A Modern Day Road Trip Through the Land of Grimm’s Fairy Tales
Sleeping Beauty’s castle, an enchanted forest, and medieval towns—welcome to the Germany of the brothers Grimm.
By Sloane Crosley
Photographs by Stefanie Moshammer
Illustrations by Bill Mayer
Once upon a time, in a tiny apartment in the west village of an island, there lived a woman who had not used her driver’s license for driving in two, maybe three years. She was content transporting herself around in underground tunnels, believing less in the myth of “magic” and more in the reality of “man-spreading.” Or so she thought. One day, an elaborate journey by the name of the German Fairy Tale Route came to her attention.
Zigzagging over 360 miles from central Germany to the North Sea, with 55 possible stops, the German Fairy Tale Route traces the biographical and fictional world of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. It includes the half-timbered houses where the brothers lived and studied, as well as the ivy-covered castles and “enchanted” forests in which many of their tales were set. The woman had long been fascinated by fairy tales — their meaning, their legacy, their ubiquity, their casual sexism — and marveled both at the notion that these tales had their roots in Google-able towns and that the German tourism board had succeeded in transforming the entire northwest quadrant of their country into a tourist attraction. With that, the spell was broken. The woman decided to indulge in a tour of childhood lore, board a plane to Frankfurt, and cease speaking about herself in the third person.
I don’t sleep on planes. Normally, this is a function of sitting at a 90-degree angle and breathing air drier than evaporated balsa wood, but in this case, it was a function of my plane reading: The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I’d never read the original tales, which were compiled by the Grimm brothers in the early 19th century, but I was aware of their darker-than-Disney overtones, especially as compared to the fables with which they are often lumped. The Grimm Brothers are to Hans Christian Andersen as DC is to Marvel. Marvel has plenty of bad guys, sure, but DC has the villains that comprise our schema of “villain.” Similarly, the Grimm stories are chockablock with abuse, neglect, and violence, whereas Hans Christian Andersen’s most infamous tales are “The Little Mermaid” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Fish and fashion? That’s cute. Call me when blood pours out of everyone’s shoes.
Because this is precisely what happens in the original Cinderella story. In an effort to fit into the slipper (left behind not because our heroine was harried but because the castle steps were covered in tar), one evil stepsister cuts off her own big toe. The other cuts off part of her heel. The prince knows the jig is up once he sees blood “streaming” from their feet. In the original tale of Snow White, the queen is made to dance in shoes of red-hot iron “until she dropped down dead.” Let no one accuse the Grimms of having a foot fetish. Or rather, let everyone? “The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces” and “The Boots of Buffalo-Leather” are two of their lesser-known tales. Sleeping Beauty has her origins in an Italian story featuring the rape of an unconscious woman and attempted cannibalism. Hansel and Gretel turn out to have sticky fingers for more than candy. Little Red Riding Hood’s story ends with a disemboweling and a drowning. And Rapunzel’s braid is a highway for a quid pro quo sexcapade.
The chasm between these stories of sex, misogyny, and violence (the first edition included “How Some Children Played at Slaughtering”) and the sanitized contemporary versions is our own doing. Through countless translations and adaptations, we have woven the Grimms’ harsh straw into palatable gold. I count myself as a cog in this mythologizing. As a child, I loved Snow White so purely that, as an adult, I maintained my innocent associations. During college, I dressed as Snow White for Halloween — and not “sexy” Snow White. I had a taxidermied bird perched on my shoulder and freshly poisoned blue lips. The distinction between the sweet iterations of the Grimms’ fairy tales and their more menacing cores is common knowledge. But that mix of light and dark can also be found in the origins of the tales themselves.
By setting foot in the village of Hanau, my first stop on the fairy-tale tour and the birthplace of the brothers Grimm, I could see how this dichotomy began. Hanau is lined with cream-colored houses crisscrossed with brown trim and ivy cascading over the roof, like bangs. It’s simultaneously adorable and sinister. Plus, I visited Hanau when Germany was still a World Cup contender, which meant the place was completely devoid of pedestrians, who were inside glued to television sets that could be heard in the distance.
I wandered up and down the main road in search of some old-school fairy-tale magic. To my delight, I didn’t have to look too hard. Hanau was full of hidden alleyways, worn staircases that lead to walled gardens, and stone crevices cut through with steady streams. You can’t help but get the sense that the Grimm brothers had a leg up — that you, too, would be a fairy-tale fanatic if you lived here. Later, I arrived at the main attraction — the Grimm brothers’ home in nearby Steinau. The stately Renaissance house, dating to 1562, has been transformed into an extensive Grimms museum, with the first floor arranged to replicate daily life — including a kitchen with meat hooks hanging from the hearth. The Grimm brothers lived cushy lives as the sons of the town magistrate until he died of pneumonia, plunging the family into poverty (which may help explain the brothers’ penchant for stories that pit princes against paupers). The second floor of the house is the crown jewel for fairy-tale lovers: Visitors are met with a wall of beautifully illuminated glass-encased dioramas. Each features a famous fairy-tale scene that looks like the result of a Joseph Cornell and Wes Anderson partnership. Around the corner are displays of foreign and vintage editions of the fairy tales, reminders of the global impact of the brothers Grimm.
As if anyone needs reminding. On the way to my Airbnb home in Kassel, the hub of the German Fairy Tale Route and where the brothers spent the majority of their lives, I stopped by Hanau-Wilhelmsbad State Park. Here I discovered a doll museum nestled in an Easter-egg-colored 18th-century arcade, a perfect emblem for the fairy tales themselves — cute on the outside, but you probably wouldn’t want to spend the night here. There were also small footbridges extending over a winding creek, and a vintage carousel perched on top of a hill. The horses were frozen in midair. Outside the carousel, a newlywed couple was having photos taken. The photographer kept counting to three, at which point the bride and groom were meant to jump, to be captured floating off the ground. How intimidating, I thought, to get married in this place, knowing that so many of our early impressions of romance originated in this very spot. These seemingly harmless vistas form the land that launched a million misconceptions.
And it’s not just the public parks that pulsate with fairy-tale lore. This is the land of the garden gnome, or, in some cases, the garden dwarf, the garden wolf, or the garden frog prince. These local flourishes border on kitsch. And yet there is something genuinely magical in the landscape itself. The buttery summer light slathers itself onto the red-roofed houses. Waving wheat fields cry out for an Instagram-friendly reenactment of Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World. Sure, such bucolic sights can be found in any European countryside. But what differentiates the German Fairy Tale Route is the presence of story — the very idea of fiction — everywhere one turns.
Here is a single red rose blooming from a trellis with no other roses in sight. Here is a perfectly creepy canopy of trees framing a dirt road. Here is a startled fox staring right at you from atop a hill, a lone falcon overhead, a graveyard with three tiny headstones, an orange-bellied bird tweeting from your windowsill. Life becomes a series of symbols here. The first time I saw a black cat with white paws standing in the middle of an empty town square, I didn’t think anything of it. But by the third town square and the third black cat with white paws? I started to feel as if I were being pranked by the ghosts of the Grimm brothers themselves.
The next morning I ran into Little Red Riding Hood. She was about three feet tall and standing in front of me in line at Streiter Bäckerei, a bakery in Kassel. A blond toddler in a white dress and red cape, she pointed at the display case, selecting glazed German cakes for a picnic (the German word for picnic is Picknick, so I got the gist) as her mother looked on. While the Grimms are ubiquitous, Kassel is not technically Little Red Riding Hood territory. Her alleged “house” is an hour south, in the town of Alsfeld, but earlier that morning I had gotten lost on the way there. The only big bad wolf I spotted was a golden retriever on a leash as my phone’s GPS petered out in the countryside. Not being in possession of bread crumbs, I wound up taking photos of forks in the road. Eventually, I gave up in favor of pastry and coffee closer to home.
I smiled at Little Red Riding Hood. Then I heard a bell chime. Her older sister, dressed as Cinderella, came charging through the bakery door. She shouted something at her sister that smacked of impatience. There were castles to see and towers to ascend! Tales before treats! The Fairy Tale Route is, for the most part, the terrain of European families — families with easier access to rural Germany and an inherently higher tolerance for road trips — but as such, it’s also a great alternative to Walt Disney World.
After all, what sweating princess or roller coaster ride can compete with the real town of Trendelburg, home to Rapunzel’s actual tower? The tower I had no trouble finding. Rising 131 feet into the air, it’s hard to miss. Even at a distance, one can see the braid of “hair” extending down from an open window like a stream of yellow drool. I slowed down at the sight of it, perhaps hoping to increase my own sense of drama. Here was a structure I had known all my life and yet had never seen. It didn’t hurt that I was listening to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” on the radio, which I would recommend for any fairy-tale-road-trip mix, second only to Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.”
The tower stages regular Rapunzel reenactments, but the braid is perpetually out, even in the off-season. On the drawbridge, you can buy a flattened coin stamped with the image of the tower or have your picture taken behind a wooden board with your face where Rapunzel’s might go. Like all things Grimm, such niceties are mostly for show. Dig a little deeper, and there’s pathos aplenty. Prior to its Grimm association, the bottom of the tower was a medieval torture chamber, replete with jails, racks (on which the body is stretched, the joints relieved of their bones), dungeons, and a “fear hole.” However, the view from the top, accessed through a winding staircase, is spectacularly picturesque. Squares of green farmland are dotted with wind turbines that jut up through distant forests. It inspires pangs of real estate envy. Which, I suppose, is a bit like being jealous of Rapunzel’s hair. Perhaps it’s not so delightful when it doubles as a ladder for the patriarchy?
Like almost all sites along the German Fairy Tale Route, the adjoining hotel has really leaned into its fairy-tale features. The lobby bathroom is festooned with wreaths of fake roses and a paper towel dispenser in the shape of a crown, covered in jewel-toned stickers. At first, I frowned at such flourishes. I found them cringey, cartoonish, and antithetical to the legitimacy of the route. But soon I began to understand them. If I owned a castle and were to turn my already-ancient property into a tourist attraction, adding passably medieval elements might come off as more disingenuous than putting a frog prince piggy bank in the toilet, along with a sign suggesting guests “feed it” 50 cents.
Sleeping Beauty’s 685-year-old castle in Sababurg had a similar effect. The long driveway leading up to it is dotted with Sleeping Beauty–themed lamps, fake swans, and a food truck serving hot dogs. But the castle itself is out of fairy-tale central casting. The grounds are surrounded by rosebushes and a wall with forest lookouts and strategically placed canopies. Over a grass-filled moat, the main tower is covered in ivy that moves with the wind, giving it the effect of lapping green waves. As I stood looking out over the dense Sababurg forest, it occurred to me that if I wanted to find some kitsch-free magic so badly, I had to stop looking up and start looking down.
Our entire schema of “the deep dark woods” can be traced back to the Grimms’ stories. Whether we are frightened during The Blair Witch Project, spooked by the first season of True Detective, or bemused by the Keebler Elves, the forest is where good and evil collide. No one in the Grimms’ world takes an uneventful stroll through the woods and comes out the other side. Ever.
A case in point: While trekking through the Sababurg forest, I felt both charmed and chilled. Trees that would have been saplings when the Grimm brothers were alive were festooned with gnarly moss-covered roots at the bottom and ecosystems of ferns and flowers protruding from their upper branches. Each one looked as if an actual fairy should emerge at any minute and offer me something magical. Like a portable cell phone charger. One hollow tree stump contained the core of an actual half-eaten apple. Granny Smith. But still.
Just around every bend were more menacing specimens, their arms growing at jaunty angles that cut a sharp silhouette against the sky. Many were surrounded by clearings of sunlight, and the larger trees were mapped out for those interested in an arborist’s treasure hunt. Each tree seemed as if it were being pointed to. Enchantment here. Inquire within. On my way out of the forest, I passed an elderly man with a walking stick in one hand and a child’s hand in the other. That is to say, he had his grandson in tow — even the Grimms aren’t that grim. We stopped briefly to say hello. The man commented on the beauty of the trees. I agreed. He asked me where I was headed next. When I told him my next stop was Marburg, he laughed and said, “Oh, this walk is nothing. You’ll get your exercise in Marburg.”
Marburg is the kind of university town that makes me wish for a second crack at college. Around every corner is a leafy wall and a jumble of Gothic architecture. It was here that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm studied law. And, presumably, it was here they got their calf muscles. Marburg consists of an elaborate labyrinth of hills, steps, and steep stone-covered alleyways. At the landing of a particularly vertical set of stairs, I stumbled upon Bulang & Zorn, an antiquarian bookshop. It had an early 1844 edition of the fairy tales, entitled German Mythology, for the bargain price of 220 euros, but seeing as how it was both 220 euros and in German, I left empty-handed. I kept walking up, huffing and puffing to my destination, the highest point in Marburg — Cinderella’s castle. Also known as the Landgrave Palace, it dates back to the 13th century. It, too, once served as a prison. Not that you’d know it from the outside.
The gardens surrounding the castle were both ornate and in bloom, the walls interrupted by tiny doors that led to more gardens. A lone raven pushed off a turret and soared into town. But Cinderella’s castle was a more pronounced version of Rapunzel’s tower. In lieu of a braid, a garish sculpture of a pink high heel greets visitors. And a giant papier-mâché-looking clock with crude gold hands has been attached to the top of the castle.
Longing once more for a little legitimacy, I plodded back into one of the town squares for lunch. I was seated at an outdoor table, translating casserole ingredients — I ordered an “Auflauf Karl Marx,” a bucket of cheese and spinach, and it would take a better Marx scholar than I to explain why — when I saw an unassuming plaque on the building directly across from me. I couldn’t believe my luck. This was where the Grimm brothers lived for the three years they were in Marburg. This was where they first began collecting tales. The plaque is the only sign of it. Today the building is flanked by a nail salon and a body-piercing parlor. Which, in a way, was the perfect Grimm tribute: princesses on one side, pain on the other.
That night my Airbnb provided me with an embarrassment of fairy-tale riches. Located deep in the woods in a compound of tepees and timber houses called “Outdoor Zentrum” was my “hobbit house.” This is how it was billed, and it was exactly as advertised. The entire property looks like what would happen to Big Sur’s Post Ranch Inn if they fired the groundskeeper. My own cedar-smelling, moss-roofed dome was dotted with skylights and accessed via a hexagonal door. Through an oblong window, at dusk, I saw Sanni, my host, wearing a Gandalf-like poncho and being trailed by two children, three goats, and an Australian shepherd dog. A peacock trotted by in the opposite direction.
The next morning, over a breakfast of rolls and Nutella, I asked Sanni’s 15-year-old son, Singa, about the darkness of the Grimms’ fairy tales. He shrugged it off.
“We grow up with the stories,” he said, “but look at Tom and Jerry. Kids watch that, and that’s really violent.”
“Tom and Jerry aren’t real people.”
“Are the Grimms’ people real people?”
He had a point. These folktales passed down from generation to generation had their roots in reality at some point. But when it came to the German Fairy Tale Route, how could one tell where inspiration stopped and tourism began? What made these stories feel so indelible that people wanted to experience their settings, even tangentially, even now? I suggested that maybe the reason these tales resonate with children is because they confirm their worst fears. Afraid there’s danger lurking around the corner? Oh, there is. And here is the size and shape of it. So you can go ahead and set yourself free from the terrors of the unknown.
“It’s just life,” Singa said, scraping up the last of the Nutella. “Life has darkness. That’s what makes it life.”
So true, I thought, and so very German.
As I drove away from the Outdoor Zentrum, I spotted a little blond boy, the son of one of the other guests. He climbed up onto a platform in the woods and confidently zip-lined through the trees. The line itself was invisible from a distance. In my rearview mirror, I watched this soaring little boy flying between the branches like something out of a story.
There is a line of graffiti on a brick wall as you drive into Hamelin that reads in English, Whatcha gonna do when you grow up? This is the question that beats in the heart of all fairy tales — what are we going to do when we have to make real choices between right and wrong, between our needs and the needs of others, all while contending with aging, jealousy, sex, and death? But it was strange to see these words in Hamelin, of all places, because Hamelin’s fairy tale has none of that. Hamelin is Pied Piper country. Legend has it the Pied Piper was hired to lure rats out of Hamelin but was stiffed for his services, so he returned a year later and drove all the children out of town. Because the Pied Piper does not feature a single landmark or princess, one would think Hamelin would be a bit handicapped within the fairy-tale industrial complex. On the contrary, the town has leaned into its Grimm DNA like no other. The streets are literally paved with rats — golden rats are embossed on the occasional cobblestone. The local gourmet candy shop, Arko, sells gummy rats, marshmallow rats, and black licorice rats, along with Rattenkiller, a 100-proof spirit meant to be set ablaze.
Every Wednesday in the summer, the town stages a full-scale rat musical in the central square. I had not been expecting much in the way of production value from Rats: Das Musical, but it turned out to be a blissful way to spend an hour, gnawing the face off a marzipan rodent. There were rotating sets, a full cast, an original score, and, naturally, rat puppets. Afterward, I took a group tour of Hamelin with the Rat King, the star of the show. He stayed in costume, which consisted of a plush rat tail that dragged on the ground and a pair of steampunk rat goggles. A known character in the community, he bantered with locals as we passed through 17th-century tunnels. Occasionally, the distinctive tone of a dad joke pierced through the German-language-only tour. But halfway through, I gave up, peeling off from the crowd. I decided to drive myself out of town. Which, I figured, was the truest Pied Piper reenactment possible.
That night, I found myself unable to sleep. My lodging for the evening was in a large but low-ceilinged 500-plus-year-old house right in the center of nearby Warburg. I stayed in the bedroom of Karolina, the owner’s teenage daughter, where I lay under a pink comforter, staring at her tea set on the shelf and thinking abstractly of childhood. Eventually I gave up on unconsciousness. I got up to meander through the streets of town beneath a full moon. I came to a still fountain, threw a coin into it, and made a wish. In the eerie silence, the sound of the coin plunking into the water reverberated between stone walls. Just before midnight, I hiked up to the church in the center of town and listened to the bells chime. Two bats zoomed in and out of a tower in the distance. Even if the magic of the Grimms’ fairy tales was never there, even if they were never populated by “real” people, the topography was true. What one starts to realize, if one explores enough twisting paths in enough northern German villages, is that these tales are not merely tales — they are maps. That tower in the forest? That castle on a hill? These are all directions as much as they are descriptions. They are the blueprints of our childhoods, the way to find magic, so long as you’re willing to seek it out.
And with that, she walked home, led by a lone black cat with white paws.
About the author: Sloane Crosley is the author of The New York Times bestselling essay collections I Was Told There’d Be Cake and How Did You Get This Number as well as Look Alive Out There, and the novel, The Clasp. Her work has appeared in Esquire, Elle, GQ, Vogue, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, New York Magazine, The Believer, and Vice and on National Public Radio. She served as editor of The Best American Travel Writing series and is featured in The Library of America’s 50 Funniest American Writers and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. Find her on Twitter.