HAPPY ENDINGS ON THE FAIRY TALE ROAD

Susan Spano, a Times travel writer, last wrote for the magazine about New York hotels

Clever Elsie," my favorite Grimms' fairy tale, is about a silly, slothful woman who won't change her ways. Her husband, Hans, catches her asleep near the field where he has sent her to work, so he throws a net woven with little bells over her head, goes home and locks the door. When she wakes up in the dark, she feels confused about where she is and who she is, and the bells don't help. Jingling, she goes home, raps on the window and asks if Elsie's there.

"Yes," Hans answers, "she is at home."

"Oh, dear," she cries, "then I am not Clever Elsie after all," and runs away, never to be heard of again.

My mother read this story to me when I was a child, and I loved it, because Elsie made me laugh. As time went on, I kept her in my heart, the way many people do with a fairy tale hero or heroine. She reminds me of my past, although the story scares me a little because she slipped so easily into the dark world of craziness.

Wilhelm Grimm, the younger of the two German brothers who collected and popularized stories like "Clever Elsie," wrote that fairy tales are full of "fragments of belief dating back to most ancient times, in which spiritual things are expressed in a figurative manner."

Folklorists and psychologists have devoted careers to picking apart the stories that the Grimms collected, trying to decipher their meaning and to determine whether some of them--like "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," about a town that loses all its children--may be based in fact.

For me, travel is a way of finding meaning, so last fall, I went to the region of north-central Germany where the Grimms lived and collected their tales, searching for the settings for stories like "Clever Elsie." There would be ducks and geese in the yards she passed, cobbled lanes leading to an old church, shops with strings of sausage and pumpernickel bread, farm fields bordered by forests and, in the distance, a castle on a hill, exactly like those in the pictures that adorned my childhood storybooks and the tourist brochures I amassed on the German Marchenstrasse, or Fairy Tale Road.

The Marchenstrasse runs for 400 miles from Frankfurt to Bremen (where, in "The Town Musicians," another Grimm story, a band of broken-down farm animals seeks its fortune). I covered the southern part of the tour from Frankfurt to Hanover, which promised the greatest concentration of fairy tale sites. There, hamlets with medieval half-timbered houses slumber in the soft folds of valleys, drained by beautiful rivers like the Weser and surrounded by carefully managed forests like Reinhardswald, where Sleeping Beauty is said to have dozed for a hundred years.

Of course, no one knows for sure where these stories really took place, because most are based on orally transmitted tales that predate dawn-of-history migrations into the area of central Europe that is now Germany. Scholarly Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm traced some of the stories in their landmark "Nursery and Household Tales," published in 1812, to Charles Perrault's 17th century "Tales of Mother Goose," which, in turn, is thought to have tapped sources such as the "Arabian Nights" that date to 10th century India and Persia. But this hasn't stopped tourist offices in towns along the Marchenstrasse from claiming Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White as their own.

The Fairy Tale Road was inspired by myriad other German sightseeing routes; there's the Half-Timbered Road, the Hessian Cider Road and the Romantic Road. By comparison, the Marchenstrasse is poorly marked and disorganized, not so much one road as a welter of them. Travelers who take multilane autobahns get from Frankfurt to Hanover faster with less chance of going astray but miss the villages and hill country vistas that guidebooks and Marchenstrasse brochures advise fairy tale pilgrims to see.

I arrived in Frankfurt in early October last year to spend five days driving the Marchenstrasse. I don't recommend this trip for little ones, because, apart from summertime puppet theaters and the occasional "leisure" and "aqua" parks, there are no Disney-esque magic castles along the way. This is a trip for adults in search of their inner children--adults with lots of patience and a good sense of direction, although even they are apt to get lost. I erred countless times on back roads that didn't seem to correspond to the markings on my map. I bought more detailed maps and got lost again.

Between the towns of Alsfeld and Kassel, about halfway through my drive, I found myself in the village of Sondheim, which reminded me of the theme song from Stephen Sondheim's 1987 musical about fairy tales, "Into the Woods." It has such lyrics as, "Into the woods, and down the dell; the path is straight, I know it well." Humming it helped stem my aggravation, and gradually I came to understand that getting lost was an important part of the program, just as it was for the characters in the Grimms' tales and the Sondheim musical: You have to get lost in the woods to find out anything about who you are and the road you should take through life, both seem to say. Better still to be led there by a fairy tale character like Elsie, who, crazy though she was, I can't help but follow.

*

I started in Hanau, 10 miles east of Frankfurt, where Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born in 1785 and 1786, respectively, to the fiercely patriotic town clerk and lawyer Philipp Wilhelm Grimm and his wife, Dorothea. Hanau is now more a modern city suburb than the prim town it must have been in the late 18th century, when Napoleon was building an army in France that would soon overrun Europe and the Grimms' little home duchy of Hesse-Cassel.

Hanau has a wide-open marketplace bordered by an 18th century town hall, shops and cafes, where I had my first bratwurst and beer of the trip and gazed at my first statue of the Brothers Grimm: Jacob, seated with a book in his hands, and Wilhelm, reading over his sibling's shoulder. The bronze captures the spirit of loving brotherhood and collaboration that, by all accounts, lasted throughout their lives, culminating not just in their beloved collection of fairy tales but also in groundbreaking scholarly works on the German language and mythology, produced, for the most part, in a shared study with a desk for each Grimm. Murray B. Peppard, author of "Paths Through the Forest: A Biography of the Brothers Grimm," portrays Jacob as a hair-splitting academic and crotchety bachelor, called "the old man" by his university students, even when he was relatively young. His sternness and diligence were due partly to the death of their father in 1796, when the boys were not yet teenagers. Wilhelm had a milder, more charming nature; he married and had a family, with whom elder brother Jacob sometimes lived.

For easy touring of the area around Steinau, where the Grimm family lived from 1791 to 1798 and where there is a museum devoted to them, I stayed for two nights at a family-run hotel with a half-timbered facade, brown woodwork balconies and overflowing flower boxes in the town of Gelnhausen, just off the A66 autobahn, about 12 miles northeast of Hanau. The Hotel Burg-Muhle, which occupies the site of a 13th century mill, has an inviting restaurant, where I had a dinner of pork loin with creamy Dauphine potatoes. The guest rooms were tidy and comfortable, with, alas, little character, like so many others I stayed in during this trip.

But one morning, after a night of hard rain, the receptionist said in English, "The sun is coming out, as it should," which somehow sounded perfectly German. And I liked the hotel's location, near the ox-bowing Kinzig River and the ruddy red, late Gothic and Romanesque ruins of the palace of Frederick I.

Known as Barbarossa, or Redbeard, Frederick I (1123-1190) is thought to have inspired some of the Grimms' villainous kings, like the one in "Many-Fur," who loses his beautiful wife and decides that his daughter is the only woman who can replace her. Covered by a coat of animal skins, she flees but reappears to dance in disguise with the king at a ball in a palace that must have looked like Barbarossa's. As the last note of music dies, she vanishes, but he soon finds and claims her as his second wife.

Sex, violence, incest and infanticide aren't uncommon in the Grimms' collection, which was meant, at least initially, more as a cultural repository than as entertainment for children. In ensuing editions--seven in all during the Grimms' lifetimes-- some troubling material was toned down, leaving most of the tales with happy endings or moral lessons (like Elsie's not-very-convincing "So, after all, it is better to be industrious than clever").

But psychologist Bruno Bettelheim says in his 1976 study of fairy tales, "The Uses of Enchantment," that children can take the stories' moral ambiguity, sex and violence because it helps them grow up healthy and find meaning in life. "The fairy tale," he says, "takes these existential anxieties and dilemmas very seriously and addresses itself directly to them: the need to be loved and the fear that one is thought worthless; the love of life, and the fear of death." (After Bettelheim's suicide in 1990, his research methods and ethics came under fire, but "The Uses of Enchantment" still stands as a landmark in fairy tale interpretation.)

A short walk from the palace ruins is further reason for existential anxiety and a reminder that even some of the most outlandish elements in the Grimms' stories have real underpinnings: a tower where witches were kept in the 16th century before being burned at the stake or drowned in the river. Atop the hill in the center of Gelnhausen is St. Mary's Lutheran Church, built in the 12th century, with interior carvings of fire-breathing serpents and horned monsters that may as well be illustrations of the Grimms' tales.

At a butcher shop on a steeply pitched lane, where there were sausages of all shapes and sizes--marbled, mottled and checkerboarded--a clerk helped me choose a tasty but not-too-adventurous ham and cheese sandwich on which I picnicked in the square.

The next day, I got lost driving from Gelnhausen to Steinau on a circuitous route through thick stands of pine that made me think of Hansel and Gretel and their father, a poor woodcutter who lets their stepmother persuade him to abandon the children in the forest. Steinau, the Grimms' childhood home, turned out to be as pretty a German hamlet as you could wish, with half-timbered shop fronts leading to a square and a pentagonal castle, built by 16th century counts of Hanau. When I finally got to Steinau, I felt as though I'd found my way to a happy ending.

No one at the Brothers Grimm house and museum, in another half-timbered edifice, with a courthouse on the first floor and magistrate's quarters on the second, spoke English. And the displays were captioned only in German. So I had to intuit my way through them, noting little brother Ludwig Emil Grimm's illustrations of the fairy tales, the re-creation of an 18th century Hessian kitchen, and intricate needlework done by Charlotte, the brothers' only sister. I found a carving of the Frog Prince on the fountain in the Steinau square and toured the castle, where the docent's towheaded son ran through in a paper wimple like the ones Cinderella's wicked stepsisters wore. The town's fairy tale puppet theater was dark, so I ended my day with a dinner of salty potato soup and chicken in a thick, hearty Riesling sauce at the cozy Hotel-Restaurant-Cafe Burgmannenahus, built in 1589.

Then it was on to Lauterbach, a thriving market town with two castles and a historic downtown, where I heard an organist practicing a fugue in the stately Baroque church and bought a slice of apple strudel at a bakery. Lauterbach is associated with "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in tourist brochures, largely because it's where plastic garden gnomes are manufactured. I wanted one for my kitsch collection and went from one store to another, where there were planters and hoses but no gnomes. One clerk told me smugly that they'd gone out of style.

You'll find the half-timbered houses of the German Middle Ages, with their steeply canted eaves, lace curtained windows and stout, crisscrossing wood beams, all along the Marchenstrasse. Alsfeld, about 10 miles north of Lauterbach on Route 254, where I stopped for lunch, has some of the finest examples of half-timbering in the country, including its twin-towered Old Town Hall, built in 1512.

Then I headed for the city of Kassel, where the Brothers Grimm went to high school in 1798, served as librarians for the King of Westphalia and edited the first volumes of "Nursery and Household Tales," before accepting positions at the University of Gottingen.

I still had a whole afternoon ahead of me for getting lost on the way to Kassel, first around the villages of Treysa and Schwalmstadt, on the Schwalm River. The area has a right to claim Little Red Riding Hood as its own, by virtue of the red caps local women wear on festival days. Moreover, Dorothea Viehmann, the peasant woman who told the Grimms many of the tales that ended up in their collection, lived in this bucolic, rolling region. But I couldn't find Granny's house or a red cap anywhere.

*

Somewhere around Homberg, 20 miles south of Kassel on Route 254, I had an epiphany: I wasn't going to find Granny's house, because it exists only in the imagination. So I needed to be less slavish in my pursuit of fairy tale settings and wander aimlessly, like Hansel and Gretel. On a whim, I turned off the main road and found Sondheim, followed by pretty Neukirchen and Oberaula, all picture postcard-perfect villages, surmounted by a medieval town hall and church, ringed by farm fields and forests, light and dark, sunshine and shade. I was fairly sure that this was where Elsie ran from house to house.

The countryside wasn't spectacular, like the Austrian Alps, but I realized that the credibility of the tales benefits from the pleasing, cozy German landscapes where the Grimms set them. Perhaps we can feel the fear conjured up by fairy tale witches and giants only when they spring from such comfortable, workaday places as the hills and villages south of Kassel.

I reached Kassel after dark. The city where the Grimms lived in the early part of the 19th century is now sprawling and modern; most of its historic sections were leveled during World War II. But there I found the little Hotel Garni Ko 78, with a cheerful single overlooking a garden.

Here I met a man from Frankfurt who said his mother wouldn't read him the Grimms' tales when he was a boy. This is hardly surprising. Just after the war, Allied occupying forces banned "Nursery and Household Tales" in several German cities because the collection was thought to reflect the nation's proclivity for cruelty and violence.

The Museum of the Brothers Grimm is in a dignified lemon yellow mansion built in 1714 that overlooks the wide Baroque park at the center of Kassel. It has family mementos, including Wilhelm's 1804 report card, neatly penned letters Jacob wrote to his family when he was a university student in nearby Marburg, a drawing of storyteller Dorothea Viehmann and a whole floor of displays on how the tales were illustrated over the years.

Beyond the museum, little remains of the Grimms in Kassel. But I was glad I spent part of the day at Schloss Wilhemshohe, a magnificent 18th century royal palace museum just west of town, surrounded by cafes, gardens, lakes and fountains, architectural curios such as an ersatz medieval castle, forests with well-maintained paths and sweeping lawns where lovers picnic and children tussle.

Soon, though, I had to move on, because my goal that night was about 50 miles north of Kassel, in the hamlet of Sababurg, ringed by a game park and the ancient forest of Reinhardswald. The road there led past lovely Munden, with its 650-year-old bridge, and along the west bank of the graceful Weser River. As I approached Sababurg and caught sight of its castle-hotel nestled in the treetops, I gave in to fairy tale fantasizing, knowing that I'd rest that night in a turret room like the one where the Sleeping Beauty of my childhood slumbered. For me, she isn't the talisman that Clever Elsie is, but like many women, I suspect, I've always harbored a little hope that I'd someday be awakened by the kiss of a handsome prince.

*

I got no such kiss, but I still wasn't disappointed. With its twin-steepled towers and old vine-laced stone walls, the castle-hotel captures the spirit of the Sleeping Beauty tale and seems to be waiting for the narcoleptic spell to break. It was originally built in 1334, then fell to ruin, was rebuilt as a hunting lodge in 1522 and finally opened as an elegant country inn in 1960. Inside is a restaurant that specializes in such dishes as venison soup, guinea fowl and plum tart with cinnamon sauce (perfectly accompanied by a tasting menu of German wines specially selected for each course).

To reach my room, I had to walk up a flight of stone steps, down a carpeted hall and around a spiral staircase decorated with hunting prints and an antique spinning wheel. My room was small but pretty, with matching yellow curtains and bedspread and a bay window where I watched the sun set over the fairy-tale forest.

It was raining when I woke the next morning, but that didn't stop me from taking a walk around the game park, where I heard boars grunting in a pen and the sound of chain saws in the distance. On the drive out of the woods to Route 83, which would lead me eventually to the handsome spa town of Bad Karlshafen, Hameln and, finally, Hanover, I stopped in Trendelburg, which has a castle with a tower like the one where Rapunzel was locked. In the earliest Grimm version of the story, it's fairly clear that the prince who visited her by climbing her tresses got her pregnant. ("Tell me, Godmother," Rapunzel says to the witch after repeated trysts with the prince, "why my clothes are so tight and why they don't fit me any longer.")

Bettelheim found intimations of sex in the kisses of handsome princes and evidence of first menses in needle pricks. But he says nothing about the mysterious flute-playing kidnapper in "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," from the Grimms' "German Legends." This is probably because "The Pied Piper" is more a folk tale than a fairy story, rooted in history and place. In an ancient manuscript that dates the tale to 1284, a man with a pipe was said to have lured away 130 children.

Now spelled "Hameln," the town has an astonishing collection of elaborately decorated half-timbered structures, including the Hotel zur Krone, where I stayed for a night, and its neighbor, the early 17th century "Rat Catcher's House," which got its name because of an inscription in its stone facade identifying the alleyway beside it as the route through which the children were abducted.

The town has hardly forgotten the Pied Piper. Shops along the main street sell ratcatcher key chains and pastries. In the summer, actors perform the Pied Piper story on the square, and several times a day, all year long, a mechanical piper emerges on the west facade of the town office building, a Renaissance whirligig known as the "Wedding House," to lure away the town's kids.

Scholars have suggested that Hameln's little ones may have been wooed away by an agent of the Count of Schaumburg, seeking colonists for new territories in Moravia; that they were the underage knights and pilgrims of one of the Children's Crusades of the Middle Ages; and that they were victims of a St. Vitus' Dance plague that made its sufferers shake so hard it looked as though they were dancing. The tale has it that they were spirited away because the town failed to pay the piper for exterminating its rats. The lesson of the story is clear: What would the world be like without children?

And what would it be like without fairy tales, which continue to resist easy analysis and, as I discovered, are hard to pin to a place?

Driving the Marchenstrasse was frustrating, because I expected to find places that don't exist. Still, it was right for me to go into the woods, where I came to understand that, no matter how much I identify with Elsie, I don't have to meet the same fate. I will never run from house to house looking for myself, because I know who I am, even if I sometimes get lost.

"This is exactly the message that fairy tales get across," Bettelheim wrote, "that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of the human experience--but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious."

Guidebook

Following the German Fairy Tale Road

TELEPHONE NUMBERS AND PRICES: The country code for Germany is 49, followed by the appropriate city code: Hanau, 6181; Gelnhausen, 6051; Steinau, 6663; Kassel, 561; Sababurg, 5671; Hameln, 5151; Hanover, 511. Prices have been converted at $1 to 2.03 marks. Room rates are for a double, with private bath, for one night. Restaurant prices are for dinner for two, food only.

GETTING THERE: From LAX, nonstop service is available on Lufthansa, direct service is offered on Delta, and connecting service is available on United, American, Continental, Delta, USAirways, Swissair, KLM, Air France, British, Northwest, and Air Canada.

The Marchenstrasse is best explored by car. Major car rental agencies are at both the Frankfurt and Hanover airports.

WHERE TO STAY: Romantisches Hotel Burg-Muhle, Burgstrasse 2, Gelnhausen, telephone 820-50, fax 820-554, www.burgmuehle.de. Rates: $77, including breakfast. A charming, family-run inn with 42 rooms near the ruins of Barbarossa's palace.

Dornroschenschloss Sababurg, D-34369 Hofgeismar, tel. 80-80, fax 808-200, www.slh.com/sababurg. Rates: $125 to $195, including breakfast. "The Sleeping Beauty Castle," as a restaurant-inn, with a game park and theater (performances June through September).

Hotel Zur Krone, Osterstrasse 30, Hameln; tel. 90-70, fax 907-217. Rates: $84, including breakfast. Next door to the historic "Ratcatcher House," with 32 comfortable modern rooms in a building with a half-timbered facade.

In Kassel: Hotel Garni Ko 78, Kolnische Strasse 78, tel. 71-614, fax 17-982. Rates: $46 to $71, including breakfast. A modest but comfortable brick apartment-hotel on a pleasant, leafy street within walking distance of the main train station. Schloss Hotel Wilhelmshohe, Schlosspark 8, tel. 30-880, fax 30-884-28. Rates: $133, $80 on Saturday and Sunday. A modern casino-hotel with a pool and solarium on the grounds of Wilhelmshohe Palace.

WHERE TO EAT: Hotel Burg-Muhle, Gelnhausen, tel. 820-50. Cozy by candlelight with hearty portions of fish and meat; $30 to $40. Burgmannenhaus, Bruder Grimm Strasse 49, Steinau, tel. 5-084. A small 16th century inn serving German specialties such as chicken in Riesling sauce; $20 to $30. Dornroschenschloss Sababurg, tel. 80-80. Fine dining overlooking Reinhardswald forest with a menu featuring game and fish, seasonal prix-fixe selections and well-chosen German wines; $80 to $100.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: German National Tourist Office, 122 E. 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10168; tel. (212) 661-7200, fax (212) 661-7174, www.germany-tourism.de. Deutsche Mrchenstrasse, Konigsplatz 53, D-34117 Kassel, tel. 707-707, fax 707-7200, www.deutschemaerchenstrasse.de.

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