Germany really is a fairytale land. The Grimm Brothers dedicated their lives to collecting German folk tales and weaving them into tales that have been a part of children’s bedtimes around the world for centuries. Germany still proudly celebrates the Brothers’ gift for storytelling all along its Fairy Tale Route. It is believed that they drew inspiration for their magical stories from their surroundings: places across Germany where they were born, spent their formative years, studied and worked.
When, lo! as they reached the mountain-side,
A wondrous portal opened wide,
As if a cavern was suddenly hollowed;
And the Piper advanced and the children followed,
And when all were in to the very last,
The door in the mountain-side shut fast.
Robert Browning, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin: A Child’s Story”
These verses, which send shivers down the spine of many children across the world, are believed to be based on a real-life incident from the town of Hamelin in Lower Saxony, Germany. A chilling chronicle of Hamelin from 1384 states, “It is 100 years since our children left.” Also, several accounts indicate that the image of a piper being followed by children was depicted in a church stained glass in Hamelin in the 1300s. The church was destroyed in 1660, and the window was later reconstructed based on historical accounts. In 2009, Hamelin marked the 725th anniversary of losing its children and marks every June 26 as Rat Catcher’s Day. Visitors in Hamelin can expect to find an array of rat-themed merchandise and pied piper-themed restaurants and statues.
“Oh! Grandmother,’ she said, “what big ears you have!”
Which child’s heart has not thumped as Little Red Riding Hood encountered the big, bad wolf while bringing cakes to her ill grandmother? The image of Red Riding Hood seems to have been inspired by the women of Schwälmer Land, who traditionally wore headscarves known as Schwälmer Tracht. Even today, during folk festivals, carnivals, and processions, the women of Schwälmer Land sport these headdresses in a variety of colors.
Legend insists that the Grimm Brothers drew inspiration for the tale of “Hansel and Gretel” from the impenetrable Black Forest. When visiting the forest, it is easy to believe that this is true. The dense, dark forest does seem like the perfect setting for two children to get hopelessly lost and encounter an evil witch. Moreover, the Great Famine and Black Death that plagued Europe in the 14th century and caused catastrophic starvation and death do make sense as a backdrop for the story of the poor woodcutter who couldn’t afford to feed his children, and the kids who were so hungry that they could eat a house.
“Nibble, nibble, gnaw,
Who is nibbling at my little house?”
The children answered:
“The wind, the wind,
The heaven-born wind.”
By the Edersee, the spa resort of Bad Wildungen, with rows of half-timbered houses and leafy avenues, is the hometown of the real-life Snow White, Margaretha von Waldeck. She was born in 1553 to the Count of Waldeck-Wildungen and grew up in the baroque castle Friedrichstein that still towers over the perfectly preserved medieval town. When she was 16, she is believed to have been driven out of her home by her evil stepmother, after which she fled to Brussels. Soon after, the future king of Spain, Phillip II, fell in love with her. She died of poisoning at the age of 21. Though nothing was ever proven, it is commonly believed that the royal family poisoned her as she was not considered to be a worthy bride for the future king.
Margaretha’s brother owned the local copper mine, just as Snow White’s family was associated with mining. The dwarves in the story are believed to allude to either child laborers or the poor mine workers whose growth was stunted because of poor nutrition.
Lohr am Main
Will the real Snow White please stand up? As an alternative theory, some believe that the tale of Snow White was based on the life of Maria Sophia Margaretha Catherina von Erthal, who was born in Lohr am Main, Bavaria, in 1729. Legend goes that she was much loved by the people of her town for her kindness and generosity, but loathed by her stepmother for her partial blindness. Sophia was blond like Snow White in the story, and died very young. Her last written records show a tremor, which is widely believed to have been caused by poisoning. The ‘magic mirror’, which may have been a present from Sophia’s father to her stepmother, is still on display at Lohr Castle.
“Thus it happened that the hedgehog ran the hare to death on the Buxtehude Heath, and since that time no hare has agreed to enter a race with a hedgehog.”
If you thought that Buxtehude, the setting for the popular fairytale “The Hare and the Hedgehog,” was a fictitious land, we have news for you. Buxtehude is very much a real town, and it’s in Lower Saxony, Germany. Though overshadowed by its glamorous neighbors, Bremen and Hamburg, this quaint town’s maritime charm is undeniable.
“Go with us to Bremen. You are good at making music at night; you can become a town musician.”
One of the most loved Grimm fairy tales, “The Bremen Town Musicians,” is based in the tourist hotspot Bremen, northwest Germany. Situated next to the town hall, the bronze sculpture of the Bremen Town Musicians – the donkey, the dog, the cat, and the rooster – is still one of the most-photographed landmarks in Bremen.
The Grimm Brothers went to school in the quaint university of town of Marburg from 1802 to 1806, and the town undoubtedly inspired the authors and weaved its way into their tales. The well-known painter Otto Ubbelohde (1867–1922), who is credited with illustrating the Grimm fairy tales, also drew inspiration from this town. Even a cursory glance at Marburg makes it clear why. The majestic Marburg Landgrave Palace, its medieval charm, the rows of adorable half-timbered houses and narrow alleys add up to a perfect setting for fairy tales. Even today, travelers can experience this fairy-tale town almost just as the Grimm Brothers left it.
When Snow White, instead of being murdered as her stepmother’s wished, was left to her fate in the forest by a kind court worker, she journeyed on foot across the forest, ending up at the dwarves’ abode. Her escape route is believed to be inspired by the 22-mile (35-kilometer) path along the Spessart mountain range, wrapped all around by one of the largest deciduous forest areas in the country. Today, visitors can hike along Snow White’s footsteps by following a well-marked pathway.
The Trendelburg Fortress, crowning a hilltop in the charming town of Trendelburg, apparently inspired the Grimm Brothers’ amazing tale of Rapunzel. This 700-year-old tower, complete with a solitary window high up near the top, would convince any visitor that it is true. Today, the tower is a hotel, spa, and restaurant, but most parts of it have been preserved in their original condition.
Steinweg 1, 34388 Trendelburg, +49 056759090
Sababurg Castle is a an almost 700-year-old castle in the hilly forests of the county of Kassel. It is said that the Grimm Brothers’ depiction of the castle in “Sleeping Beauty” was inspired by the Sababurg Castle. The castle was left in ruins for many years, until it was restored and opened as a hotel in 1957. Today, buzzing with merry crowds, cafes, and restaurants, the ancient castle really seems to have been kissed awake from its slumber.
Sababurg 12, 34369 Hofgeismar, +49 056718080
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