On the trail of Hansel and Gretel

Once upon a time – about 200 years
ago to be more precise – there were two brothers, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, who
lived in the Kingdom of Hesse, now part of Germany. They loved fairy tales and
set about collecting and publishing them – to the delight of readers around the
world, young and old, forever after.

You could celebrate the approaching
bicentennial anniversary of the debut of “Kinder und HausmArchen” (“Children’s
and Household Tales”), the Grimm brothers’ famed collection – it was first published
in 1812 – by strolling through Disney World’s tidy faux castles alongside
grinning, crinolined mascots.

Or you could do what I did,
accompanied by my wife, Kate, and our two and a half year-old daughter, Alice,
drive the Fairy Tale Road in Germany, an official but unmarked route designed
by local tourism officials to promote sites, some authentic, some imaginary.
The 560-plus-kilometre route between Frankfurt and Bremen snakes past locations
that include the actual homes of the Grimms and the fantasy ones of Little Red
Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and Hansel and Gretel, along with a mix of foreboding
forests, striking towers and even some genuine castles.

Our real-life journey began in the
Frankfurt suburb of Hanau, the official start of the Fairy Tale Road, and where
the brothers lived from birth to ages 5 and 6. Their time in Hanau is
commemorated by a statue in the main plaza and a small exhibition of personal
effects in the town’s grand Schloss Philippsruhe museum.

The Grimms lived another seven
years in the small, formerly walled village of Steinau, about 55 kilometres
northeast of Hanau, in a house that is now a museum focused on Grimm family
home life. While I toured rooms under construction for a 2011 expansion that
will include interactive exhibits and international versions of the tales in
various forms – books, games, illustrations, film – Alice played outside in a
version of Hansel’s “cage.” The town’s castle, where the young Wilhelm and
Jacob frolicked, also had a few rooms dedicated to their belongings, including
snuff bottles, inkwells and family Bibles.

After Steinau, we veered on and off
the official Fairy Tale Road, which includes a number of towns that did not meet
my personal criteria of being either a Grimm residence or a fairy-tale setting.
Our next destination, though, did have a direct link: The rural Schwalm River
valley is also known as RotkAppchenland, or “Little Red Cap” country (the
original title of what became “Little Red Riding Hood” in English translations).
The valley is home to the Museum de Schwalm, dedicated to the area’s textile
tradition. For many years in the region, clothes indicated social status; at
the museum, faded photographs and waxen mannequins display the colour-coded
hierarchy. Old people wore purple and black, young married couples green and a
little girl from this area would have worn her hair tucked into a little red
cap.

The valley is made up of farms,
rolling hills and plenty of wooded areas. I pulled into a parking area at the
edge of a forest, ignored an ominous warning sign I couldn’t translate and told
Alice the stories of Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White as we walked among
spindly trees that filtered sunlight onto the fern-covered forest floor.

Farther along the route is Kassel,
a cornerstone in the tale of the Brothers Grimm. They first moved there to
continue their studies after their father died. After college they became
imperial librarians, living at what is now Brueder-Grimm-Platz, marked with a
diminutive statue of the two men, and later at an address near the Brueder
Grimm-Museum (closed for an expansion until sometime next year). In their free
time they tracked down verbose storytellers. Just outside Kassel we ate at a
roadhouse restaurant, Brauhaus Knallhuette, once run by Dorothea Viehmann, a
farmer and storyteller who supplied the brothers with dozens of tales,
including that of Aschenputtel, or Cinderella.

As the Grimms’ popularity grew,
travellers in North Hesse began hiking from the main roads to see a castle
known to have two towers surrounded by woods and rose bushes. The ruins matched
the setting of one of my favourite tales, “Briar Rose,” or, as it’s better
known, “Sleeping Beauty.” The castle, now called Dornroeschenschloss Sababurg,
is part ruins, part faded boutique hotel (undergoing an extensive renovation),
and is run by Guenther Koseck, a member of a regional group devoted to
preserving Grimm fairy-tale heritage.

The final leg of our
trip, through the rustic villages of Lower Saxony, ended in Hameln, a movie set
of a town with ornate Renaissance-era, timber-framed storefront houses lining
cobblestoned, pedestrianised streets. A tour of the city is fittingly led by
its famous saviour-turned-avenger, the Pied Piper. The tour concluded at the
Rattenfangerhaus (Rat Catcher’s House), a restaurant in a 408-year-old
building, where specials like pork fillet “Rattail Flambe” trap more tourists
than vermin.
According to the Grimms, the Pied Piper is legend which, unlike fairy tale, is
fiction rooted in an actual place or historical period. Speeding along the autobahn
back to Frankfurt – re-entering modern times from four days of small-town
meanderings – I wondered if Alice appreciated the Grimms’ slice of Germany more
than she would have Anaheim or Orlando. She loved the castles and the zoo, and
was fittingly enraptured by the Pied Piper, but I wanted her to take something
more away.
As we got ready for bed at an airport hotel, my wish was granted. “I am Sleeping
Beauty,” she said to me. “And you are the Prince. Kiss me and wake me up!”

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