The town has hardly forgotten the Pied Piper. Shops along the main street sell ratcatcher key chains and pastries. In the summer, actors perform the Pied Piper story on the square, and several times a day, all year long, a mechanical piper emerges on the west facade of the town office building, a Renaissance whirligig known as the "Wedding House," to lure away the town's kids.
Scholars have suggested that Hameln's little ones may have been wooed away by an agent of the Count of Schaumburg, seeking colonists for new territories in Moravia; that they were the underage knights and pilgrims of one of the Children's Crusades of the Middle Ages; and that they were victims of a St. Vitus' Dance plague that made its sufferers shake so hard it looked as though they were dancing. The tale has it that they were spirited away because the town failed to pay the piper for exterminating its rats. The lesson of the story is clear: What would the world be like without children?
And what would it be like without fairy tales, which continue to resist easy analysis and, as I discovered, are hard to pin to a place?
Driving the Marchenstrasse was frustrating, because I expected to find places that don't exist. Still, it was right for me to go into the woods, where I came to understand that, no matter how much I identify with Elsie, I don't have to meet the same fate. I will never run from house to house looking for myself, because I know who I am, even if I sometimes get lost.
"This is exactly the message that fairy tales get across," Bettelheim wrote, "that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of the human experience--but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious."
Following the German Fairy Tale Road
TELEPHONE NUMBERS AND PRICES: The country code for Germany is 49, followed by the appropriate city code: Hanau, 6181; Gelnhausen, 6051; Steinau, 6663; Kassel, 561; Sababurg, 5671; Hameln, 5151; Hanover, 511. Prices have been converted at $1 to 2.03 marks. Room rates are for a double, with private bath, for one night. Restaurant prices are for dinner for two, food only.
GETTING THERE: From LAX, nonstop service is available on Lufthansa, direct service is offered on Delta, and connecting service is available on United, American, Continental, Delta, USAirways, Swissair, KLM, Air France, British, Northwest, and Air Canada.
The Marchenstrasse is best explored by car. Major car rental agencies are at both the Frankfurt and Hanover airports.
WHERE TO STAY: Romantisches Hotel Burg-Muhle, Burgstrasse 2, Gelnhausen, telephone 820-50, fax 820-554, www.burgmuehle.de. Rates: $77, including breakfast. A charming, family-run inn with 42 rooms near the ruins of Barbarossa's palace.
Dornroschenschloss Sababurg, D-34369 Hofgeismar, tel. 80-80, fax 808-200, www.slh.com/sababurg. Rates: $125 to $195, including breakfast. "The Sleeping Beauty Castle," as a restaurant-inn, with a game park and theater (performances June through September).
Hotel Zur Krone, Osterstrasse 30, Hameln; tel. 90-70, fax 907-217. Rates: $84, including breakfast. Next door to the historic "Ratcatcher House," with 32 comfortable modern rooms in a building with a half-timbered facade.
In Kassel: Hotel Garni Ko 78, Kolnische Strasse 78, tel. 71-614, fax 17-982. Rates: $46 to $71, including breakfast. A modest but comfortable brick apartment-hotel on a pleasant, leafy street within walking distance of the main train station. Schloss Hotel Wilhelmshohe, Schlosspark 8, tel. 30-880, fax 30-884-28. Rates: $133, $80 on Saturday and Sunday. A modern casino-hotel with a pool and solarium on the grounds of Wilhelmshohe Palace.
WHERE TO EAT: Hotel Burg-Muhle, Gelnhausen, tel. 820-50. Cozy by candlelight with hearty portions of fish and meat; $30 to $40. Burgmannenhaus, Bruder Grimm Strasse 49, Steinau, tel. 5-084. A small 16th century inn serving German specialties such as chicken in Riesling sauce; $20 to $30. Dornroschenschloss Sababurg, tel. 80-80. Fine dining overlooking Reinhardswald forest with a menu featuring game and fish, seasonal prix-fixe selections and well-chosen German wines; $80 to $100.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: German National Tourist Office, 122 E. 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10168; tel. (212) 661-7200, fax (212) 661-7174, www.germany-tourism.de. Deutsche Mrchenstrasse, Konigsplatz 53, D-34117 Kassel, tel. 707-707, fax 707-7200, www.deutschemaerchenstrasse.de.