February 12, 2012

DOES ONE REALLY GO TO GERMANY LOOKING FOR WHIMSY?:

A Whimsical Journey on the Brothers Grimm's Fairy-Tale Road: Once upon a time, the Fairy-Tale Road north of Frankfurt was known as a kitsch- and schnitzel-strewn diversion. On the bicentennial of the Brothers Grimm's first volume of stories, Raphael Kadushin follows the bread crumbs and discovers one of Germany's most underrated pastoral dreamscapes (plus what might really have happened to those lost children of Hameln . . .) (RAPHAEL KADUSHIN, FEBRUARY 2012, Conde Nast Traveler)

The fear was still haunting enough to make me pause before opting to drive the official Fairy-Tale Road. The route, often dismissed as the gooey epicenter of Teutonic kitsch, is worth reconsidering. Twisting approximately 370 pastoral miles north of Frankfurt, mostly through the back roads of Hesse and Lower Saxony, before petering out in Bremen, it reveals one of the most underrated pockets of a German dreamscape. And there is no better time to go: 2012 is the bicentennial of volume one of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's Children's and Household Tales, the collection that includes Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, The Pied Piper of Hameln, Snow White, and Rapunzel and which launched the Grimms' lifework as aggregators of fables. The route follows both the trail of the brothers' evolving careers and the tales themselves. If the villages and castles (some now converted, timed to the bicentennial, into chic schloss hotels) look twee enough to inspire fairy tales--the pitch made by every European pit stop boasting a thatched cottage or two--this time, at least, you know the claim is justified. That adds its own kind of gravitas. The winding backdrop for so many of our earliest shared stories and nightmares is an example of that thing travelers always hunt for: the place as bona fide muse.

SO I SET OUT, on a cloudless mid-July day, nerves steady. Behind me was Frankfurt, the shiny, largely rebuilt city, as anodyne and familiar as a strip mall, and ahead was the same scary trip all lost boys and girls make--and the proof you shouldn't leave home--into the bramble, the forest, the strange place. At least I was seasoned enough to know that every journey features its own bogeyman or two, even if it's just the stranger in the window seat next to you unwrapping a really big sub sandwich. My first stop, in Steinau, was an apt start to the route, because it began with the storytellers themselves.

Fittingly, Steinau is picture-book ready; it's mostly a one-street town framed by half-timbered houses that leave you wondering how any of the region's forests are still standing. While the brothers were born just south, in Hanau (Jacob in 1785, Wilhelm in 1786), this is the town where they moved as young boys and that they would remember most lovingly. It's easy to see why. Their childhood home--the recently renovated Brüder-Grimm-Haus museum--is a sprawling manor sprouting one small aspiring tower.

"The brothers were unfortunate," Burkhard Kling, the museum director, told me as we toured the house. "Their father had a high court position as a magistrate, but when he died, in 1796, their childhood was finished." Exiled from their happy household, they literally wound up in the town poorhouse, just next door.

Fortunately, the museum isn't a study in gloom. True, downstairs there is the restored kitchen with an open oven big enough to spit-roast some kids, but otherwise the house is a cabinet of curiosities that reads like an homage to the brothers' coming success. There is a gallery of foreign translations of the tales, a contemporary David Hockney edition, and a collection of storybook toys that includes a Little Red Riding Hood doll kitted out like a goth vamp in scarlet miniskirt.

After the poorhouse, the brothers surfaced an hour north in Kassel, where they lived for almost thirty years, working partly as court librarians. En route I was looking for the brewery and tavern Brauhaus Knallhütte, and the address was vague. That's true of a lot of Fairy-Tale Road addresses, which tend to forgo street numbers for the lyrical "schloss under the oak tree" approach, which approximates a treasure hunt.

Inside the Brauhaus I discovered a lumberyard of beams--ceiling beams, wall beams, beams apparently supporting nothing but other beams--and maybe the only men's room on the planet featuring framed fairy-tale illustrations hanging above the urinal. The menu, like most along the route, is a traditional roll-call of all the schnitzels, Wiener to apple, and brats (clearly I could have stayed home in the Midwest) plus some flourishes. There are beer-infused offerings (start with beer goulash, end with beer tiramisu), and you can special-order a Cinderella meal that includes a baked potato carved into the shape of a slipper. Most people stop at the Brauhaus Knallhütte for the sense of history, because the inn is where one of the Grimms' top fairy-tale suppliers, Dorothea Viehmann, was born, in 1755. Serving mugs of beer in the family pub, she grew up listening to the fables of tradesmen, soldiers, and peasants, which she later brought to the brothers.

This occasionally made for rawer versions of stories like Cinderella, which is fairly genteel in the Gallic, Perrault rendition but takes a macabre turn in the German telling. Forget dainty French girls. The Grimms' stepsisters, who slice off a toe and a chunk of heel to squeeze into their bloodbath of a slipper, are the kind of muscular Hessians who get the job done with the can-do spirit that can plant a field fast. They're still standing at Cinderella's wedding--stoically hemorrhaging, like the world's worst bridesmaids, even after pigeons pluck out their eyes.
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Posted by at February 12, 2012 9:32 AM
  

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