Saxony-Anhalt (Sachsen-Anhalt) divides into two distinct landscapes: to the east sandy plains are scattered with farms, pastures, pine forests and bogs, and a series of gritty, postindustrial cities; while to the west the land suddenly rises into the gentle Harz mountains where sleepy villages nestle in dark forests. Though the range straddles the old border between East and West Germany and is today divided between Saxony-Anhalt and Lower Saxony, for convenience the entire range is covered in this section.
Extractive industries and large navigable rivers – particularly the Elbe and Saale – were of foremost importance in settling this region. Forestry, salt, copper, coal and lignite all played their part in shaping it over the centuries. As a rich industrious area, it has regularly been a battleground, with the Thirty Years’ War badly battering the region and World War II levelling its largest cities. The state of Saxony-Anhalt was first formed after World War II when the occupying Russians cobbled together the former Duchy of Anhalt with the old Prussian province of Saxony. The union only lasted a few years before re-division, but was resurrected in the wake of German reunification in 1990, with Magdeburg the state capital. In the decade that followed, heavy industrial production – which the GDR had feverishly built – dropped by more than three-quarters and employment by more than nine-tenths, with high levels of unemployment particularly blighting the south of the state, where mining and chemical works had prevailed. The situation has since stabilized, but the state remains one of Germany’s poorest.
State capital, Magdeburg is relatively small and parochial, but does have a few interesting sights, particularly its cathedral, as well as some urban distractions and reasonable nightlife. North along the Elbe, the Altmark region is a real backwater, a thinly populated heathland, where a clutch of low-key towns – particularly half-timbered Tangermünde – preserve a very traditional feel.
East of Magdeburg along the Elbe is almost as rural, apart from two towns with heavyweight contributions to world history: Dessau, whose Bauhaus school invented Modernist architecture and design, and Lutherstadt Wittenberg, birthplace of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation which divided the Christian Church. In between the two, the English country gardens of Wörlitz provide an attractive respite.
Southern Saxony-Anhalt is focused on the postindustrial but upbeat university town of Halle, with its own small crop of attractions, and great dining and nightlife. It sits on the Saale river upstream from which lies Naumburg, famous for its grand cathedral and Germany’s most northerly wine region in nearby Freyburg. Meanwhile, just west of Halle, in the foothills of the Harz mountains, lies Lutherstadt Eisleben, the town where Martin Luther was born, died, and is now relentlessly celebrated.
But the key eastern gateway to the Harz mountains is the half-timbered town of Quedlinburg which is pretty enough to deserve a place on anyone’s Germany itinerary. From here it’s a short hop to northern Germany’s premier mountain playground, whose main attractions are outdoorsy: hiking and cycling in summer and tobogganing and skiing – particularly cross-country – in winter. The Harz villages and towns are well equipped for all this, and noteworthy for some excellent spas to help you unwind at the end of the day. Some of the best of these lie on the northern fringes of the Harz in Bad Harzburg, while the nearby town of Goslar is another quintessential half-timbered gem, almost rivalling Quedlinburg in attractiveness.
Road and rail links are good throughout Saxony-Anhalt, with the entire eastern half a reasonable day-trip from Berlin. The Harz needs and rewards more relaxed exploration, ideally on foot, by bike, or on its network of charming old narrow-gauge railways.