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Germany's Fairy-Tale Road - To see the places that inspired the grimm brothers' fairy tales, take the deutsche merchenstrasse near frankfurt and travel some four hundred miles north to bremen.

Once upon a time, in thickly forested central Germany, there lived two brothers by the name of Grimm. The elder, Jacob Ludwig Carl, was always serious beyond his years; the younger, Wilhelm Carl, although sickly, was personable and friendly. From early childhood, they both loved tales of enchantment about generous kings and good-hearted queens, golden-haired princesses saved from disaster by stalwart princes, turreted castles and cozy cottages, wicked witches and cruel stepmothers.

Jacob was born in 1785, a year before Wilhelm, in Hanau, now a traffic- congested suburb east of Frankfurt. Their birthplace was destroyed during World War II, but in Neustedter Marktplatz there stands a larger-than-life bronze statue of the dour-faced workaholic brothers-- appropriately pondering a large book. This marks the beginning of the Deutsche Merchenstrasse, the German Fairy-Tale Road. Long before the route was officially established in 1975, I had a yearning to see the Old World settings that had inspired Jacob and Wilhelm, the fathers of the fairy tales. Last spring, at the height of the weisse spargel, or white asparagus season, my wish came true.

Along the misty banks of the Fulda and Weser Rivers, the Deutsche Merchenstrasse wends its way north from Hanau, through landscapes of gnarled oak forests, softly rolling hills, and yellow rapeseed fields, some four hundred miles to Bremen. Although it's possible to visit many of the road's sixty-four destinations by train or guided bus tours, driving is the best way to soak up the countryside's magical atmosphere and enter deeply into the German psyche. Two caveats: Don't expect to find a Disney World or a gigantic theme park, and don't let guidebooks convince you that these destinations have any actual historical documentation. Except for the Baron von Munchhausen--and, to a certain extent, the Pied Piper--these claims are as make-believe as the fairy tales themselves. Moreover, with the exception of Hameln and Bremen, the tales don't refer to a specific landscape, town, or monument. The vast majority are timeless, placeless, and universal. But these circumstances do not dampen the enthusiasm of the Merchenstrasse's one million yearly visitors.

My next stop after Hanau, on the old trade route from Frankfurt to Leipzig, was Steinau, which Jacob and Wilhelm's younger brother and illustrator, Ludwig Emil, described as "the fairy land of my childhood dreams." Their father served as a local magistrate, and the brothers spent the few happy years of their childhood here with their younger siblings.

In this romantic medieval hamlet with its half-timbered houses and cobblestone streets, I spent the first of my six nights in the footsteps of the Grimm brothers at the Weisses Ross, a simple inn where the brothers stayed almost two hundred years ago. Since innkeeper Alfred Bender only serves breakfast, he recommended that I eat at the nearby Brathehnchen Farm, where I ordered a veal shank roasted over an open fire, a delicious meal supposedly cooked according to a Grimm family recipe.

The next morning I met Burkhard Kling, a former actor and now curator of the Bruder Grimm Haus, the only Grimm family home still in existence. "First published in 1812, Children's and Household Tales was the Grimms' collection of 210 fairy tales, animal fables, rustic farces, and religious allegories. Mind you, only 40 of those are well- known today. This is the most edited book in the history of the world-- more than the Holy Bible," boomed Kling in an intimidating, baritone voice. "Millions of copies have been published in over 160 languages and dialects, from Inupiat in the Arctic to Swahili in Africa. In the United States, there are 120 editions of Grimm's Fairy Tales to choose from."

The father, Philipp Grimm, died unexpectedly when Jacob was eleven, and the family had to move out of the magistrate's official residence. The grand, turreted sixteenth-century Amtshaus, or courthouse, was converted into a museum two years ago. Its exhibits feature early editions of their book, including the first with brother Emil's colored illustrations.

The Schloss, an impressive medieval castle nearby, also houses a Grimm Museum. It boasts the family's personal effects, including ancestral portraits, the family Bible, and an original copy of the Grimms' dictionary (the first in the German language). In the former stables, over two hundred Czech-made marionettes have been used for performances of the Grimm brothers' best-known tales, a tradition carried out every summer on Sunday afternoon for the past seventy years.

After leaving Steinau, the family fell on hard times, but a fairy- godmother aunt sent Jacob and Wilhelm to school in Kassel and then on to the University of Marburg. Interested in medieval literature, Jacob became a linguist, a philologist who formulated Grimm's Law, an explanation of how German, along with ancient Greek and Latin, evolved from an ancestral Indo-European language. Wilhelm became a literary scholar and critic.

Not being in a hurry, I took a day to prowl around Lauterbach, Alsfeld, and Schwalmstadt, a trio of small, pretty medieval towns with half- timbered houses, castles, narrow lanes, and cobblestone squares. Lauterbach, a resort town with two castles, was the setting for "Little Scallywag," a well-known rhyme about the little boy who lost his sock. The town is now the center of Germany's garden gnome production. The pride and jewel of Alsfeld is the Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall), whose facade combines a ground floor of stone arcades with half-timbered upper reaches. Topped with a steep, top-heavy slate roof, with two pointed towers shaped like witches' hats, it would look right at home in Disney World.

After a short detour to the lively town of Marburg, where the Grimms studied law and started their folklore research, I spent a night in Schwalmstadt, the capital of "Little Red Riding Hood" territory. Here, local girls still wear the betzeln--a cap with a red topknot--on Sundays and holidays.

Capital of the merchenstrasse

In Kassel, the capital and halfway point of the Merchenstrasse, cultural distractions were everywhere, but I eventually got around to the appointed task of visiting the Bruder Grimm Museum. The brothers lived and worked here from 1837 to 1841. (The museum owns a rich collection of handwritten notes regarding their research in all subjects and has records of their strong political commitment, their passports, manuscripts of their publications, numerous editions of the Children's and Household Tales and its translations, as well as their furniture, glassware, porcelain, and silver. Its most valuable possession is a personal copy of the Tales with handwritten marginal notes by the brothers, an essential source for those interested in the origins and development of the tales, which they constantly reworked and revised. (During their lifetime, the Grimms published seven editions of their collected stories, the last in 1817.)

What few people know is that the brothers relied on many sources or informants in gathering their tales. Many of the storytellers actually came to the Grimms' house in Kassel. One of the most famous was Dorothea Viehmann, a widow who walked to town to sell produce from her garden. She was the daughter of an innkeeper who had grown up listening to travelers' stories at the Brauhaus Knallhutte, a brewery-cum- coaching-inn that was established three years before her birth in 1752. The inn reopened in 2001, after extensive renovation. Beds have replaced straw for overnight guests, but nonetheless there are many reminders of its history, starting with its name: from knall, meaning the crack of the whip, which sounded the arrival of horse-drawn carriages struggling up the hill. Undoubtedly the most famous of the Grimms' tales attributed to Viehmann was "Cinderella."

In the depths of the densely wooded Reinhardswald, a forest still inhabited by deer and wild boar, I spent a night in one of the towers of Dornroschenschloss, as Sleeping Beauty's castle is called. (Dornroschen, the German name of the fairy-tale princess, means "little, thorny rose.") This castle, built of gray sandstone in 1334, was to protect pilgrims traveling to the neighboring village of Gottsburen, where supposedly some remains of Jesus had been discovered. Over the centuries, the fortress had suffered from war damage and neglect until the Koseck family restored it during the 1960s, opening it as a very comfortable hotel with fine cuisine.

Today, its historic rose garden attracts 45,000 visitors between Easter and October, and every year some 250 couples exchange vows in its sixteenth-century nuptial chamber. For an additional eighty-four dollars, Sleeping Beauty and her prince will greet the guest and recite their fairy tale as well as a brief history of the castle in English.

At the foot of the castle grounds, the Kosecks' guests can enjoy the Tierpark Sababurg, a 309-acre wildlife refuge, one of Europe's oldest, founded in 1571. Roughly 450 animals of eighty species indigenous to the woods of middle Europe live here: red deer, reindeer, wild boar, mules, bison, lynx, and Przewalski's horse, a species that, without the Tierpark's help, would have died out long ago.

The next morning I visited another hilltop hotel in Trendelburg, where, according to legend, the wicked witch imprisoned Rapunzel in a tower. Next I stopped at Hoxter, supposedly the setting for "Snow White" and "Hansel and Gretel," and traveled on to Hameln for the night.

The men of grimm

Across the Weser from Hoxter is the library of the Imperial Abbey of Corvey, founded by the Benedictines in a.d. 822. Here the Grimms gathered material for the story about the legendary Lugenbaron (Lying Baron) von Munchhausen, famous for his outrageous tales, who really did come from nearby Bodenwerder, another charming old town. In the imposing family home where the baron grew up, a "memorial room" is crammed with mementos of his adventurous life.

Farther north on the banks of the Weser, Hameln (or Hamelin, in English) is the "home" to the Grimm story of the gaudily attired Pied Piper. Because of the story's historical content, the Grimms did not include the Pied Piper in the Grimm's Fairy Tales collection. They documented "The Children of Hamelin" separately in The German Legends of the Brothers Grimm (1818). According to legend, he rid the town of rats by playing seductive melodies on his flute. The rodents supposedly followed him willingly, waltzing their way blindly into the Weser. However, when the town defaulted on its contract and refused to pay the piper, perhaps on June 26, 1284, he settled the score by playing his merry tune to lure 130 of Hameln's children into the river.

I met the contemporary Pied Piper, Michael Boyer, an American by birth who works as a tour guide and official Pied Piper reenactor, at the Rattenfengerhaus (Rat Catcher's House), Hameln's most famous and ornate Weser Renaissance building. Today it's an elegant restaurant with a generous selection of "rat" dishes on its menu, "rat-tail flambe" being the house specialty. Rat-shaped pastries, not all of them edible, are on sale in Hameln's many bakeries; some are coated with a special glaze to ensure longevity as souvenirs.

"The origin of this story is lost in the mists of time," the enthusiastic Pied Piper told me over a Rattenfenger Ice, "but the best guess is that it is associated with the forced resettlement of young people to the sparsely populated eastern territories. Also, during the thirteenth century, an inordinate number of Hameln's young men were conscripted to fight in an unpopular war in Bohemia and Moravia."

On our walk around town, well-marked by bronze rats in the pavement, we also visited the Leisthaus and the Stiftsherrenhaus. They now house a museum with exhibits about the town's history and, of course, its most famous citizen. Every Sunday from mid-May to mid-September, the story of the Pied Piper is performed free at noon by local actors and children on a nearby terrace. [See also "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," The World & I, August 2000, p. 178.]

Last stop, bremen

My last stop on the Merchenstrasse was Bremen, Germany's oldest and second-largest port after Hamburg. A member of the Hanseatic League during the Middle Ages and a free city since 1646, it plays a central role in "The Bremen Town Musicians." According to the fable, a rooster, cat, dog, and donkey quartet came to Bremen to seek their fortune, but their music was so bad that it caused a band of robbers to flee in terror, thus saving the town. Every Sunday from May to October at noon and 1:30 the fable is performed for free in the Marktplatz, one of Europe's most impressive market squares.

Also here, by the northwest corner of the ancient Rathaus, is the famous bronze statue of the four Bremen Town Musicians, one atop the other in a sort of pyramid. In the basement of the Rathaus is the Ratskeller, said to be Germany's oldest and most renowned town-hall restaurant. Shortly after it opened in 1408, the city fathers decreed that only wine could be served here, and the ban on beer still exists. Not to worry, because the wine list has six hundred labels--all German- -to choose from.

Another well-known statue on the square is that of Roland, who served his uncle Charlemagne as a knight. Three times larger than life, the statue, erected in 1404, has served as Bremen's good-luck piece and symbol since the Middle Ages. Roland's gaze is directed toward the cathedral, the residence of the bishop, who frequently sought to restrict the town's autonomy.

It must not be forgotten that in 1837 the Grimm brothers were expelled from teaching at the University of Gottingen for standing up to the local elector in the name of academic freedom. They then left for Berlin. You could say that Roland's statue encompasses the Grimm brothers' ideals: the promotion of Germany's folk history and traditions as well as freedom of thought. He will always be there to protect the citizens of Bremen from invaders, injustice, goblins, wicked witches, cruel stepmothers, and wizards. The Grimms would be proud.n

For more information on the German Fairy-Tale Road, contact:

Arbeitgemeinschaft Deutsche Merchenstrasse, Konigsplatz 53, D-34117, Kassel;

telephone 011-49-561-70707; fax 011-49-561-7077200; email: ksg

Scholars are welcome to visit the Bruder Grimm Museum's library and archive, located at the Murhardsche Bibliothek, Bruder Grimm-Platz 4A, 34117, in Kassel; telephone 011-49-561-103235 or 011-49-787-4064; or email: grimm-museumLucy Gordan is a freelance writer based in Rome.
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Author:gordan, lucy
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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