Pick the right route in Europe and you can caper from medieval towns to glacial valleys in a few hours. And almost as thrilling as making your way through the continent is plotting the itinerary. For many, Europe’s charm lies in not only its spatial magnificence, but the cultural heritage it affords—including a physical realm of fairytales and folklores! Think cliff-top castles, churches, secret bookstores or enchanted moors that have been vital to the characters and authors of generations of bedtime stories. Throw in pit stops that exude an intangible romance, blurring the line between real life and fantasy. A fairytale trail can twirl you around Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Croatia and Greece, among other countries. Tempted? Talk to no wolf along the way, and you will follow the breadcrumbs home.
What better place to kick off the trail than the land of legendary folklorists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm? Be a part of the literary history along Deutsche Märchenstraße, the 600-km-long German Fairy Tale Road. The route runs from the brothers’ birthplace in Hanau all the way to Bremen. Start by soaking up a summer day in Hanau, when the whole town comes together to celebrate the annual Grimm-Märchenfestspiele festival. A stroll through Bremen, the UNESCO World Heritage town alluded to in The Town Musicians of Bremen, will lead you to some gorgeous Gothic architecture and a statue of the singing farm animals. In between, the map is sprinkled with treasures like Museum of the Brothers Grimm in picturesque Steinau, and Grimm World in Kassel, a World War II site where the linguists had once spent their formative years. In the medieval town of Göttingen, you can kiss the fountain of the Little Goose Girl for some extra luck, while Marburg and Hann. Münden are for marvelling half-timbered houses. Fancy tracing Red Riding Hood’s footsteps through woodlands? Stop by the Schwalm region, a lush river basin. Or perhaps you can head to Sleeping Beauty’s 650-year-old castle in Sababurg, which houses a themed hotel and animal park. There’s also Hameln, scattered with quirky Pied Piper memorabilia, the least sinister of which might be rodent-shaped cookies churned out by neighbourhood bakeries. Pro tip: Merge the trail with another popular holiday route, the Romantic Road, to bask in the beauty of both the North Sea and the Bavarian Alps.
Lufthansa flies from New Delhi and Bengaluru to Munich directly, and via the capital to Bremen daily, under 11 hours. You may also close to fly from Mumbai to Frankfurt.
Switzerland is the holy grail of storybook visuals. Quite literally, in the case of Maienfeld, a toy-like town about 100 km from Zurich, where you can embark upon the Heidi trail. Start by refreshing your memories of author Johanna Spyri’s famous character at the Hotel Restaurant Heidihof, where you’d want to snag souvenirs and trail tickets from the gift shop which also houses the country’s smallest post office. If you’re not familiar with the story of the nature-and-cheese loving orphan girl, go for the dazzle of the Swiss Alps. The actual village, a 10-minute walk from the restaurant, is a time portal to the 19th-century pastoral wonderland depicted in the books—complete with Heidi’s winter and summer cottages, school, and a host of barn animals! Barely a five-minute drive away sits the wine-making village of Jenins, home to the Greisinger Museum, which celebrates a different literary landscape—JRR Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Fitting, since it is thought that the ethereal realm central to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings classics was inspired by the English writer’s 1911 trek through misty Interlaken, the staggering peaks of the Jungfrau region, and Lauterbrunnen, a waterfall-girdled valley often credited with having influenced his imageries of Rivendell. All places you should add to the trail, of course. But first, pass through the Hobbit hole gate of the museum and journey to underground rooms for an audience with Bernd Greisinger’s collection of Middle-Earth memorabilia, the world’s largest of its kind. Just south of Mainefeld lies the oldest town of Switzerland, Chur, whose cathedrals and farmers markets are best admired on foot. Fall under the spell of pretty blue Lucerne, or the country’s administrative capital Bern, furnished with urban-fairytale looks and a UNSECO-listed Old Town. Another resort town that has somehow retained its gossamer aura is Grindelwald, not to be confused with the old-timey mountain village of Gimmelwald, your stop for snug timbre cottages and hiking trails. Gimmelwald’s lost-in-time quality is replicated in Grimentz, its rustic buildings flanked by rows of flowers. Then there’s Gruyères, a pre-Alps town dotted with fortresses, cheese factories, and street fountains. By now you know, this is a trail where you can safely wander off the map. Whichever path you take—from Morcote on Lake Lugano to Lausanne by Lake Geneva—your fairytale would follow.
Fly Lufthansa from New Delhi or Bangalore to Zurich, either via Munich or Frankfurt. The airline also flies from Mumbai via Frankfurt.
From the stone city of Mattera to the labyrinths of Capalbio, there’s no end to Italy’s enchantments. But one can start all the way up in the north at Aosta, an Alpine Eden straddling the Italian border with Switzerland and France. Rolling vales, Disney-like castles and a tapestry of frosted peaks keep it safe from the jaws of real life. About half an hour’s drive away lies Courmayer, sprinkled generously with ski slopes, hiking trails and lavish views of Mont Blanc. If meditative isolation is what you seek, consider a boat ride to the private isle of Isola di Loreto, levitating over the azure waters of Iseo Lake in the Lombardy region. While you might not be able to set foot on it, its neo-Gothic castle, conifer-kissed garden, twin towers and harbour make for a breathtaking view from the lake. Another stop you cannot miss is Trentino aka the Autonomous Province of Trento. Because you see, that’s where wood sculptures of Rapunzel, Ugly Duckling and others await to ambush you at the feet of the Vigolana mountain in Alpe Cimbra. Carved animals, fairies and witches also stand sentinel along the leafy track between Preghena and woods of Val di Non. The Little Walker’s Way in Comano Valley bundles up six gorgeous trails, each of which have given birth to a children’s story written by Stefano Bordiglioni. That is not to forget the Forest of Dragons, an easy-to-walk adventure filled with supernatural footprints and a rather handsome ‘Dragon’s Egg’ nest. Gubbio charms with its Etruscan-era heritage of churches, palaces and gothic houses topped with hallmark wonky roofs. And tucked in the Abruzzo region, old-as-time Chieti is said to have been created by Greek hero Achilles. Sorrento, on the other hand, is for sipping limoncello by the sea and listening to stories of mythological Sirens. How’s that for a delicious wrap?
Lufthansa flies from Munich to Trieste and Ancona directly. From India, travel to Rome from New Delhi or Mumbai via Zurich with the carrier.
I hear what you’re saying. We’ve landed at King’s Landing! Of late Croatia throws up specific images of sea-sprayed cliffs, scented orchards and cobblestone towns, partly because it is home to some of the filming locations for Game of Thrones, the hit fantasy series based on George RR Martin’s eponymous epic. True, there’s no ignoring the thrill of walking down the limestone-paved streets of Dubrovnik to stumble upon real-life versions of Red Keep or the House of Undying. The 6th-century Lovrijenac Fortress, St. Dominika Street, and Bokar Fortress, have all featured in key moments from the show. Just outside the city, the garden of Trsteno Arboretum offers magnum views of the Adriatic Sea, looking every bit like the fictional palace gardens. And Zrnovnica village and the UNESCO-listed Diocletian’s Palace in Split are worth a dekko for their individual characters alone. This is to say that while all these places merit your attention, Croatia’s fantastical atmosphere isn’t limited to its latest association. Soak it up in the city of Ogulin, built as a defense against the Turks and now home to the Storytelling Fairy Tale Route. Snaking past river valleys, villages, meadows, and lakes, the trail is an ode to the life and works of famous Croatian author Ivana Brlić Mažuranić. For otherworldly visuals, head to Plitvice Lakes National Park, yet another UNESCO wonder. A lake system interlocked by waterfalls and underground streams cuts through its karst landscape, made surreal by caves, natural dams, forests and meadows. While spring waves a magic wand over the terrain, winter in the park is just as bewitching, with The Great Waterfall (Veliki Slap) freezing into a silver curtain. Rastoke, a village in Slunj, serves as the confluence of the Slunjčica and Korana rivers—a vision in turquoise and green. Watermills and tiny wooden houses add to its allure. Speaking of tiny, one must not forget Hum, dubbed the smallest town in the world. With just two streets and three rows of houses, it is easy to believe the legend of giants running out of stones while building it, leaving it to be a cute play-town. Yet it is not without buzz, for Hum is ground zero for biska, a mistletoe-spiced brandy. Come October it celebrates the Grappa festival, where brandy-makers gather from neighbouring areas to show off their homemade treats.
Lufthansa operates from New Delhi To Zagreb via Munich and from Mumbai and Bengaluru via Frankfurt. If travelling from New Delhi or Mumbai, also consider reaching Dubrovnik via Munich.
Landscapes in Greece can be postcard-pretty, or it can be pretty dramatic. An example of the latter is Meteora, a rock formation in Central Greece that consists of giant monoliths hulking over the Plain of Thessaly. Perched precariously upon them are a scatter of monasteries built between the 14-16th centuries, housing actual monks, along with manuscripts and frescos. Prefer to keep it quaint? Make your way to the car-free island of Kastellorizo, whose harbour is guarded by noisy flocks of caiques. Just beyond it, rows of neoclassical buildings stand pretty, splashed in sun colours. Then there’s Chora, an idyllic holiday haunt located in Patmos. Flecked with whitewashed buildings, it conjures dreamy vistas of the Aegean Sea, especially if you’re willing to climb up the 12th-century St. John monastery. White courtyards stack up against colourful houses in Assos, Kefalonia, small-town with romance oozing out of its Venetian castle and sleepy tavernas. Milky walls and Cycladic architecture abound in Oia, Santorini, the very picture of an Instagram fairytale. If photogenic facades get you excited, don’t miss the village of Pyrgi on Chios island, where black-and-white geometrical patterns are etched onto buildings. Just as arresting are the scenes from Olympos village on Karpathos, where you might run into artists painting ceramic plates, or townsfolk working their looms. One of the magical things about Greece is the lingering presence of its past. Chania, on the coast of Crete, is said to have been built on the ruins of ancient Kydonia, the realm of king Cydon according to mythology. Today it is resort town juggling medieval towns with cafeterias, and castles with pink-sand beaches.
Fly Lufthansa to Santorini from New Delhi, via Munich or from Bengaluru or Mumbai via Frankfurt.
Sohini Das Gupta travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.