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10 Real Life Fairy-Tale Places Where You Can Live Happily Ever After

PHOTO: Tupungato | Shutterstock

You needn’t wish upon a star or chant “once upon a time” to find these fairy-tale lands.

In early May there came a discovery. After exhaustive research, a YouTuber revealed what he believed was the actual location of Neverland. His findings are documented in this much-viewed video, but the short of it is the following: Between consulting JM Barrie’s original text and the 1953 Disney film, while honing in on the minutiae of crocodile types (it’s an American, not a Morelet) and Captain Hook’s work history (he was once Blackbeard’s bo’sun), there’s only one place in which Neverland could actually exist—Turneffe Atoll, Belize.

Thirty miles off the coast of Belize City, sparkling like a golden clock in a crocodile’s mouth, sits this faraway land. It’s one of the most biologically diverse regions of the Caribbean and remains relatively untouched by man or mermaid, though there are three resorts (including Turneffe Flats and Turneffe Island Resort) for the occasional tourist or lost boy.

Now that you can find Neverland on your own, how about wandering the globe in search of these other Lands of Make Believe?

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Where the Brothers Grimm Collected Yarns

There exists a route through Germany—one with haunted forests and ancient castles, lost children and hungry wolves—that is called the Fairy-Tale Road. When journeying along this magic road, one ought to start in Hanau, where the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were born, and travel northward for 370 miles to Bremen, the city to where the Town Musicians in one of their stories are desperately escaping.

Along the way, it’s possible to encounter all manner of fairy-tale hero from Little Red Riding Hood’s house in Alsfeld to the house in which Snow White lived with seven persnickety dwarves in Bergfreiheit. The occasional distressed damsel can also be rescued—save Sleeping Beauty from her nocturnal prison at Sababurg Castle and yank on Rapunzel’s hair to release her from Trendelburg Fortress (which is now a hotel). A villain or two also lurks along these roads—in Hameln, watch out for the serial butcher of rats and children, the Pied Pieper.

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Where a Little Mermaid Swam

The ghastly tale of The Little Mermaid—the story of a poor young mermaid who endures hideous pains (every footstep she takes as a bipedal woman feels like she’s being sliced by knives) to gain the love of a prince who will not love her, and who ends up sacrificing herself to rot in purgatory in order to allow the prince who jilted her to live—was the invention of the notoriously repressed Dane, Hans Christian Andersen.

The writer was born in Odense, Denmark, where there exists a museum in his honor. Should you wish to wait until 2020, there will be a new and better museum ($33 million better). Copenhagen also has its own museum dedicated to Andersen, complete with horrifying waxworks depicting the author’s life. And, of course, there’s the statue of the iconic Little Mermaid herself sitting atop a rock on the Langelinie pier in Copenhagen.

But, should you swim away from that pier and into the Sound and swim all the way to the point at which the Norwegian, Greenland, and Barents Seas meet, you may actually find yourself a real mermaid. It was here, at 75° 7′ N, that the explorer Henry Hudson, while searching for the Northwest Passage, spotted a mermaid in 1608.

“She was close to the ship’s side looking earnestly upon the men,” Hudon wrote in his journal. “A little after, a sea came up and overturned her. From the navel upward, her back and breasts were like a woman’s … her body as big as one of us; her skin very white; and long hair hanging down her behind, of color black; in her going down they saw her tail, which was like that of a porpoise, and speckled like a mackerel.”

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Where Pinocchio Turned Into a Real Boy

WHERE: Tuscany

Carlo Collodi, the author of Pinocchio, was actually born Carlo Lorenzini. He took the name “Collodi” from the name of the town in which his mother was born and where he spent his childhood. Collodi (the village not the man) sits atop a verdant hill in the Tuscan countryside, capped by the Villa Garzoni, where the parents of Collodi (the man not the village) first met each other. It’s said that the 17th-century villa left such an indelible mark on young Carlo’s mind that years later he created his nom de plume in honor of the city in which it was built.

In 1956, the grounds were converted to a very peculiar amusement park dedicated to Pinocchio, but if you really want to find yourself in the clutches of criminals like Mangiafuoco (“Stromboli” in the Disney film), head southeast to the city where the author was born and died: Florence.

In the shadows of those old, winding roads, it’s easy to imagine a puppet cocking his head up toward the stars and wishing he was a real boy. And, while there, why not make like the fox and the cat and steal (or, rather, purchase) yourself a puppet at Bartolucci on the Via della Condotta (there are also multiple locations throughout Italy), where, since 1981 woodworkers have carved thousands of long-nosed children.

Now with Pinocchio in your clutches make off like a bandit to Quercia di Pinocchio, a 600-year-old tree near San Martino in Colle, west of Florence. It was here that Collodi dreamt up the original ending for his fairy-tale: the fox and the cat hang Pinocchio from a tree and leave him for dead. (Fun fact: in the original story, Pinocchio kills Jiminy Cricket with a hammer.)

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PHOTO: Associação de Turismo do Porto e Norte | Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Where the Wizarding World of Harry Potter Was Born

Though you could certainly wander through Diagon Alley at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando while gulping butterbeer and noshing on Bertie Botts’ Every Flavor Jelly Beans, you could also see Porto, where much of that Wizarding World was invented. As we wrote earlier this year, J.K. Rowling may have started the outline for Harry Potter in England, but she helped to frame the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, in Porto, Portugal, where she taught English for two years.

From the Art Noveau Café Majestic, where Rowling used to scribble notes, to the Livraria Lello, which is thought to have inspired Flourish and Blotts, to the uniforms of the students of Universidade de Coimbra, which look remarkably Hogwartsian, Porto is for Potter as Oxford is for Wonderland.

Speaking of which…

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Where Alice in Wonderland Was Dreamed Up

On July 4, 1862, Lewis Carroll—who was then known only as Charles Dodgson—took the three Liddell sisters, Lorina, Edith, and Alice, on a lazy boat ride along the River Isis in Oxford. Carroll taught at Christ Church and the children were the daughters of his friend, the dean of the college. As written in his journal, the girls asked Carroll for a story to be told and, on that golden afternoon, he wove his tale of Alice’s Adventures Underground, which would eventually be published in 1865 as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

That journey along the River can be taken with a rented rowboat and is best in the summer months. But this isn’t the only hint of Wonderland. Step into the Christ Church Cathedral and ogle at the Great Hall. Though it’s now known primarily as a filming location for Hogwarts, there are Wonderland touches—a stained-glass window completed in 1985 has portraits of Alice and Carroll surrounded by Wonderland creatures; and the fireplace has two brass long-necked girls, which lore tells were the inspiration for Alice’s neck extension after chowing down on a cake the read, “Eat Me.”

Spend some time walking the grounds and you’ll find the occasional secret garden where many a white rabbit will oft cross your path.

Across the road from the college is a 150 year-old store in a 500-year-old building that once housed a grocer and is now called Alice’s Shop. If it looks familiar, it’s because the store was the inspiration of John Tenniel’s illustration of Alice talking to a sheep in Looking-glass.

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Where the Beast Fell in Love With His Beauty

WHERE: Palace of Fontainebleau, France

Though the imagination of Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve popularized the legend of Beauty and the Beast, it’s thought that she derived the story from the real-life story of Petrus Gonsalvus. Born in Tenerife, Petrus was cursed with what is today called hypertrichosis—excessive hair growth that can cover the entire body (the condition is also thought to be a possible origin for the story of the werewolf). He was discovered on that island and shipped off in an iron cage to Henry II of France as a gift of a mythical creature.

The king, who made his court at the Palace of Fontainebleau, soon took on the Pygmalion role of Henry (II) Higgins and spent his hours educating Petrus until he became a gentleman in his court. After Henry died in a jousting match (a match, it should be said, that was organized by Henry to celebrate all of his accomplishments) from a lance fragment to the eye, his widow, Catherine de’Medici, likewise took great interest in Petrus and decided to fetch him a wife. It’s said that the woman he eventually married, also called Catherine, genuinely loved him. Together they had a litter of children, many of which also had hypertrichosis, and moved together to the Italian city of Capodimonte, west of Rome, where it’s presumed they lived out their days.

Although Fontainebleau is without any monuments or portraits to Petrus—although his portrait does hang at the Archduke of Austria’s cabinet of curiosities in Ambras Castle in Innsbruck, as does the portrait of Vlad the Impaler—one can walk in his footsteps every day, with the exception of Tuesdays, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, and May Day.

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Where a Bird-Woman Performed at the Circus

The English novelist Angela Carter was a master at blending magical realism and the folkloric tropes we all cherish. With her 1979 collection of reinvented fairy-tales, The Bloody Chamber, she also reminded modern audiences that these stories were not all happily ever afters, but gruesome and cruel, morbid and unjust—Roald Dahl would do the same thing three years later with Revolting Rhymes, though in verse. But Carter also crafted her own stories that live within the long storytelling tradition, including Nights at the Circus. It’s the picaresque tale of Fevvers, a bird-woman, who in 1899 takes up with the circus as it crosses Europe, all while meeting a gaggle of characters including a clairvoyant pig, dancing tigers, religious zealots, spirit conjurers, and numerous prostitutes.

Though the story begins in the now demolished Alhambra Theatre in London’s Leicester Square (the site of the current Odeon Cinema), it soon whisks eastward to St. Petersburg, Russia, where Colonel Kearney’s Circus sets up shop in the Mariinsky Theatre. This theatre was built in 1860 and hosted the premiers of two Tchaikovsky fairy-tale operas, The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty. Though she performs as a winged aerialist in the evenings, Fevvers spends most of her days lounging at the Hotel de l’Europe, which is now operated by Belmond, and was regularly frequented by Tchaikovsky, writer of fairy-tale ballets; Debussy, who wrote the fairy-tale-inspired orchestration of Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun; and H.G. Wells, who did not write fairy-tales at all.

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Where Gulliver Washed Upon Lilliput’s Shore

WHERE: Australia & Japan

While JM Barrie was coy about giving coordinates for Neverland, Jonathan Swift cut right to the chase. Lemuel Gulliver washed up as a giant among Lilliputians on the shores of their country at a latitude of 30°2′S, just northwest of what was then called Van Diemen’s Land, and is now Tasmania. Though Swift was a master satirist, he was a lousy cartographer. He placed Lilliput right square in Australia. And though Australia may be a Swiftian land—the Northern Territory is home to wild horses like the Houyhnhnms, and the South West has the Walpole-Nornalup National Park, which is known as the Valley of the Giants (much like the giant-lurking country of Brobdingnag)—there was once another place to find Lilliput: Japan.

In 1997, Gulliver’s Kingdom amusement park opened just outside Aokigahara, the infamous “suicide forest.” The centerpiece was a giant Gulliver tied down by Lilliputians. There were few rides and even fewer tourists. It’s rumored that poor attendance was due to the park’s unfortunate proximity to such a sacred and somber place as those cursed woods, and it was closed permanently and demolished in 2007.

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PHOTO: trialsanderrors | Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Where a Yellow Brick Road Leads the Way to the Land of Oz

WHERE: Chicago & North Carolina

L. Frank Baum was meticulous in crafting maps and geography for the Land of Oz, yet he never did pinpoint an exact location. It is, however, surrounded on all sides by the Deadly Desert, which cruelly turns to sand all who set foot in it. And though Baum himself does not tell us where to find Oz, it’s thought this his inspiration for the Emerald City came from the miraculous construction of the White City of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair Columbian Exposition. Though temporary, it was a gorgeous and vibrant city of lagoons and neo-classical constructions, of grand statues and lush gardens. As written about in Devil in the White City, the allure and wonder of the White City and the exposition tugged at the imaginations of the nation (and provided a whimsical backdrop to the many murders of H.H. Holmes). The temporary city is gone now and Jackson Park is in its place—and by 2021, the Obama Presidential Center will be right there, too. But, that’s all that’s left of Oz.

However, just as someone constructed a dilapidated amusement park in honor of Lilliput, so too did some madman construct one for Oz. Opening in 1970 in Beech Mountain, North Carolina—according to their website, the ribbon was cut by Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher—the park began suffering within a few years. Gas shortages in 1973 kept tourists away and in 1975, a fire ripped through the Emerald City. By 1980, the doors were closed and the Yellow Brick Road went untrodden and unpolished.

But, as though transforming from black-and-white to Technicolor wonder, the amusement park will be back! Well, sort of. For six days throughout June—every Friday and Saturday, June 30—you can see the magic of Oz. So, let the joyous news spread, and hurry up and get there before it’s ding-dong-dead again.

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PHOTO: Jaromir Kavan | Unsplash
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Where Mowgli Was Raised by Wolves

WHERE: Brattleboro, Vermont & Possibly Emerald Isle, North Carolina

Rudyard Kipling—author, colonialist, and debatable racist (spoiler: he was)—was born and spent his formative years in India, however, he wrote his most famous work, The Jungle Book, at his home, which he dubbed Naulakha, just outside Brattleboro, Vermont. Though Naulakha is bookable for $495 a night, there are other, more mysterious places to go searching for Mowgli—and, no, not through the jungles of India.

There’s a story that claims that Disney once upon a time constructed a resort on the barrier island of Emerald Isle, North Carolina. It was to be called “Mowgli’s Palace”–a magnificent attraction of talking animatronic beasts and ancient ruined temples. But somewhere along the way, the project went sideways and, just like Gulliver’s Kingdom and the Land of Oz before it, it was abandoned. It’s said that the park still exists, even haunted by Micky Mouse and Goofy, but if you want to go in search of Mowgli, go in search of his Palace.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, why waste time on locating a tall tale when you could instead see the real world. But to the curious heart, it reads as plausible—certainly as plausible as white rabbits in Oxford, mermaids in Copenhagen, beasts in France, or, that if you follow the second star to the right and carry on till morning, you’ll find Neverland off the coast of Belize.