Although Hamelin is in Germany, the tale is well-known in English popular culture and is widely read in primary schools. Just like a lot of children, I read the Robert Browning poem and the Brothers' Grimm story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, how he saved the town from a plague of rats and then kidnapped the town's children when he wasn't paid for his work. When we decided to visit Hamelin, I didn't know what to expect. Had the town embraced its Pied Pier heritage? Or was it something that, locally, was of no real interest in spite of the international claim to fame? What we discovered was a fun few days steeped in images of - and references to - the piper, his rats and the final journey of the doomed Hamelin children.
The Colourful Houses Of the Old Town
As we wandered into Hamelin's old town on our first evening, the first thing we noticed was all the colourful houses. I'd never seen this type of detail before anywhere, not in Germany or anywhere else. The ancient wooden frontages of many of the houses were covered in carved borders and panels, which had then been carefully painted in intricate patterns. It made each one look distinctive and individual, and added to the sense of them being from another time and place. People must really enjoy coming home to these interesting and cheerful-looking houses every day!
Rats! Rats! Rats! They're Everywhere!
The other thing we noticed - immediately on arrival - is that there are rats everywhere. The light blue rat (below left) is waiting for you when you walk out of the train station. Hamelin doesn't shy away from its Pied Piper connection! There are the customary cuddly toy rats and other Pied Piper and rat souvenirs in the tourist shops, and it's also possible to follow a trail of 'rat cobblestones', but it's just as much fun to walk around the town and come across rats in some very unusual places. Here are some we found in a childrens' playground and on the bridge across the river Weser.
Local 'Rat' Businesses
The theme is continued by Hamelin's local businesses. This 'ratsweinhandlung' was established in 1823. This may be a tenuous link because the English translation is 'council wine store', but why not join the Pied Piper connection as well?
The restaurant 'Im Rattenkrug' (English - 'In the Rat Jar') is the oldest restaurant in Hamelin and is over two hundred years old, but I think the Rats Coffee Shop is much more recent!
A Bit of Fun for the Kids
If you gather in the square next to the Wedding House at Osterstrasse 2, at 13:00, 15.30 or 17:30, any children you have with you are in for a treat. In a mechanical version of the story, the Pied Piper appears from behind two doors in the wall, accompanied by glockenspiel bells, and followed by the rats he takes away from the town. Unfortunately, a few minutes later, he reappears with the Hamelin children close behind as he takes them away as well.
The Pied Piper Legend in the Nineteenth Century
I wondered if there was a connection between the establishment of businesses such as 'Im Rattenkrug' and the appearance of the Pied Piper story in literature? The brothers Grimm collected stories from all over Germany and included the story of the Pied Piper in their book German Legends (1816). Robert Browning was almost certainly familiar with the story as a child, as he was brought up in a literary, academic and book-loving home, which must have had an influence on him writing his poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin in the 1840s. The Grimm story and the Browning poem are both loved by children everywhere. Perhaps visitors came to Hamelin because of these publications and in doing so, inspired local entrepreneurs to get involved.
The Hamelin Museum
The town's museum houses an extensive collection and much information about Hamelin at the different times in its history, but it also has a dedicated section about the origins of the Pied Piper, and his place in Hamelin's history and community.
At the museum, we learnt that in 1284 there was an incident in which 130 children disappeared from Hamelin, and were never seen again. There have been many theories since about the reason for their disappearance, but one theory I found particularly interesting concerns a thirteenth-century plan which encouraged people to migrate to Eastern Europe. Men in bright clothing would visit places in the west to advertise this plan and take people back with them. The 130 children who disappeared may not have been young children at all, but actually older children and teenagers who were enticed away with the promise of work. There's also a possible explanation for their supposed disappearance into the mountain, as at the time, many people apparently knew of tunnel and cave networks which led through to the other side.
Above is a contemporary painting of the Pied Piper from the museum collection, showing that even in modern times, the story is still an inspiration for creative ideas. The photos below show a sculpture and an installation of empty shoes which have been added to the museum in recent years. The shoes have a poignant resonance with belongings left behind by the victims of the Holocaust.
We had an enjoyable trip to Hamelin. It's a town which has maintained and developed its links with its very own literary legend. Whether or not the story has some basis in facts from long ago, it's still a fun place to visit and explore. If you get there, I wonder how many rats you'll be able to find?