Germany's fairy-tale road

Welcome to the world of Rapunzel and Puss in Boots

Once upon a time in the fairy-tale country of Germany, in a village too small to appear on the map, lived a little boy...."

So began the stories I used to tell my children about the grandfather they barely had a chance to know. If I encroached on the Brothers Grimm, well, when you have been raised with their tales, it happens. Confidently I promised they would someday see the castle of Sleeping Beauty, hike in the woods where Hansel and Gretel lost their way, and visit Welferode, my father's rural Hessian village, which wasn't in our atlas.

Thus, on our first family trip to Europe, we climbed the tower of Sababurg and followed the forest paths west of Marburg, the ancient university city where Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm studied. We also looked for Welferode, but in vain.

"Perhaps a witch made it invisible," our daughter said.

"Maybe it got blown up in a war," our son suggested cheerfully.

In the town hall of Kassel, capital of Hesse and site of the Grimm Brothers Museum, no one had heard of it. Nor did it appear on the map of the Deutsche Märchenstrasse, the 400-mile Bremen-to-Hanau Fairy Tale Road laid out by the German Tourist Office.

My single photograph of the house where my father was born showed a large half-timbered dwelling with a pair of young linden trees by the door. The architecture was early-storybook, beloved by illustrators and typical of the region.

The Brave Little Tailor had stitched before a similar doorway in Wahlsburg. The giantess of Trendelburg leaned upon a like roof. Rapunzel looked out on black-and-white houses when she let down her hair in Steinau. Cinderella's coach passed them on her way to the ball at Ronneburg Castle.

In Hanau, where the Brothers Grimm were born in 1785 and 1786, castles still frown from hilltops and forests are dark and deep, but the last wolf met his huntsman in 1846. Today's restored castles are hotels, restaurants, and museums; and the woods are full of hiking trails. Nevertheless, believing in fairy tales goes with the territory, and wolves are reported again chasing deer in the forest.

Enchanting though the countryside may be, yet Wilhelm and Jakob never called it "Fairyland," even in their first collection of tales, published just before Christmas 1812. While studying literature they had grown interested in folk music and gone on to collect cautionary tales, the bedtime stories of that pre-video day. They also picked up robber yarns spun by the fires in coaching inns and monster legends as old as the spooky places that spawned them.

"Don't tell her those stories," my mother would say to my father. "She'll sleep with the covers pulled over her head."

Nor were the scenes without factual base. In the Grimms' time, unmarried women of the Schwalm River valley still wore red caps to signal their eligibility, so a little girl might logically wear a junior version as she set off for her grandmother's house.

Today the towns along the fairy-tale road have put up statues of the brothers in remembrance of their stories.

Medieval Alsfeld has the figure of a grown-up Red Riding Hood topping the fountain outside a 13th-century church. In Bremen you can see the donkey, dog, cat, and rooster who became the official town musicians when they frightened brigands with their bellowing.

Inside the old walls of Steinau, a contemporary fairy-tale fountain is a compendium of familiar and not-so-familiar characters playing out their magic roles in limestone, sandstone, and bronze.

Summer theaters in Kassel and Hanau star local youngsters wearing costumes lovingly made by their grandmothers, and you don't have to know German to understand the plot line. On Sundays in Hameln a Pied Piper is followed by giggling children dressed as mice. There's a flourishing puppet theater in Steinau-an-der-Strasse, where the Grimms spent their youth. Fairy-tale pageants and parades take place throughout the region.

We didn't know it then, but had we gone beyond Bremen to Hamburg, we could have delved into the archives kept by the Hamburg Emigration Office and Museum. Microfilmed records of more than 5 million emigrants who came through the port between 1850 and 1914 yield precise information for genealogists and seekers of family roots.

Last spring, writing to a German friend about another matter, I mentioned our fruitless search of years before.

"But I know Welferode," she replied. "It's just off the Fairy Tale Road." It was, she said, now a district of Homberg, a Hessian town dating from the Middle Ages and not to be confused with the port of Hamburg. Apparently, when Germany reorganized after World War II, many hamlets were combined for administrative convenience, losing their identities in the process.

My friend sent me a map with Welferode shown in pale letters. She also invited me to stay with her and said she would take me there.

The linden trees had reached considerable size, but I recognized the house in the photograph. If there had been any doubt, the names of my great-grandparents were inscribed across the front. Just opposite, in the toy-size Protestant church, we found my father's name on the baptismal roll. Next door to the church is the family's previous home, a 17th-century house now converted into apartments.

Three generations of resident cousins were on hand. In a family album full of vaguely familiar faces, there was a snapshot of me, age 1, sitting on the hood of my parents' shiny new Ford in faraway California.

I was told the linden trees were planted when the house was built in 1883, customary then to indicate a family seat.

My father left as soon as he could (no farm boy, he) and went to Kassel, where he studied bookkeeping and worked in a house occupied by the Grimms when they were royal librarians. As soon as the authorities permitted, he left for America: Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee before finally moving to the West Coast. With war and the deaths of his parents, he never returned.

My mother, too, was born in Germany - at the other end of the Fairy Tale Road, in Hannover, where the Pied Piper's seductive tune plays forever just down the road.

Orphaned at 12, she was sent off to Chicago to live with two stern aunts who wanted an unpaid nanny for their many children. She never went back, either.

But that's another story.

• For more information, contact the German National Tourist Office, 122 E. 42nd St., New York NY 10168 or (212) 661-7200 (ask for a map of the Fairy Tale Road). Or see the website www.germany-tourism.de/e/2954.html.

If you're looking for your family's German roots, there are many useful websites including www.heo-online.deandwww.genealogienetz.de.

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