Hamelin is a town on the river Weser in Lower Saxony, Germany. It is the capital of the district of Hamelin-Pyrmont and has a population of roughly 56,000. Hamelin is best known for the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Every Sunday, from May to September, 80 townspeople of Hamelin (aka Hameln) re-enact the best-known German story in the world. The plot goes something like this: prosperous corn-trading town develops major rat problem; strange musician with questionable taste in overalls clears infestation with spooky music; council queries the bill, as councils do; strange musician, now cross and with his invoice much over-due, lures all 130 of the local children out of town and makes them disappear. And it all happened, or so wrote the brothers Grimm, on June 26, 1284.
It’s not often that a plague of rodents followed by amass child abduction becomes a major tourist attraction, but Hamelin has made a virtue out of its vermin. The story is big business for this pretty town, a half-hour southwest of Hanover. Here, the Weser-Renaissance architecture – half-timbered, littered with figurines and polychrome wood-carvings – looks like storyland scenery painted for Grimm fairytales. In fact it was created in the 16th century by Italian architects commissioned to bring a touch of class to the houses of wealthy Weser burgers, who made their money out of traffic on the river.
Its bakeries are still infested with rats – but these days they are made of bread and cake. Its restaurant menus carry such delicacies as rat’s tails (pork, sliced thin) washed down with rat’s blood (champagne and blackcurrant juice). Its bars sell Rattenkiller cocktails, and every Saturday from May to September it hosts a free Rattenfängerspiele – rat-catcher play – which re-tells the story, with the rats being rather cuddly glove puppets, and the rat-catcher being one of several cheerful volunteers who take on the role every year. If you’re not in Hamelin over a weekend, the town’s excellent museum has very innovative animated version of the story, which is well worth the entrance fee. It also has a selection of different versions of the story from all over the world, and it is interesting to see how different cultures either emphasize or re-write the story’s rather bleak ending, which isn’t in harmony with today’s storytelling tastes.
Even if you’re not visiting Hamelin for fairytale purposes, the town is worth a look for its architecture and its setting on the banks of the Weser river. And not far upstream is another town of legend, Bodenwerder, where Baron Münchhausen was born. It was here that he told his famously exaggerated stories to his friends, unaware that his name would eventually become associated with a syndrome in which unstable individuals attempt to draw attention to themselves by pretending to be ill.
Getting There: International airports are at Bremen, Hamburg, Hanover and Paderborn. International rail connections are via Cologne from Brussels (Thalys), which connects with the Eurostar from London.