In Hameln, the Pied Piper still beckons

Let's just say I was dubious of any town that became famous because of a rat problem. And if it weren't for June 26, 1284 - when town records show that a strange man in multicolored clothes led every child over age four out of town - would this place even be on the map? Without the Pied Piper, who immortalized Hameln, would there be anything to lead people here?

Spending about five minutes in the center of this gingerbread-sweet Hansel amd Gretel hamlet in the plush back road dales of Lower Saxony provides the answer:

With or without the literary aid of the Brothers Grimm, Goethe, Berthold Brecht, and poet Robert Browning - each of whom penned descriptions of Hameln's finer points - these Gothic, Romanesque, and baroque-style buildings stand on their own merit.

As Browning put it:

Hamelin Town's in Brunswick,

By famous Hanover city;

The River Weser, deep and wide,

Washes its wall on the southern side.

A pleasanter spot you never spied.

In a nation chock-full of ''quaint'' and ''charming'' towns, medieval Hameln virtually defines these terms. And the localized, so-called Weser Renaissance that took hold here in the late 1500s adds a unique stamp.

Thus these fine, 16th-century guild and burgher houses are distinguished by ornate gables, Gothic pinnacles, sculptured bands of stonework, and even ram's horn scrollwork. Elegant churches, tabernacles, and stone row buildings are punctuated with exquisite cornices, carved busts, and masks. Half-timbered houses are packed shoulder to shoulder on level streets.

Founded by monks in the 9th century, Hameln eventually prospered as a trading town during the Middle Ages. It surrounded itself with walls - only to meet disaster when Napoleon ordered their demolition in the 19th century. The wall line is now marked by a ring of wide avenues.

Today, the old city is considered a model of German preservation. Only slightly damaged in World War II, the town rallied its enthusiasm to renovate and reconstruct, spending most of its money on the historic center.

The townspeople, saying they don't want Hameln to be considered a ''museum,'' have taken great pains to blend the old with the new in a modern-day, livable hamlet of 60,000 people. Besides tourism, the economy is based on an electrical plant (Germany's famous AEG), a pudding factory, and carpetmaking.

Guidebooks show you the dozens of buildings not to miss, all clustered in the preserved inner core and visitable on a short walking tour. My favorite was the Gothic Stiftsherrenhaus (1562), its facade studded with biblical scenes and figures. I also enjoyed Hameln's extravagant, fairy-tale atmosphere, red-tiled roofs, crosshatched house fronts and gargoyle-adorned buildings with oriel windows. Many Gothic-style facades graduate outward toward the streets - which, incidentally, were turned into a pedestrian mall in 1975.

The two most famous buildings are Rattenfanger (ratcatcher) house, with its high-reaching symmetrical stone facade, and the Hochzeithaus - a stone reception building that the burghers of old used for weddings.

Here, at 7 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. daily, the doors on the famed Pied Piper clock and carillon open to the heralding sounds of flutes, chimes, and bells. The mechanical figure of a piper in a feathered hat is followed once around by rats. On a second trip he is tailed by an army of children, two of whom - in keeping with the legend - retreat back to town.

Two of the most popular excursions in the area are Schloss Hamelschenburg ( 1588) - considered a masterpiece of Weser Renaissance architecture - and the Abbey of Fischbach with a 14th-century lecturn and 16th-century tapestry depicting the legend of its founding. Officially recognized in 955 by Otto I, the abbey, with a Romanesque crypt, is now used as a home for elderly Protestant women.

During this 700th anniversary year of the Pied Piper, the story is being scrutinized, even in the United States, as never before. The tale's authenticity is in question, says the New Republic, because it first surfaced 300 years after the fact. Not so, says the Wall Street Journal, citing a host of master's and doctoral theses that agree on the date and other details.

Recently, however, a retired schoolteacher from the nearby village of Eldagsen, who has studied the topic since 1952, came forth with another theory: A Teutonic nobleman lured the youngsters into the wilderness, promising glory and land to any willing to take up the sword against non-Christian barbarians.

The teacher, Hans Dobbertin, has explained that it was the custom of the era to portray the souls of those lost at sea as ''rats in water.'' Hence the clouding of the story with the rat fable. ''Remember that for years before the story was printed,'' Mr. Dobbertin is quoted as saying, ''this entire story was perpetuated generation after generation only by word of mouth.''

Mr. Dobbertin is not popular with the townspeople, many of whom depend on the fable for their livelihood. Numerous restaurants, cafes, pizzerias, ice-cream parlors, and statues ensure that you won't escape the story. One bakery has rat-shaped bread in the window. And at the Rat Catcher's Inn you can feast on Rats' Tail flambe - strips of spicy pork with piquant sauce.

And every Sunday a man in medieval garb appears in the old town square. As he plays a flute, he is followed by a coterie of children dressed as rats who perform a ''rat-catcher'' dance. Attendance for this weekly Rattenfangerspiele is about 6,000, mostly Germans.

This year, not surprisingly, numerous celebrations are planned for an expected 100,000 visitors. There is even a new exhibit featuring stuffed rats - many caught by Norbert Humburg, director of the Hameln Museum, who has spent recent weekends on a farm chasing the vermin.

He and other townspeople might laugh at you for pronouncing the town's name ''HAM lyn.'' Germans say it ''HAH murln,'' the second syllable (unpronouncable by most Americans) sounded with that dour formation of the lips used for koenig, Goethe and Schonberg. Americans are also learning the true spelling of Hameln. It was apparently the English poet Robert Browning who added the ''i'' in the last syllable - ostensibly because it rhymed better. (''Alas, alas for Hamelin! . . . As the needle's eye takes a camel in . . .'').

And the rats themselves were reportedly added by the Brothers Grimm to make a full story with a moral for children. According to museum curator Humburg, no plague (associated with rats) ever occurred in Hameln.

Finally, the last words of Browning's poem added to the layers of ever-accumulating legend. Browning says the children, after leaving Hameln, eventually reappeared in Transylvania, where their descendants are still to be found:

''. . . out of Hamelin town in Brunswick land, but how or why they don't understand.''

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