I would imagine that everybody's heard of Hamelin, or to give it its more correct, German spelling, Hameln. At least, I should think everyone's familiar with the legend of The Pied Piper of Hameln. Just in case you're not, here's a brief summary:
The story goes, that in 1284 a strange man appeared in Hameln and was taken to be a rat catcher. After a fee was agreed, he played his pipe and attracted all the mice and rats of the town then led them into the Weser river where they all drowned. The townspeople, now free of the vermin, refused to pay him.
He returned a while later and again played his pipe. This time it was the town's children who assembled, not rats. They followed him into the hills and were never seen again. Only two children returned: one was blind and could not show where the others had gone, the other dumb and not able to tell where they had gone. It was said that the children were led into a cave and emerged in Transylvania.
It's thought the legend stems from the fact that in those days many people from Low Germany were emigrating to East Europe and inhabitants of a town were referred to as 'town children'. This has somehow been connected to the very real practice of the rat catchers of that period.
Either way, it's a Grimm story.
The town lies around 50km south of Hanover in the state of Lower Saxony, northern Germany. It straddles the Weser river and is the cultural and economic capital of the Weser area. In fact the town owes its prosperity through the ages to the Weser river and the trade that passed along it. This led to local merchants building some elaborately decorated houses which have survived to this day and are one of the main attractions of visiting here.
Approaching Hameln you could be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is all about. A series of drab suburbs does nothing to excite the newly arrived. However, at the edge of the inner ring road, there's a large park and the visitor centre. If you're sensible, you'll turn right here, drive the 1-200m towards the Rathaus (town hall) where you'll find a car park, and deposit said car safe in the knowledge that the rest of the day is yours. Or, you could drive into the old town's narrow, one-way streets, eventually find a spot to park, then discover that the parking meters only allow 30 minutes at a time. I recommend the former.
Hameln's not very big - there are around 60,000 inhabitants, but they're mostly dispersed throughout the many suburbs - so it doesn't take an awful long time to fully explore it. The booklet we were given in the tourist office actually states that you can 'do' the town in an hour. Not being in a rush, we decided to stretch it out a little longer than that.
Unsurprisingly, for a town who's main claim to fame is about some guy wearing funny clothes, whistling on a flute and being followed by plague of rats, or some humans of the immature variety (sounds a bit like an Orange Walk in Airdrie), there are pointers to the legend at every conceivable point. Obviously, nearly every shop sells some sort of rat-based thingummybob, from tiny badges, through baked goods, to cuddly toys...and everything in-between. Pied piper figurines are not forgotten though. After all, he's more famous than the rats!
The old town is a circular shape, the boundaries being formed by the inner ring road and the Weser river. The main streets form a sort of cross with the Marktkirche St Nicholai (market church)roughly in the centre - most of these streets are pedestrianised making for a pleasant, traffic-free stroll. On entering the town (which can be done through subways from the Visitor centre,avoiding the busy ring road) you're immediately submerged into a time gone by...well almost. Internet cafes, mobile phone shops and the click of digital cameras tend to shatter any olde-worlde charm.
Remember how I mentioned the profusion of all things rat-like? Well the guide-book from the tourist office (which incidentally was very good) has a map with all the major points of interest marked on it. These follow what is called...wait for it...the rat trail. Yes indeed, just when you thought it was safe to go down in the sewers, up pop those beady-eyed rats from every orifice. Actually, the rats in question are just little painted signs on the ground. Simply follow the little rodents around and you can soak up the history of the town while you're at it.
Suffering from a lack of rats? Don't worry, at almost every street corner there are human-sized statues of rats. But not ordinary rats (like human-sized rats are ordinary). Oh no, these are rats in all forms of fancy-dress. There are punk rockers, school teachers, policerats, pirates...the list goes on.
So, is there anything to do or see in Hameln that's not associated with the Pied piper and his legions of vermin? Well, there's the town museum. It's housed in a quite magnificent building called the Leisthaus - it's more like two buildings but who's counting?...apart from me, obviously.
Actually, now I come to think of it, the main display in the museum is all about the legend. There's just no escaping those rats! Not to worry, there are plenty of exhibits that have absolutely nothing to do with rodents, and at only 3 euros entrance fee, it's not a bad little distraction.
Me? I couldn't give a rat's arse for legends, but I do enjoy medieval and renaissance architecture so instead of looking down at little rat figures, I was looking up at the intricate façades of the many half-timbered, and sandstone buildings. But even here it was hard to escape the legend. Buildings like the Rat Catcher's house are adorned with inscriptions relating to the piper and his friends.
Having said that, some of the architecture is quite stunning. I don't know what sort of damage the town suffered during WWII, but it was completely restored between 1969 and 1993 and is now a pristine example of Weser Renaissance architecture.
Although it's the most important town for shopping in the local area, I wasn't overly impressed. I would describe it as fairly standard, and souvenir wise it was actually quite poor with not much to be had, legend-orientated-tat aside.
Eating and drinking was an altogether different kettle of fish (not literally). As this is a busy destination for day-trippers, there's a veritable plethora of take-aways, snack-bars and cafes, with bars and restaurants not being much thinner on the ground. We had a gorgeous lunch at what is claimed to be the oldest pub in town, the Rat Inn (where DID they get that name from?), but the choices were almost limitless.
One last thing. If you haven't tired of the continual rodent them by this time, there's an open-air performance of the legend every Sunday, mid-may to mid-Sept, at noon. Around 80 actors perform the story of the procession of the Hameln children in a 30-minute performance. This takes place on the terrace in front of the Hochzeitshaus (Wedding House) in the centre of town.
Thankfully, it wasn't Sunday.
Also, three times a day, there's a clockwork figure display on the façade of the Hochzeitshaus.
In conclusion, Hameln is a beautifully restored ancient town which is atmospheric and evocative. It suffers from pied piper overload, but if it pulls in the visitors, then good luck to them. Personally, I would've visited for the architecture alone - it was magnificent, and I thoroughly enjoyed the time we spent there. Like the guide book said, you could probably 'do' the place in an hour, but we actually spent a good deal longer than that. And yes, we did buy lots of tacky rat-based trinkets.