A DONKEY, a dog, a cat and a rooster, all past their prime and no longer of use on their respective farms, set off to become musicians in Bremen.

On the way, they stumble across four robbers in a cottage enjoying their ill- gotten gains.

Standing on each others’ backs, they scared away the criminals and took possession of the house, ate a good meal, and settled in for the evening. The robbers return in the dead of the night to recover their booty but the intrepid animals combine to scratch, bite, kick and scream away the intruders and the would-be musicians lived in the cottage happily ever after.

The Brothers Grimm’s famous fairytale, Town Musicians of Bremen, captures the essence of the German city; quaint, cultured and immersed in the past.

Certainly no trip to the Hanseatic city in the north- east of Germany is complete without a visit to the statue erected in honour of the famous four where, folklore has it, if you rub the donkey’s front legs with both hands you will be granted a wish.

And there are times, especially when you’re strolling through the Schnoor, the oldest district in Bremen, that you feel like you are part of a fairytale.

The maze of narrow passage ways and ancient buildings, where you can stop to eat, have a coffee or just window shop, is like being transported back in time.

Wander along the red-bricked Böttcherstrasse — try the atmospheric Stäv for a wholesome bite to eat — and you could be forgiven for thinking you weren’t in a city at all, let alone one home to 550,000 inhabitants.

“We’re just a village with trams,” said our tour guide. He had a point.

Though quite why Bremen needs such an extensive transport system is difficult to fathom when you can easily walk everywhere you want to go.

And that includes from the City Airport. because, unlike many of Ryanair’s drop-off points, the airport is slap, bang in the middle of your destination and just a 15 minute tram ride into the centre.

We stayed at the stylish Swissotel, situated on the river and opposite the Kaffeemuhle, a 100-year windmill which is perfect for a spot of lunch. The five-star hotel is also a great base to explore, meaning that you just have to walk out the front door and you are in the midst of the action.

Take in the historical market and The Roland, Bremen’s “Statue of Liberty”, enjoy a glass of red at the Ratskeller (Germany’s oldest wine cellar) and gaze in awe at the opulent 600-year-old town hall, a UNESCO World Heritage site. But to paint Bremen as merely a picturesque little village is to do it a disservice.

The place has a real cosmopolitan air about it, boasting a vibrant shopping centre and the magnificent Universum Bremen. Looking like a silver whale or giant mussel depending on which local you speak to, the science museum, with hundreds of hands-on activities, is a must, especially if you’re travelling with children.

If that doesn’t take your fancy, then there is the Mercedes Benz factory, the second largest in the country, where you can phone up to arrange free guided tours.

Or head to the Beck’s museum across the river. Learn about the brewing process of one of Germany’s best known exports and discover how Bremens keep one of beers — Haake-Beck — just for themselves.

For art lovers there is the Kunsthalle, home to an Edvard Munch exhibition until February. Finding somewhere to eat or drink is never a problem in Bremen either.

In good weather, the Schlachte embankment is a popular waterside rendezvous.

The bars and restaurants spill on to the banks of the River Weser and, in the height of summer, up to 2,000 people can be seen enjoying themselves. For the more adventurous, party the night away at in the bars of the Weser to das Viertel (the Quarter) or, at this time of year, visit the Christmas markets that spring up all over the city.

In fact, there is something for everyone in Bremen which makes it the perfect city break location.