a tiny Christmas tree, whose paper and wood ornaments swayed gently as the guests walked by to fill their plates.
Half a mile away, in a large field just below a 75-foot-tall, 360-foot-long steel rail viaduct, tourists and locals, kids in tow, routinely pull their cars off the road and stand and watch as the Fichtelbergbahn puffs its way in and out of town.
The day before, while wandering the railyard, I’d asked a random stranger, Korbinian Rasshofer, who’d driven up from the Bavarian town of Ingolstadt, about 200 miles away, about the attraction of the train. “It’s black, it’s beautiful,” he said, and then paused, squinting to further consider the question. “It’s life inside.”
This morning, in the early light, the viaduct glimmered in the distance. It was 8:35, and I could hear the first train pull out of the Oberwiesenthal station, its haunting whistle signaling the start of another day.
Goldman is a freelance writer in Washington. His e-mail is email@example.com.
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