There was once a king called the Red King, who had mountains and rivers and jewels and coins and followers. But however rich and powerful he was, his happiness was marred by one thing: His kingdom was only half a land. The Other Side belonged to another king, who had his own mountains and rivers and jewels and coins and followers.

The Red King often promised his people they would one day join their brothers and sisters on the Other Side in one happy kingdom. The Red King would often send messages to the King of the Other Side, dreaming about the two halves becoming one again.

"Nothing doing," the King of the Other Side would say. "Blow off."

One day the Red King decided his people were too unhappy. He worried that they might leave him, go to the Other Side and never come back. So the Red King called his best friend, the Big Red Bear With Scary White Eyes, and together they built a wall.

This wall was so high and so thick and so long that no one in the Red Kingdom could ever again see the Other Side. Now the Red King would keep his people, but the people were terribly unhappy. They could not even dream about seeing their friends on the Other Side.

The Red King's wall was no ordinary wall. It sizzled if you touched it. It ran alongside rivers and up and down mountains and even right through the middle of villages. In the most wonderful place in the Red Kingdom, where the mountains reached up toward the clouds and the air smelled of cool stone and leafy trees, the King and the Bear looked about and found the very top of the very tallest, mountain.

In a place so green and fresh that people had gathered there since the beginning of time, they built giant towers and huge cups that could hear everything that happened on the Other Side. The most wonderful place in the Red Kingdom was now scarred by ugly red and white towers. Scary soldiers stood at the bottom and told all the people to stay away.

In the Red King's half of the land, the houses and the farmers' tools and the clothing became faded and dirty. The people heard everything was better on the Other Side, but the Red King assured them that was not true.

Years passed. People died, babies were born and grew up. Finally, one day, soon after the people heard that the Red King was very old and sick, some of them went to him and demanded to be allowed to see the Other Side.

To their great surprise, the tired old king said they could go. "But what about the wall?" the shocked people said. "Oh that," the Red King said. "Forget it."

Everyone was so excited that they ran out, cut through the wall and crossed over to the Other Side. The celebration was so overwhelming that it wasn't until months later that the people realized that they could even return to the most wonderful place in their own kingdom.

The mountain was still covered with the ugly towers and huge cups. But now the people, their kingdom whole once more, could climb to the top, close their eyes and breathe in that air of cool stone and leafy trees and remember the mountain they call the Brocken.

THE BROCKEN IS THE TALLEST SPOT IN THE HARZ MOUN- tains, which had the audacity to stretch across the border between East and West Germany created after World War II. The Harz, as the region is known -- home of witches and dwarfs, castles and caves -- has enthralled Germans for centuries. Heinrich Heine wrote of his travels there, Hans Christian Andersen described his own visits in Romantic Rambles in the Harz, and the Grimm brothers got themselves jobs nearby so they could delve into the secluded villages.

On both sides of the concrete wall that ran alongside the Brocken until this year, narrow roads curl and wind their way through the old villages and around the low, mysterious mountains that have drawn storytellers for centuries. Far from the great rivers that princes and counts fought over through the ages, the Harz remains a secluded piece of country.

Here the scholarly Grimm brothers collected their tales -- fairy tales, folk tales and legends known collectively to Germans as Maerchen -- finding old people and listening to their stories. They wanted the real thing, the raw country language of farmers and villagers. They sat in beer halls and garden houses, on farms and in town squares, casting about for people "who follow the old life-ways without change."

The Grimms did their work in a time of terrible upheaval, in a place great generals saw only as turf on a map, territory to capture. Napoleon swept through the region in 1806; for many months thereafter, "poor people staggered along the streets, being led away to death," Wilhelm Grimm would write.

I am touring the Harz in a time of turmoil as well. Last fall, when the Berlin Wall was broached and the unimaginable came true, German reunification seemed like a fairy tale. But months of haggling over matters monetary and military have spoiled the celebration. After watching the two Germanys awkwardly careering between euphoria and an all-too-familiar brooding, I need a bit of enchantment to restore my spirits.

Checking the guidebooks, I find -- on both sides of the now-defunct frontier, which the locals called the German-German border -- that ruins and castles abound, each holding within its thick stone walls the stories of gallant knights and sorrowful maidens, fabulous princesses and terrifying giants.

I start in the West, partly to save the best for last, but, I have to admit, partly to start with the certain. Familiar turf, familiar hotels. The phones work, the streets are paved, the food is plentiful, even edible. The Harz is reunited, but as in the rest of Germany, it will take years, probably decades, to erase the neglect and corruption of 40 years of communism. The East remains uncharted territory -- always fascinating, but not yet familiar with concepts such as convenience and comfort.

THE FRIGHTENING GERMAN AUTOBAHNS -- HIGHWAYS NO different from your average interstate, except that half the drivers are rocketing along at 120 miles per hour -- seem centuries away from the hidden ruins and storybook castles of what the German tourist authorities call the Fairy Tale Road. Luckily, the land where giants and gnomes supposedly roam is far off the autobahn.

The path of the Brothers Grimm is a backwoods route, through nature preserves and deep forests (many of them sadly in decline, showing the naked and pained signs of the acid rain that is killing European trees). On the West German side, the villages come as a surprise. The woods suddenly end, replaced not by the sagging cottages and uneven cobblestones that still mark East German towns but instead by the widened streets and impossibly clean concrete houses West Germans built in their determination to erase the ravages of World War II.

There are no fairy tales in these villages, no reminders of an age when counts and commanders claimed the mountains in the name of God. But beyond paved-over modernity, real castles -- soaring turrets, creaking bridges over deep moats, even dungeons where, if you close your eyes, you might just hear the pained groans of some tortured soul -- emerge as islands in the woods. The mysterious gnarly characters of German tales suddenly begin to seem real -- after all, something must be alive in this forest, someone must live in these empty relics.

I begin my search for the spirits of the great stories in Spangenberg, a precious village at the edge of the Harz. The streets here are lined with Fachwerk houses, the half- timbered brick and wood storybook cottages with ceilings that make even a short person feel like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But the streets seem too perfect; everything has been restored to a state that never existed -- no houses sag, no walls peel. The alleyways are nearly silent; at the occasional peal of a child's cry, I turn, finding, inevitably, a Turkish youngster, for German children seem not to be permitted to make noise on a sunny afternoon.

The path up to Spangenberg Schloss (castle) passes through thick foliage, with an occasional glimpse of old stones, perhaps the remains of a graveyard. The castle, surrounded by a moat, is 750 years old. It has served as a medieval fortress, a summer home for earls of the Holy Roman Empire, a jail during the Thirty Years War, a French prison for German inmates during the Napoleonic conquests of the 19th century and a Nazi POW camp for British officers in World War II.

After American bomb raids destroyed much of the building, the West German government restored the castle and converted it into a ritzy hotel, now run by Wilfried Wichmann and his wife, Angela, who get to live in the schloss.

Deep in the basement is a well that was built in 1220. It took eight years to dig deep enough -- 400 feet -- to find water, Wich- mann tells me. As I lean over the edge, Wichmann opens the gate over the top of the well and pours some water into the dark hole.

Thirteen seconds later, I hear a distant splash and, I can swear, the cry of an ancient princess, trapped below by a cruel giant who rules the heart of the Harz.

Leaving Spangenberg and driving down the Fairy Tale Road, I come upon a seemingly deserted village called Reinhardshagen. A couple of cars are parked in driveways, but otherwise I can't find a sign of life. Finally, I turn a corner and spy an old woman spending her Saturday afternoon scrubbing her mailbox. Then another woman, this one busy picking bugs off the front grille of the family Volkswagen.

I head north along the Weser River toward the showpiece of the Fairy Tale Road, the Sababurg, said to be Sleeping Beauty's castle. The validity of this claim is questionable, since the Grimms picked up the story from an old French tale and a castle in France makes the same claim. But who am I to argue? The Sababurg turns out to be a 650-year-old ruin, a few walls attached to an expensive hotel and restaurant, all guarded by a souvenir stand offering Sleeping Beauty postcards, bumper stickers and those little plastic snow domes.

The courtyard of the castle is roofless, a spectacular place to see the stars but no place to spend a chilly night, not even for a knight in armor or a forlorn maiden seeking protection from the forces of darkness. At one end of the ruin, a fireplace remains in operating order, a few pieces of charcoal smoldering in the corner. The sooty evidence of the fire's vain efforts against the elements reaches up the wall along the exposed innards of a chimney. The wind sweeps around this still-grand place, making a hollow sound, preparing, it seems, to whisk the tourists back to their buses.

Tourist spots like the Sababurg have been gussied up, castles turned into fancy restaurants and country inns. Some are quite well done. Some even maintain the mystery of the mountains, giving mere mortals a chance to stare out an ancient turret window onto a village of red roofs below.

But there is something disheartening about driving up a winding road, passing through an impossibly narrow gate and finding yourself in a cobblestone courtyard full of shiny new black Mercedeses and BMWs. Feasting on wild boar, venison and other game of the Harz in a splendid restaurant in a renovated castle cum hotel, I find it hard to imagine fairies and witches. Wealthy barons and porcine industrialists come to mind instead.

West Germany has fewer of the Harz's great natural sites and magical ruins than East Germany. But it does have Kassel, a mid-size city where the Brothers Grimm did their scholarly research. Kassel commemorates the brothers' onetime residency with a museum, and there the universality of the peasants' stories leaps from the pages of books in dozens of languages. The same tales are told here by Walt Disney and Maurice Sendak, Edward Gorey and David Hockney. There are Japanese Hansels and French Gretels, Soviet Snow Whites and Danish dwarfs. The stories, Wilhelm Grimm once said, are "fragments of belief dating back to most ancient times . . . , small pieces of a shattered jewel which are lying on the ground all overgrown with grass and flowers."

THE WEST GERMANS HAVE LONG USED THE old tales to market their share of the Harz. East Germany never got quite that organized about its much larger share. Its roads around the mountains are narrow, sometimes rugged and rarely marked. For years, although government tourist shops sold postcards and guidebooks of the Brocken, any attempt to get onto the mountain was futile.

Hans Christian Andersen had no problem reaching the Brocken in the mid-19th century. The great storyteller was so captivated by the mountain that he used it as the setting for his tale of the princess Ilse, who fled Noah's flood with her lover, taking refuge at "this enormous rock, which projected far above the swelling sea." The princess and her bridegroom "stood, arm in arm, looking down on the waves as they broke against the rock. But the waters rose higher. In vain, they sought an uncovered ridge of rock where they could ascend the Brocken, which lay like a large island amid a stormy sea.

"The rock on which they stood trembled beneath them. An immense cleft opened itself there and threatened to tear them away; still they held each other's hands; the side walls bent forward and backward; they fell together into the rushing flood. From her the river Ilse obtained its name, and she still lives here with her bridegroom in the flinty rock."

Ilse and her man have emerged from 40 years of isolation and now guard the river and the Brocken in the heart of the reunited Germany. The Harz Mountains are open to Westerners, but old habits die hard.

Driving up the border road just west of the Brocken, I stumble onto a curious installation of radio towers and listening posts -- NATO and West German facilities. A bit further along the road, I see a parking lot full of West German tourists -- a couple of hundred folks, standing next to a fence, staring east. The hill they stand on is the Torfhaus, which nearly rivals the Brocken in height but is crowned by little more than radio towers and a tacky snack bar. Even now, West Germans gather here, pull out their binoculars and peer across to the Soviet spy station on the Brocken.

I want more than a view from the comfort of the West. I make my way along unmarked roads so narrow that two Western cars cannot fit side by side. The traffic can be difficult -- a daily exchange has developed, as Mercedeses and VWs full of tourists zip east in the morning while the sad little Trabants chug the other way, full of East Germans commuting to work or to shop in the rich West.

But the journey to the East remains a trip through time, even as Western ways rush across the divide. The countryside is preserved like a fly in amber; the windows to the past seem to have been left open.

Here at the foot of the mythic mountain, I meet the soldier whose job it was to keep people off the Brocken. It's what you might call a clash of cultures: I drive a rented silver Mercedes; the young East German conscript stands in front of a broken-down Soviet truck. His collar is open, his beard shows a day's growth, his face makes it clear he could conceive of better uses of his time.

The boy soldier's job has changed. Once he would have sternly sent me on my way, perhaps demanding to see my visa. Now, standing in a clearing that leads into an abandoned East German military barracks, he's trying to earn a few marks for a country in the final weeks of its existence. "You must park here," he says, extracting a token fee from each visitor. "From here, you can only walk."

A great slab of granite sits at the front of these barracks, only 30 yards from the wall that separated the Germanys. (The wall still stands here, although it has gaping holes a little way downhill.) The granite slab is a monument, surrounded by a still-well-tended garden. The inscription on the stone reads "Lt. Lutz Meier Jan. 18, 1972. Murdered brutally and from behind by a bandit. His death reaffirms our duty to protect against new crimes against our socialist Fatherland."

The last two words have been the victim of repeated attempts at revisionist history, populist style. Visitors have tried to paint them over in red, blot them out in black, gouge them out with stones and knives. The inscription is still legible. And still a lie. Meier was not shot by any bandit, but by an East German trying to cross over the wall into the West.

Tourists mostly walk right past the memorial these days. Soviet Army trucks still rumble up and down the mountain roads, and the tourists and locals are a bit bolder. They don't always pull over to let the Soviets pass; sometimes they hold the center of the narrow roads and let the Sovs sweat a little.

Truth be told, there is precious little of that good old Cold War tension remaining in the Harz. These hills -- calling them mountains is a lovely but exaggerated exercise -- are rapidly returning to their fond place in German culture, the "gastric fires of human fantasy," as the philosopher Joseph Campbell called them.

In ancient folklore, in the Maerchen, Heinrich Heine found objects taking on life, "pins and needles coming from the tailor's workshop and losing themselves in the dark, shovels and brooms that stand on the stairs and fall out and kick each other."

It occurs to me that this fleeting moment of East Germany's opening to the jaded West is a similar liberation of the imagination: Time is different here (after all, virtually nothing has changed for a lifetime). We are disoriented for a short bit, and if we are lucky, that disorientation allows us, as Heine said, to see the world as in childhood, when "everything is of like importance, when we see everything and hear everything."

Past the once-electrified fence, past shuttered border-guard stations, I see immediately that this is not Berlin, where neighborhoods are changing so quickly that it is no longer obvious what was East and what was West. That kind of dramatic transformation will be a long time reaching these country villages, where women who are not so old shuffle along the roadside in blue shifts, carrying overloaded baskets of sugar beets and turnips. Piles of brown coal bricks lie in front of houses. The curve of streets follows the medieval twists of alleys and buildings. The wind- ing streets emerge from the villages, straighten themselves, and suddenly time leaps forward, revealing a lifeless landscape of featureless concrete apartment blocks, often immediately next to blackened factories, their smokestacks spewing poison as workers stamp out wares that no one in the West would buy.

Yet in this scene of communist carelessness, where factory towers vie with feudal castles to reach the highest point in each town, I find not poverty of spirit and pocket, but an unrestored glory, a connection to a time when the pain of everyday life could be eased by a flight into fantasy, when an evening of stories -- helped along by a mug of the local grog -- was the main protection against the latest deprivation from the distant lord in the castle on high.

Hardly anything has been rebuilt here, a relief after my journey through West Germany, where nearly everything older than the current inhabitants has been renovated to near-Disney proportions.

For lack of money, the East Germans never did things that way. The spectacular city hall in Wernigerode, a 15th-century splash of color and fantasy, is sagging and soot-covered. These towns still have whole streets full of Fachwerk houses. They are drooping and fading, mostly still in use as houses, not museums, not historic preservation projects.

These villages where, as Goethe put it, "witches ride on brooms that sweep away the last snow of the mountains," remain a startling mix of ancient myth, centuries of simple life, and then occasional signs of the communist interlude.

Here on a street filled with dangerously leaning wooden houses, a village health clinic signals its presence with a wooden frieze of a ferocious Socialist Mother cradling her newborn under the protective eye of Revolutionary Man and his flaming torch. Not far away, in the village of Quedlinburg, I follow an old farmer as he steers his horse-drawn cart onto Ethel and Julius Rosenberg Strasse, a failed attempt to lend a bit of revolutionary fervor to an avenue of once-splendid Victorian mansions.

But this world will not stand still for long. All over Wernigerode, all over the Harz, restorations are under way, each bearing the logo of one or another West German renovation firm. A sign on a corner electrical shop has to remind its customers, "Of course, we still repair your East German appliances." Time is catching up here with a vengeance.

AS IN THE WEST, IT IS OUTSIDE THE towns that the mystical tales seem possible once more. In Ruebeland (Robberland), the soft limestone of the Harz gives way to spectacular caves that were discovered in the 19th century and are now tourist sites. I follow a stiff and unhappy young East German tour guide through the chilly tunnels, scoping out bats and the eerie translucent reptiles that live in the underground ponds deep within the earth. All of history is preserved in this deep, damp hiding place -- ancient bear bones, the monster-like bats that every great storyteller holds in reserve for the scary climax. Even here, there are signs of the recently departed Communists. A plaque pays tribute to the hard work of the Free German Youth, the Communists' successor organization to the Hitler Youth.

The secrets of the Harz are hidden, from the depths of the caves to the summits of the mountains. High above the village of Wernigerode, overlooking deep forests interrupted by bowls of light that turn out to be salt mines, the rocky ruin of the Burg Regenstein looks more like a city of caves than an emperor's castle. This was no headquarters for modern warriors or stuffy aristocrats. No, this was the fortress of emperors and princes who got down and dirty clawing their way out of the Middle Ages. They could have found scant comfort in this collection of crudely shaped spaces carved from the mountain's soft stone. Totally exposed even when they were supposedly indoors, they must have heard evil spirits with every roar of the howling wind.

I climb through all four levels of cave-rooms, finding all manner of hiding places and more sheer drops than my fear of height cares to discover. The soft rock from which Emperor Henry I built Regenstein is now a slate for young scribes of the East Bloc, who have carved their autographs into nearly every inch of the ruins -- Karl, Manuela, Clara, along with a bunch of Russian names.

From the villages below, the Burg looks like a dark and frightening place, something wholly unnatural that somehow spurted from the innards of the mountain. It wouldn't have taken much of an imagination to transform the shadowy shapes of the castle at night into the hiding place of terrifying giants and witches.

These woods abound with the makings of such terror. Not many miles away, I follow small and confusing signs and eventually find the Hexentanzplatz, the Witches' Dance Floor. This, the stories say, is the legendary expanse of flat rock where the giants of the Harz clubbed to death women and children.

It is little more than a plateau in the hilly woods now. Vietnamese guest workers -- invited by the East German government to do unpleasant jobs in environmental disaster areas and now desperately trying to avoid returning to Asia -- crouch in the woods beside groundcloths where they display their meager wares. Tacky clocks from Taiwan, boom boxes that produce thin sounds unworthy of the name, cassettes of "This Land Is Your Land" -- it's a sad collection and the Vietnamese seem to know it. For them, as for the Brothers Grimm and centuries of visitors, the Harz is an escape.

The mountains' ultimate treasure is the Rosstrapp (Hoofprint), a circle of rock high above a deep gorge. This is where the Grimms' Princess Brunhilda, desperately in love with the King of the Mountains, faced her dilemma. Her father wanted her to marry Bodo the Giant, who was rich, rather than the King of the Mountains, who was merely good. Brunhilda would rather have eaten mice than marry boorish Bodo, but in those days, a father's word was supreme. The princess was stuck. Or was she?

One day, Bodo brought Brunhilda a splendid white steer and proposed to teach the princess how to ride him. Brunhilda's despair suddenly eased. She had a plan. On the morning of her wedding to Bodo, she jumped onto her powerful steer and galloped off to the Harz. Bodo chased after her.

Finally, she reached the deep gorge that separated her father's land from that of the King of the Mountains. With Bodo closing fast, Brunhilda urged on her steer. Together they launched themselves across the abyss. The steer landed on the Rosstrapp, his hoof smashing into the rock with such force that it left an impression that has lasted through eternity.

As for Bodo, he tried the same trick and missed. He was last seen falling into the seething whirlpool far, far below. For his troubles, Bodo was transformed into a ferocious black dog.

There is indeed an imprint in the rock. You can see it even from the mountaintop on the other side of the gulch. At the overlook, I stare down, straining to hear the waters I cannot see. A little German girl and her mother stand beside me, the mother telling Brunhilda's story. The girl squinches up her face as she listens for something from the deep bottom. At long last we look at each other. She points over the edge. The princess lives.


The Harz Mountains are in the center of Germany. There is no major city in the immediate area, but Berlin, Hamburg, Hannover and Leipzig are all within a three-hour drive. The area is small, but because there are no major roads, it can take a while to get from place to place, especially in the formerly East German section of the region.

Although most of the best sights are in the East, nearly all of the hotels and good restaurants are in the West. It is possible to stay in the East; there are no Western-quality hotels, but many East Germans have opened their homes to travelers. A book called Private Quarters in the German Democratic Republic was issued this past summer; although its title is already outdated, the book is a good starting point if you want to experience a rapidly changing society firsthand. Expect spare but clean accommodations.

In the West, many of the towns in the Harz area are dominated by Kur hotels, uniquely German institutions that cater to the remarkable West German social system under which nearly every citizen can get an extra week or two of vacation by claiming some minor discomfort and getting a doctor to say that only a week at a cure resort will help. These often-charming-looking resorts tend to attract an elderly and highly formal crowd. Because most people are there on prepaid, all-inclusive packages, those towns often have few if any restaurants and very little activity outside the main hotels.

You may be better off staying at small inns in the little towns that dot the area, or, for somewhat more money, at one of the dozens of castles that have been converted at great expense into hotels. The Gast im Schloss chain has been hired to manage several dozen government-restored castles (its U.S. agent is Jacques de Larsay Inc. in New York City, 1-800-366-1510).

Material on the Fairy Tale Road and Kassel is available through the German National Tourist Office in New York (747 Third Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017; 212-308-3300). The Brothers Grimm Museum is in the Palais Bellevue in Kassel. Limited information about the old East German portion of the Harz Mountains was available at press time from the Travel Bureau of East Germany, PSF 77, Berlin 1026. But since all East German offices came under the control of the new German government on October 3, it is probably best to direct all inquiries to former West German offices.

Although there are no longer any border controls between the two Germanys, the number of roads connecting East and West remains small. There are, however, far more border crossings than are shown on any map; many, but not all, of these crossings are now indicated by temporary road signs nailed to street posts. Still, it is best to ask locals where the nearest crossing has opened.

Because of the limited number of crossing points, large traffic jams have developed, especially at the beginning and end of the business day, as East Germans head west to shop and West Germans go east to find new markets and explore the surroundings.

Marc Fisher covers Central Europe for The Washington Post.