Lovely countryside and towns seldom visited by American tourists await the auto traveler who ventures into what was once part of East Germany in the Harz Mountains. It is a region where time stopped for almost 50 years and where one still sees horse-drawn farm equipment and, despite the billions spent so far, derelict buildings and village with unpaved streets. The journey begins in the spa town of Bad Sachsa and finishes in Quedlinberg, a rebuilding medieval city that is one of 20 German UNESCO World Heritage Sites. At both ends of the drive we find extraordinarily good hotels.

By Bob Bestor

Lovely countryside and villages seldom seen by American tourists await the auto traveler who ventures into what was once part of East Germany in the Harz Mountains.

In our opinion, there is no better European travel experience than an exploration by car of the backroads of Germany, Austria and Switzerland. By dint of its size and lack of mountainous terrain, Germany - in comparison with Austria and Switzerland - has the most to offer in terms of sheer mileage; especially since the unification of the former East and West Germanys. Unification, in fact, has essentially given us auto wanderers a whole new country to traverse.

The East is of particular interest right now because it is still in the early days of reconstruction. The process of bringing the roads, railways, subways, bridges, sidewalks, buildings, farms, power plants, utilities, hotels and restaurants of the East up to western Germany standards is costing billions, perhaps trillions of Deutsche Mark. And Germans, of course, do nothing by halves; sidewalks are not simply poured concrete but labor-intensive cobblestones; rain gutters and downspouts are copper, not aluminum, and the substantial doors and windows of even the simplest structures are fitted with hardware found on only the most expensive homes in this country.

But there is still such a long way to go. In some small towns and villages, only one or two main streets are paved. The auto traveler sees abandoned factories, farms and houses everywhere. Horses are still used to pull wagons and farm implements. Most of the older homes and commercial buildings still in use are clean but shabby. On the other hand, new sidewalks, new construction, restored buildings, spruced-up town centers, freshly-paved roads, and capitalism are slowly but surely taking over the landscape.

A leisurely drive through this part of Germany makes one understand the enormity of the undertaking. Most roads still await resurfacing. The worst have been repaired, but many miles of bumpy though serviceable tracks remain. To our unpracticed eye, even the farmland seems different; less meticulous, less organized than in the west, and large parcels lie uncultivated. Of course, there are no more east-west borders; but you'll know immediately when you've left the former West Germany. The road immediately changes; it narrows, has no center line and becomes rougher.

One scenic and interesting route through the eastern countryside begins in the Harz Mountain resort of Bad Sachsa and ends in Quedlinberg, a medieval treasure buried for almost 50 years under communism.

At both ends of the drive we found outstanding, moderately-priced hotels. The two we chose were booked the day before our arrival.

For auto travelers in Germany we recommend the German Auto Clubs (ADAC) Maxi-Atlas. its scale is a minutely-detailed 1:150,000 and its legend notes particularly scenic roads plus towns and sights of special interest. It also has symbols that identify gas stations, restaurants and overnight accommodations along Autobahns. Of course, individual maps, notably the applicable ADAC Karte and Die Generalkarte maps, will work as well.

Bad Sachsa

One doesn't go to Bad Sachsa, at the southern edge of the Harz Mountains, for glorious churches, splendid buildings, the night life or the fine restaurants. It is a health resort patronized by a mostly over-60 clientèle. There is a pretty lake, a placid Kurpark and plenty of places to walk. Auto travelers can also make daytrips into the former East German countryside or explore such Harz sights as the Bode Gorge, the Rosstrappe and towns like Wernigerode, Schierke and Braunlage.

Hotel Sonnenhof

(Editor's Choice)

Though Bad Sachsa - for 50-plus years a West German town with East Germany close on two sides - is pretty much a yawn, it is worth visiting if only to spend a couple of quiet nights in its wonderful Hotel Sonnenhof. We've seldom had a hotel room that offered so much at such a reasonable price.

In a neighborhood of fine homes, the Sonnenhof seems more private residence than hotel. But those who shy away from the chatty, bed & breakfast-style togetherness that often pervades zimmer frei accommodations needn't worry; there is no more invasion of privacy at the Sonnenhof than at an airport Hilton. (Less actually, considering how housekeepers at such hotels seem to barge in and out of guest rooms at all hours.) Nonetheless, the welcome is exceptionally warm. In fact, the young woman who greeted us at reception and showed us to room Number 3 acted as though our arrival was the best thing that had happened to her all day.

And what an exceptional room it was, almost a suite: huge, brightly lit, with an over-sized, curving sectional couch, perfect for stretching out on with a book or to watch BBC-TV (Channel 17) or listen to the Philips stereo system (tune to one of a dozen or so preset radio stations or bring your own tapes and CDs). The spacious, sparkling, halogen-lit bathroom had a roomy shower stall and a separate toilet room, always a welcome feature.

The back wall is virtually all glass and opens to a large, tiled terrace with a view of lawn and trees. We paid 178 DM ($98).

Regrettably, the hotel has no restaurant (your best bet is the Hotel Romantischer Winkel) but bountiful buffet breakfasts are served in a clubby room with well-spaced tables, circular, recessed ceiling lights, rich wood-trimmed furniture, and paneled wainscoting.

The Sonnenhof has a great feel and a warm, relaxed atmosphere. You'll be very much at home with Manfred and Lutz Rockendorf, even if you're there for only a night or two. Like most European resort hotels, the Sonnenhof is designed for longer stays.

• Contact: Hotel Sonnenhof, Glaseberg 20a, D-37441, Bad Sachsa, tel. +49/05523/94 37-0, fax 94 37 50. Proprietor: Familie Rockendorf.
Daily Rates: Singles 82 to 130 DM ($45-$71), doubles/junior suites 124 to 220 DM ($68-$121).
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 18/20

The Drive

As good as the ADAC Maxi-Atlas is, you're bound to get confused at times and take a wrong turn or two. But as long as you maintain the progression of towns described below you'll be following our route. Even if you get sidetracked, just remember, when it comes to Germany's backroads there is always more than one way to get from point A to point B - and yours is as good or better than anybody's.

Our route begins in an east-southeast direction along the southern boundary of the Harz and then turns sharply north through the fields and forest of the Eastern Harz.

From Bad Sachsa, go east following the Walkenried and Braunlage signs. Do not, however, go to Braunlage; instead go through Walkenried, Ellrich, and Niedersachswerfen. At this point follow signs to Harzgerode.

About 25 kilometers from Bad Sachsa, stop for a few minutes in Neustadt to see the historic center of this walled town. Another approximately 12 kilometers beyond, at Rottleberode, turn north toward Stolberg, a town noted for its half-timbered buildings.

Entering the town, you'll note how close the houses on your right are to the narrow road. Go through the old stone tower and enter the Platz surrounded by half-timbered houses. Here you may want to park for a while and investigate the town. When you're ready to leave, follow the signs to Hassselfeld and Breitenstein.

Just outside of Friedrichshöhe, at Road 242, go east. Then, at Güntersberge, head north toward Barenrode (also signs to Thale) where you'll turn left again. The part of the drive between Allrode and Treseburg is quite beautiful and the latter is another interesting town where you may wish to stop for a snack and short walk.

Continue through Treseburg toward Wienrode, but shortly you'll bear right toward Thale. The road from Allrode to just outside Thale is very narrow, with no center line, and gently winds through tall stands of trees. (In June, the opposite lane was closed due to construction and it's possible you may have to detour from Allrode to Stiege and then back to Friedrichshöhe.)

From Thale, follow the signs to Quedlinburg. Just across the bridge into town, turn left. Our recommended hotel, the Am Brühl, is on your left.

Quedlinburg

This town is unification reconstruction in microcosm. Very old but beautifully restored Faschwerkhäuser (half-timbered buildings) stand alongside equally ancient but still dilapidated structures that look ready for the bulldozer. One marvels at the craftsmanship, energy, patience and, of course, money, which is required to resuscitate just one of these edifices. Fortunately for Quedlinburg, in 1994 it was placed on UNESCO's World Heritage List, which means it receives special funding to aid the comeback.

The town is good for at least a day's exploration and, though it may be less user friendly - uneven cobblestones, for example - than its more visited Medieval western counterparts, it seems a bit more authentic. Your first destination will likely be the castle and the Church of St. Servace which loom over the town. There you may want to visit the Castle Museum and see the church's main attractions; its crypt and its treasury.

Next, spend an hour or two meandering the narrow streets and alleys around the Markt Platz, stopping at galleries, looking at shop windows and, best of all, comparing the restored buildings with those under restoration and those still waiting their turn.

Hotel Am Brühl

Restoration is everywhere in Quedlinburg and the Am Brühl is a good example. The ivy-covered buildings of two former farms have been turned into a hotel of great charm.

Arriving guests enter a front courtyard through a gated driveway. Inside, the hotel's public rooms have a wide-open feel and feature terra-cotta floors scattered with Oriental rugs. Tall Palladian arched windows are set in thick stone walls and exposed rough support timbers provide an interesting contrast with the modern lighting and furnishings.

Our room, Number 163, was on the first floor (our second) and its two windows overlooked the entry courtyard. Here Am Brühl's decorators and designers could have done a better job. We yearned just a little for our lodgings of the previous night at the Sonnenhof in Bad Sachsa. Though rather large, the room was furnished as if it were one of those airport hotel cubbyholes. The bed against one wall took up only about a quarter of the floor area, making plenty of room for a small sofa and two comfortable chairs. But except for a couple of upright chairs and a small lamp table, the remaining space was unoccupied. Bedside lamps were cute but didn't supply much light. And, where our sense of the Sonnenhof was one of warmth and familiarity, our Am Brühl room was more impersonal and commercial. Even so, the 195 DM ($108) one-night charge was good value for a hotel of this caliber.

Across the inner courtyard, in the half-timbered old stable, one huge room with a high brick and beamed ceiling with barrel roll vaults has become the hotel's restaurant. its floor is square, polished terra-cotta pavers, wooden tables and chairs are substantial, and the white stucco walls are decorated with good art and antiques. It is a fine room to be in, though a little noisy.

The food was slightly above average. An appetizer of Rauchforellenfilet mit Lachs Kaviar Sahne Metterich (smoked trout and salmon caviar with creamy horseradish) was 15.5 DM ($9) and not quite so glorious as it sounds. Sautéed Kalbsleber (calves liver) is seldom disappointing in Germany and at 27 DM ($15) was the best dish of the evening. Another reliable, Geschnetzeltes (sautéed chopped veal in a cream sauce), 26 DM ($14) and served with Spätzle and salad, was not memorable. A bottle of very good Rioja set us back 42.5 DM ($24).

Following a shared dessert of vanilla ice cream and heated chocolate sauce (8.5 DM/$5), our friendly waitress brought us shots of Harzgeist, a local Schnapps, on the house. Without beverages, the dinner for two was 77 DM ($43).

We would go back to the Am Brühl without hesitation, though better use of guestroom space and more intelligent furnishings would move this hotel from an "above average" to an "excellent" rating.

• Contact: Hotel Am Brühl, Billungstrasse 11, D-06484, Quedlinburg, tel. +49/03946/96180, fax 961 8246. Proprietor: Ursula Schmidt.
Daily Rates: Singles 135 to 175 DM ($75-$97), doubles 180 to 195 DM ($100-$108), suites 200 to 225 DM ($110-$124).
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 16/20

We saw two other hotels in Quedlinburg, both of which are less expensive than Am Brühl.

Hotel Zum Bär

Directly on the Markt, Zum Bär offers old-world decor and furnishings, though the latter are often a melange of styles.

Rooms have the essential western amenities: toilet and shower, direct-dial telephone, cable TV and minibar. Singles are 95 to 110 DM ($52-$61) and doubles rent for from 145 to 175 DM ($80-$97).

Hotel Zum Bär, Markt 8/9, D-06484, Quedlinburg, tel. +49/03946/7770, fax 700 268

Gashaus zum Goldenen Ring

Just two minutes walk from the Markt is the Gashaus zum Goldenen Ring, where the prices are lower and the accommodations simpler.

Guestrooms are equipped with modern but inexpensive and uninspiring furnishings, private bath, TV and telephone.

Singles are 80 DM ($44) and doubles 100 to 120 DM ($55-$66).

Gasthaus zum Goldenen Ring, Neuer Weg 1, D-06484 Quedlinburg, tel. +49/03946/2266, fax 701280

Bad Sachsa Info

* Population: 10,000
* Altitude: 1181 feet

Bad Sachsa Tourist Office

* Kurbetrieb, Am Kurpark 6, Bad Sachsa D-37441
* tel. +49/05523/300 90, fax 300 949

Distance From:

Berlin 273 km/171 miles
Hannover 129 km/81 miles
Erfurt 100 km/62 miles
Göttingen 62 km39 miles
Braunschweig 95 km/59 miles

Quedlinburg Info

* Population: 26,000
* Altitude: 400 feet

Quedlinburg Tourist Office

* Markt 2, Quedlinburg D-06484
* tel. +49/03946/77 3000, fax 773016

Distance From:

Berlin 208 km/130 miles
Magdeburg 56 km/35 miles
Erfurt 133 km/83 miles

October 1999