Hamelin – a Little Big Town


Christmas at Bückeburg castle

Shall we take a trip to the Pied Piper of Hamelin? In my youth, when this question was asked, my family would put Hamelin on the program. In those days, the trip was both an adventure and an excursion to a large city, because my hometown, some 50 kilometers away, is by far not half the size of Hameln, in Lower Saxony, which today is home to a population of about 60 000. 

I was very excited every time. I emptied my savings box and, on several days in advance, I was the nicest and most angelic child one could imagine. Hamelin had everything we didn’t get at home: a McDonald’s (in the mid-eighties there weren’t many of them around) and department stores displaying toys and bells and whistles, which a small girl needed desperately. 

Today, I have lived in Hamelin for the past ten years and, connected with my job, I occasionally take corporate visitors through the narrow streets and along the banks of the River Weser and, sometimes, I request the support of the Pied Piper. 

I have heard some of our visitors ask whether people really live in the timber-frame buildings with the tiny windows. My answer is: Yes, they do! 

I fully understand this kind of question because some streets in Hamelin look as if they had dropped out of a fairy tale. What characterizes the charm of this small town and its environment? 

A walk through the center of town has its appeal. Better still, take a seat in one of the sidewalk cafés and admire the magnificent architecture while sipping a cup of coffee. Art historians consider the old town of Hamelin a jewel among the Renaissance buildings along the River Weser. 

The center of town consists of two bigger streets and many small alleys. The streets are plastered with large cobblestones made of Chinese granite. Not only is it pretty but occasionally individual stones sink, thereby creating large gaps between the cobblestones. I affectionately call them high-heels killers. The shoemakers’ trade in Hamelin is not likely to become extinct anytime soon.

There are many beautiful timber-frame buildings, some of them with a very special history. Today, they accommodate restaurants, a museum, the registry office and normal apartments. 

On your walk through the town, don’t forget to look down at your feet. Even when wearing sneakers, which are immune to uneven cobblestone sidewalks, it’s well worth keeping an eye on the surface of the street. You will find small golden rats all along the streets of the old town. They guide tourists on a circular tour through the city which will take them to the most important buildings and scenic spots.

About two hundred years ago, two brothers succumbed to the charm of the town and remained there for some time. They were traveling from their hometown of Hanau near Frankfurt to Buxtehude in the north of Germany, close to Hamburg. 

On their voyage through Germany in the early 19th century, they collected folk tales and myths, noting down the stories they heard from people across the country. 

While doing so, they blended myths with real occurences, thus creating the folktales people continue to read to their children up to this day. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm would certainly be very pleased to know that they continue to top the bestseller list of fairy-tales. 

Today, the route the two brothers traveled is named the German Fairy Tale Route, the route of folk tales, myths and legends. 

They collected numerous stories, but the Pied Piper of Hamelin may well be one of the best-known worldwide. It has been estimated that about a billion people know the myth. It is particularly popular in Japan and the USA. The Americans, for instance, say: “You better pay the piper” and the British: “Who pays the piper calls the tune”. Both refer to the fairy tale and imply that something terrible will happen if you don’t settle a debt, or, the one who pays has the say. 

The tale may be based on an actual exodus of children which occurred in the year 1284. About 130 children disappeared from Hamelin which at the time counted a population of 2000.

A probable but never fully proven background refers to aristocratic territorial rulers luring the children and young adults away from Hamelin to establish new settlements toward the east. Only several centuries later a connection was made between the exodus of the children and the rat infestation.

The most frequent surprise by visitors is that the town of Hamelin actually exists. 

What’s more, Hamelin’s environment is known to be the source of further fairy tales. Practically around the corner, some 30 kilometers from Hamelin, the small town of Polle is said to be the place of birth of Cinderella. Somewhere on the castle steps she lost her shoe and the prince his heart. 

And then there was Baron Munchausen, a big braggart and later legend. He was born in Bodenwerder, a small town just outside Hamelin. 

What else is worth mentioning concerning Hameln and the surrounding region? Well, on the one hand there are two beautiful mountain ranges, the Weser Uplands and Leinebergland. Admitted, by Swiss standards they are probably only small hills, but for us they are a local area of recreation with great potential for hiking in summer and tobogganing in winter. Once a year, when celebrating the Felgenfest, the federal highways around Hamelin are closed off to motorized traffic, and cyclists conquer the streets. As is to be expected, lots of mobile snack bars line the streets as welcome pit stops. 

Hamelin is a tourist destination: every year about 4 million people visit our beautiful city. 

Naturally, the myth of the Pied Piper serves as a great attraction, but the city’s surroundings are magnificent and home to beautiful palaces as, for instance, the so-called Seven Palaces in the Leinebergland and the Weser Uplands. They are considered historic jewels and significantly represent the Weser Renaissance style of architecture which is well-known for its white gold and the world’s largest private mausoleum. They include the only royal palace in northern Germany, a World Heritage site, and many of them are still family owned. 

On the one hand, the Seven Palaces look back on over 800 years of history, court life and famous people. On the other hand, today they entertain their visitors with impressive state-of-the-art palace tours and marvelous events. The attraction of the magic Seven is characterized by their cultural authenticity coupled with high-class and modern hospitality. 

Fortunately, in 2017, some 650 000 visitors to the Seven Palaces from all over the world were counted. They traveled on exciting journeys through time in palace architecture and court culture, visited concerts and exhibitions, celebrated weddings and enjoyed the palace restaurants and tearooms. 

Hamelin and its surroundings may have a lot of medieval heritage to show, but there is a modern side to Hamelin, too. 

Every year, in late summer, the stage is set for the “Pflasterfest”, when the entire city center celebrates one big party. This year, 80 bands appeared on six stages, and the cobblestones trembled and a deep sound pervaded Hamelin’s old town. The musicians successfully transferred Hamelin into a state of emergency for a period of three days. More than 100 000 visitors were counted, all of them enjoying rock, soul, pop, punk or Irish folk into the early hours of the morning. 

The three days remained peaceful, and should things get out of hand, Hamelin has a solution, namely a prison, our very own prison. The fact that it is a correctional institution for young people is irrelevant. The story goes that in the 17th Century the city fathers had to decide whether Hamelin was to obtain a university or a prison. 

Out of concern for the wellbeing of their daughters, the city fathers decided for the pris-on. The prison would lock away the young men, and the fathers wouldn’t have to fear that unruly students molested their daughters. 

The university went to Göttingen, the prison was built in Hameln and remained. Usually we manage to keep them all behind bars, and if not, we call the Pied Piper.

Facts and Figures:

Federal State: Lower Saxony
State Capital: Hannover
Population: 57 228 (31 Dec 2017)
Mayor: Claudio Griese (CDU)

Further information: