The 600km route extending from Frankenberg to Bremen celebrates the 200th anniversary of the Grimm brothers' famous stories.
Enchantments cast on Germany's Fairy Tale Road for Grimm anniversary
The Sonne hotel in Frankenberg (around 128 kilometres north of Frankfurt) should have been easy enough to find. I knew it was located at the heart of the sleepy little gem of a town, right on the cobbled market square, but I couldn't see it for looking. All I could see was a fetchingly pretty array of half-timbered 16th-century houses, immaculately kept but wonky-gabled and sagging a little at the knees, on either side of a medieval town hall which seemed to be roofed with witches' hats.
Little did I know that the hotel was effectively wearing an invisibility cloak: eight of those houses had been knocked together inside to create the hotel's main building, with 60 rooms and five restaurants. And that, underneath my feet, guests in bathrobes were crossing the marketplace via a tunnel to the hotel's ultra-luxurious Moroccan-themed spa. The hotel even had its own airport a few short kilometres away, although you'd never have guessed it.
I have to say it was something of a revelation, stumbling across the excellent Sonne in Frankenberg, but then maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised; the Sonne, and Frankenberg, are on Germany's Fairy Tale Road, where magic things come true, and 2012 is a particularly big fairy-tale year.
It is exactly 200 years since the Brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who were born near Frankfurt and who spent most of their lives in Kassel (48km east of Frankenberg) first published their collection of fairy tales. Grimm's Fairy Tales has since become one of the best-selling books in the world.
Locally, there will be special events along the Fairy Tale Road marking this big anniversary, but on a more global scale it seems even Hollywood is going fairy-tale mad in 2012. Mirror Mirror, a remake of Snow White, which stars Julia Roberts, arrived in cinemas in April, and Snow White and the Huntsmen, starring Charlize Theron, follows in June. Meanwhile, the TV series Once Upon a Time, which originated in the United States last year, has since been licensed to play in over 190 countries around the world.
Back where all of this began, the Fairy Tale Road itself is one of the longest-established themed routes in German tourism, starting just outside Frankfurt and running erratically northwards up through Kassel, Hamelin, and eventually Bremen, unlocking a world of frog princes and sword-fighting cats as it goes. Along its route, you can stay (in some style) in the room from which Rapunzel supposedly let her hair down, and sleep in the tower where Sleeping Beauty may or may not have pricked her finger, not forgetting the opportunity to walk under Frankenberg's cobbled market square in your bathrobe.
Despite its more habitual identity as an economic powerhouse, Germany makes a surprisingly convincing fairy-tale destination. A hundred and fifty years ago this was a patchwork territory ruled over by counts, barons, electors, landgraves and princes, all of whom had their distinctive castles. And while the chequered history of the 20th century had a big effect on the nation's cities, as well as removing the aristocracy, those castles, medieval towns and villages still remain, plus lots of untouched woodland and river valleys. The Fairy Tale Road connects many of them, and it traces the life story of the Grimms.
The brothers didn't have a particularly fairy-tale childhood. Their father died young while they were living in the small town of Steinau (where their house is now a museum) and their mother found herself suddenly too poor to keep all five of her children. She despatched Jacob and Wilhelm, the oldest, to live with her sister in Kassel, where the latter had a position as a lady-in-waiting in the Elector's court.
The brothers spent their student years in Marburg, a half-timbered university town built on a hill that rears up above the river Lahn. A sort of Heidelberg of Hesse, this town hosted the first Lutheran university in Germany, and today every fourth person here is a student, still living in the wonky-floored, low-ceiling houses that the Grimms did, and still spilling out onto the stepped streets.
It was in Marburg that the Grimms started to collect what they called their "household tales", something which continued to preoccupy them through much of their careers as librarians and university professors. Most of that time the city of Kassel was their base, and today it couldn't look less fairy-tale like if it tried, having been heavily bombed in the Second World War, but it has a Grimm Museum that details the length and breadth of the brothers' output. And there's another reason for coming here this year, as the city is hosting "Documenta", one of the world's largest modern art shows.
But it is the countryside to the west and the north of Kassel where you'll find the best bits of the Fairy Tale Road, in a land where hills are almost invariably castle-topped, surrounded by forests and laced with waterways. This is where you can find some really enchanting places to stay.
For example, in Waldeck, the Hotel Schloss Waldeck lords it over the mythical and mystical Lakeland of Edersee, and comes complete with a spa and gourmet restaurant, where lobster and goose are on the menu. The 1,000-year-old castle has done time as a prison, but it is now all sophisticated and boutique-like on the inside, while on the outside the Unesco-registered Kellerwald Forest rumbles on over the hills as far as the eye can see.
Meanwhile in sleepy Trendelburg, another hour north, the Hotel Burg Trendelburg (also 1,000 years old) has gone in the other direction, choosing to keep the feeling of antiquity in every room, with modern bathrooms tucked away in cupboards. There are rose petals on the pillows, and you can stay here in Rapunzel's tower, described as such because it was the model for the illustrations that appeared in the early editions of Grimm's Fairy Tales.
From Trendelburg the giant Reinhardswald forest is close at hand, and its Urwald section is a place where you can really suspend your disbelief while wandering through a cathedral of beech trees and giant anthropomorphically shaped oaks, some of which are thought to be between 700 and 1,000 years old.
And in a clearing in the middle of the Reinhardswald, surrounded by free-ranging wolves and rare European bison, is Donröshenschloss Sababurg, where the Sleeping Beauty story is played out every weekend. The castle, which is set in the middle of Europe's oldest rare breeds wildlife park (thus the wolves and the bison) is partly a ruin, but its towers contain stylish, well-appointed guest rooms, and it does a lively business with weddings and honeymooners.
Here, as with the other locations, there's no conclusive evidence of a direct connection with the story in question, but the castle has a history of being abandoned and lost behind a briar rose hedge, in the middle of an immense and gloomy woodland, as in the fairy tale. So who knows, it could have been Sleeping Beauty's Castle - once upon a time.
Andrew Eames is the editor of www.germanyiswunderbar.com. His latest book, Blue River, Black Sea, is out now.
If you go
Return flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Frankfurt cost from Dh3,310, including taxes.
Double rooms at the Frankenberg Sonne (www.sonne-frankenberg.de; 00 49 6451 7500) cost from Dh1,008 per night, including breakfast. The Schloss Hotel Waldeck (www.schloss-hotel-waldeck.de; 00 49 5623 5890) has double rooms from Dh470, including breakfast. Double rooms in the Burg Hotel Trendelburg (www.burg-hotel-trendelburg.com; 00 49 5675 9090) cost from Dh696, including breakfast. At the Donröshenschloss Sababurg (www.sababurg.de; 00 49 5671 8080), double rooms cost from Dh624.
For more details about the Fairy Tale Road, visit http://deutsche-maerchenstrasse.com/en/