Gothic and Grimm: The joys of fairytale Marburg

An hour from Frankfurt, the picturesque town of Marburg, with its steep, cobbled streets and links to the Brothers Grimm, is brimming with personality

Gateway to castle Marburg

Gateway to castle Marburg

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They must have great calf muscles in Marburg. Their ankles must be able for any challenge. The cobbled streets of this medieval German town demand – and deserve – to be taken at an easy pace as they wind at an occasionally challenging gradient up from an ancient Gothic church at the bottom of the hill to the imposing castle at the top. How steep is the walk? There are lifts to take you one from one street to the next. Which makes Marburg a wonderful walking town. Honestly.

The path up the old town – an hour’s drive from Frankfurt Airport; through the wide, hilly countryside of the Hesse region – rewards unhurried curiosity. Not least because of the many delightful idiosyncrasies that have piled up since the 12th century.

Take one side street and you’ll end up at a row of buildings whose numbers come in Harry Potteresque fractions.

Go down another and you’ll find a several-centuries-old church or a graveyard of mossy and exhausted headstones among which locals sit, read, relax.

Another detour will have you squeezing along on a path overhung by tall, narrow timber-framed houses up to 700 years old. Some of these homes lean so alarmingly that if you’re lucky enough to get invited inside one, you’ll leave feeling a touch seasick.

Marburg marketplace with beautiful half-timbered houses
Marburg marketplace with beautiful half-timbered houses

Other quirks are far more calculated. For instance, soon after arriving in Marburg you’ll begin to notice a particular theme in its public art. Giant metal flies crawl across a couple of buildings. A large red shoe waits for Cinderella on a wall near the castle. The heads of several goats and a lone, hungry wolf jut from another high wall. And, almost unnoticed and slightly overgrown, the Frog Prince sits over a street, holding a book while watching the shoppers pass by.

This is the Brothers Grimm Trail, marking the years during which Jacob and Wilhem used their time at Marburg’s Phillips University to gather the folk tales they would make famous.

Brothers Grimm

Phillips is the world’s oldest Protestant university and Marburg remains a university town today, with almost half its 70,000 population either studying or working there. It has brought not just the Grimm brothers, but also the likes of philosopher Martin Heidegger and Boris Pasternak to the town and when you visit the 380-year-old Lehmanns Universitätsbuchhandlung Elwert bookshop (don’t worry, you don’t have to ask for it by its full name) you are walking in their footsteps, and browsing the same shelves they did.

Marburg’s beautiful half-timbered houses.
Marburg’s beautiful half-timbered houses

Nevertheless – in winter at least – the most tourist-centred old town of Marburg didn’t have the often relentless energy and flow you might expect from a university town. Instead there was a gentle rhythm that gradually forces you to slow down with it.

Marburg’s old town is effectively bookended by two buildings. At the bottom is Elisabethkirche, a 13th-century sandstone church that was one of the earliest purely Gothic churches in Germany and is well worth a visit inside and out. At the top is the Gothic Marburg Schloss castle.

Taking the walk up to that castle, you’ll reach the town square about half-way up. In this a small but lovely spot, you can drink coffee, browse a bookshop or relish the oddities.

At the front of its town hall is a crest depicting a lion. Or rather, what was meant to be a lion. It does not look much like a lion. It looks a monkey unsuccessfully disguised as a lion. The story, as relayed to me anyway, is that the artist was asked to carve a lion but – it being the middle ages and all that – he’d never actually seen a lion. But he had seen a monkey. So he carved what he could.

The other explanation is that the artist was just plain drunk.

Whatever the truth, it is the sort of happy accident that makes you fall for a place.

Peach lager

Nearby, the cellar bar Hinkelstein puts peaches in the lager. Not in tiny pieces either, but hefty chunks that lie like boulders at the bottom of the glass. The sweetness of the resulting drink makes it an unreconstructed, medieval alcopop. And if you want it to double as dessert, they give you a spoon with the glass. All of this is served under a replica of Obelix’s stone from the Asterix comics, which dangles dangerously over the head of the barman (as long as you’re content to ask no further questions and accept it is made of crushing stone).

Scenic Marburg
Scenic Marburg

It is best to enjoy that drink on the way back down from the castle, because the walk up requires steadiness as it gives you the option of a tilting against the hill or climbing stone steps. It is worth it to wander the imposing and handsome Marburg Schloss. There is a small museum welcoming visitors, but the main prize for the walk is the view.

It gives you a look down over the tumbling beauty of the old town, out to the new part of town buildings with its busy traffic and modern buildings, and to the countryside beyond. It is no wonder the town applied to be put on the Unesco World Heritage list. And it gives you an idea of the standard of that list that a place like Marburg didn’t quite reach it.

Anyway, once you’ve enjoyed the view, and then loitered to enjoy it some more, it’s time to make your way back down those cobbles while realising it’s almost tougher to go down than up. A little rain gives it an added sense of adventure, making every step a mini challenge unless you just opt for the steps instead. But it is all worth it for the view up top, the peachy beer you’ll earn half-way down, and the sense that you’ve discovered a town of such personality it gets under your skin and has you very sorry when it’s time to leave.

Shane Hegarty is the author of the Darkmouth series of young adult books, and visited Marburg with Marburger Lesefest reading festival

HOW TO GET THERE

Marburg is only an hour’s drive from Frankfurt airport. There are also several trains a day from the airport to the centre of Marburg.

WHERE TO STAY

Marburg has a limited choice of local hotels, but the Marburger Hof – at the bottom of the hill in the old town – is a solid three-star option.

WHERE TO EAT

Zur Sonne (Markt 14) is a very old and very reliable restaurant at the main square. Try the Schnitzel.

Büchinsgarten restaurant (Landgraf Philipp Straße 6) is up near the castle and has spectacular views of the town.

For munchies – or gifts – there are several chocolatiers and cafes in the town. La Manufacture d’Anouk (Barfusserstr 9a) is particularly good.

A VISUALLY-IMPAIRED-FRIENDLY TOWN

Thanks to its excellent and long-standing school for the blind, Marburg is extremely friendly to visually impaired visitors. Its university has the highest proportion of visually impaired students of any third-level institution in Germany.

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