On Germany’s Fairy-Tale Trail

Some 600 kilometers and 60 towns link to the Brothers Grimm
By Rhea Wessel

A stone’s throw from Frankfurt, Germany’s financial hub, lies a lesser-known center of influence: Hanau, the birthplace of the Brothers Grimm, and an original stage for fairy tales repeated countless times in children’s bedrooms around the world.

From Hansel and Gretel to Rumpelstiltskin, the Brothers Grimm are known for preserving more than 200 fairy tales and legends that were maintained in the oral tradition.

Marburg’s Landgrave Castle

Anna Lisa Marten

The brothers, linguists and philologists, were the first to assemble a comprehensive written collection of the often dark and dangerous German tales. The original versions, first published in 1812, had yet to be sanitized of their carnal gore: In the debut Grimm edition, one of Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off her toes and the other her heel to make the slipper fit, and instead of kissing the frog in the Frog King tale, the princess angrily threw it against a wall.

Bloodstained or not, along Germany’s so-called Fairy Tale Route — which is dedicated to the

Brothers Grimm and spans some 600 kilometers north to south from Bremen to Hanau — visitors can surrender their hearts to the primeval tug of lore, legend and tales.

Children can climb the tower where Rapunzel may have let down her hair, spend the night in Sleeping Beauty’s castle and dress like a mouse to follow the Pied Piper through Hamelin. All the while, adults can reminisce to younger days, viewing the world once again through the magical lens of childhood.

Some 60 cities are pinned to the Fairy Tale Route (www.german-fairytaleroute.com), a loose affiliation of villages and cities that claim a connection to a Grimm story or to the brothers.

We decided to focus on the trail within 100 kilometers of Frankfurt during a weekend trip in early June. With my husband and our 5-year-old daughter in tow, our tour began in Hanau, where the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born in 1785 and 1786, respectively.

The city is home to a wide variety of fairy-tale productions during the Brothers Grimm Festival, the second-largest theater festival in the state of Hesse, which takes place each summer and draws some 75,000 attendees annually. This year, the festival features 90 plays, plus readings and speeches from historians about the lives and work of the Brothers Grimm. Children can choose from a variety of productions such as musicals, ballet renditions of Hansel and Gretel and a sing-along rock concert.

On a balmy Friday evening, we admired the expansive gardens at the Philippsruhe castle before making our way to the amphitheater on the grounds, where we viewed Cendrillon, the French version of Cinderella, originally penned by Charles Perrault, and scripted and produced for the event by festival director Dieter Gring. Mr. Gring, who has run the festival for four years, recently expanded the repertoire of the festival beyond the Brothers Grimm into international fairy tales.

Bruder Grimm-Haus and Museum Steinau

1956 edition of Red Riding Hood illustrated by Otto Schubert

As if we needed evidence that fairy tales aren’t just for children, the prince in Cendrillon, Louis, suddenly appeared on stage in his boxer shorts. (Louis shed his courtly garb for a swim after his head was spinning with the news that his father wanted him to marry.) Our daughter wasn’t the youngest in the audience, but the prince’s attire did make me realize the play was billed properly as one for adults.

Whether presented for children or adults, Mr. Gring says he has always been fascinated by fairy tales as the basis of classic dramaturgy.

“Fairy tales provide an exciting framework for unfolding a story and a character,” he said. A local woman echoed Mr. Gring’s sentiments during the intermission. A regular at the festival, Christiane Megerle says she loves the symbolic character of fairy tales and returns each year to maintain the link to her inner, story-hungry child.

The next day, 50 kilometers up the road in the village of Steinau an der Strasse, we watched a puppet-show rendition of Mother Holle in the old-town theater. It formerly served as a stable for the village’s moat-encircled Renaissance castle, where roughly 100 marionettes collected from the puppet theater are on display. (Long before my daughter was born, I sat on the edge of my seat in the same darkened theater with a group of children, worried that the new queen might not guess Rumpelstiltskin’s name.) On this day, I savored the sound of children’s laughter — my daughter’s included. It lightened the air around the brutal story of a stepmother and stepsister who make a young girl’s life miserable. The puppeteers demonstrated impressive control of the marionettes and their voices, causing a variety of emotions — frustration, fear, pity and joy — to emanate from the wooden creatures.

A short walk from the theater is the Brothers Grimm House, where the duo lived from 1791 to 1796, when their father, a lawyer, worked for the city as a civil servant. We visited the home, which is now a museum dedicated to fairy tales. We were slightly disappointed to find much of the exhibit closed due to renovations. Still, we viewed early printed editions of the Grimm collection of tales and the dictionaries the brothers labored over. Meanwhile, my daughter wondered aloud why the door frames in the cross-timbered home were so short. We also admired the dangerous-looking, brown-faced and green-horned mythical creature that guarded the door to the brothers’ home.

Burkhard Kling, the director of the Brothers Grimm House, designed the new exhibition, which will show how fairy tales are rendered in modern-day culture through animated cartoons and art. Early next year, visitors can view 10 additional rooms dedicated to the brothers and fairy tales, including an artist’s installation of a crown that children can walk through. According to Mr. Kling, an art historian and a self-confessed fairy tale junkie, some 15,000 people visit the Brothers Grimm House a year on their quest to capture the spirit of the brothers, German cultural icons with standing similar to Goethe and Wagner.

On the way to Marburg for the night, our final destination, we stopped by the old town square in the village of Alsfeld in search of Little Red Riding Hood. The city is said to be part of Little Red Riding Hood territory, since young girls in the area often wore traditional costumes that included a red headpiece, thus inspiring the narrative.

Some cities stretch harder than others for an affiliation to the Brothers Grimm, and others gain access to the Fairy Tale Route based on their magical scenery, according to Brigitte Buchholz-Blödow, the marketing director for the route. Alsfeld probably qualifies on both counts: Dotted with outdoor cafes, Alsfeld’s square is flanked by a cross-timbered, late-Gothic city hall atop a stone arcade. The landmark gives the sleepy settlement a touch of class and foreshadowed the elegance of Marburg, the city where the brothers studied at the university and met some of their first intellectual mentors.

Elsewhere, four towns in the state of Hesse claim a connection to the tale Mother Holle — Lichtenau, Bad Sooden-Allendorf, Grossalmerode and Meissner. Lichtenau has put up a Mother Holle Park, Bad Sooden-Allendorf runs a theater festival, Grossalmerode claims a connection to the apple tree that the girl picked when Mother Holle put her to the test, and Meissner is the city where Mother Holle supposedly lived.

With or without the Grimm connection, many towns near or along the lower leg of the Fairy Tale Route offer storybook architecture or outdoor activities such as hiking, cycling or boating. We combined both on Sunday in Marburg: We admired the Gothic, Landgrave castle that hovers over the city before canoeing down the Lahn river, one of Germany’s most beautiful waterways and a natural sanctuary at some points along its course. We headed down an eight-kilometer stretch of the river on which birds outnumbered the fishermen and picknickers visible at the water’s edge. Mute swans and mallards with shimmery blue-green heads took care of their young and foraged for food. To my delight, I witnessed a muskrat come up for air and then swim along the bank, most likely after emerging from the tunnel that led from its lodge. I also enjoyed the sword lilies that thrived in the water directly near the bank. All that seemed to be missing was a little fairy- tale frog sitting atop the lily’s leaf waiting to be kissed by a princess (or be thrown against a wall).

One weekend wasn’t nearly enough to relive our childhoods along the Fairy Tale Route. That’s why, as we put our daughter to bed talking of Cinderella and Mother Holle, we vowed to see more of the route. Perhaps we’ll tackle a northern section in 2012, the year that the Grimm book of fairy tales will be 200 years old and dozens of events will mark the anniversary. The book was

recently declared a world heritage document by UNESCO. The original is on display in Kassel, the city where the brothers went to school and another cultural highlight, just 90 kilometers from Marburg up the Fairy Tale Route.

—Rhea Wessel is a writer based in Kronberg, Germany.