Once upon a time

Once upon a time
Actors in The Wishing Table play in Hanau's Fairytale Festival, Photo Credit: Claudia Bison

Tracing the Brothers Grimm and their fairytales in Germany

Vandana Mohindra
June 21 , 2014
20 Min Read

"There was once a tailor with three sons but only one goat. And such a wicked goat you never did see,” begins the unlikely tale of The Wishing Table, the Gold Ass and the Cudgel in the Sack. It’s a brisk spring evening when we arrive at the outdoor amphitheatre hosting Hanau’s Fairytale Festival. Frank-Lorenz Engel, accomplished player and theatre director, greets us with warm blankets, fresh bagels and hot coffee as armour against the cold. Thus fortified, we sit back and watch the machinations of the nefarious goat, who leads everyone on stage on a merry dance. En route, the sons find a table that magically covers itself with food, a donkey that spits gold whenever it brays, and a stick that thrashes enemies at the slightest provocation. The director also introduces elements from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so Titania, Oberon and a host of mischief-making fairies add to the disarray, breaking into synchronized dance routines ever so often. And for the big finale, the goat, the ass and a self-styled kung fu master elf named Puck, even do it Gangnam style. 


Once upon a time there lived two German brothers, who began collecting the finest fairytales in the land, full of giants and sorcerers, witches and magic. They collected legends, too, based on real people and places, and published the lot (eighty-six stories in all), in 1812, under the title Kinder-und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales). They were Jacob and Wilhelm, the Brothers Grimm, whose stories such as Schneewittchen (Snow White) and Dornröschen (Sleeping Beauty) became the best-known fairytales in the world.


Two hundred years on, Germany is marking the bicentenary of the book’s first publication with year-round festivities and I am in Hanau, the brothers’ birthplace, to join the bacchanal. Our guide, Joachim Schadendorf, explains that Hanau is the start of the German Fairytale Route, a 600km scenic trail that connects the towns associated with the brothers’ lives and those of their stories (such as Hamelin and its mysterious Pied Piper, and Bremen with its four-legged Musicians).


Hanau was all but destroyed by Allied bombers in 1945 and we walk around what remains of the old settlement with Dr Wolfgang Hasenpusch. Everywhere are cobbled streets and houses made of black volcanic basalt, found in abundance here due to the eruption of Mt Vogelsberg epochs ago. We reach the red-and-white fronted Goldschmiedhaus (goldsmith’s house), a reminder of Hanau’s past as a gold processing centre. Behind it is Marien Church, where a plaque tells us that Jacob and Wilhelm’s father was once a pastor here. Around every corner is a Grimm memorial — a plaque marking the spot where their house once stood; a painted cornice paying tribute to Aunt Schlemmer, who looked after them after their father died. A statue of the brothers towers over the main marktplatz and it is all but forgotten by the crowds gathered below to solemnly attend the Corpus Christi celebrations. The musicians strike up a choral tune while two little boys on tricycles ride circles around the Grimm Brothers’ noses. “They were very close,” says Professor Hasenpusch. “Even when Wilhelm took a wife, Jacob continued to live with them. Sadly, I don’t have a brother, or I might have also taken to living with him and his wife,” he jokes cheerily.


Waving goodbye to the good doctor, we set course for Steinau, passing the magnificent baroque Philippsruhe Castle on the banks of the river Main, its gates covered in pure gold leaf by Count Philip Reinhard of Hanau-Münzenberg. Situated on the old trade road between Frankfurt and Leipzig, Steinau an der Strasse (literally ‘Steinau on the Road’) is where the brothers lived from 1791 with their magistrate father at the Amtshaus (courthouse). Now the Brüder Grimm Museum, this jewel of a building typifies the region’s half-timbered houses, whose exposed wooden beams pattern the front façades. Inside are family portraits, personal letters, a replica of the Grimm kitchen, and even a porcelain inkpot and feathered quill. Visitors can try guessing the names of popular fairytales from the exquisite miniature dioramas, although some of the German names differ slightly from the English ones — Little Red Riding Hood is Little Red Cap while Sleeping Beauty is Briar Rose. Outside, we’re greeted by a real-life Puss-in-Boots — whiskers, tail, claws and all. Shaking her paw, I learn she is Renate Kania, our guide for the afternoon. We follow her to the Fairytale Fountain (Märchen-brunnen) that is adorned with statues including a willowy princess and tiny frog, who I suspect is The Frog Prince. Bending low, I steal a kiss, but the old toad probably croaked a long time ago. Just opposite are the former royal stables, an unlikely place for a marionette theatre. But the building has housed the puppeteering Magersuppe family since 1955, and string puppets of every shape dangle from the walls — knights, maidens, hens, even the Devil himself. Specializing in Grimm fairytales (though they also play Faust), it is definitely worth trying to catch a show. 


We trudge to the river Kinzig, where an intriguing instrument of torture sits silently. Called the snap basket, unfortunate offenders were strapped in and dunked into the Kinzig’s icy waters. “No one was killed though,” Puss-in-Boots adds hastily. “It was only for minor offences, such as watering-down wine or baking smaller than usual loaves of bread and passing them off as regular loaves.” Why the snap basket, I asked. “Because the victims snapped for air when they were pulled out of the water.” I was glad not to have been a butcher, a baker or candlestick maker in old Steinau — times were rough indeed!


We reach the Café Restaurant Rosengarten that entices us with eis (ice cream) and kaffee. Now an inn serving hearty German fare such as sauerbraten (marinated roast beef) with red cabbage, it was originally the Hutten’schen Hospital that briefly housed the Grimm family after their father, Philipp, died suddenly in 1796. Slowly digesting this piece of history, I do as the Germans do and drink apfelsaft schorle (apple juice and sparkling water) instead of soda pop to wash down my meal. Outside, the wind has picked up, turning into a light spring gale and little balls of fluff fill the air. “Dandelions,” says Puss-in-Boots, “In German we say Pusteblume.” “Poosten-bloomen?” I repeat, sneezing as fluff goes up my nose. “Gesundheit,” she says, her painted whiskers breaking into a smile.


Our next stop is the university town of Marburg, where the brothers went to study law. Here they met jurist Friedrich Carl von Savigny, who ignited their interest in the German language and folklore. On the subject of the town’s hilly topography, Jacob Grimm is said to have grumbled, “In Marburg, one must move one’s legs and climb upstairs and downstairs!” Gasping up a steep incline in a steady drizzle, I am inclined to agree with him. But even the rain cannot dampen Marburg’s charms. Half-timbered houses line crooked little streets, their windowsills draped in flowers. Fairytale figures and street art abound, especially along the Grimm Dich Pfad (Grimm Town Path). We pass a pair of metallic horses drinking from a stone trough. The heads of seven little goats and a wolf survey me from a wall. And statues of my old friend, the Frog Prince, are everywhere. The Town Hall clock’s rooster pops out from the gable and flaps its wings, signalling dinner. We dine at Zur Sonne, in what was once the nightwatchman’s room. His pike still hangs from a hook while a wooden plaque lists his nightly duties.


The next morning, the lovely Anngret Hoffmann — I’m still not convinced she hasn’t escaped from the pages of a fairytale — takes us to the Landgraves’ (Counts’) Castle atop a hill. Fronted by a large red slipper, presumably Cinderella’s, it now houses a museum and belongs to Marburg University. But most poignant are the stumbling stones, small brass memorials embedded in the city’s pavements to honour former victims of the Nazi regime. The brainchild of artist Gunter Demnig, over twenty thousand stumbling stones have been laid across Europe thus far. Back in the old market square, the sixteenth-century Weinladele (little wine shop) beckons with its great selection of German wines and lunch dishes. I try the wood-fired flammkuchen (tarte flambée) with wild garlic, tomatoes and cream, and top it off with homemade strawberry-rhubarb tiramisu.


From Marburg, we head to Northern Hessen, where the brothers spent long years working. They travelled extensively across the region that is home to deep, dark forests of old-growth trees. Small wonder then that many of their stories are set in forests where evil lurks and dire deeds are done — think of Hansel and Gretel or Little Red Riding Hood. The Castle of Trendelburg, with its deep moat and forbidding turrets, is the perfect fairytale castle. Knight Dietrich, in full battle regalia — flowing cape, chain mail and coat of arms — stands guard on the drawbridge. Meanwhile, a fair maiden throws down locks of golden hair from a high tower. Although nobody asked Rapunzel to let down her hair, I am certain it is she and follow our fair knight into the hole of fear — the castle dungeons where historic instruments of torture are on display. It turns out that the knight is an old softie. “I would never torture anyone,” he assures us after describing how to put someone on the rack. “It’s just that no self-respecting castle can be without its own torture chamber.” Besides being a full-time knight for over twenty years, he is an accomplished storyteller and the old cellar, now a venue for medieval-themed banquets, is the perfect setting for his tales.


The castle originally belonged to Marburg’s Landgraves and its outer walls are a thousand years old. Climbing the spiral staircase to the top of Rapunzel’s tower, I am met with astounding views. Rolling fields and thick forests of beech and oak stretch to the horizon behind the tiny Trendelburg town, the swathe of green broken only by the glistening blue of the river Diemel that snakes through.


For dinner, we head to Sababurg’s Dornröschen Schloss (the Sleeping Beauty Castle) set in the ancient Reinhardswald or Reinhard Forest. In the fifteenth century, it was a hunting castle for the House of Hessen and subsequently fell into ruin. Lying desolate, the Dornröschen Schloss was overrun by thick brambles and became known as Sleeping Beauty’s Castle as it resembled the fictional palace in the fairytale. Then roses sprang up in the grounds (remnants of the castle’s historic rose gardens), which sealed its fate because Sleeping Beauty’s name was Briar Rose. In 1955, the current owner’s grandfather bought the place and turned it into a hotel. Grandson Günther Kosek has capitalized on the rose motif, collecting over 1,000 rose-themed artifacts — porcelain, coins, buttons, postcards, glasses, napkins, linen and even a specially made non-alcoholic sparkling wine, the Prisecco Rosenzauber. Today, the castle is so popular with wedding parties that it even has its own registry office.


The next day, black clouds and pouring rain greet us as we drive into Kassel, where the brothers spent thirty years working at the state library. The Documenta Halle, which hosts Kassel’s annual festival of contemporary art, is housing Expedition Grimm, an extensive exhibition of the brothers’ life and works. Less well known is their work on a German dictionary, the Deutsches Wörterbuch, which remained incomplete in their lifetimes. While Wilhelm worked on the letter D, Jacob compiled A to F. His last entry was the word ‘fruit’. It took another hundred years to complete the work.


Our last stop is Wilhelmshöhe Mountain Park, a pleasure garden created in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries by the Landgrave Karl. Up ahead, a group of jolly bikers on Harleys chugs along, unperturbed by the thick clouds rolling in. It’s warmer lower down the slope and we stop to view the spires and turrets of the Löwenburg (Lion’s Castle), where a hedgerow reminds me of the giant maze in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.


At the mountain’s summit sits an eight-metre high statue of Hercules, which our guide, actress and storyteller Andrea Ortolano, fondly refers to as the most beautiful naked man in Kassel. By the time we reach him, however, the fog is so thick that I can’t see my toes let alone the demi-god above me. “Our Met office declared that today was the first day of summer,” says Andrea wryly, as I shiver under my parka.


The German Fairytale Route has something for everyone. Children will love it, of course, and I’ll hazard a guess that you’ll love it too. And live happily ever after to boot.

The information

Getting there

Lufthansa flies nonstop from Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai to Frankfurt (return flights from Rs 49,000). Other airlines that fly to Frankfurt from major Indian cities with one stop are Emirates, Qatar, Air India, Etihad, Air France and KLM.


A tourist visa costs Rs 4,400 (€60) as per the current exchange rate and is subject to change without notice; visa fees are payable by demand draft. A separate service charge of Rs 652 is levied; it’s payable in cash. vfs-germany.co.in

Getting around

Unless you are an experienced driver wanting to test your skills on Germany’s autobahns, the most painless way to get around is via the excellent Deutsche Bahn (DB) rail network, with connections from Frankfurt airport itself. See bahn.com for online bookings. ICE (the Intercity Express) is DB’s fastest train, reaching speeds of 320km per hour.

Where to stay

HANAU I stayed at the Best Western Premier Hotel Villa Stokkum (from €115; bestwesternpremier.com). Pretty, and located next to the old town and town wall, this building was the former residence of Baron Stokkum and has a historic vault that now serves as a cosy banquet area. Hotel Residence is a B&B with easy access to the city centre (from €100; hotelgruppe-residence.com). A budget option is Hotel Garni Werner Franz (from €75; hotel-garni-hanau.de) in nearby Klein-Auheim.

STEINAU About 8km from Steinau is the lovely Gartenhotel Triest (from €79; hotel-triest.de) with the Bad Soden Wildlife Park and the Spessart-Therme spa a few minutes away. Gasthof Hausmann is a 450-year-old guesthouse, 5.5km from Steinau (from €70; saugut.de). Landgasthof Grüner Baum at Steinau’s heart is a historic B&B that was founded as a coach stand for horse-drawn mail coaches (from €70; gruenerbaum-steinau.de).

MARBURG I stayed at the luxurious Vila Vita Rosenpark (from €128; rosenpark.com) that exudes quiet elegance, tucked away in the wooded Hessian highlands. The Dammuehle (from €104; hotel-dammuehle.de) is a country inn with large grounds, a river, millwheel, duckpond, beer garden and wooded walks around. At the budget end, Marburger Hof (from €68; marburgerhof.de) is at Marburg’s heart, near St Elisabeth Church.

SABABURG & TRENDELBURG The former hunting castle Dornröschenschloss Sababurg has 17 elegant rooms, a concert theatre in the vault and its own wedding registry office (from €120; sababurg.de). I stayed at the Hotel Burg Trendelburg (from €155; burg-hotel-trendelburg.com), just 8km from Sababurg, with charming rooms in a medieval castle. Down the road in Trendelburg’s old town is Gasthaus Brandner (from €55; gasthaus-brandner.de), a family inn with a garden terrace and café. Another budget option, 7km from Trendelburg, in Bad Karlshafen is Hessischer Hof (from €80; hess-hof.de).

KASSEL I stayed at the luxurious Best Western Grand City Hotel (from €110; bestwestern-grandcity-hotel-kassel.de/en). Another option is the Hotel Gude (from €99; hotel-gude.de), intriguingly themed after the Grimm brothers’ German dictionary. A budget option in Kassel’s business district is Hotel Crede Garni (from €59; hotel-crede.de).

What to see & do

HANAU Walk around the Marktplatz with its Town Hall, Brothers Grimm Monument and striking French-and-Dutch ‘Double Church’. For tours of Goldschmiedhaus (€2.50) and Philippsruhe Castle (€2.50), see museen-hanau.de; you can download a ‘Museums in Hanau’ pdf in English from the homepage. Download a programme flyer for the Fairytale Festival at festspiele.hanau.de (€10 per show).

STEINAU The Brüder Grimm Museum is a great place to spend a morning (€5; brueder-grimm-haus.de). Behind the market square is Steinau Castle (combined entry for museum and castle is €6) and the Town Hall or Rathaus. The Café Restaurant Rosengarten is a great lunch stop (rosengarten-steinau.de). The marionette theatre Die Holzkoppe lists its puppet shows at die-holzkoeppe.de (adults €6–12). City website steinau.eu has details on most sights.

MARBURG Spend a morning walking around the central market place with its late Gothic-style Town Hall and its musical rooster clock. Nearby are the highly recommended Zur Sonne hotel-café (zur-sonne-marburg.de) and the Weinlädele restaurant. The Grimm Town Path is lined with fairytale figures from Steinweg street all the way to Landgrave’s Castle, a Gothic structure that houses a museum exhibiting religious art and regional history (entry €4; closed Mondays). The splendid St Elisabeth Church, Germany’s earliest Gothic church, has beautiful stained-glass windows (guided tours €2.50; elisabethkirche.de).

SABABURG & TRENDELBURG For insider tips and accommodation across Northern Hessen, visit nordhessen.de. Knight Dietrich (ritter-dietrich.de) conducts guided tours through Sababurg’s forests, and historical tours in Trendelburg Castle. He also hosts medieval banquets (contact Hotel Burg Trendelburg).

KASSEL Expedition Grimm (expedition-grimm.de/en; €8) has exhibits on the lives of the Brothers Grimm. The Brüder Grimm Museum (grimms.de; €3) on the Palais Bellevue is worth a visit if only to view the brothers’ personal copies of Children’s and Household Tales with commentary in their own hand; it has been declared a World Documentary Heritage by Unesco. The Wilhelmshöhe Mountain Park (for information and tours call +49-0-561-16800; kassel-land.nordhessen.de/en/bergpark-wilhelmshoehe) is open all year round. Its spectacular ornamental water displays are on from May 1 to October 3 on Sundays, Wednesdays and public holidays, 2.30–5.30pm. The Hercules statue is closed on Mondays, and in the winter from mid-November to mid-March. The Wilhelmshöhe Castle Museum houses the Gallery of the Old Masters, which has one of the largest collections of works by Rembrandt. The Löwenburg can be viewed through hourly guided tours (adults €4; Mondays closed). See kassel.de/englisch for info on key sights. Also, do check the websites of the German Fairytale Road (german-fairytaleroute.com) and the year’s programme of events at Festival Grimm 2013 (grimm2013.de/en).

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