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SPECIAL TRAVEL ISSUE | Cover Story

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

I reached Kassel after dark. The city where the Grimms lived in the early part of the 19th century is now sprawling and modern; most of its historic sections were leveled during World War II. But there I found the little Hotel Garni Ko 78, with a cheerful single overlooking a garden.

Here I met a man from Frankfurt who said his mother wouldn't read him the Grimms' tales when he was a boy. This is hardly surprising. Just after the war, Allied occupying forces banned "Nursery and Household Tales" in several German cities because the collection was thought to reflect the nation's proclivity for cruelty and violence.

The Museum of the Brothers Grimm is in a dignified lemon yellow mansion built in 1714 that overlooks the wide Baroque park at the center of Kassel. It has family mementos, including Wilhelm's 1804 report card, neatly penned letters Jacob wrote to his family when he was a university student in nearby Marburg, a drawing of storyteller Dorothea Viehmann and a whole floor of displays on how the tales were illustrated over the years.

Beyond the museum, little remains of the Grimms in Kassel. But I was glad I spent part of the day at Schloss Wilhemshohe, a magnificent 18th century royal palace museum just west of town, surrounded by cafes, gardens, lakes and fountains, architectural curios such as an ersatz medieval castle, forests with well-maintained paths and sweeping lawns where lovers picnic and children tussle.

Soon, though, I had to move on, because my goal that night was about 50 miles north of Kassel, in the hamlet of Sababurg, ringed by a game park and the ancient forest of Reinhardswald. The road there led past lovely Munden, with its 650-year-old bridge, and along the west bank of the graceful Weser River. As I approached Sababurg and caught sight of its castle-hotel nestled in the treetops, I gave in to fairy tale fantasizing, knowing that I'd rest that night in a turret room like the one where the Sleeping Beauty of my childhood slumbered. For me, she isn't the talisman that Clever Elsie is, but like many women, I suspect, I've always harbored a little hope that I'd someday be awakened by the kiss of a handsome prince.

*

I got no such kiss, but I still wasn't disappointed. With its twin-steepled towers and old vine-laced stone walls, the castle-hotel captures the spirit of the Sleeping Beauty tale and seems to be waiting for the narcoleptic spell to break. It was originally built in 1334, then fell to ruin, was rebuilt as a hunting lodge in 1522 and finally opened as an elegant country inn in 1960. Inside is a restaurant that specializes in such dishes as venison soup, guinea fowl and plum tart with cinnamon sauce (perfectly accompanied by a tasting menu of German wines specially selected for each course).

To reach my room, I had to walk up a flight of stone steps, down a carpeted hall and around a spiral staircase decorated with hunting prints and an antique spinning wheel. My room was small but pretty, with matching yellow curtains and bedspread and a bay window where I watched the sun set over the fairy-tale forest.

It was raining when I woke the next morning, but that didn't stop me from taking a walk around the game park, where I heard boars grunting in a pen and the sound of chain saws in the distance. On the drive out of the woods to Route 83, which would lead me eventually to the handsome spa town of Bad Karlshafen, Hameln and, finally, Hanover, I stopped in Trendelburg, which has a castle with a tower like the one where Rapunzel was locked. In the earliest Grimm version of the story, it's fairly clear that the prince who visited her by climbing her tresses got her pregnant. ("Tell me, Godmother," Rapunzel says to the witch after repeated trysts with the prince, "why my clothes are so tight and why they don't fit me any longer.")

Bettelheim found intimations of sex in the kisses of handsome princes and evidence of first menses in needle pricks. But he says nothing about the mysterious flute-playing kidnapper in "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," from the Grimms' "German Legends." This is probably because "The Pied Piper" is more a folk tale than a fairy story, rooted in history and place. In an ancient manuscript that dates the tale to 1284, a man with a pipe was said to have lured away 130 children.

Now spelled "Hameln," the town has an astonishing collection of elaborately decorated half-timbered structures, including the Hotel zur Krone, where I stayed for a night, and its neighbor, the early 17th century "Rat Catcher's House," which got its name because of an inscription in its stone facade identifying the alleyway beside it as the route through which the children were abducted.

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