Once upon a time, a boy called Richard left his family and friends for a while and went out into the world, seeking fame, fortune and fun. He flew over the sea and landed in the city of Frankfurt, where people ate long sausages and drank beer from the largest glasses he had ever seen.
Just outside Frankfurt is a road, 400 miles long, winding through the countryside. People call it the Fairy Tale Road, and along it are towns where many adventures had begun, long, long ago.
The Brothers Grimm were born in Steinau, near Frankfurt. Their house is now a museum and for many visitors it’s the start of the Fairy Tale Road. Other towns along the road proudly spruik their fairytale credentials too. Any deep dark forest has to be the very one where Red Riding Hood got lost and any castle with a tower on top offers visitors the chance to rest very comfortably like Sleeping Beauty or let their hair down like Rapunzel.
Unfortunately I had no time for getting lost in forests and, although sleeping in castles is fine if they’re centrally heated, it can also be rather expensive.
Instead I cut to the chase and took a train to Hamelin, where the famous tale began in 1284. The area around Hamelin Station was anything but the stuff of fairytales – nondescript streets with Internet cafes and doner kebab shops.
Things became a little more fairytale-like as I entered the Altstadt or ‘Old City’. A line of white rats painted on the ground led me on a walk through wide squares and narrow lanes, where half timbered houses were covered with brightly coloured wooden carvings, and many had numbers over the door claiming they were hundreds of years old.
In the storybook, Hamelin’s rats were drowned in the River Weser, but they’ve sneaked back into the town since then. Pedlars sell rat-shaped cookies, and there are rat statues, rat fountains, rat toys, paintings and postcards, and nearly every building is called ‘rat’ something. There’s the Rat Catcher’s House, Rat Catcher’s Hall, Hotel Rat Catcher, and even the town hall where the mayor and corporation hold important meetings is called the ‘Rathaus’.
I walked out of the town along the River Weser where the rats had drowned. It was pleasant green countryside, and many of Hamelin’s citizens were riding their bicycles and exercising their dogs. But the sky grew dark and rain began to fall heavily, and soon I knew exactly how the rats must have felt.
So I turned back to the train station. ‘When does the train go to Bremen?’ I asked a little man in a blue jacket and red peaked cap. ‘At ten minutes to two precisely,’ said the man, with a twinkle in his eye. And, sure enough, it arrived on time, exactly as the little man had predicted.
You remember the Bremen story of course; donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster set out for Bremen to become musicians. In the storybook, the animals never reach the town, but there they are now in a particularly beautiful market square, standing on top of each other.
In front of the ornate town hall stands a giant statue, six hundred years old and several metres high, of Roland, the defender of Bremen, holding his unbreakable magic sword, Durendal.
An intriguing narrow lane called the Bottcherstrasse led away from the square. It looked really ancient, but when I googled it later, I learned that although some of the houses were old, it was developed into a museum street in 1926-30, with money donated by a burgher of Bremen, Dr Roselius, who made his fortune from the invention of decaffeinated coffee.
At last it was time to leave the Fairy Tale Road. Richard hadn’t yet found fame and fortune, but he had found fun. ‘One out of three is a start,’ he laughed, and went on his merry way, hoping to live happily ever after.
The best way to explore the Fairy Tale Road is by car, but trains run from Frankfurt to Hamelin and Bremen. Prices to either town start from EUR29 one way. For full fares and timetables, see bahn.de/international.
Staying there: Hotel zur Krone, Hamelin, has single/double rooms for EUR68/80 hotelzurkrone.de Hotel Bremer Haus, near Bremen station, has rooms for single/double EUR80/110. hotel-bremer-haus.de. Both hotels include breakfast.
Further information: hameln.com, bremen-tourism.de