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Grimm seeker: A journey along Germany's fairytale trail

Uncover the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin on a family holiday in the land of the Brothers Grimm, says Jonathan Lorie

Puss in Boots strides towards me, a handsome fellow with a walrus moustache and a rapier on his belt. Next comes Red Riding Hood, a blonde girl with clogs that tap on the floorboards of the stage. Behind her slinks The Wolf, his eyes dark, his haunches quivering with power and desire.

Jasmine the puppeteer looks up from her marionettes. "I like the Cinderella puppet best, she is so beautiful. But at night it's scary in here. If you're rehearsing, there are shadows in the corners and things creak." She folds the wolf away, into the box where he lives, and whispers in his ear: "Good night."

We are standing backstage at the puppet theatre in Steinau, central Germany. It's the town where the Brothers Grimm grew up and heard their first fairy stories. Even today, it's a magical place of half-timbered houses, with a stone fountain in the cobbled square carved with fairytale figures. I am here – with my two children – to enter that world of childhood stories on which we all grew up, in the places where they were found.

This year the region of Hesse is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the death of Jacob Grimm, the elder of the two remarkable brothers who collected German folktales and published them in a series of books from 1812 to 1857. Steinau is the start of Hesse's Fairytale Route, which follows the places where Jacob and Wilhelm lived, and where the tales were set. Their journey, and ours, starts here, at their childhood home – a half-timbered manor house where they lived in the 1790s. Inside, it shows displays on their lives, and the garden has a wooden cage with Hansel trapped inside. My daughter Sarah, aged 11, pokes a stick through the bars to see if he's fat enough to eat. Benjamin, 12, shakes an apple out of the tree above: luckily it is not poisoned.

I scoop them up and drive them off to a farmhouse in a forest. The Brathähnchenfarm Hotel lies up a narrow track in a wood. Its ground floor is a series of low tavern rooms, their rough walls lit by lanterns hanging from blackened beams, their wooden benches softened with sheep's fleeces. A fireplace crackles at one end, where spits of meat turn and smoke. It's the kind of place where stories might be told on a winter's night: or where a scullery maid might sweep cinders from a hearth and earn herself a nickname.

We enter the fairytale world more formally next day, 60 miles north, at the Märchenhaus in Alsfeld. A cathedral bell clangs above a tangle of 16th-century lanes. The Haus has "1628" etched above its wooden door and a well with a frog perched on its rim. Its white walls and brown timbers look like icing sugar and gingerbread. We tiptoe in.

The rooms of this museum are decorated with life-size tableaux from the tales. Statues of Hansel and Gretel creep up to a cottage where an old woman leers by an oven door. Rumpelstiltskin weaves gold thread from sweet-smelling bales of straw. A witch's kitchen features a black cat and a row of herbs above an iron stove. A storyteller eyes us up. "I am a herb woman," she announces. "I grow them in my garden. Stories come from them."

We leave fairly hastily and head for the safety of Snow White's cottage. It's an hour's drive away, across rolling hills and woods, in a village called Bergfreiheit. The cottage fails to impress Benjamin, who says it is a fake. But Sarah is amused by its seven bunk beds, the seven chairs around its kitchen table and the photo we take of ourselves in dwarvish hoods.

But on the edge of the village is a piece of real folklore. The Kupferbergwerk mine is all that's left of an industry that may explain those seven dwarves. Off to work they went, with picks and shovels to dig copper and gold in the wooded hillside here, which is riddled with copper mines from the 16th-century. These were often worked by children, whose short stature gained them a local nickname: "dwarves".

You can go inside a disused shaft that dates back to 1552, with a hard hat and a guide. Wooden pitprops frame rough walls as you descend its long dark tunnel. "This is copper," says the guide, pointing at a smear of green, "and this is Fool's Gold," by a wall of glittering crystals.

Miners here were given special freedoms and the village became a haven for outlaws and runaways. Bergfreiheit translates as "freedom mountain". It's the perfect setting for a tale of escape and transformation, such as Snow White's.

But there is more. A display at the cottage suggests that the model for Snow White was Margarete of Waldeck, the beautiful daughter of a local count, who fled from a jealous stepmother and died in 1554 – of poisoning. Her brother owned these copper mines. Sometime then, a scandal spread of a father who had poisoned his children with bad apples. So this is how the tales emerged, from histories and scare stories woven together.

Margarete's castle of Waldeck is nearby, and that is where we'll stay tonight. These days it's an elegant hotel, a far cry from the humble village. Its towers and battlements rise above a glittering lake and we enter through a Gothic hall. This is the world of princesses and kings, which fairytale figures might tame through marriage or success, but which also oppress them – like Snow White or Cinderella. The heroes of the tales are seldom grand: more often they are woodcutters, peasants, fishermen and their fates impart the wisdom of the common folk.

Next day we descend to the dungeons. "Creepy or what?" says Sarah with a thrill of fear. Among the stone vaults is a torture chamber, a reminder of the world of power around the tales. There's a whipping bench and an executioner's block, a woodblock map of noble estates dated 1575 and a hand-drawn family tree showing several Margaretes. I wonder which one she was.

To get a firmer grip on our history, we drive north to the city of Kassel, where the Grimm brothers moved from Steinau in 1798. They seem always to have lived and worked close to each other, sharing a mission in life. In Kassel, they worked as librarians and published their classic book of Kinder- und Hausmärchen – tales for children and households – in 1812. This was a time of revolution and nationalism. Napoleon had occupied then abandoned the region, leaving behind new ideas about the power of the people and inspiring resistance to invaders. These would coalesce in the brothers' work, with its search for the soul of a people through their stories, and its wish to establish a German identity.

The city houses an elegant museum to the brothers and a special exhibition to mark Jacob's anniversary year. We ramble through the latter, past manuscripts and portraits and first editions of their books. Then we head to the edge of town, looking for an 18th-century roadside inn, the Brauhaus-Knallhütte. Here Jacob and Wilhelm gathered stories from the innkeeper's daughter, Dorothea Viehmann, who heard them from travellers. Still it is a roadside place – next to a ring road, behind a car park, on an industrial estate. But inside it's a delight. There's a brass bar, a long dining room with dark beams and red banquettes, and soft light falling through stained-glass windows of huntsmen and barmaids. We munch sausages contentedly.

Our final stop may or may not have a Grimm connection. But if it doesn't, it should. Sababurg claims to be Sleeping Beauty's castle. Its pepperpot towers from 1334 are surrounded by thickets of roses and magnificent beech woods that would deter many a prince. Inside the ruined great hall, we catch the daily performance of Sleeping Beauty. A young man in red velvet is wooing a pretty blonde, pink roses woven in her waist-length hair.

Walking onto the battlements, I spot a herd of deer on the slope below, like the strangely met animals of myths. Then we unlock a little door at the foot of a tower and clamber up a spiral stair. On a landing is a spinning wheel. At the top are our rooms for the night, each with a four-poster bed. For the castle has been transformed into a wildly romantic hotel.

But that night, as we hop into the great carved beds, the children are spooked by the ruins and the moonlight. We have stepped too far into the imaginative power of the tales. It's a long night, with every creak of ancient wood a fright. I read them the tales, where every ordeal leads to a happy ending.

In the bright light of the morning, we walk around the grounds, which claim to be Europe's oldest zoological gardens, dating from 1571. Roaming free are herds of deer, muskox and wild boar. At the far end we spot a creature that haunts the tales, as once he haunted the untamed woods of Europe: a wolf. He stares at us. His eyes are black and burning. He is the fear we meet in fairy stories – and learn to overcome.

Driving away from the castle, we stop in an endless stand of fir trees. There are wild blackberries among long grass, pine needles on raw earth, and rows of trees stretching away forever. We seem tiny in this world. The branches are crooked fingers, clutching out at us. We are children among dark powers. Once these forests stretched across northern Europe and Asia, and they figure still – in fairytales, in Shakespeare, in Hollywood movies – as a place of challenge and of change. Then Sarah picks a blackberry and Benjamin lobs a pine cone at me, and we are innocents once more, protected by the joy of our journey and the wisdom of what we have seen.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Jonathan Lorie travelled as a guest of the Hesse tourism board (hessen-tourism.com).

Frankfurt Main airport is the major gateway to the Hesse region, served from the UK by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Lufthansa (0871 945 9747; lufthansa.com) and BMI Regional (0844 417 2600; bmiregional.com). Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies to Frankfurt-Hahn airport.

Staying there

Hotel Schloss Waldeck (00 49 5623 5890; schloss-hotel-waldeck.com) has doubles from €98 (£84), including breakfast.

Dornröschenschloss Sababurg (00 49 5671 8080; sababurg.de) has doubles from €220 (£187), including breakfast.

Seeing there

Brothers Grimm Museum, Kassel (00 49 5611 03235; grimms.de).

Brauhaus Knallhutte restaurant, Baunatal (00 49 5614 92076; www.knallhuette.de).

Sababurg Castle (00 49 5671 8080; sababurg.de).