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  • Writer's pictureKaren Bartlett

All Things Grimm

Time travel into the Hessen countryside



Löwenburg Castle in the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bergpark, Wilhelmshöhe complete with an armory with knights' regalia, heraldic lions, spires, and crenellated towers. | Photos by Karen T. Bartlett

 


Germany has one of the highest percentages of protected land in the world. Some 25,000 castles and ruins rise above primeval forests or languish among twisted brambles as in a Grimm’s Fairy Tale, setting the scene for the heady sensation of time travel. The perfect place for an out-of-time experience is the Hessen countryside, home of The Brothers Grimm, where medieval towns, half-timbered houses, castles, Renaissance mansions and ancient cathedrals have stood for more than eight centuries.


In the 15th century university town of Marburg, 18th century law students Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm began collecting German folk tales that had been passed down only by oral tradition. The gruesome travelers’ tales, told late at night, were never meant for children’s ears. Of the 209 stories they documented exactly as told, they chose 86 less gruesome ones for their first book, Children’s and Household Tales. The original stories featured murderous mothers, but as motherhood is sacred, they made the wicked character a stepmother. Early tellings of the Frog Prince had no happily ever after: forced by her misguided father to marry the frog, instead of a kiss, the horrified little princess smashed the poor creature against the wall.


The Wolf and the Seven Young Goats" look out from a stone wall in Marburg | Photo by Karen T. Bartlett

 

In an ironic time warp, 21st century students at Philipp-Marburg University still linger at sidewalk cafes, studying law beneath the watchful eye of the Frog Prince himself. They don’t find it the least bit odd to encounter the faces of The Wolf and the Seven Young Goats erupting from a lichen-covered wall.


The Pied Piper of Hameln | Photo by Karen T. Bartlett

In the Town of Hameln, bas relief rats leer down from ornate 17th century mansions. Gleaming bronze rats are imbedded among the cobblestones; their tails pointing to significant sites in the truth-based legend of the130 children who disappeared on June 26, 1284. All summer, the official Pied Piper of Hameln strides through the narrow streets of Old Town in pointed shoes and feathered hat as a real rattenfanger (ratcatcher) might have done 740 years ago, dispensing sharp-tongued wisdom and playing his magical flute.


But the Grimm’s legacy goes far deeper than fairy tales. As law scholars, anthropologists, philosophers and linguists, the brothers were among the most respected German academics of their time. Their proudest work was the creation of the first, and still most extensive, dictionary of the German language.


The Insult Machine in the A-Z exhibit area at Grimmwelt | Photo by Nikolaus Frank

 

Grimmwelt Kassel

The centuries collide in a creative time warp at Grimmwelt Kassel, the sleek modern museum celebrating all things Grimm. The brothers would most assuredly be pleased. Besides artifacts, annotated manuscripts, and priceless first editions, dramatic interactive exhibits showcase their love of words and letters. There’s a talking magic mirror, of course, a surreal hedge of thorns, a kids’ augmented reality app, and a theater showing snippets from major movies incorporating their fairy tales from silent films to today. The Insult Machine is an enormous 17th century ear trumpet: lean in and whisper a rude modern-day word and it hurls back a foul 18th century retort. Pissblume for example, is not a compliment.


Colorful candies and sweets in the Witch’s House exhibit at Grimmwelt | Photo by Karen T. Bartlett

On special exhibit now is “The Rumpelstiltskin File: Looking for clues in fairy tales and law,” inspired by the Grimms’ focus on the perception of right and wrong. At playful interactive stations, visitors get surprising perspectives on bad guys: robbers, evil witches, jealous sisters, and tricksters (like Rumpelstiltskin) who exploited less-than-honorable traits of others.


Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe

Half a century ahead of the Brothers Grimm, Landgrave William IX of Hesse-Kassel was so obsessed with 12th century tales of knights and chivalry that he built himself a fake but spectacular medieval castle. Castle Löwenburg possesses every element of a proper knightly castle: moat, drawbridge, heraldic lions, crenellated towers, and even crumbling walls. Its armory features the feared Black Knight astride his tournament horse. Löwenburg still stands within Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe, on the outskirts of Kassel.


Gazebo overlooking a tranquil pond at Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe

Photo by Sina Ettmer Photography

 

About twice the size of New York’s Central Park, Bergpark is a UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassing dense forests, English gardens, lush meadows, waterways, tree-canopied paths and steep rocky trails. Its showpiece is the colossal 230-foot copper statue of Hercules, who for 300 years has gazed down from the hilltop upon the opulent Baroque palace, Schloss Wilhelmshöhe. Now a museum, it houses priceless Old Masters paintings, including one of the world’s largest Rembrandt collections.


Renowned Old Masters Gallery in Wilhelmshohe Palace. Photo by Mirja van Liken © Hessen Kassel Heritage

 

Twice weekly in summer, floodgates open in the grotto beneath Hercules, releasing 750,000 liters of water to cascade wildly over waterfalls into rapids and other water features, ending with a breathtaking 52-foot geyser in the palace fountain. During its hour-long descent, observers have time to meet the cascade at each point. Bergpark is free to the public, with admission charged only inside the castle and the palace.


 

The city of Kassel is the epicenter of the Fairy Tale Route and all things Grimm. For a thousand years of time travel, visitdeutsche-maerchenstrasse.com/en

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