A True Fairy Tale from Germany: Part 1

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On the German Fairy Tale Road, the towns of Hanau, Steinau and Marburg are filled with mementos for famous residents Jacob and Wilhelm - also known as the Brothers Grimm.

Photography by the authors.Once upon a time, long, long ago, two tiny boys, brothers, were born in a little town, Hanau, 15 miles east of Frankfurt. They were born a lucky 13 months apart (Jacob in January 1785 and Wilhelm in February 1786) — lucky, because so close in age, they grew up together and were, for ever and ever, the very best of friends. Indeed, when they lived in Hanau, and even later when they moved 50 miles northeast to Steinau, they shared the same bed. The father was a judge, but when he died of pneumonia in 1796, and then their mother in 1808 at the age of 52, things became hard for this little family.

The main square in Hanau is not easy to find during the city’s current busy construction, but it has as its own reward — a statue to those two brothers, who, 200 years ago, became famous and popular writers.

Children play under the town statue, which is surely appropriate because they are perhaps the most celebrated of all children’s authors. They are the Brothers Grimm. If children listening to this story don’t recognize the names, they should know Walt Disney was certainly familiar with them: Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Pied Piper, Snow White — the list is endless.

At one count the brothers had collected 420 stories. They didn’t actually write them. They were lawyers and academics interested in folklore studies, who somehow got friends to interview country folk and elderly family members by wandering the rolling hills and forested countryside of Hesse, “the greenest state in Germany,” to unearth and document the legends.

Hanau and Steinau have this in common: neither is an easy walk from the town’s railway station, which suggests that covering the German Fairy Tale Road might be better done by renting a car than buying a DB Rail Pass.

Steinau, where the beautiful old family home has been turned into a museum, has an additional problem: the museum is more about the family’s ancestors and we have heard the Grimm Museum in Kassel is more informative about the brothers themselves.

The front yard of the home and the main square in Steinau suggest the story of the princess who kissed the frog is well remembered.

And when we continue on to Marburg where the brothers went to law school, we still see this theme on a wall as one of the town’s favorites. Our guide, Frau Hoffmann-Meschede, joins in the fun by arriving with a frog on her coat ready to be kissed but, unfortunately, we don’t have a princess.

Later she draws our attention to a story we hadn’t heard before (in next image) about the Valiant Little Tailor, who killed seven flies then set off on an expedition, his banner proclaiming the skills: “Killed Seven At One Blow.”

We are equally unfamiliar with The Star Money hanging on a city wall in all its blue luminescence.

“It’s the tale of a poor little girl, an orphan with only a piece of bread for nourishment,” our guide says. “She gives the bread away to a hungry child and the clothes she’s wearing to children who are cold — and gold coins come down from the stars above to reward her.”

Not much changes over the centuries in Medieval towns. The seven flies have been up for some time and an illustration from an 1812 book of the fairy tales shows the door of the town hall has remained constant over the years.

The town hall and the town square dominate Marburg, as seemingly happens in all those towns of the Middle Ages. Marburg lost population in the 200 years of wars that followed the Thirty Years’ War even as that ended in 1648. In the 18th century it became a backwater and survived as an intact Gothic town, a bit like Charleston in our Carolinas: “Too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash.”

But the Romantic Age brought philosophers and academics and artists and poets — and persons interested in literature including aspiring writers. And two of the latter would become famous: Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Only the Bible has been translated into more languages than their fairytales.

It’s a short walk to where the brothers lived as students in an apartment above a shop. A plaque on the top façade of the building gives their dates of residence as 1802 to 1805. They were fast learners!

The brothers studied law at the University of Marburg. Founded in 1527, it is the oldest Protestant university in the world. Jacob started in 1802 and Wilhelm in 1803. Wilhelm was younger but, in addition, had lost a year to Scarlet Fever. Historians say they were now regarded as poor yet ineligible for scholarships. It was a struggle especially when their mother died. They survived.

We see carvings on walls and say to our guide, a former law student, “Hey! Those sure look like lawyers!” Our guide had actually married her law professor and replies, “They look more like medical students!

Nearby is where the house stood (destroyed in World War II bombings) that was the home of Otto Ubbelohde, the local artist who gained fame illustrating the Grimm brothers’ fairytales.

And we are now on the road to Sababurg and its Sleeping Beauty Castle. In the woods before the castle we meet “Knight Dietrich,” a character from mythical Medieval Germany. He is part of the Fairy Tale Road, too, because the 200-year-old celebration is not just about the Brothers Grimm but about other characters in German stories from the past.

Castle Sababurg was built in 1334 and now locals feel it is clearly the castle described in the story of Sleeping Beauty. As is typical of all the locations around the Fairy Tale Road efforts are made to stage festivals, live theater and special events that entertain and charm visitors. The castle now also functions as a 17-room hotel, but we are on our way to arguably the prettiest town in Lower Saxony, Hann. Munden.

We will tell you more about that strange sounding town next week in Part 2, as well as Marburg’s medical background.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.