On Ger­many’s fairy­tale trail

Un­cover the in­spi­ra­tion for Sleep­ing Beauty and Snow White in the land of the Brothers Grimm

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - JONATHAN LORIE THE IN­DE­PEN­DENT

PUSS in Boots strides to­wards me, a hand­some fel­low with a wal­rus mous­tache and a rapier on his belt. Next comes Red Rid­ing Hood, a blonde girl with clogs that tap on the floor­boards of the stage. Be­hind her slinks the Wolf, his eyes dark, his haunches quiv­er­ing with power and de­sire.

Jas­mine the pup­peteer looks up from her mar­i­onettes. ‘ ‘ I like the Cin­derella pup­pet best, she is so beau­ti­ful. But at night it’s scary in here. If you’re re­hears­ing, there are shad­ows in the cor­ners and things creak.’’

She folds the wolf away into the box where he lives and whispers in his ear: ‘‘Good night.’’

We are back­stage at the pup­pet the­atre in Steinau, cen­tral Ger­many. It’s the town where the Brothers Grimm grew up and heard their first fairy sto­ries. Even to­day, it’s a mag­i­cal place of half-tim­bered houses, a stone foun­tain in the cob­bled square carved with fairy­tale fig­ures. I am here — with my two chil­dren — to en­ter that world of childhood sto­ries on which we all grew up, in the places they were found.

This year, the re­gion of Hesse is cel­e­brat­ing the 150th an­niver­sary of the death of Ja­cob Grimm, the elder of the two re­mark­able brothers who col­lected Ger­man folk­tales and pub­lished them in a se­ries of books from 1812 to 1857. Steinau is the start of Hesse’s Fairy­tale Route, which fol­lows the places where Ja­cob and Wil­helm lived, and where the tales were set.

Their jour­ney, and ours, starts here, at their childhood home — a half­tim­bered manor house where they lived in the 1790s. In­side, it shows dis­plays on their lives, and the gar­den has a wooden cage with Hansel trapped in­side. My daugh­ter Sarah, 11, pokes a stick through the bars to see if he’s fat enough to eat. Ben­jamin, 12, shakes an ap­ple out of the tree above: luck­ily it is not poi­soned.

I scoop them up and drive them off to a farm­house in a for­est. The Brathah­nchen­farm Ho­tel is up a nar­row track in a wood. Its ground floor is a se­ries of low tav­ern rooms, rough walls lit by lanterns hang­ing from black­ened beams. A fire­place crack­les at one end, where spits of meat turn and smoke. It’s the kind of place where sto­ries might be told on a win­ter’s night; or where a scullery maid might sweep cinders from a hearth and earn her­self a nick­name.

We en­ter the fairy­tale world more for­mally next day, 96km north, at the Marchen­haus in Als­feld. A cathe­dral bell clangs above a tan­gle of 16th-cen­tury lanes. The Haus has ‘‘1628’’ etched above its wooden door and a well with a frog perched on its rim. Its white walls and brown tim­bers look like ic­ing su­gar and ginger­bread. We tip­toe in.

The rooms of this mu­seum are dec­o­rated with life-size tableaux from the tales. Stat­ues of Hansel and Gre­tel creep up to a cot­tage where an old woman leers by an oven door. Rumpelstiltskin weaves gold thread from sweet-smelling bales of straw. Awitch’s kitchen fea­tures a black cat and a row of herbs above an iron stove. A sto­ry­teller eyes us up. ‘‘I am a herb woman,’’ she an­nounces. ‘‘I grow them in my gar­den. Sto­ries come from them.’’

We leave fairly hastily and head for the safety of Snow White’s cot­tage. It’s an hour’s drive away, in a vil­lage called Bergfrei­heit. The cot­tage fails to im­press Ben­jamin, who says it is a fake. But Sarah is amused by its seven bunk beds, the seven chairs around its kitchen ta­ble and the photo we take of our­selves in dwarvish hoods.

But on the edge of the vil­lage is a piece of real folk­lore. The Kupfer­berg­w­erk mine is all that’s left of an in­dus­try that may ex­plain those seven dwarves. Off to work they went, with picks and shov­els to dig cop­per and gold in the wooded hill­side here, which is rid­dled with cop­per mines from the 16th cen­tury. Th­ese were of­ten worked by chil­dren, whose short stature gained them a lo­cal nick­name: dwarves.

You can go in­side a dis­used shaft that dates back to 1552. Wooden pit­props frame rough walls as you de­scend its long dark tun­nel. ‘‘This is cop­per,’’ says the guide, point­ing at a smear of green, ‘‘and this is fool’s gold,’’ by a wall of glit­ter­ing crys­tals.

Min­ers here were given spe­cial free­doms and the vil­lage be­came a haven for run­aways. Bergfrei­heit trans­lates as ‘‘free­dom moun­tain’’. It’s the per­fect set­ting for a tale of es­cape and trans­for­ma­tion such as Snow White’s.

But there is more. A dis­play at the cot­tage sug­gests the model for Snow White was Mar­garete of Waldeck, the beau­ti­ful daugh­ter of a lo­cal count who fled from a jeal­ous step­mother and died in 1554 — of poi­son­ing. Her brother owned th­ese mines. About then, a scan- dal spread of a fa­ther who had poi­soned his chil­dren with bad ap­ples. So this is how the tales emerged, from his­to­ries and scare sto­ries woven to­gether.

Mar­garete’s cas­tle of Waldeck is nearby, and that is where we’ll stay tonight. Th­ese days it’s an el­e­gant ho­tel. Its tow­ers and bat­tle­ments rise above a glit­ter­ing lake and we en­ter through a gothic hall. This is the world of princesses and kings, which fairy­tale fig­ures might tame through mar­riage or suc­cess, but which also op­presses them — like Snow White or Cin­derella. The he­roes of the tales are sel­dom grand: more of­ten they are wood­cut­ters, peas­ants, fish­er­men and their fates im­part the wis­dom of the com­mon folk.

Next day we de­scend to the dun­geons. ‘‘Creepy or what?’’ says Sarah with a thrill of fear. Among the stone vaults is a tor­ture cham­ber, a re­minder of the world of power around the tales. There’s a whip­ping bench and an ex­e­cu­tioner’s block, a wood­block map of noble es­tates dated 1575, and a hand­drawn fam­ily tree with sev­eral Mar­garetes. I won­der which one she was.

To get a firmer grip on our his­tory, we drive north to the city of Kas­sel, where the Grimm brothers moved from Steinau in 1798. They seem al­ways to have lived close to each other, shar­ing a mis­sion in life. In Kas­sel, they worked as li­brar­i­ans and pub­lished their clas­sic book of Kinder- und Haus­marchen — tales for chil­dren and house­holds — in 1812. This was a time of rev­o­lu­tion and na­tion­al­ism. Napoleon had oc­cu­pied then aban­doned the re­gion, leav­ing be­hind new ideas about the power of the peo­ple and in­spir­ing re­sis­tance to in­vaders. Th­ese would co­a­lesce in the brothers’ work, with its search for the soul of a peo­ple through their sto­ries, and its wish to es­tab­lish a Ger­man iden­tity.

The city houses an el­e­gant mu­seum to the brothers and an ex­hi­bi­tion to mark Ja­cob’s an­niver­sary year. We ram­ble through the lat­ter, past manuscripts and portraits and first edi­tions of their books. Then we head to the edge of town look­ing for an 18th-cen­tury road­side inn, the BrauhausK­nall­hutte. Here Ja­cob and Wil­helm gath­ered sto­ries from the innkeeper’s daugh­ter, Dorothea Viehmann, who heard them from trav­ellers. Still it is a road­side place — next to a ring road, be­hind a carpark, on an in­dus­trial es­tate. But in­side it’s a de­light. There’s a brass bar, a long din­ing room with dark beams and red ban­quettes, and soft light fall­ing through stained-glass win­dows of hunts­men and bar­maids.

Our fi­nal stop may or may not have

PIC­TURES: MAIN AND BE­LOW RIGHT, ALAMY; BE­LOW LEFT, KAS­SEL MAR­KET­ING a Grimm con­nec­tion. But if it doesn’t, it should. Sababurg claims to be Sleep­ing Beauty’s cas­tle. Its pep­per­pot tow­ers from 1334 are sur­rounded by thick­ets of roses and mag­nif­i­cent beech woods that would de­ter many a prince. In­side the ru­ined great hall, we catch the daily per­for­mance of Sleep­ing Beauty. A young man in red vel­vet is woo­ing a pretty blonde, pink roses woven in her waist-length hair.

Walk­ing on to the bat­tle­ments, I spot a herd of deer on the slope be­low, like the strangely met an­i­mals of myths. Then we un­lock a door at the foot of a tower and clam­ber up a spi­ral stair. On a land­ing is a spin­ning wheel. At the top are our rooms for the night, each with a four-poster bed. For the cas­tle has been trans­formed into a wildly ro­man­tic ho­tel.

But that night, as we hop into the great carved beds, the chil­dren are spooked by the ru­ins and moon­light. We have stepped too far into the imag­i­na­tive power of the tales. It’s a long night, with ev­ery creak of an­cient wood a fright. I read them the tales, where ev­ery or­deal leads to a happy end­ing.

In the bright light of the morn­ing, we walk around the grounds, which claim to be Europe’s old­est zoo­log­i­cal gar­dens, dat­ing from 1571. Roam­ing free are herds of deer, muskox and wild boar. At the far end we spot a crea­ture that haunts the tales, as once he haunted the un­tamed woods of Europe: a wolf. He stares at us. His eyes are black and burn­ing. He is the fear we meet in fairy sto­ries and learn to over­come.

Driv­ing away from the cas­tle, we stop in an end­less stand of fir trees. There are wild black­ber­ries among long grass, pine nee­dles on raw earth, and rows of trees stretch­ing away for­ever. We seem tiny in this world. The branches are crooked fin­gers, clutch­ing out at us. We are chil­dren among dark pow­ers. Once th­ese forests stretched across north­ern Europe and Asia, and they fig­ure still — in fairy­tales, in Shakespeare, in Hol­ly­wood movies — as a place of chal­lenge and change. Then Sarah picks a black­berry and Ben­jamin lobs a pine cone at me, and we are in­no­cents once more, pro­tected by the joy of our jour­ney and the wis­dom of what we have seen. Jonathan Lorie was a guest of the Hesse tourism board. hessen-tourism.com grimms.de

Clock­wise from top, Sababurg claims to be Sleep­ing Beauty’s cas­tle; Red Rid­ing Hood in the Brothers Grimm Mu­seum; mon­u­ment to the Grimms in Kas­sel

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