Once upon a time… a kind and beautiful princess lived in a handsome castle in Germany. Her mother died when she was still a girl, and her father remarried shortly afterwards. But the stepmother, reportedly in possession of a magic mirror, was a vain and manipulative woman, favouring her own children over her adopted stepdaughter. Eventually the relationship snapped; the princess fled away from her family, over great hills and through deep forests. Eventually she settled and lived in exile in a community of dwarfs working in the local mines.
The princess (well, Baroness, technically…) was Maria Sophia Margaretha Catherina von Erthal. Quite a mouthful, isn’t it? But you have almost certainly already recognised her as “Schneewittchen” from the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale: or, in English…
Maria Sophia was born in this castle in Lohr in June 1725, and is described in family chronicles as being “an angel of mercy and kindness”. She appears to have been much loved by the local population and was “charitable towards the poor and the suffering”: a true people’s princess. Regardless of any association with Snow White, the charming narrow streets and colourful timber-framed buildings of Lohr am Main effortlessly inspire imagery of fairy tales and other magical children’s stories.
Shortly after the death of Maria Sophia’s mother, her father remarried Claudia Elisabeth Maria von Venningen who, as we know, has since developed an unfortunate (and probably undeserved) reputation for vanity and murderous intent. The besotted husband bestowed his new wife with a gift of a magnificent mirror, which is today proudly displayed in the Spessart Museum in Lohr.
This mirror is the stuff of legends. It was reputedly able to talk, and an interesting feature is the motif on the upper right, stating “Amour propre” (“self-love”); a reference to the vanity of the user, perhaps? Of course we will never know for sure, but it is easy to see how a story was crafted around this exquisite piece of ornamental art… how a fairy tale was born.
As you explore Lohr and learn more about its history and heritage, the more connections to the Snow White story you can find. Take the dwarfs for example: people working in the local mines at that time were typically much shorter than the noble classes, through malnutrition and use of child labour. Apples have been grown on the sunny hillsides surrounding the town for centuries, and the fêted local glass industries would have been well capable of creating a glass coffin for the unfortunately-poisoned young princess.
One important element of the story is the flight of Snow White away from her wicked stepmother through (in Grimm’s words) the “great forest” to a place “beyond the mountains”. Today’s visitors to Lohr can follow in her footsteps via the “Schneewittchenweg“: the Snow White hiking route. Ash (12) and I followed a section of the well-marked trail deep into the mighty “Spessart” woods.
Just in case you are wondering, this is not a kid-friendly themed stroll with cute dwarfs and miniature houses lining the route, no way… This is Germany, where hiking is taken seriously, and the Schneewittchenweg is a 35km hard slog up and over lumpy hills, with nothing even remotely Snow White-themed to see or do along the way (at least not in the 10km section from Lohr to Partenstein).
Don’t get me wrong: it was a great hike. Ash and I relished the physical challenge and appreciated the absolute calm and natural beauty of this “great forest”. But do bear in mind that your average seven year old Snow White wannabe will probably not be so impressed…
However, Snow White-loving families need not fear, because there are plenty of kid-friendly activities to see and do around Lohr instead. For example, a trail organised by the local tourism office takes kids on a scavenger hunt around the town in search of the seven dwarfs’ hats, incorporating an excellent playground and showcasing some fascinating Snow White-themed public art along the way.
And speaking of art, Lohr recently paid €110,000 for a new statue of Snow White to take pride of place outside the town’s theatre. Here it is:
Not what you were expecting, huh? It’s not what many residents of Lohr expected either, leading to a predictably vibrant discussion over the appropriate use of public funds… But, in the artist’s defence, is art not an excellent vehicle for stimulating discussion and providing us with food for thought? After all, certain elements of fairy tales seem painfully dated and sometimes even totally inappropriate in today’s world. For example, here is an extract from the original Grimm fairy tale, immediately after Snow White wakes up from her nasty bout of apple poisoning:
“The prince said… ‘Come with me to my father’s castle. You shall become my wife.’ Snow-White loved him, and she went with him.”
Well, that was hasty… Is this really the type of inspiration and ideals that parents wish to instil in their daughters?
In challenging the conventional image of Snow White so radically, I personally like to think that the artist is merely asking us to question many of the stereotypes that we find in fairy tales and other forms of popular culture, and I applaud him for that (even if I don’t actually like the statue itself). That said, this hilarious artwork is obviously going to disappoint young Snow White fans like my daughters.
By contrast, actually meeting Snow White in person in her castle and listening to her telling fairy stories… now that was a huge hit with Mia and Poppy!
And therein lies the beauty of Lohr am Main – you can find your personal fairy tale there, your individual interpretation of the story of Snow White through art, nature, history and culture. We loved it.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION ON VISITING LOHR AM MAIN
- Lohr’s Tourist Information Office is located at Schlossplatz, 5, just opposite the castle. Closed on Saturday afternoons and all day Sunday.
- The “Magic Mirror” is located in room 215 of the Spessart Museum (Schlossplatz, 1). €3 admission, €2 for children. Closed on Mondays.
- Snow White reads fairy tales (including, of course, “Snow White” itself) in the Spessart Museum on the second Sunday of each month from April to November.
- Currently available in German only.
- Our kids speak German fluently. However if, like me, your German is a bit dodgy, then reading the original version (translated) of Grimm’s “Snow White” before your visit may help you follow the story.
- The children’s scavenger hunt (German and English) is available at the Tourist Information Office. Plan on spending at least a couple of hours; you will get pleasantly distracted along the way.
- We stayed at the excellent Youth Hostel at Brunnenwiesenweg 13. Spotlessly clean, friendly staff, plenty of games and space for the kids, and only 10 minutes walk from the town centre. Yummy pancakes for breakfast too.
Daisy the bus visited Lohr am Main in April 2018
(c) 2018 Jonathan Orr