When I was a child, one of my favorite books was a very large, very old volume of Grimm's Fairy Tales. It was not one of the sugar-coated editions; its stories retained the sinister overtones of the originals. The book's old-fashioned illustrations fascinated me: small children lost in dark forests, bold young heroes, beautiful princesses, and intimidating monsters of various sizes. None of my other books was like that one. It was definitely not the Disney version of the folk tales. I loved it.
The landscape shown in those wood-engraved pictures was as haunting as the characters within it: turreted castles on craggy mountains, half-timbered houses on narrow streets, and lonely cottages amidst ancient trees. The landscape of legends. I can't vouch for the legends -- compelling as the Grimm Brothers made them -- but I can for the landscape. It's still there, tucked away in a relatively unvisited part of West Germany. Not illogically, the Germans call it the ''Marchenstrasse,'' or fairy-tale road.
One week in May -- a good time to go to Germany -- I visited some parts of this road, which starts with Bremen in the north and ends in Hanau near Frankfurt, and saw for myself the castles and forests, the queer old towns, and quiet rivers that intrigued the Grimms almost 200 years ago.
In Hanover I joined a small tour group that was soon heading south by train to Gottingen, the venerable university town where Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were both philologists. In Gottingen we were at the edge of the countryside that had inspired the peasant tales the brothers collected. There we boarded a minibus driven by an amiable guide named Gottfried, and went hurtling down narrow roads (no autobahns here) leading into a forest. Gottfried pointed out various sights along the way, including occasional castles on distant peaks. We itched to explore them, but that would come a bit later; first we were to see the town of Munden.
Munden is at the juncture of three rivers -- the Fulda, the Werra, and the Weser -- that meander thorugh ''Grimm-land.'' Though nowhere near so famous as the Rhine, these streams travel past a countryside with even more legend attached to it than to the Wagnerian Rhineland. In addition to being the setting of familiar tales from Grimm -- like ''Sleeping Beauty,'' ''Hansel and Gretel,'' and ''Little Red Riding Hood'' -- the area also claims Baron Munchausen, the Pied Piper of Hamlin, Max and Moritz, and other characters of the German imagination.
Munden was a fine place to begin. It looks exactly as it should: narrow, winding streets lined with tall, half-timbered buildings; steeply pitched roofs, clustering in a tiled hillscape around the central tower of a medieval church; and near the church a charmingly decorated Renaissance ''Rathaus,'' or city hall.
It was just this kind of town, I thought, which in a Grimm tale would ask a strong young lad to defend it from a marauding giant. The lad would succeed, of course, and be rewarded with the mayor's daughter in marriage. As I mused in the Rathaus square, a low, clattering sound issued steadily from a nearby store where some contemporary lads and daughters were playing electronic games. There were no giants in sight.
The thorough Michelin ''green'' guide to Germany states that there are more than 450 half-timbered houses in Munden, more than enough to give a visitor a feeling of being in pre-World War II Germany. This part of the country suffered relatively little damage during the fighting, and in places like Munden we can see the kind of romantic quaintness that characterized most German towns before 1945.
The old town is also on the Marchenstrasse, which runs north from Hanau, the birthplace of the Grimm Brothers, to Bremen of the Brementown Musicians. In between, the ''fairy-tale road'' touches the city of Kassel, where there is an interesting Grimm Museum. North of Kassel, lies the heart of the road, the beautiful upper valley of the Weser River, which begins at Munden.
Skirting the Reinhardswald forest, the Weser flows through a Germany that will pleasantly surprise visitors accustomed to the comparatively populous northern and western parts of the nation. The upper valley, as the Michelin says , ''has neither railway nor industry, appearing silent and at times deserted in its wooded setting.''