Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was a castle set in the midst of an immense and gloomy woodland of tall beeches and thousand-year-old oaks. The castle was famous for its Sleeping Beauty, and its walls were surrounded by roaming boar, bison and wolves (although the wolves were disappointingly reluctant to howl, having been fed only recently by a nice man with a tractor).
It was that time of year when the Sleeping Beauties (for yes, there were three of them) were being auditioned for the new season by the handsome Mercedes-driving prince (actually, not technically a prince, but the descendant of a count).
For the prince, whose name was Günther Koseck, the reality of fairy tale-assisted marketing necessitated a certain amount of leading lady turnover. “They have to always be young and beautiful,” he sighed, “and that means they have to be replaced occasionally.”
As you might have guessed by now, this is not the original Grimm fairy tale, but its modern manifestation as played out at Dornröschenschloss (which translates as “Sleeping Beauty’s castle”), which sits in the middle of Europe’s oldest rare-breeds wildlife park (hence the wolves and the bison) at Sababurg, in central Germany.
Koseck and his Sleeping Beauties (at Sababurg they re-enact the fairy tale every Sunday) are looking forward to a big summer. This is because 2012 marks the 200th anniversary of the first publication of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, according to some estimates the second-bestselling collection of stories in the world after the Bible. And Hollywood seems to have suddenly woken up to its perennial appeal, with the opening of Mirror Mirror (a Snow White remake starring Julia Roberts) and Snow White and the Huntsman, starring Charlize Theron, which follows in June.
Despite its more habitual identity as Europe’s economic powerhouse, Germany makes a surprisingly convincing fairy tale nation. Just 150 years ago this was a patchwork territory ruled over by scores of counts, barons, electors, landgraves and princes, all of whom had their castles. And while the stringent remodellings of the 20th century rendered some of the cities particularly prosaic and removed the aristocracy, some of their landscapes remain.
A themed Fairy Tale Road, which runs north from just outside Frankfurt up to Bremen, cherry-picks the best, unlocking a seductive world of frog princes and sword-fighting cats as it goes. Along its route, you can stay (in some style) in the very room from which Rapunzel was depicted as letting her hair down, and sleep in the tower where Sleeping Beauty supposedly pricked her finger.
The route is pinned to the biography of the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who were born at its southern end, just outside Frankfurt, and whose life stories and careers progress conveniently northwards thereafter.
In 1791, when the boys were five and six respectively, the family Grimm moved from their birthplace in Hanau to the sleepy, half-timbered town of Steinau, whose cobbled yards have barely changed since then. Their father was the local lawyer and administrator, their grandfather the town priest, and they went to school just off the main square, which is still surrounded by 16th-century buildings. The old judicial house where Grimm senior presided and the junior Grimms played, is now a museum with dioramas of the best-loved stories.
Not that the Grimms had a particularly fairy tale childhood. Their father died young, and their mother found herself suddenly too poor to keep all five of her children, so she dispatched the eldest, Jacob and Wilhelm, to live with her sister in Kassel, where she had a position as a lady-in-waiting in the elector’s court.
Moving north up the Fairy Tale Road, you next meet the Grimms in Marburg, a lovely half-timbered university town built on a hill that rears up above the river Lahn. This was the home to the first Lutheran university in Germany, and today every fourth person here is a student. They still live in the wonky-floored, low-ceilinged, half-timbered houses that the Grimms occupied, and still spill out on to the stepped streets, loiter under the yawning gables, and flood the 300 pubs.
Thanks to a scholarship secured by their court-connected auntie, the Grimms came to Marburg as law students, but were distracted by the study of words, and it was here they started to collect and record what they called their “household tales”.
The large part of the rest of their career was spent in Kassel, north again from Marburg, a city that couldn’t look less like a fairy tale if it tried, having been heavily bombed in the second world war, and all-too-hastily rebuilt since.
Working first as librarians, then as professors, and almost always together, the brothers produced more than 700 publications. The study of language (and creation of a dictionary) was their main focus, but it was their fairy tale collection that made them famous.
Today Kassel has a (rather dry) Brothers Grimm Museum, which details the length and breadth of their output – but there’s another reason for coming here this year, as in June the city hosts Documenta, one of the world’s largest modern art shows, which takes place every five years.
So much for the key towns. Much of the true charm of the Fairy Tale Road lies in the villages and the countryside along the back roads, in a land where hills are almost invariably castle-topped, surrounded by skirts of forest and laced with waterways. This is where you can find some really enchanting places to stay.
Thus, in Waldeck, the Hotel Schloss Waldeck lords it over the mystical Edersee, and comes complete with a spa and a gourmet restaurant where lobster and goose are on the menu. The 1,000-year-old castle did time as a prison, but it is now all chic and boutiquey on the inside, while on the outside the Unesco-registered Kellerwald forest rumbles on and on over the hills as far as the eye can see.
Meanwhile, in sleepy Trendelburg, another hour north, the 700-year-old Hotel Burg Trendelburg has gone in the opposite direction, choosing to keep antiquity in every room, with modern bathrooms hidden away in cupboards. There are rose petals on the pillows, and you can stay here in Rapunzel’s tower, so called because it was the model for the illustrations in the early editions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
After Trendelburg comes the Urwald section of the giant Reinhardswald forest, a place where you can really suspend your disbelief while wandering through a cathedral of beech trees and giant anthropomorphically shaped oaks. Then there’s the Dornröschenschloss, which has stylish hotel rooms in the towers. While there’s little actual proof that this is where the Sleeping Beauty story originated (the nature of fairy tales means hard facts are in short supply), the castle’s proximity to the Grimms’ home in Kassel and its appearance – by the early 19th century it had fallen into disrepair, and was covered in ivy, lost in thorny thicket – led early readers of the brothers’ story to assume that this was its setting.
But the apogee of Grimmery, the place where the fairy tale has truly become an economic force in its own right, is Hamelin, due north of Sababurg, up the River Weser past the pretty town of Bodenwerder, where Baron Münchhausen told his tall tales.
It’s not often that a plague of rodents followed by mass child abduction becomes a major tourist attraction, but Hamelin has made a virtue out of its vermin-related story. The Pied Piper’s appeal is greatly helped by the town’s Weser-Renaissance architecture – half-timbered, littered with figurines and brightly painted woodcarvings – which looks like scenery specially designed for storytelling.
These days, the story lures more than a million tourists a year and the town’s bakeries are still infested with rats – albeit made of bread, chocolate or cake. Town restaurants offer such delicacies as rats’ tails (pork, sliced thin) washed down with Rattenkiller cocktails, and it even has a professional ratcatcher, in the form of American-born Michael Boyer, who makes some 600 appearances in costume in the average year. This rat-catching storyteller has four part-time understudies, and when he takes me on a tour of Hamelin he tells me there have been times when they’ve been so busy that all five have worked on the same day.
Boyer, who has his ear to the ground for all things rat-related, says there is talk of another movie to complement this year’s brace. A Pied Piper script has been written, he says, and is doing the rounds of the big studios in Los Angeles. But will it end with mass child abduction, as it does in the version recorded by the Grimms?
Unlikely. Being Hollywood, everyone will probably live happily ever after.
For information on the Fairy Tale Road, see www.deutsche-maerchenstrasse.com
Andrew Eames was a guest of Dertour1 which offers flights from London to Frankfurt, three days’ car hire, one night at Schloss Waldeck and one night at Dornröschenschloss Sababurg, on a bed and breakfast basis, from £449 per person