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Happy Endings On The Fairy Tale Road

The Land of the Brothers Grimm Is for Adults in Search of Their Inner Child

March 18, 2001|SUSAN SPANO | Susan Spano, a Times travel writer, last wrote for the magazine about New York hotels

Clever Elsie," my favorite Grimms' fairy tale, is about a silly, slothful woman who won't change her ways. Her husband, Hans, catches her asleep near the field where he has sent her to work, so he throws a net woven with little bells over her head, goes home and locks the door. When she wakes up in the dark, she feels confused about where she is and who she is, and the bells don't help. Jingling, she goes home, raps on the window and asks if Elsie's there.

"Yes," Hans answers, "she is at home."

"Oh, dear," she cries, "then I am not Clever Elsie after all," and runs away, never to be heard of again.

My mother read this story to me when I was a child, and I loved it, because Elsie made me laugh. As time went on, I kept her in my heart, the way many people do with a fairy tale hero or heroine. She reminds me of my past, although the story scares me a little because she slipped so easily into the dark world of craziness.

Wilhelm Grimm, the younger of the two German brothers who collected and popularized stories like "Clever Elsie," wrote that fairy tales are full of "fragments of belief dating back to most ancient times, in which spiritual things are expressed in a figurative manner."

Folklorists and psychologists have devoted careers to picking apart the stories that the Grimms collected, trying to decipher their meaning and to determine whether some of them--like "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," about a town that loses all its children--may be based in fact.

For me, travel is a way of finding meaning, so last fall, I went to the region of north-central Germany where the Grimms lived and collected their tales, searching for the settings for stories like "Clever Elsie." There would be ducks and geese in the yards she passed, cobbled lanes leading to an old church, shops with strings of sausage and pumpernickel bread, farm fields bordered by forests and, in the distance, a castle on a hill, exactly like those in the pictures that adorned my childhood storybooks and the tourist brochures I amassed on the German Marchenstrasse, or Fairy Tale Road.

The Marchenstrasse runs for 400 miles from Frankfurt to Bremen (where, in "The Town Musicians," another Grimm story, a band of broken-down farm animals seeks its fortune). I covered the southern part of the tour from Frankfurt to Hanover, which promised the greatest concentration of fairy tale sites. There, hamlets with medieval half-timbered houses slumber in the soft folds of valleys, drained by beautiful rivers like the Weser and surrounded by carefully managed forests like Reinhardswald, where Sleeping Beauty is said to have dozed for a hundred years.

Of course, no one knows for sure where these stories really took place, because most are based on orally transmitted tales that predate dawn-of-history migrations into the area of central Europe that is now Germany. Scholarly Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm traced some of the stories in their landmark "Nursery and Household Tales," published in 1812, to Charles Perrault's 17th century "Tales of Mother Goose," which, in turn, is thought to have tapped sources such as the "Arabian Nights" that date to 10th century India and Persia. But this hasn't stopped tourist offices in towns along the Marchenstrasse from claiming Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White as their own.

The Fairy Tale Road was inspired by myriad other German sightseeing routes; there's the Half-Timbered Road, the Hessian Cider Road and the Romantic Road. By comparison, the Marchenstrasse is poorly marked and disorganized, not so much one road as a welter of them. Travelers who take multilane autobahns get from Frankfurt to Hanover faster with less chance of going astray but miss the villages and hill country vistas that guidebooks and Marchenstrasse brochures advise fairy tale pilgrims to see.

I arrived in Frankfurt in early October last year to spend five days driving the Marchenstrasse. I don't recommend this trip for little ones, because, apart from summertime puppet theaters and the occasional "leisure" and "aqua" parks, there are no Disney-esque magic castles along the way. This is a trip for adults in search of their inner children--adults with lots of patience and a good sense of direction, although even they are apt to get lost. I erred countless times on back roads that didn't seem to correspond to the markings on my map. I bought more detailed maps and got lost again.

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