Certain trips acquire an almost mythical quality over time: You leave home at the right moment and return just as it passes. You have friends to visit along your route, and all of them are delighted to put you up. You rent the right car, pack the right books, eat remarkably well and make your own discoveries, all roughly within your budget. Glowing memories ensue.
For me, it was southern Germany, circa 2003, and it was a solo vacation: route devised according to my whims alone; tiny car stocked with audiobooks entirely of my choosing; and a freelance assignment to help finance the thing. I flew into Frankfurt where I visited college friends, and continued to Heidelberg. Then it was all work in Baden-Baden, where I had been asked to compare the town’s famed Old World spa treatments with the latest high-tech spas in New York for a women’s magazine (a hardship assignment, to be sure).
For nearly three weeks, I meandered through the Black Forest, across the Alpenstrasse where small woodland creatures seemed to frolic beside me Snow White-style, in the early October frost, into Munich and then up north through a landscape speckled with Germany’s famed castles and medieval cities (known as the Romantic Road) back to Frankfurt.
There was only one thing missing: children. The toyshops of Heidelberg, their wares clearly cobbled together by wood sprites with tiny hammers, begged for a child’s awed gasps. The Black Forest with its wooded peaks, signature cake and half-timbered houses wasn’t quite Grimm enough without them. Cuckoo clocks are not for grown-ups. The Deutsches Museum in Munich needed kids running around its trains; the night watchman’s tour of the walled city of Rothenburg was intended to spook.
These things were best appreciated by a family, and I didn’t have one.
Fifteen years later, I do, and the plan was to replicate, as closely as possible, my original itinerary together, a family of five. Would the magic hold up and perhaps acquire extra fairy dust in the company of three medium-size children? Was the timing right, or were we too late?
Now 9, 11 and 13, my children had graduated from wooden playthings, and left behind earlier days of reading Grimm, watching the Disney versions on repeat and memorizing the lyrics from “Into the Woods.” They’d moved on to Greek myths and J.R.R. Tolkien, Dungeons & Dragons and dystopian fiction. Though the source material was clearly the same.
Traveling with one or two kids is relatively straightforward: You can rent pretty much any size car. You can squeeze into a single room. Not so when you’ve overdone it with three or more. Everything is more complicated at hotels, especially with three children who are at an age when asking any of them to share a bed is like putting two cats in a bag. Verboten.
Unless your children have the magical combination of age, gender and disposition to sleep peacefully in the same bed (hats off), you need a room with four beds, or better yet, a room with one bed and another with three.
[What should you read on a fairy tale vacation? We’ve got suggestions, for both classics and new takes.]
You also need a minivan. Not a stylish European minivan that could pass for a car if you squint. No, you need a big, dumb American version — and do not confuse that with an S.U.V., which has neither the legroom for five nor the trunk capacity for five suitcases. Car rental companies do not generally get into these subtleties, which is why we found ourselves staggering with jet lag at the Frankfurt airport, filling out forms to upgrade to a decent-size minivan, one that might even fit all our suitcases if we abandoned the concept of rearview vision.
We were tired. We were hungry. We set off to Heidelberg on a series of German autobahns, squeezed into what felt like a Beetle.
With one more challenge — or, as a fairy tale would have it, an obstacle: One of those three children is vegan and we were in southern Germany where vegetarianism is only lightly tolerated, and vegan (we tried out various pronunciations on our waiters) is understood mostly as an insult in the land of bratwurst and schnitzel. Menus had to be scrutinized, allergen lists examined. Waiters, stumped, retreated into kitchens to consult with chefs. At one Swabian restaurant, the waiter apologetically retrieved a bowl of noodles made with eggs. At another, when we asked if we could just please get a veggie plate, the owner threw up his hands. “Vegetables?” he huffed, motioning us out. “This is a traditional Bavarian restaurant; we don’t have vegetables!”
Driving was less challenging, despite kids prone to backseat nausea. We kept our rides under two hours. Remaining within two regions, Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, we traveled from Heidelberg to Baden-Baden, through the Black Forest, down to the Bodensee and into Bavaria, upward to Munich and northward on the Romantic Road back to Frankfurt.
Our hotels began in jetlag-friendly luxury, before downshifting to more modest, but still spacious, lodgings and a three-day Airbnb in Munich, with a strategic happy ending at a castle stay outside Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
Once in Heidelberg, we settled into the sumptuous Die Hirschgasse hotel, just across the Neckar River from the city’s Fodor’s-friendly Altstadt (Old Town). It was Sunday, when — in southern Germany at least — most stores are closed. We made our way down the main commercial stretch, infusing ourselves with gelato and gummy candy at regular intervals while dodging a swarm of bees that had apocalyptically descended on the town (fairy tale reference point: “The Queen Bee,” Brothers Grimm, Tale 62).
Castles, clocks, baths and books
We then set out for the local postcard attraction, the ruins of Schloss Heidelberg, best reached by a funicular tram (sit at the front of the head car on the way down for that vertiginous plunge kids can’t seem to get enough of). The castle is defunct; its trimmings and furniture, long gone. In many places, the stone-bare walls are barely standing. But a few key historical items remained in the interior. Our family favorite was the “Big Barrel,” which we imagined inebriating many a medieval castle dweller in its day, discovered Goldilocks-fashion only after following signs that led first to a deceptively large “small” barrel, then to a medium one (immense). It was hard not to imagine a giant of yore guzzling draft from its commodious spout.
The city’s most moving site betrayed a more recent devastation, one we came upon accidentally. Synagogue Square, a stark, near-empty anomaly in the crowded old city, marks the site of Heidelberg’s former Jewish house of worship, which was burned down by Nazi storm troopers in 1938. Its shattered congregants were forced afterward to pay for the building’s demolition. Today, carefully placed white marble squares represent the former pews and the 12 tribes of Israel.
In Baden-Baden, you take to the baths to relieve your pains. For families, that generally means the Caracalla Therme, which, unlike the more ornate Friedrichsbad, does not enforce nudity. My kids were all in. Prepaid entry is timed and I recommend overestimating your allotted stay; otherwise you pay by the minute, and, alas, we paid, in more ways than one. The bathhouse clearly expects theft and it gets it. No sooner had we tossed our rented towels onto a chaise than one was stolen. The cost of suffering a purloined towel and shivering child, according to the immovable staff, was 21 euros (about $24).
It was worth it, however, for the thorough soaking, frolic and relaxation of hours spent hopping from one pool to another, water in all its manifestations: bathtub-warm to Jacuzzi-hot to scented steam to icy cold. Steeped in chlorine, we washed off and settled in for a good night’s sleep at the modern fairy-tale themed Hotel Der Kleine Prinz.
I had originally envisioned reading Grimm tales to my children at night as we roamed the Black Forest. But if I’d suggested “Hansel and Gretel” at their current ages, they’d have sent me off to Frau Holle to do her worst. Instead, to keep things at least somewhat within the spirit of the traditional German fairy tale, we listened to Edgar Allan Poe audiobook stories in the car. At night, my youngest read a series based on the Norse myths, but set in the Black Hills of South Dakota. My middle child picked up his first Stephen King and my eldest blitzed her way through an endless series of post-apocalyptic doom. I read a Jo Nesbo thriller to keep up the spirit.
Darkness truly descended in Triberg, a touristy slice of the Black Forest set on a hill under Germany’s highest waterfall. Here, I had promised my children a visit to the Cuckoo Clock Museum. I had such fond memories of the place! The museum’s main room was huge, cavernous, sunken, wood-paneled. Inside, Geppetto-style, was clock after chirping clock, each more wondrously intricate than the last.
But where was the museum? We visited many kitschy cuckoo clock stores, all apparently called “House of 1,000 Clocks,” and a very modern German Clock Museum, which had one singular and magnificent cuckoo specimen, but was otherwise a standard glass-displayed history of time-telling accompanied by all-German labels. We went to the Black Forest Museum, which had an excellent collection of “orchestriums,” mechanical machines that replicated the sound of a full orchestra. Yet the magical museum of my memory was not to be found.
And so we went to the park. Two of them. In recent decades, “barefoot parks,” public spaces specifically groomed to accommodate earthy types without their Birkenstocks, have sprung up around Europe, mostly in Germany and Austria. For a small fee, visitors are provided lockers for their shoes, before setting off on a path designed to heighten one’s attention to the senses, from the painful spike of walking across wood chips or on gravel, to the squishiness of traipsing through mud puddles. Along the way, visitors are encouraged to touch, smell and explore the outdoors and meditate in the shade.
Our chosen destination, The Park of the Senses, outside the small town of Gutach, felt like a tonic after the touristic onslaught of cuckoo chimes. We headed into the woods. On the far side of one especially sunny stretch was a dark, enclosed chamber; we plunged in through heavy flaps where we made our way along an uneven footpath through twisty corridors. Reaching for a child’s shoulder, I fumbled my hand into an unidentified body part of a fellow parkgoer, who let out a Teutonic yelp of disbelief.
Our second park was more conventional. Visiting an amusement park, with the exception of Copenhagen’s historic Tivoli, has never been on the top of my European to-do list. But how could I deprive my offspring of Europa Park, billed as Europe’s second largest (after a certain American import in Paris) and conveniently situated on the edge of the Black Forest in the French-German border town of Rust?
Europa Park is like Disneyland stripped of its commercial veneer. Organized nominally by European country, food and rides reflect each geographic region. Germany naturally covers the most territory and a lovely section is dedicated to Grimm’s Enchanted Forest, where the tales are fairly represented without cuddly bunnies to offset the fright.
Rather than dumping ridegoers into a character-ridden emporium after each 45-second ride, the park relegates stores largely to the background. Not once did I hear, “Can we get?” or “I want that!” The food was varied and halfway decent, but once my kids discovered the Food Loop, where patrons order by touch-screen and meals are delivered to your table via a massive marble mazelike contraption, further culinary exploration was put to a halt.
There was already a lot to digest. The scares here were decidedly more bloodcurdling than their Disneyfied renditions. The Silver Star, which featured some kind of turbo engine built by Mercedes, whisked my intrepid 11-year-old to heights and at speeds I chose not to witness up close. Similarly, the Blue Fire Megacoaster (“powered by Gazprom”) made Space Mountain look like Alice’s Spinning Teacups. And all of us were impressed with the virtual-reality enhanced rides, in which you chose from a set of backdrops from a headset before boarding an old-fashioned roller coaster, imagining yourself instead recklessly sledding with a couple of German schoolmates and their dog down a treacherous mountain slope. It was hard not to shriek.
We explored a more reality-based alpine landscape during our drive from Lake Constance to Bavaria, where the road dipped back and forth into Switzerland and then Austria before we made the obligatory stop at Schloss Neuschwanstein, Walt Disney’s inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty castle.
Violins, cellos and the thrill of deception
A subtler fairy tale setting was found in the small town of Mittenwald, Germany’s center for violin-making, with its impeccably preserved pedestrian old town, canals flowing along the cobblestone streets. The exterior walls of its whitewashed buildings are painted Bavarian-style with biblical scenes and imagery depicting the varying trades of the shopkeepers and restaurateurs within. My two cello-playing sons were entranced by visits to the studios of the celebrated luthiers, Anton Maller, who allowed my trembling older son to play a $10,000 cello, and Anton Sprenger, who gave us an impromptu concert on his own violin. (A photo on the wall showed him in the company of Angela Merkel and a grinning Barack Obama. We were likewise dazzled.)
Then we entered into a story ourselves. Reunited with one of our former German au pairs in Munich, we bounded from museum to palace to platz to shopping arcade throughout the city until, near exhaustion, we happened on a temporary exhibition, “Thrill of Deception,” at the Kunsthalle. Inside, a series of rooms showcased the arts of optical illusion, trompe d’oeil and visual trickery from the ancient world to today.
Near the end, like a hidden treasure, we discovered Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang’s 2017 virtual reality installation, “Chalkroom.” (The exhibit is open through January 2019 and also viewable at MASS MoCA through 2019)
The viewer, or more accurately, the participant, enters a dark room whose walls are covered with words scrawled in chalk. Wearing a virtual reality headset with attached remote controls, you’re offered various options (Ms. Anderson’s gravelly voice guides you) for exploring the virtual landscape. You can fly, for example, through swirling words or plunge yourself headlong into the text. Phrases rush by, occasionally forming sentences. You are fully immersed in — and only occasionally in control of — the narrative.
It’s a very contemporary form of storytelling, a technologically enhanced one, a kind of modern magic, a voyage of discovery where you are at once storyteller and reader. We emerged, all of us, flushed with enchantment.