We all grew up with them – fairy tales filled with princes and princesses, castles, evil stepmothers, children venturing into the woods, and big scary wolves. Standing at the edge of a forest along Germany’s Fairy Tale Route surrounded by dense canopies of dark towering evergreens, I fully expected to see Little Red Riding Hood skipping along to Grandma’s house with the big bad wolf lurking somewhere behind a tree. This is a place where fairy tales come to life.
The German Fairy Tale Route stretches 375 miles winding through a landscape of picturesque villages, fortified castles, and sinister forests as it follows the footsteps of the Brothers Grimm. I started my travels in the university town of Marburg where Jacob and Wilheim Grimm studied in the early 19th century. Marburg served as the inspiration for the brothers’ idea to collect the fairy tales ultimately published in The Brothers Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales which has become one of the world’s most famous books from German cultural history.
As we walked the narrow alleys of Marburg’s medieval center, we discovered fairy tale statues and sculptures on houses, steps and walls. There was a statue of the Frog-King, Red Riding Hood’s basket and cape, and the wicked step-mother’s mirror from Snow White. Perched high above the town on the climb up to the imposing Landgrave Palace we found Cinderella’s slipper.
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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Next stop was Snow White’s cozy house in the tiny hilltop village of Bergfreiheit. Inside there were seven little beds, seven little hats hanging on a rack, and place settings for seven with – you guessed it, seven little chairs.
The story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was inspired by a true story of a local beauty, Margaretha von Waldeck, the daughter of Count Philip IV who lived in the Baroque hilltop castle, Friedrichstein. She died young – presumably poisoned – and her brother founded the mining village of Bergfreiheit. The seven dwarfs were real too, but they were actually children who worked in the local copper mines centuries ago.
We left the tiny little house behind to visit the copper mine where the dwarfs went when they set off each day singing “Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go.” And wouldn’t you know it, crossing the meadow between the village and the mine were statues of those seven little guys.
Hanging out with Mother Hulda
In one of the best-known fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, Mother Hulda shook the beds from her mountain, the High Meissner, which then snowed feathers down on the earth covering the village of Hessian Lichtenau. The fairy tales, myths and legends about Mother Hulda still come alive here. In fact, Mother Hulda herself greeted us (pillow in hand) when we arrived in the charming village. It’s not every day that I walk around with a fairy tale character through a village filled with iconic half-timbered houses, a 17th century old city hall and an early 15th century Gothic town church. The entire experience was a bit surreal – but utterly enchanting.
Castle of the Sleeping Beauty
When I was shown to my room in the tower of Sababurg Castle where a four poster bed with a wooden canopy filled with tiny little star lights awaited I felt like a princess. Located in the forest of Reinhardswald, Sababurg Castle was built over 675 years ago. It stood in ruins covered by a thorny hedge for several years in the 16th century when it was named “Castle of the Sleeping Beauty”. Today, the castles houses a romantic hotel, a café that serving homemade baked goods, and a gourmet restaurant that focuses on locally sourced cuisine. Healthy options for kids are abundant at a realistic price.
Throughout the castle grounds the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale is illustrated with steel cuttings. And the medieval castle garden is filled with historic roses, tulips, shrubs and herbs. Theatre plays, lectures, and concerts are staged in the medieval vaulted cellar and on the open air stage in the inner court of the castle ruins. We even had an audience with Sleeping Beauty and her Prince!
City of the Brothers Grimm
The city of Kassel is the capital of the German Fairy Tale Route and the Brothers Grimm. The brothers lived in Kassel for much of their lives and it was here that they collected, documented and revised more than 200 fairy tales. The Brothers Grimm Museum chronicles their lives and work and has on display their personal copies of the Tales of Children and the Home with notes and comments – part of the world document heritage of UNESCO. In summer, there is a Brothers Grimm Festival and a fairytale Christmas fair in winter. Kassel is also home to the UNESCO Word Cultural Heritage site, Wilhelmshöhe Mountain Park with its iconic statue of Hercules and magnificent cascading water displays.
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Germany’s Fairy Tale Route was designed for children – and I would have loved to have my grandkids along – but it is so charming even adults will start believing in happily ever after.