05/08/2012 07:08 am ET Updated Jul 08, 2012

Germany's Fairy Tale Railroad (PHOTOS)

I like to think of it as "The Little Engine That Does," an old black steam engine that hauls passenger cars up a steep mountain, only to return and do it again, time after time, year after year.

The place is northern Germany, and the train in question is called The Brocken Railway Line. It's part of a network of narrow-gauge railroads that service over 20 towns and villages in the former border area between East and West Germany three hours west of Berlin. The trains are a throwback to a more romantic time when travel was a slow adventure.

I'd arrived at the Drei Annen Hohne station early in the morning, part of a group of travelers waiting to go to the top of the "Brocken," the mountain made famous by Goethe in his epic novel, "Faust." In the book, Goethe, who visited the area in 1777, describes the peak of the "Brocken," at 3743 feet as a gathering place for witches on certain nights of the spring, and the years have done nothing but burnish that idea. In fact, every year on April 30, local villagers get dressed up like witches and devils and ride the rails from town to town in celebration of Walpurgis Night.

It was cold that day, so I bought a chocolate bar and a steaming hot cup of coffee at the little station store. Outside, the train, a fully-restored steam engine dating back to the 1880s, stood next to the platform, impatiently puffing and waiting for its passengers to board.

The trip up the "Brocken" usually takes only 50 minutes, but as you climb, you are often subject to the vagaries of the shifting weather in the mountains. That was certainly true in our case.

It was snowing lightly when we left--it was late March--but by the time we reached the top, we were in a the middle of a full-blown blizzard. You couldn't see but several feet in front of yourself. Several of us joined hands and walked the last few yards from the station to the mountaintop restaurant, slipping and sliding all the way. It was not the kind of thing you normally did in street clothes.

Once safely inside the restaurant, we brushed ourselves off and thawed out with a hot lunch of Bratwurst and beans. Then we took a tour of the facility, which includes an old radar dome used by the East Germans to spy on the West during the Cold War. Today, you can walk inside it even though it's no longer in use, and there is a tall spindly television tower nearby that is used for commercial purposes.

The trip down the mountain was less eventful than the trip up. I spent part of the time standing on the platform between the cars, taking in the gorgeous snow-packed countryside and enjoying the fresh air. During the summer and autumn months, the view from the top of the "Brocken" is spectacular, a wide panorama of the Harz Mountains that stretches in every direction for miles.

This area is also part of what has become known as the "Green Belt," an 865-mile long strip of protected habitat that runs along the former border between East and West Germany. Despite the political depredations of the Cold War, this stretch of country remains relatively pristine and preserved.

That night, having arrived safely at the bottom of the "Brocken," I stayed in Wernigerode, a lovely town that features a twin-spired Town Hall and a town square famous for its glittery Christmas market during the holidays.

In the morning, I did some urban sightseeing, walking the cobblestoned streets and peering into the store windows. As I walked back through the town square, farmers were setting up booths and getting ready to sell their produce and fresh meats to the locals.

You can say what you want about this part of Germany, and it is indeed scenic and, in the case of towns like Wernigerode, quaint in a picture-book kind of way, but the main event for travelers like me will always be a trip up the "Brocken" on one of the old steam-driven trains.

In fact, the entire train line, which was declared an historical monument in 1972, has embraced its status as a magnet for die-hard train buffs from all over the world, inviting everyone over the age of 18 to ride in the locomotive with the engineer and fireman.

There is also a warning: "The trip is at one's own risk. We recommend dark and older clothes."