The Pied Piper of Hameln is famous for singing the rodents out of the town back in the once-upon-a-time era — but he’s way more famous for singing all the little kids out of town to their untimely demise. Morbid, yes; but the story lives on in the little village of Hameln where the townspeople’s lives are intimately entwined with the ages-old tale. We arrived by train to meet a friend of mine, a Hameln native, who gave us the insider’s tour of her quirky hometown. Between the Christmas market, the brilliantly decaying old half-timbered houses, and the fairy-tale feel of its winding cobblestone streets, we were not disappointed.
The Pied Piper, we learned, is called Rattenfänger (literally, “rat-catcher”) in German, and is very much an active part of the town. Storefronts are named rat-this or rat-that; special drinks are Rattenfänger-themed; a central restaurant, the Rattenfängerhaus, looms large displaying metal sign depicting the Pied Piper in the act. One town resident plays the Pied Piper at all public events, reenacting for tourists and locals alike the story that put Hameln on the map.
In the old town, the famous Pied Piper clockwork plays thrice daily on the side of the main church. After a few glasses of mulled wine to stave off the chill, my friend led us to the unassuming building, pointing out a double-door from which the Pied Piper would emerge. Each afternoon since the 1960s, she told us, the music played and the clockwork ran, sending haunting, jangly chimes throughout the entire village.
The dark settled in and hail began pelting us as we waited, driving us to find refuge in a tourist shop. When the chimes sounded, we scattered outside like mice to find a sheltered view. The simple animatronic display began to play. First, the Piper led the rats away along his circular path in and out the double-doors; then, he led all the children away to their doom — save the two handicapped children left behind. Thunder and lightning came down all around us, sending chills up our spines as we watched … and making it impossible to take any photos. (You can watch the whole performance on YouTube here.)
Something about the clock, so lovingly crafted and prominently displayed, yet completely somber, made the Pied Piper story more real for me than any of the rat-themed stuff we’d been looking at earlier. Imagine nowadays a town that lost all its children. Impossible, right? It’s certainly the kind of trauma that would echo through the years until it became the stuff of stories and legends.
Kitschy, tiny, and quirky? Yes, Hameln is all of these things, and adorably so. But it’s also a place where fairy tales don’t feel as unreal and out of reach as they do back in the States. For this reason, it’s indeed pretty special — but it comes with the price of glimpsing the truth behind the stories, which is an eerie reality not all tourists might be prepared to see.