What good reason could there be to spend your vacation in a town overrun by rats? Probably none- unless the town is Hameln, Germany and you’re interested in seeing children’s folktales come to life. Hameln is the town where the Pied Piper story unfolded some 725 years ago.
The Pied Piper Folktale
Surely, you recall the story from childhood, when you first heard the Grimm folktales. Hameln suffered a rat problem. The Pied Piper walked out of the mountains and offered to rid the town of rats for a fee. The burghers agreed, and the Pied Piper lured the rats into the River Weser with his music. When the burghers refused to pay the bill, the Pied Piper played his pipes and lured all of the town’s children away. They were never seen again.
While the Pied Piper of Hameln story has undoubtedly been embellished over the ages, there is historical documentation supporting both the existence of a Pied (“colorfully-clothed”) Piper and the departure of the town’s children en masse.
Historical Evidence a Pied Piper Visited Hameln, Germany
Historians agree that about June 26, 1284, a Pied Piper led Hameln’s children into the mountains. This sad occurrence was depicted in a stained glass window at the Market Church on the Hameln town square. The original church window depicting the Pied Piper story was installed in approximately 1300. The current commemorative church window is a replacement.
Historical documents from Hameln also provide evidence for the Pied Piper’s presence there. Old documents refer to time according to the number of years passed since the exodus of the children. Were the children led away because the big bad burghers refused to pay the Pied Piper the contract price for ridding the town of rats? Were the children conscripted into an unpopular war or a Children’s Crusade? There is much speculation and no proof as to who the Pied Piper was or why the Pied Piper led the children away. But the story of the Pied Piper has endured for generations, and its moral (sooner or later, you’ll have to pay the piper) is etched into the minds of children everywhere.
Hameln’s Current Day Rat Infestation
Pied Pipers looking for work in this age might be less fortunate finding work in Hameln, for although the town is overrun with mysterious rats of unknown species, this generation of rats is celebrated rather than despised. These unique rat breeds grow to six feet tall. Unusual in their bright hues and bold activities, the rats station themselves throughout town in most conspicuous locations where they confront town dwellers and visitors alike with absurd propositions. Space rats, floral rats, tiger rats, burglar rats, ice cream cone rats, frog king rats… if an art student could imagine it, it seems to have been constructed. It simply isn’t possible to walk through town without encountering dozens of these rat statues.
If you’re traveling with children, you should expect to spend hours running from one rat to the next, as they examine each and every statue in detail and assign nicknames. Our kids insisted on calling these fetching fellas “mice,” although they knew full well what the creatures were. Rats are so icky. Calling them mice made them socially acceptable.
Major Hameln Attractions
Hameln is a small town whose major points of interest, all story-related, are on or near the town square.
The Hochzeithaus carillon, around the corner from the Market Church, features a mechanical piper leading a pack of rats every day at 1:05, 3:35 and 5:35 pm. The Glockenspiel chimes play the Pied Piper Song daily at 9:35 a.m. and the Weser River Song at 11:35 a.m.
The Rattenfängerhaus (the rat catcher’s house) is a restaurant on Osterstraße 28. While Rattenfängerhaus is a lovely example of period architecture, it is not connected with genuine Pied Piper lore; it was built several centuries after the children’s disappearance. What it is noted for is rat-themed entrees, if you can stomach the thought. It’s also the only place in town that sells “Rattenkiller,” souvenir-size bottles of brandy that tastes… well, real rat poison might taste better. Save this brandy for adorning souvenir shelves.
One of the highlights of our visit was the free dramatic production of the Pied Piper story at the Hochzeithaus terrace next to the Market Church on the town square. In this open air play, actors dressed as story characters reenacted the enchanting folktale. Watching this tale unfold by performers clad in period clothing among the medieval buildings of the town square stimulated imaginations so much more than simply reading the story or seeing it enacted on a stage could. This colorful 30 minute performance takes place on Sundays at noon. It’s important to arrive early and stake out a viewing area near the stage. The alternative to this theatrical production is a delightfully offbeat musical comedy “Rats!” This 40 minute performance is offered on Wednesdays at 4:30 p.m.
Other Hameln attractions include a Pied Piper statue, a Pied Piper Museum on Osterstraße, and a miniature bronze replica of the town.
When it’s time to shop for souvenirs, look for shellacked bread dough shaped into rats, Pied Piper statues, the Pied Piper of Hameln storybook, and wooden rat pins.
What do you do in this town once you tire of pipers and rats? Read another story and move on.