Wonderful, sunlit beech forests and a lively little river that makes its way through mighty granite boulders: there are only a few valleys in the Harz that are so wildly romantic and varied. Heinrich Heine has rightly set a literary monument to the Ilse valley in his “Harzreise” (Harz Journey), in which the saga of Princess Ilse is also echoed. It is probably the most beautiful route to the Brocken, at least as far as the first part, the hike through the Ilse Valley, is concerned. However, we do not tackle the further ascent to the highest peak of the Harz mountains, but turn behind the Upper Ilse Falls at the “Rote Brücke” to Plessenburg. From there it goes over the Ilsestein back to Ilsenburg.
In the course of a year, thousands of people make their way to the Brocken summit, the most visited mountain in Germany. How do you get to the picturesque Heinrich Heine hiking trail? After a short drive through the climatic health resort Ilsenburg, you are quickly at the parking lot “Erlebniswald Ilsetal” and then you follow
a pleasant footpath of the non-public road for about a kilometre, past hotels, holiday houses and a parking lot for mobile homes in lush nature. The Heinrich Heine hiking trail starts at the hotel “Am Ilsestein”.
“Unique Lighting Atmosphere”
Now you finally dive into a valley of legends and myths, enjoying the light atmosphere in the treetops and the glitter of the water. The trail follows the banks of the Ilse for about four kilometres. If you want to change the side of the river, you have the possibility to cross several bridges. A nearby and well-developed valley road is popular with mountain bikers and hikers who want to make fast progress.
“Rendezvous with a water dipper”
We, on the other hand, stay close to the shore, admire the amazing rock formations and enjoy the unspoilt, sometimes wild nature, such as when three to four tree trunks lie pick-a-stick-like on top of each other, with the thundering water of the Ilse below.
At another place a photographer patiently waits for a rendezvous with a water dipper, of which there are numerous here. “She loves swimming in the Ilse and diving for fly larvae” the photographer says.
“Why forest walks are so healthy”
Nature, with its many sensory impressions, was not only a source of inspiration for Heinrich Heine, especially when you are hiking. Goethe underlines this with the words: “Only where you were on foot, there you really were.” In September 1824 Heinrich Heine walked from Göttingen via Northeim, Osterode, Clausthal and Goslar to the Brocken and the Ilse valley. Young people are increasingly rediscovering the beneficial effects of nature on body, mind and soul. This is what the encounters during our tour through the Ilse valley show us.
“The Legendary Ilsestein”
Once, so the legend goes, there was a castle on the mighty summit of the Ilsestein, where a king lived with his lovely daughter Ilse and where a nobleman fell in love with her. But this same nobleman had also been chosen by a rich, envious sorceress – known for her evil
eyes and her hateful speeches – as a husband for her daughter. With all her magic she is said to have conjured up an indescribable storm, so that from the Brocken devastating masses of water plunged into the valley and cliff after cliff as well as the castle and its inhabitants were torn down into the depth.
Several charcoal burners saw the gruesome spectacle but also noticed when Ilse slowly sank that a mighty figure picked the princess up and carried her away. At the end of the saga it is said: “The fair king’s daughter still lives in the Ilsestein, and some people have seen her when she stepped out of the crevice with her shimmering robe, the crown on her blond hair. Then she bathed herself in the water of the Ilse and disappeared again at sunrise.
But all those who approach the princess with a pure heart will be showered by her with good deeds; while those who want to surprise the bathing woman with an impure heart will be blinded with water and turned into an old, shaggy fir tree.”
“A great man of forestry”
Shortly behind the Ilsestein lies the Zanthierplatz (see photo in the picture gallery below), a small clearing with a reference to Hans Dietrich von Zanthier, the 18th-century’s head forester. But Instead of shrugging one’s shoulders, one should spend a minute of silence here, because Zanthier founded Germany’s first forestry school in Ilsenburg and is regarded as a pioneer of modern, sustainable forest management.
“Ilse’s way to the North Sea”
On the way through the Ilse Valley, hikers are accompanied by numerous information boards. We thus learn that the Ilse originates in the Brocken at an altitude of 1000 metres, flows – after about 30 kilometres – into the Oker at Börßum, which in turn flows into the Aller. This merges with the Weser near Verden, so that the water of the Ilse finally reaches the North Sea near Bremerhaven.
“The Lower and Upper Ilse Falls”
Hardly anyone has paid homage to the little river Ilse more poetically than Heinrich Heine in his “Harzreise”: “It is indescribable with such cheerfulness, naivety and grace the Ilse throws herself down over the adventurously formed pieces of rock which she finds in her course, so that the water here rushes up wildly or foamily overflows and in pure arcs pours out of all sorts of stone cracks as from great watering cans and then dribbles down again over the small stones, like a lively girl. Yes, the legend is true, Ilse is a princess who runs down the mountain laughing and blooming. How does her white foam robe flashes in the sunshine!”
Before the Lower Ilse Falls, we change to the east side of the river. The narrow path now leads over small rock steps and becomes much more challenging at 1,200 metres. The Lower Ilse Falls thereby merge seamlessly into the Upper Ilse Falls. It is quite conceivable that the Ilse will become a thundering monster after the snow melts in spring, as one of the hikers put it.
While the path through the Ilse Valley is mainly characterised by beech forests, the fir forest dominates in the direction of the Plessenburg. Again and again, there are charming views into the Ilse Valley. And on the wayside sometimes mighty granite rocks.
Those who expect a bastion or a mighty fortress, with the name “Plessenburg” will be disappointed. The cosy place, named after a gentleman “Von Pleß”, consists of a forester’s lodge and a hunting lodge built in 1776, which today is a forest restaurant for hikers.
“Paternoster cliff with a picturesque scenery”
Our next destination is the Paternoster cliff. In order to get to this beautifully situated rock attraction, we first walk from the Plessenburg on a forest road to the northwest until we reach a large crossroads. From there we take a
horizontal – very comfortable – path, admire the hang-gliders and from time to time see the Brocken summit between the trees. The distinctive rock of the Paternoster cliff immediately catches the eye and, together with the autumn dress of the beech trees, creates a picturesque backdrop.
“Decorated with fantastic charms: The Ilsestein”
After another two kilometres on foot, we are finally at the Ilsestein, which according to Heinrich Heine nature has adorned with fantastic charms. Could it really be that a castle once stood here? Obviously, Heinrich Heine also had his doubts in 1824, because he
wrote: “The Ilsefelsen is an enormous granite rock that rises long and bold from the depths. From three sides it is surrounded by the high, forest-covered mountains, but the fourth, the northern side, is free, and from here you can look into the low-lying Ilsenburg and the Ilse, far down in the countryside below. On the tower-like top of the rock stands a large iron cross, and if necessary, there is room for four human feet.”
However, during excavations on the southern Harz of the Ilsestein, the foundation walls of a castle were truly discovered. But presumably, it was only a tower built in 1033 with a rampart. Contrary to the legend of an evil witch, the castle was destroyed in 1107 by order of the pope.
Full of impressions we make our way back from the 473 meters high Ilsestein, through a beautiful beech forest, to Ilsenburg, which lies at an altitude of about 300 meters.
Text, photos and design: Jochen Hotop, Michael Hotop