Not so Grimm in Berlin
There can be few children or adults that haven’t heard the words of the Grimm Brothers or come across one of their archetypal characters wither in books or real life. After all, who hasn’t met an ‘evil stepmother’ and we’re all very familiar with the plight of a lonely Princess. When I found out it was the Grimm Brothers 200th anniversary year, I decided to make fairytales the focus of our entry into the Expedia Blogger Shaped Travel Competition. But as we set out on our prizewinning trip to Berlin, we found following a trail of the Brothers Grimm Story was like chasing your own shadow…
There’s a frozen spell upon Berlin
The snow queen beats us to Berlin. While we happily flick through in-flight magazines, she turns the rivers to ice with a stroke of her manicured nails. She blows a kiss onto the pavements and makes it impossible to walk without sliding. She shakes the glitter from her hair and sends it flying across the city in a diamond white whirl.
By the time we touch down in Berlin, the German city has been transformed into a fairytale setting. Which is appropriate, because one of our missions is to follow in the footsteps of the Grimm Brothers. But in true Grimm Brothers style; the plot twists and turns many times before the children are released from their cages.
Immersion into the pages of Grimm
The Grimm-style disorientation starts straight away. We follow a child on a bike down the street from the subway, before realising it isn’t a child but a very small adult. A very, very small adult. Our hotel bears no resemblance to its photo on Streetmap and the view from the window has changed. Since the wall came down Berlin has been a constant building site so this isn’t so surprising, but we soon realise that just like a fairytale; reality is not quite what it seems and just when you expect one thing in this city, you are delivered something else.
Fairy tales aren’t for families?
The Märchenhütte looks like two cabins in the woods. And they used to be exactly that before being patched in to the Berlin cityscape from Poland. Now the cabins are part of a theatre complex specialising in imaginative performances of traditional Grimm fairytales. We try to book. But the box office won’t let us. Fairy tales aren’t for kids apparently. Too dark. And they’re all in German. We wouldn’t understand them.
We wouldn’t understand them? But we’ve been brought up with them I want to shout. And our seven year old is still being fed a bedtime diet of frog princes, little men with funny names, gingerbread humans and wolves with eyes bigger than Granny.
Graveyards aren’t for night time?
The Grimm Brothers are two elusive chaps. On a search for their graves in St. Matthäus Kirchhof graveyard in Schöneberg, our map leads us down dimly lit streets, past snowy deserted playgrounds, round in a circle and back to where we started. When we eventually locate the church, the gate is firmly closed. We can’t get to the graves of the Brothers Grimm but digging around we do find something else….
Fountains aren’t for water?
We take a Fat Tire Bike Tour (free with a Berlin Pass) and ask the guide if he will take us to the Märchenbrunnen (the fountain of fairy tales) in the Volkspark Friedrichshain, where the characters from the stories are carved in the stone. But it’s too far out of town and we haven’t got time to get there within our tour. And it’s probably turned off for winter. But he can take us to their former city centre home. There’s a commemorative plaque on the wall outside it. Or so he thinks.
We are outside the right address: Alte Potsdamer Strasse 5. Google has confirmed it. And not far from the Potsdamer Platz and the alleged ‘first traffic light in continental Europe’ there is a road sign bearing their name. We have a picture of the plaque on our phone but we can’t match it to anything on the wall.
“I think this is where they lived…” says Ciaran, our guide, now less certain.
We bike off round the block a few times, still looking at random walls for a plaque. Half an hour later, we give up.
The Brothers weren’t always this invisible
They weren’t always so hard to find. Although the Grimm brothers weren’t born in Berlin and their tales weren’t local either (they came from folklore in different parts of the world,) they were well known and celebrated members of the community in the 1800’s. Both academics, they worked at Berlin’s Humboldt University, on a special salary, and took daily strolls around the zoological gardens. They were best known for writing the German dictionary but unfortunately died before they reached G. If you’re interested they got up to ‘frucht’ or fruit.
“A bad grape killed them” says Ciaran, his joke producing groans all round.
The Grimms didn’t make up the stories, but they did add their own personality and morals and the tales express pride in their nation and nationality. So much so that Hitler used them as propoganda for Hitler Youth. They didn’t tone them down much either; the originals are far more ‘real life’ than the Disney versions.
Fairytale centres aren’t enchanted castles?
The National German Centre for Fairytale Culture is in the centre of Berlin. We make contact and ask if we can come to visit, and we are told we would be welcome but it’s just an office producing the annual festival in November. Not really anything to look at or engage the kids. Berlin may be the Grimm Brothers’ adopted city, but their official trail runs through other parts of the country. Apparently we’d do better on the German Fairytale Route from their birthplace in Hanau to Bremen.
The Brothers Grimm story lives on in a suburban hotel?
But like any good tale, just when we think it’s all over, the plot takes us by surprise. Fairytale Berlin isn’t at the Grimm Brothers’ Graves or their memorial fountain. It isn’t where they lived or worked. Wandering round the city in search of the brothers, we realise modern fairytale Berlin is in the backstreets where the snow comes tumbling down. It’s in the prettily lit bars and inviting beer halls. It’s in the restaurant where people eat in the dark and experience food with their senses. It’s in the art on the walls, and the poignant memorials to those who died in the wars. It’s in the woodland parks where you just know Red Riding Hood would feel at home. It’s in our hotel; The Propeller Island City Lodge, in back street Berlin where rooms include an ‘upside down room,’ a floating bedroom, or ‘Grandma’s cottage’ (-more of this later).
The forest is the soundtrack as we tuck our own little Hansel and Gretel up in atmospherically lit cages. We might not be able to find the Grimm Brothers in modern Berlin, but at least we can steal one of their ideas.