It’s 200 years since the Brothers Grimm penned their infamous fairytales – so no better time, then, to explore the spooky forests and atmospheric old towns that inspired them, says Tom Hawker
Where? Central Germany
Why? For a Brothers Grimm fairytale feel, ancient forest, timbered villages and beer
When? Year round; fewer tourists in spring/autumn; May-Oct for fountains
Once upon a time (well, 200 years ago), in a land far, far less difficult to get to than it used to be (Germany), there lived two brothers. Those brothers, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, wrote a famed collection of fairytales, which were first published in December 1812. Last December kicked off a year-long celebration of their works.
However, the best way to pay homage is to follow the 600km Fairy Tale Route, which starts in Hanau, near Frankfurt, and wends north to Bremen. Along the way it takes in Germany’s timber-framed, dark-forested heartland – the no-man’s land between the traditional Bavarian south and industrial Prussian north. Here, in this cauldron of religious, philosophical and political ideas, the Grimms developed a passion for myth and language.
The university town of Marburg and stately Kassel were both home to the Grimms at one point. Both brothers studied at the former, sharing digs, then spent much of their adolescence and early careers in Kassel, where they were delighted by its magnificent Wilhelmshöhe Park (newly UNESCO-listed). For today’s travellers, both towns are also conveniently linked to Frankfurt airport, by road and train.
Once there, prepare to walk in Marburg. ‘I believe there are more steps in the streets than in the houses’, Jacob once complained of Marburg’s steep, winding alleys and stairwells. These popped up directly in their books – some of the town’s details were incorporated by the book’s illustrator.
Along the pretty medieval and Baroque streets, you can follow a trail of Grimm breadcrumbs in the form of little statues: the Frog Prince sits on a water fountain, awaiting a kiss; a series of seven hats and noses hi-ho their way along the cobbled path up to the huge castle; a lonely ruby slipper awaits its (presumably huge) owner.
Further north, Kassel is much wider and grander than Marburg, as befits the one-time powerbase of the local rulers. The Second World War levelled 75% of the residential buildings, which explains the drab concrete blocks, but much of the former romance remains. There’s also contemporary appeal: every five years, Kassel hosts the Documenta modern arts exhibition, and works pop up to baffle visitors.
Kassel is also the gateway to the Grimmsteig walking trail. This 87km loop takes you around the villages and towns east of Kassel, and is a great way to acquaint yourself with the imposing forests that posed a problem to so many of the brothers’ characters. You can either tackle a section, or tramp the whole lot, overnighting in the villages.
However, don’t leave town before visiting its hillside Wilhelmshöhe Park and Hercules monument (currently under scaffolding for an anniversary facelift). At 2.30pm every Wednesday and Sunday from May to October, a cascade of water is released, setting off a series of waterfalls and fountains that has entertained visitors since 1714.
Within the rolling, 2.4 sq km park there are also two astonishing palaces, art galleries and a café. Once Big Herc has finished performing, it’s the perfect place to wander, to picnic and to dream of living happily ever after...
Medieval streets, magical forests, Grimm sites and a date with Hercules
Don’t be dismayed by the concrete building site outside Marburg station. A five-minute stroll over the Lahn River brings you to the historic old town and the 80m-high twin towers of Elisabethkirche, 800 years’ worth of gothic opulence, headlined by the golden shrine to the church’s patron saint.
From there, head up towards the Old Town, an eclectic parade of crooked Tudor and baroque timber houses. Hang a right at Schlosssteig to peer into the excavated remains of the medieval synagogue before proceeding along steep Landgraf-Philipp-Strasse, specially cobbled at an angle to give horses (and tired humans) something to grip. Stop at Bückingsgarten for a beer break, and then go through the gate towards Landgrave Castle, now home to the University Museum Of Cultural History.
The route back leads down the Ludwig-Bickell steps to Ritterstrasse; no 15 is where the Grimm’s favourite professor fired their imaginations.
A spiral staircase drops you down another level, towards the main drag of Barfüsserstrasse and its medieval market place, where the town hall announces each hour with a baleful hornblast and the emergence of a mechanical rooster. Before heading to a local restaurant for dinner, wander past no 35, once a commune where the Grimms lodged as students. They’re not the building’s only famous residents though: Nazi war criminal Klaus barbie hid here after the Second World War.
Transfer to Kassel (1hr by train/90min drive from Marburg). Then head straight out to Wellerode, a 30-minute drive south-east or reachable on bus 37. Here you can pick up the Grimmsteig, Stage 5 of which runs between Wellerode (Söhrewald) and Nieste, to the north.
The first half of this 13km-or-so trail is suitably Grimm, and clearly marked. While walking amid the forest’s oak, fur, beech and cherry, keep an eye out for wild deer, boar and even (if you’re very lucky) European wildcat.
You break out of the forest at the small town of Kaufungen, which is full of fairytale medieval housing. Here you can take a peek inside the 1,000-year-old Stiftskirche, where renovators are slowly uncovering the original murals that subsequent more-conservative generations painted over. You can grab snacks here, too.
The rest of the leg leads though forests and farmland towards Nieste. Here, on a hill overlooking the town, the bavarian-style Königs-Alm Restaurant is ideal for a celebratory stein and some traditional south German cuisine. Return to Kassel by bus 34 (or to your car in Wellerode via the Grimmsteig shuttlebus: €15; book in advance with the Grimmsteig tourist office).
Assuming it’s a Wednesday or a Sunday, today’s focus is making sure you’re at Wilhelmshöhe Park’s Hercules statue at 2.30pm to watch the cascade show. Thankfully Kassel has plenty to keep you occupied in the meantime.
Begin in the town centre, in Brüder Grimm-Platz (the pair lived in the gatehouse) before heading south onto the baroque Schöne aussicht Strasse to be first at the Brothers Grimm Museum (open 10am; €3); it contains the brothers’ annotated copy of their Fairy Tales (insured for €50 million).
Next, wander into pretty Karlsaue Park to take in its Orangery and the Fulda River. Circle back towards the huge Friedrichsplatz and have lunch at Café Nenninger, purveyors of great cake for over 100 years.
By now you should be thinking about heading west for your appointment with Hercules. Tram 1 (every 15 mins) takes you to the foot of the hill. If you’ve got time, detour to Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, where the Picture Gallery of the Old Masters contains an impressive collection of Rembrandt and Rubens. Then either walk or jump on a bus up the hill.
Wait here until the water starts to flow, then follow it down through the assorted cascades until you reach the bottom for the big 52m Grand Fountain show.
After that, there’s just time to join the last guided tour (4pm) of fairytale Löwenburg Castle. Finally, picnic in the park or head back into town for stein and schnitzel at a local tavern.
When to go: Spring and autumn, to miss peak season. May-October,to see the Hercules cascade.
Getting there: Luthansa flies from UK airports to Frankfurt from around £100 return. S-bahn trains to Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof take 14 mins (€4.25). Flights to Frankfurt-Hahn are cheaper (£23 return from Ryanair) but land 120km east of the city; a direct bus to Frankfurt takes 1hr 45mins (€14).
Getting around: Trains are comfy, efficient and practical. Marburg-Kassel-Frankfurt costs around £105; you need to buy individual tickets (see raileurope.co.uk or rmv.de). Alternatively, car rental is available at Frankfurt airport (about £100 for three days, excluding insurance). Kassel has an easy-to-use tram system; Line 1 links the city centre with Wilhelmshöhe Park. Marburg is mostly pedestrianised.
Where to stay: Marburg’s luxurious VILa VITa RosenPark has doubles from €128. In Kassel, Hotel Schweizer Hof is close to Wilhelmshöhe station; doubles from €109.
What to eat: Wurst sausages, schnitzel and schweinshaxe (roasted ham hock) are all recommended, along with a stein of beer or a nice wine. For traditional food In Marburg, try the Ratsschänke am Marktplatz (Markt 3). In Kassel, a cake-break at Café Nenniger’s is essential.