Long, long ago in a land far, far away… or this past week in nearby Hanau and Kassel… there lived two fairy tale Christmas Markets. Each one was both as lively and cozy as the next and drew visitors from far and wide.
Hanau Christmas Market
Advent calendar windows
Yes – yet again! – we trekked along the German Fairy Tale Route, to two towns where the Brothers Grimm lived and worked. At this time of year, the famous brothers’ former home towns celebrate Christmas in enchanting fairy tale style. Hanau, an early home of the Grimms, turns the building behind the larger-than-life Brothers Grimm statues into an advent calendar, revealing a new story image each day until Christmas Eve.
Kassel, where the two story collectors lived and worked for over 30 years, brings fairy tales to life all over the main square and themes the market annually. This year Snow White took precedence among the stands, represented in pictures and figurines. My favorite aspect of this market is the unique Christmas pyramid, whose every level features characters from beloved fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, Puss in Boots, and, of course, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
Seven Dwarves’ house by kiddy train ride
Grill stand with Snow White decor
Glühwein stand with Rapunzel
Brothers Grimm drink stand by Red Riding Hood photo ops
The tale of Snow White
Ready-to-bake Snow White apples (marzipan) & Sleeping Beauty apples (plum sauce)
Rapunzel & Snow White apples smothered in toppings
“Here, have a bite”
For dessert, we went straight for the fairy tale-themed baked apples, which I had remembered well from our first visit to this market a few years ago. I let James get the marzipan-stuffed Snow White apple covered in vanilla sauce this time. Remembering how that story went, I opted for the chocolate-stuffed Rapunzel apple drizzled with eggnog and topped with whipped cream. As you can guess, we are living happily ever after.
Happy 4th Sunday of Advent from the homes of the Brothers Grimm!
That’s right, back on the Fairy Tale Route last weekend, this time we went to its very heart.
Near Kassel, former hometown of the Brothers Grimm, lies the sleepy rural town area of Witzenhausen. And this is where we began our journey, surrounded by frogs for coffee and cake (that 3 pm-ish German meal time). Zur Warte inn relishes the area’s spawning of the tale of the Frog Prince by hosting an extensive collection of knickknacks and garden ornaments. In summer, they even offer a frog cake (gummy frogs only) on Sundays.
Maypole in the Frog Prince’s hometown
Frog collection in Zur Warte
Frogs in Zur Warte’s garden
Zur Warte entrance
“Even kings sit here!”
Toilet brush frog
Relaxed from our break, we headed next to the city where it all began. Kassel celebrates the lives and work of its two famous former inhabitants, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, with a very modern museum about history from long ago. Visitors to the museum Grimm Welt wind their way through a neon alphabet of exhibits each representing a one-word title for the artifacts at hand. It’s very multimedia: video clips of fairy tale-inspired films, a forest of audio-equipped “trees” telling stories in German and English, a magic mirror that comes to life, fairy tale houses to climb into, a wall of text to read with 3-D glasses, and so on. Many of the artifacts are items belonging to or handwritten by the Brothers Grimm themselves. Coming November 24: an exhibit about “The 8th Dwarf.”
Grimm Welt hallway
Fairy tale audio trees
International fairy tale books
Shadow box about the brothers’ work
Recipes from tales
Notes about notes
In addition to fairy tales, part of the museum is dedicated to another life’s work of the famous brothers: the creation of an elaborate and seemingly unpractical dictionary. More like an encyclopedia, it was published in alphabetical installments. Exhaustive research went into understanding the German language and how it was used for the work, so much so that the Grimms’ competitors criticized their work for the convoluted notes they contained. The tedious nature of the books made them best suited for language specialists only. And the brothers never lived to see the dictionary completed. After over 20 years of work, by the time of their deaths the letter F had not yet been completed.
Work on the dictionary project continued after they were gone, of course, and was eventually completed around 100 years after it had begun. Naturally, at this point, the earlier sections needed to be revised because they were becoming outdated. Language evolves over time, after all.
In the late 1990s, the dictionary even got with the times enough to go online – oddly in its original form. C’mon…
A few more fortuitous sights (as always!) awaited us along our journey. A rock-hurling giant with a scraggly beard ushered the way to his hiking trail by the side of the road. And once day had turned to dark chilly night, an eerie aura-encircled moon hung above bare winter tree branches as we watched over Kassel from the rooftop of Grimm Welt.
…who’s the fairest/scariest/most erotic of them all? (…?!)
Never has a place been more in love with a theme than Lohr am Main, the hometown of Maria Sophia von Erthal, daughter of an 18th century Prince Elector of Mainz, whose life story helped to inspire the Brothers Grimm Snow White tale.
Mountains and Main River
Spessart Museum (former Erthal castle)
You may remember that we recently completed a round of fairy tale travels and found yet another town – Berg Freiheit of Bad Wildungen – that also claims to have originated the fairy tale of Snow White. Both have a history of mining under the local mountains and a young noble lady with a tragic tale. (Hikers can retrace the 35 kilometer flight route of Maria Sophia in Lohr.) But present-day Lohr, unlike Bad Wildungen, has really let its fairy tale history run amok in town.
Everything has a connection to the beloved story here – from dwarf signs around town to artistic souvenirs. We happened to arrive during a festival and even found homemade apple cider, apple crafts, and wild boar bratwurst. The local beer is called Keiler, the German word for boar.
No bikes on this street!
Snow White art
Fresh apple cider
Local Keiler beer
The Franconian castle of the Erthal noble family has become the Spessart Museum, largely dedicated to local history and fairy tale legacy. Glass and mirror production have historically been major industries here, which should come as no surprise to story enthusiasts. The mirror belonging to Maria Sophia’s stepmother is naturally the main attraction on display. I listened to the famous “Mirror, mirror on the wall…” quote in so many German dialects (including numerous different dialects from the Franconian region alone) and foreign languages that I can’t get it out of my head.
The stepmother’s mirror
Typical Lohr kitchen
Traditional headdress and (poisoned?) comb
And from here the good name of Snow White takes a weird turn… Sure, several quirky film interpretations of the story are exhibited in the museum along with various toys and dolls. But the most unique ramble from the fairy tale is a sensual representation of a young lady putting her hand out for a suggestively placed red apple…or something like that. Also, remember the glass production? Glass eyes are displayed alongside mugs and decorations.
Snow White art?
Snow White memorabilia
Snow White art
Even in front of the Lohr Town Hall, Horrorwittchen (a play on Snow White’s German name, Schneewittchen) draws confused attention from crowds. A guy asked me if I thought the bizarro statue was worth taking a picture of, to which I’d have to wonder what he was there gawking at…
Once upon a time there lived two brothers who traveled far and wide in search of fairy tales to record so that people could enjoy them for all time. They were the Brothers Grimm, and their collection of fairy tales has created a common knowledge among story lovers young and old.
But think back to when they began collecting the stories, traveling over hills and mountains, across rivers, through woods, and past farmland as far as the eye can see. The route they took seems to remain largely unchanged. Tiny villages of Fachwerk (half-timbered) houses can be found scattered between endless acres of farms and fields. Apple trees, grazing plow horses and cattle, dark pine woods… each sight seems vaguely reminiscent of a tale.
Last weekend we began touring the German Fairy Tale Route, a list of towns (many so rural they belong to a larger district of other small, loosely-connected areas) where Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm lived, worked, and found their stories. What follows about the towns and tales is told in a mix of past and present, fiction and fact, threaded through with an appreciation for fairy tales and a curiosity about their origins.
Let’s begin in Hameln and work our way back south…
The Pied Piper of Hamlin
“And it was here that he led the rats, the Piper? They drowned in the River Weser?” Wilhelm looked through the thick window panes at the bank nearby.
The miller crossed his arms and nodded slowly without following his interviewer’s gaze. “Aye. And so the story goes that the good people of Hameln then neglected their promise.”
“To pay the piper?” A cold wind rushed around the house and rattled the windows.
“To pay the piper. And so he came again with his pipe and spirited the children away into yon mountains. All except for one…”
Today the piper lures the rats and then the children from Hamlin town several times a day in the form of a Glockenspiel outside the Museum Hameln near the Weser River. The extensive museum itself lures visitors with an entire floor dedicated to art, history, and literature revolving around the ill-treated piper. A bizarrely modern theater piece even tells the story with faceless animatronics. An exhibit dedicated to all of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, highlighted by photographs of characters made from vegetables and plants, is temporarily running.
On to stay the night in Trendelburg…
“The townsfolk here must be able to see the tall tower from far and wide, and it certainly would be impossible to scale without help. Do you know if there’s any truth in it, the tale?” Jakob leaned closer to the fire and held his hands in front of it, curling and stretching his fingers. A crow cawed somewhere in the trees outside, out of sight.
The baker’s wife tilted her head and looked up as though searching through her memory. “Hm, can’t say I rightly know. Well… there was once a nobleman who was held prisoner in the dungeon. Locked up in… it had what they called a fear hole. The tower, I mean. They lowered people into it, only most people only had to take one look down there before they confessed to whatever crime they were accused of.” She drew the shawl around her shoulders together more tightly. “Anyway, this one nobleman was held prisoner there for twelve years. And they say when he came out, he was blind.”
“Like the prince who was blinded when the witch threw him over the tower.”
“Yes, I suppose you could say there’s some similarity. Except in the story, Rapunzel’s tears work magic on the prince’s sight…”
Inside Rapunzel’s tower
View from the top of the tower
Fairy tale tower
Tower hotel room
Modern-day visitors can climb the stairs to reach the top of Trendelburg’s tallest tower for a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside and a brief look into the history of medieval torture and imprisonment. Other parts of the castle have been converted into cozy hotel rooms (we stayed in the top room of the Fairy Tale tower), a luxurious spa, and an elegant restaurant.
Meanwhile in Sababurg…
“That’s where her name comes from.” The farmer pointed to the rose bushes blooming all around the castle at the top of the hill. “Dornrӧschen. Little Thorn-Rose.”
“Yes, I saw. They’re beautiful,” Jakob replied without looking up, still hurriedly making notes.
“Look closer,” the farmer said, leaning in and continuing to point. He replaced his pipe to the corner of his mouth and chewed on it thoughtfully, slowly drawing in a breath. “Look how thick the thorns are. And imagine them growing wild for a hundred years…”
Sleeping Beauty finds the spinning wheel
For a few euros, the remaining grounds and courtyard of Sababurg can be visited today. Only a few roses are currently in bloom at the moment, as chilly fall weather has finally set in, but the main attraction is a collection of somewhat abstract steel etchings telling the story of the bewitched princess. Sababurg is also a hotel and restaurant, and houses a theater in its cellar.
Break for coffee and cake at Bad Wildungen’s gingerbread house…
Hansel and Gretel
“I’m so hungry. This looks like a nice place to stop for a bite…”
Giant cream puff swan
The only treat more tempting than a candy house might just be the ENORMOUS homemade cream puff swans that Knusperhӓuschen Café is famous for. Both elegant and excellently made (with many choices of fruit to add to the cream filling), this is an incredible substitute for a meal or two. Witch and gingerbread décor runs rampant inside and out, and souvenirs are also available for purchase. The staff seems sweet and friendly, but you may want to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to get back to the car just in case…
And in nearby Berg Freiheit, Bad Wildungen…
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
“…and they lived happily ever after.”
Jakob finished scratching out the ending, set down his quill and crossed his hands in front of him. He looked down at the last page and then back up at the coppersmith for a long moment, the story hanging in the air between the two.
“Tell me more about the dwarves. We’ve interviewed many people here in Bad Wildungen and they all describe them the same way: seven little men with pointed hoods who work under the mountains. Tell me more about them.”
“It’s the miners, sir. The ones that work here in the mountain, Berg Freiheit. They take them as children, when they’re only maybe fourteen. It’s on account of how tight the tunnels are that they stay so small. Lay on their backs and inch through there, they have to. They never get any normal exercise during the day. Don’t hardly even stand, so their muscles get all slack and they can’t even stand straight right. And they get up so early, they don’t see the light of day. It’s the mines that keeps them so small, small as dwarves.”
He lifted his chin in the direction of the Fachwerk houses across the street. “They board together in many of the houses here – three, four, five, maybe more to a room.”
“Even seven?” Jakob asked absently, still struggling to imagine life in the mines themselves.
“Can be. They leave their families young to live and work together.”
Dwarves’ dining room and miner caps
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
Berg Freiheit town
Fortunately such a boarding house and even the mines can be visited leisurely and of visitors’ own free will in this day and age. The Schneewittchen Haus is more house than museum, adorably decorated in keeping with the fairy tale and available for children’s birthday parties and other events. A short video in German explains the origins of the story and the history of the town. Across the street, another house holds a mining museum. Both museums and the mines have limited hours, so we were only able to make it to the Snow White house on this trip.
Finally on to Schwalmstadt…
Little Red Riding Hood
“I think we’re almost through these woods.”
“Are you sure? You said that an hour ago.”
“Trust me, Wilhelm. This time I see the witch’s tower ahead.”
“I wonder what tales the townsfolk of Schwalmstadt have in store for us here…”
We made it here too late in the day to visit the local culture and history museum, but the drive through the deep, dark woods and the charming architecture – though in various states of repair – were worth coming for.
We hope to make it to a few more of the towns along the Fairy Tale Route this fall, including Witzenhausen, home of the Frog Prince and its story-themed cake. It pays to keep an eye out along the route, as we came across quite a few surprises driving amid the sprawling farmlands. I wonder what the Brothers Grimm would make of all this…