AN ITINERARY FOR GERMANY’S FAIRY TALE ROAD
article and images by Carole Terwilliger Meyers
Once upon a time, not too long ago, in a land that is, in the jet age, not so far away, my non-traditional American family--me, my husband, our 13-year-old daughter, and my 72-year-old mother--visited the Fairy Tale Road in Germany.
Though this route officially runs for 270 miles between Bremen in the north and Hanau, near Frankfurt, in the south, my family cut it a bit short. Driving into Germany from Amsterdam, we began the trip in Hameln and ended it in Steinau. Five days were spent driving through the German states of Hesse and Lower Saxony, seeing a sparsely populated part of Germany missed by most Americans. Along the way we learned about the lives of the Grimm Brothers and visited the terrain where some of their famous tales originated. We also visited the sites of some well-known non-Grimm stories.
The Fairy Tale Road route was developed in 1985 by the German Tourist Office to draw people to northern Germany. More than 60 towns are officially listed as being part of the route. On our five-day itinerary, we visited the most noteworthy. Fortunately, the signposts featuring smiling fairies that are alluded to in the tourist office's free brochure/map didn't materialize. But, also fortunately, the promised beautiful scenery of the brooding, primeval forests did.
After a long drive in from Amsterdam, during which we stopped just to change money (in an efficient, modern German bank) and to purchase some wonderful pastries (in a slick, modern German bakery), we arrived in the beautifully maintained town of Hameln. Located between Bremen and Gottingen, on the banks of the Weser river, this charming town features cobblestone streets, half-timbered Gothic houses, and Renaissance mansions. In fact, it looks so perfect that it almost seems more like a movie set than a real place.
No cars are allowed in the old city center, or centrum, making it a pleasure to window shop in the large plaza and along the old brick and cobblestone side streets. As might be expected, it is a very popular tourist spot with the Germans.
This town is famous for the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, which was originally told as a poem by Robert Browning in 1842. According to the story, a stranger managed to rid Hameln of its rat infestation and, when he wasn't paid for his services, then led all the children away. Historians speculate that the tale is based on an actual exodus of young people who left town to colonize elsewhere.
A statue of the piper is in the town center, and in summer, costumed townspeople re-enact the legend each Sunday at noon in the market square in front of the ornate Hochzeitshaus (Wedding House). Every day the house's carillon chimes a Pied Piper tune at 8:35 and 11:05 a.m., and mechanical figures in the house's clock re-enact the famous tale at 1:05, 3:35, and 5:35 p.m. We learned that it is important to know the exact times so that you can plan your arrival or departure accordingly. My family arrived breathlessly, and just on the button, for the 5:35 performance.
Just off the square, the Bungelosenstrasse is the alley in which on June 26, 1284 the 130 children were last seen following the piper out of town. An unwritten town rule forbids any music here.
The opportunity to eat a meal of rattenschwanze (rat tails)--pork filets flambe with Calvados--awaits at the quaint and pricey Rattenfangerhaus (The Rat Catcher's House) restaurant at Osterstrasse 28. Most taverns and restaurants here offer a chaser of potent bitters known as rattenkiller (rat killer), and rat-shaped souvenirs and breads are available everywhere.
We opted for dinner at the reasonably priced Balkan-Grill, located off the square at Emmernstrasse 7. Our Croatian waiter was quite friendly, and we wound up in a poignant political conversation with him.
For lodging, we lucked out in finding the charming, quiet, immaculately kept Christinenhof. Though the hotel is within an historic half-timbered building, any possible interior charm was sucked out with remodeling--in typical German style. The inside is totally modern and efficient, with marble bathrooms, platform beds, and white sheet-covered feather comforters. There is also a subterranean pool, which we didn't get to use because of the early closing hours. One of the best things about German hotels is evident here: a double bed that is actually two single beds in a double frame--allowing one person to toss and turn but not disturb their mate. My husband and I liked this feature. It leads me to expect that there is a low divorce rate in Germany.
The next morning we headed for Bodenwerder. Located on the river Weser, about 11 miles south of Hameln, this 700-year-old town was once the home of the legendary Baron Karl Friedrich Hieronymus von Munchhausen. Known for his adventurous tall tales, this European aristocrat was made famous in the fantastical 1989 movie The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
The Munchhausen Museum, a converted manor in which the baron was born in 1720, displays historic artifacts. However, what excited me most was purchasing a colorful keychain souvenir depicting the baron riding a cannonball. I sent it to my son, a college student studying filmmaking, with whom I had seen the movie.
On some summer Sundays at 3, local actors re-enact Munchhausen tales in front of the Rathaus. A Lichterfest, held annually on the second Sunday in August, features a stunt man dressed as Munchhausen. Sitting atop a cannonball, he is towed over the town by a helicopter.
In Germany it's always nice to break for some wurst and beer. We found a pleasant cafe situated along the river, where we witnessed a universal human comedy at the table next to us. One man had seemingly lost his wallet, but soon discovered, to his relief, that his frisky friends were playing a trick on him. The incident made me feel more connected to the strangers we were traveling among.
After leaving town, we headed to Einbeck, located about 26 miles southeast of Bodenwerder. Our schedule permitted only a short drive through this beautiful town, noteworthy because it is filled with over 400 Gothic- and Renaissance-style houses.
Then it was on to Gottingen, a university town about 24 miles south, where the Brothers Grimm taught from 1829 to 1837. (They were ultimately dismissed by the King of Hanover because of their civil rights activism.)
The Ganseliesel (Goose Girl statue) is located in the main square. Erected in 1901, it is a tribute to The Goose Girl, a Grimm Brothers tale about a princess who was forced by her wicked maid to be a goose-tender. This bronze statue is said to be the most kissed girl in the world. Traditionally she is kissed by every male university student when he graduates. Students who attain a doctorate kiss her in gratitude and additionally place a bouquet of flowers in the basket held on her arm.
In town, the Junges Theater schedules puppet shows for children, and about 12 miles outside of town, in Bremke, fairy tales are sometimes performed in a charming woodland theater.
Arriving late in the afternoon, we were lucky to get a room at the modestly priced Stadt Hannover. It is what we Americans call "European-style," with bathrooms down the hall. In fact, we got the last three rooms--a double and two singles spread over several floors. But the rates were good, and it was here that my daughter shared the elevator with a professor who had once lived and taught in our home town, demonstrating that it is, indeed, just like Disney says, a small, small world. This is also where at breakfast the next morning we couldn't help but overhear some university linguists at the next table, discussing loudly and animatedly and in English, the fine differences between sexual words in different cultures.
We enjoyed a substantial German dinner in the cave-like cellar of the Alten Rathaus, located across from the statue. Featuring a festive atmosphere, this popular upscale restaurant specializes in fresh meat and the region's spicy sausages, and it has been serving tapped beers since the 14th century. Everyone enjoyed their meal except me. I had ordered what I thought would be a hot dinner plate, but which turned out to be a huge appetizer platter of cold, thinly sliced ham. I was too nonplussed to complain but, instead of suffering in silence, I played on the pity of my traveling companions and took large samplings of their better-selected fare.
We were off to Munden. Positioned at the confluence of the Fulda and Werra rivers, where they join to form the Weser, this beautifully preserved medieval town is 16 miles southwest of Gottingen. It boasts approximately 700 ancient, elaborately decorated half-timbered houses painted in rich colors. Many have window boxes filled with blooming flowers.
On summer Sunday mornings at 11:15 (I really appreciate how precise the German's are about time), the silly story of an 18th-century resident medic, Dr. Johannes Andreas Eisenbart, is re- enacted in front of the Rathaus. We were too late in the season for the play, but we did see the inscription on Eisenbart's Home, at Lange Strasse 79, stating, "He was not as reputed."
Seated at a sunny sidewalk cafe, we enjoyed some more wurst and beer and then headed for The Reinhardswald.
The dark hill forests of the upper Weser river valley, known as The Reinhardswald, lie about 10 miles due north. The area is home to two medieval castles that have been converted into hotels.
We drove deep into the forest, off the main road, toward the isolated twin-turreted Dornroschenschloss Sababurg, or Sleeping Beauty's castle.
This 600-year-old castle is surrounded by an impenetrable hedge of thorns, added in the late 1500s to act as a corral for horses and cattle. In 1765, the castle was turned into a hunting lodge, which the Brothers Grimm frequently visited.
Entranced by this description, I had made reservations long before we left on our trip. Still, we weren't able to get a room in the romantic tower. We were instead booked into a newer wing that turned out to be better. Our pleasantly decorated modern rooms had been skillfully added on to part of the castle ruins. They had large windows and a small terrace overlooking an animal park that extends for as far as the eye can see. When we looked out, all we saw was a quiet, misty forest populated with beasts boasting very old lineages.
Our early afternoon arrival permitted a walk through the 530-acre Tierpark Sababurg that the castle overlooks. Europe's oldest animal park (zoo), it is populated with the beasts alluded to above--European bison, wild horses and ponies, and reindeer-- whose lineages date to pre-historic times.
For dinner we dined on venison in the castle's refined, very quiet dining room, where large windows also overlook the animal park.
The next morning, before we left, we walked through the part of the castle that is still a ruins. Romantically draped with climbing roses, it is the setting in summer for outdoor concerts and re-enactments of the tale of Sleeping Beauty. Sleeping Beauty and her Prince also make unscheduled appearances throughout the year, presenting female guests with a red rose. (Note: Another castle in France's Loire Valley, Chateau d’Usse, also claims to be the Sleeping Beauty castle. It is said to have inspired Perrault to write the original story.)
The day's journey began with a short drive through deep, dark, wet woods, during which our imaginations had the opportunity to overreact in traditional fairy-tale fashion. It was quite easy to imagine Goldilocks or Snow White skipping through the trees to their scary fates.
Our destination, Hotel Burg Trendelburg, was an even older castle than Sababurg. Dating from the 12th century, with massive towers and 16-foot-thick walls, it is perched on a wooded hilltop above its village in the Diemel Valley. It has been destroyed and rebuilt four times. We parked our car outside the castle moat, which is now dry, and walked across the drawbridge now acting as a wooden walkway. Family-run, the castle is authentically maintained and aesthetically pleasing, with patinaed wooden walls and antique furnishings. Though we longed to stay the night when we learned that in the evenings the baron-owner tells guests fireside tales about the castle, our schedule compelled us to move on to our next stop.
Approximately 66 miles farther south, Alsfeld is surrounded by somber forests. It is the gateway to the Schwalm Valley, where the Grimm tale of Little Red Riding Hood originated.
Though we usually think of Little Red as wearing a hooded cloak, it seems that the real headgear looked more like an upside-down cupcake. A statue depicting her in full attire is located in a narrow alley off the town's main square, and older women in the area can still sometimes be observed wearing this style of dress.
Alsfeld's old quarter is filled with elaborate 14th-century frame houses situated on twisting cobblestone streets. Its oddly shaped, half-timbered town hall is constructed with tall stone arches and peaked turrets resembling witches' hats.
Though Alsfeld abounds with lodging, our late arrival and a convention in town caused us to have trouble finding any. Finally, after experiencing a minor automobile accident in which a German woman hit our parked car while she was backing out of her driveway, we found the conveniently located Zur Erholung. The German woman who hit us--while she was filling out insurance forms, she had enthusiastically told us about a vacation she had once taken to our home city of San Francisco--had recommended it.
Wanting to go somewhere atmospheric for dinner, we were directed to Weinkeller zum Brunnchen. Operating within one of the town's ancient buildings, this tiny restaurant located at Untergasse 10, serves generous portions of hearty German specialties. But, alas, as in most German restaurants, there is no smoking restriction. And, even though as we walked in cigarette smoke grabbed us by the throat and squeezed--just like the Big Bad Wolf--we stayed.
The next morning we stopped in at the town police station to fill out the forms required by the car rental agency for our accident. It was an impressively clean but surprisingly empty building where we saw only one person who looked like he was of the criminal element, and we weren't sure about him. Three confused officers, who had apparently never had to do this before, devoted approximately one hour to getting our insurance papers in order. It was at once amazing, comical, and heartwarming.
We did a bit of backtracking to reach Neustadt, a 13th-century village located 19 miles northwest of Alsfeld. We wanted to see the tall circular tower where Rapunzel is said to have let down her long golden hair. Trouble is, the town is so untouristy that we weren't quite sure which tower it was, and the park surrounding it was so deserted that there was no one to ask.
Driving about 16 miles farther west, we arrived in the medieval hill town of Marburg, which dates back to the early 12th century. Fortunately it was not damaged in World War II.
It was when the Brothers Grimm attended the University of Marburg that they began researching folk tales. Their story of Hansel and Gretel originated here. The river that the white duck helped the children cross on their way home was Marburg's Lahn River.
The town schloss (castle) can be reached by walking up cobblestone lanes and climbing more than 400 steps. We chose instead to drive over the scary, steep, twisting, narrow roads. Our reward was a panoramic view over the scenic rooftops of the city.
In old town, the Rathaus has a clock with a mechanical rooster that crows on the hour. In the Understadt, or Lower Town, a jewel-encrusted gold shrine, known as the Elisabethkirche, honors the city's patron saint Elisabeth von Thuringen. Having spent her life tending the sick, she was canonized in 1235. This shrine is said to have been the model for Sleeping Beauty's glass coffin. Search though we did, we never found it, and again we had to push on.
A goodly drive away, about 50 miles southeast, is the tiny hamlet of Steinau, where the Brothers Grimm spent their childhood. Dating from 1290, it has ancient cobblestone streets and half-timbered houses.
We found choice lodging at the Burgmannenhaus--an exception to the German mania for streamlined lodging. Though the bathrooms are equipped with all the latest plumbing advances and some of the furniture is modern, the aesthetically pleasing interior walls of the rooms have been left as they probably looked when it was built. And it is situated right on the tiny market square, across from city hall and a wonderful fountain decorated with cast concrete fairy-tale creatures. However, this lodging is small, and we needed two rooms when there was only one left. After talking with the owner for a while in our rough German, we were rewarded with a second, "unofficial" room in the attic.
The next morning we purchased tickets to see a charming performance of Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi's Italian fairy tale, in the Marionettentheater located just next door. Using beautifully carved puppets, this non-Disney, European version of the tale differed from the one we Americans know in that the young puppet's nose didn't grow.
After, we toured the town’s 16th-century castle. It has moats, towers, and turrets and is home to the Bruder-Grimm-Gedenkstatte (memorial museum), which displays some of their original manuscripts.
From here it is about 35 miles west to Frankfurt. My own family drove on to Trier--Germany's oldest city.
Not too much later, we returned home, where we are attempting to Live Happily Ever After. And, as Warner Bros. would put it, "That's all folks!" Or, as the Grimm Bros. would have put it:
●German National Tourist Office
●You will need a good map to help you negotiate this route. Following our itinerary requires using many back roads. I used and highly recommend the Michelin map #412 to mid-Germany. It would be wise to purchase a copy before you leave.
Before you leave, get a free copy of the Fairy Tale Road lodging guide from the German National Tourist Office. It is invaluable. In off season, I recommend that you make lodging reservations one or two days in advance of your arrival. In our case, we found that hotel clerks would graciously assist us with this. During the summer, consider making advance arrangements. The hotels mentioned are all moderately priced, running approximately $50 to $100 per double, depending on the exchange rate. All serve those wonderful expanded continental breakfasts, and all are in desirable locations. With the exception of the castles, all are within walking distance of the old city centers.
Carole Terwilliger Meyers blogs at Travels With Carole.
Ms. Meyers is also the author of “Miles of Smiles: 101 Great Car Games & Activities”
copyright 2013 Carole Terwilliger Meyers; updated 2020