A living fairytale
The land that inspired your favourite fairytales is real - and you can see it on a scenic drive in Germany
Singapore Airlines, Priority magazine, 2012
Rose-covered towers, mist-shrouded castles, gingerbread houses and fir-tree forests – the fairytale world of the Brothers Grimm has captured imaginations for 200 years. But it’s no fantasy land. The places that inspired Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel and Snow White are real, and you can see them on a scenic drive through the German countryside, just north of Frankfurt.
Zooming down the Autobahn in a BMW I’d picked up at Frankfurt Airport (Me: ‘What’s the motorway speed limit?’ Sixt www.sixt.com) car hire staff: ‘There is none. Willkommen in Deutschland.’), my husband and I arrive at the sleepy town of Steinau an der Strasse www.steinau.eu) in well under an hour.
The Brothers Grimm – Jacob and Wilhelm – lived in Steinau as children, and it’s the best place to start the German Fairytale Route www.deutsche-maerchenstrasse.com), an enchanting, meandering 600km drive through the region of Hesse (www.germany.travel). Sticking to the Autobahn, you could easily cut through this part of the countryside in a few hours. To soak up the legendary scenery, however, you’ll need at least a couple of days, or up to two weeks to fully explore it.
Despite being tiny, Steinau has a grand Renaissance palace, once the summer home of the counts of Hanau. The moat might be dry these days, but the turrets, gatehouse and flagstone courtyards take you right back to the 16th century.
Jacob (born 1785), Wilhelm (born 1786) and their four siblings – three boys, one girl – played in the castle grounds from 1791 to 1796, when they lived a few doors away. Their home, the Brüder Grimm Haus (Brüder Grimm Strasse 80; +49 66 63 7605, www.brueder-grimm-haus.de), is now a quaint museum about their childhood and published works. Outside on Brüder Grimm Strasse, Steinau’s picturesque main street, we browse in charming shops and linger over hot chocolate in a cosy café before hopping back in the car.
Sticking to smaller roads, we drive through rolling hills and valleys, passing through Schlüchtern, with its 8th century monastery, and Alsfeld, a town of perfectly preserved 16th-century buildings. In the fading light of dusk, castles appear and disappear like ghostly apparitions in the distance, clinging to hillsides or peeking out of forests - some little more than a turreted gatehouse, others of more Disney-esque proportions. Given the abundance of towers, palaces and fortress, I’ve come to the conclusion that nearly all medieval Germans lived in castles, a dubious fact I’ve no intention of disproving.
Crowning the fairytale city of Marburg (www.marburg.de), where we’re stopping for the night, is yet another turreted fortress, Landgrave Castle, built between the 10th and 15th centuries. After a blissful slumber at the Vila Vita Rosenpark hotel, we wake early to take a closer look.
In the misty morning air, climbing the cobbled streets of the Old Town to reach the castle, it’s easy to see why many think Marburg is the setting for Cinderella. You can just imagine the pumpkin carriage clip-clopping along the twisting lanes, the step-sisters conspiring with their mother in one of the pitched-roof gabled houses, the prince running down the steps of Landgrave to scoop up the glass slipper, and the happily ever after wedding in the Elisabeth Church, a 13th-century masterpiece at the bottom of the hill.
The Brothers Grimm studied law in Marburg, and it’s still one of Germany’s main university towns, but it seems the Cinderella connection is wearing thin with the undergrads. A popular t-shirt sold in a local student shop proclaims, ‘I’m not a f**king princess’.
Leaving Marburg, we drive through gentle pastoral landscapes and tiny picturesque villages for a stroll around Frankenberg and its remarkable town hall, with its 10 towers and colourful wood carvings. Browsing the delis and shops, we fill our bags with Wasserweck crusty bread rolls, marinated cheese, smoked sausage and local apple wine, and drive to the nearby mountain of Christenberg.
The aroma of young fir leaves gives a sweet scent to the air as we set off for a walk in the woods. We fail to leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind – a decision we regret when we realise we’re lost. Before panic sets in, a small half-timbered building appears – the doppelgänger of the gingerbread house from Hansel and Gretel, used in the earliest illustrations of the story. Thankfully, there’s no witch in sight, but the historic house is clearly marked on our map, so we’re able to find the right path again – and enjoy our picnic, down to the last Wasserweck breadcrumb.
Back in the car, we drive a few miles to Amönau, a tranquil little village with a gentle stream running through it. Driver over a stone bridge, we come upon a small, two-storey tower. I hop out of the car and shout up, ‘Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair’. It’s definitely the same tower from the book, but no maiden lets her golden braid down, probably because, unlike the illustrations, in real life, this tower is tiny and even the most helpless girl could easily hop out the window to the ground below. No prince charming required.
Driving on, we’re soon in the Kellerwald-Edersee, a mountainous national park between Frankeberg and Kassel, the region’s biggest city. We pull over to stretch our legs among the centuries’ old beech forest, where wolves still roam. It all feels very familiar, like the woodland from Little Red Riding Hood, and for good reason. The first illustrator of the fairytales, Otto Ubbelohde, lived in this area, not far from Marburg, and he took inspiration for many of his paintings from the region.
A renowned beauty, Margarete was born in the region in 1533. At the age of 21, she caught the eye of Philip II, much to the fury of his father, the king of Spain – and the misfortune of Margarete. The king was planning for Philip to wed Mary I of England – an event which did happen shortly after the suspicious death, almost certainly by poisoning, of Margarete in 1554. What’s more, like Snow White, Margarete also had a bad relationship with her stepmother, and in the village near the castle, her family owned a mine where children worked and were permanently ‘dwarfed’ from doing so.
After a night in a wood-beamed, lake-view tower bedroom at Schloss Waldeck – we don’t eat any apples, just to be safe – we set off into the countryside, passing through dozens of villages filled with half-timbered houses, medieval churches, cobbled lanes and stone buildings. If it wasn’t for the BMW, we could be right back in the 15th century.
Late in the day, we pop into Kassel www.kassel-tourist.de) to visit the main Brothers Grimm Museum (Brüder Grimm Platz 4a; +49 (0)5 61 103 235, www.grimms.de), which was once the home of a friend of the brothers when they lived in Kassel.
A shock awaits us. It’s here that we learn the most important fact about the Brothers Grimm. They’re complete frauds. They didn’t make up any of the fairytales. They just wrote them down.
To be fair, they never claimed otherwise. History has done that for them. Jacob and Wilhelm were scholars, and Children’s and Household Tales was simply an academic compilation of oral tradition, fables told to them by numerous sources – mainly women from the Hesse region - over many years.
This explains the huge variety in the quality of their 211 fairytales. Some are pure genius – Rumpelstiltskin, Puss in Boots, The Frog Prince - while others, like The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage, are utter nonsense.
We press on north of Kassel, spending a night in Sababurg, the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s castle - an adorable 14th-century building with rose-covered towers surrounded by acres and acres of thick forests. Further on, we pop into Hameln (www.hameln.com), the home of The Children of Hameln, the Grimm fairytale about a Pied Piper who rid the city of rats. When the town failed to pay him, he lured all the children away into the mountains.
Tragically, this fairytale has an undisputed basis in fact, documented in town records and studied endlessly by academics. In 1284, around 130 children disappeared from the town of Hameln – and to this day, nobody knows what happened to them. No happy ending there.
Like the Pied Piper, we head into the mountains, driving along a river that cuts through picturesque villages and past farms being ploughed by shiny red tractors.
Before long, we arrive at Schlosshotel Münchhausen, an extraordinary Renaissance palace lived in by the relatives of infamous fantasist Baron Münchhausen. Though Münchhausen was a contemporary of the brothers, his outlandish stories never made it into their books. But staying in this palace hotel, one of the finest in Germany, it’s hard not to feel like a f**king princess.
ENCHANTING EATS AND SLEEPS
Aerzen bei Hameln
The region’s most beautiful palace hotel, Schlosshotel Münchhausen (+49 (0)5 154 70600, www.schlosshotel-muenchhausen.com; doubles from €188), is a magical place to stay, with its own golf course, two outstanding restaurants – one casual, one gourmet, extraordinary wood-panelled lounge with huge roaring fire, wonderful spa with thermal facilities, landscaped grounds and the most beautifully presented breakfast you’ll ever eat.
A cluster of historic buildings were joined together to make the gorgeous Die Sonne boutique hotel (+49 (0)64 517500, www.sonne-frankenberg.de; doubles from €210), which discreetly caters to the rich and famous. Even if you’re not staying here, it’s worth popping in for a meal. You’ll need to book ahead for dinner at its Michelin-starred Philipp Soldan gastronomic restaurant, but if you want to dine with the (well-heeled) locals, opt for Sonne Stuben, which serves regional fare.
A 14th-century royal hunting lodge rather than a proper castle, Sababurg (+49 (0)5 671 8080, www.sababurg.de; doubles from €150) has just a handful of romantic heritage rooms, all in the two rose-covered towers. Each one is four-poster and fairytale perfect, and it’s easy to picture Sleeping Beauty resting peacefully here for 100 years. The restaurant here is one of the finest in the region, serving traditional fare with modern gourmet sensibilities, and worth stopping in for, even if you’re not sleeping over.
Views from – and up to – four-star castle hotel Schloss Waldeck (+49 (0)56 235 890, www.schloss-hotel-waldeck.de; doubles from €156) are hard to beat. Book a room in the tower for full princess effect, or scare yourself with a visit to the castle’s authentic torture chamber. The steamy spa and gourmet restaurant make evenings here indulgent, but nothing beats the vistas from the breakfast room, over the castle courtyard and down to the lake below.
The city might be enchanting, but with a student population, its hotels tend towards the budget friendly rather than boutique or blingy. Marburg’s finest hotel is the five-star Vila Vita Rosenpark (+49 (0)64 216 0050, www.rosenpark.com; doubles from €180), which has a wonderful spa with extensive thermal facilities and a cosy restaurant with Alpine décor.
If you want to stay in Kassel, business four-star Hotel Gude (+49 (0)5 61 48050, www.hotel-gude.de; doubles from €118) is a good option, and is right across the street from the house of Dorothea Viehmann, the old woman who told the brothers many of the stories they transcribed for their collection, including Cinderella.
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