Once upon a time, deep in the Alpine foothills, there lived a tragic young man called Ludwig II. The people remember him as “Mad” King Ludwig. He ruled over Bavaria for 22 years until his mysterious death in 1886 at the age of 40. It was the Romantic era, and among Ludwig’s closest friends were artists, poets, and musicians. A shy dreamer, Ludwig built a fantasy world around himself far removed from the realities of his kingdom. Today we call it Neuschwanstein.
I want to remain an eternal mystery to myself and others.
Ludwig II der Märchenkönig, The Fairy Tale King
FÜSSEN, Deutschland—An entire day was devoted to our excursion through southern Bavaria, from Munich to Füssen and the “King’s Castles” (Königsschlösser): Schloß Hohenschwangau und Schloß Neuschwanstein. The two-hour train ride, standing-room only, would have been a terribly unbearable experience if it hadn’t been for my copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go…. Okay, it was still pure agony. But I did my best to tone down my complaints in consideration for Ishiguro’s characters (who were probably suffering a great deal more than me).
I’d been warned about this. I’d mentally and physically prepared myself for the insane amount of tourists willing to cram themselves into the only train that would take them to the fairy-tale castle of their dreams. If I’d felt any hesitation, prior to our jaunt, to call a spade a spade, that train ride forced my hand: this was a one-time deal, something to cross off the proverbial bucket list. Much like prom. At the end of the day, my soles were burning.
Built in the 12th century, the original Hohenschwangau was torn down by Napoleon and then rebuilt in 1830 by Ludwig’s father, King Maximilian II of Bavaria. This castle, sitting silently below Neuschwanstein, served as the royal family’s summer hunting lodge up until 1912. It was Ludwig’s childhood residence, where he spent 17 years planning and following the construction of his ideal medieval castle through a telescope that still stands in place today. He called his dream castle “New Hohenschwangau” (only renamed “Neuschwanstein” after Ludwig’s death), and it was to be his personal refuge on a rugged hill high above the village.
What I can recall quite clearly about that day was the intense, stinging heat that bit across every inch of skin until even the eyes started sweating tears. We’d slathered on sunscreen by the side of the road soon after disembarking from the tour bus (also standing-room only), but I was still wary of the sun’s rays. So I took out my handy mini-umbrella to use as portable shade. I noticed that some people shared my idea, and some others took the opportunity to go for a swim in the gorgeous lake beside the castle. #summervibes
Today I was brought to him. He is unfortunately so beautiful and wise, soulful and lordly, that I fear his life must fade away like a divine dream in this base world… You cannot imagine the magic of his regard: if he remains alive it will be a great miracle!
Richard Wagner on Ludwig II
I was the first to admit my disenchantment with Hohenschwangau—The Box, I would later nickname it. “The Box with a giant swan on top.” It’s no wonder Ludwig wanted to build a new one, a castle that actually looked the way a proper castle of the Romantic age should. Neuschwanstein is definitely Hohenschwangau’s more attractive younger brother (lol). At that time, we’d only seen Neuschwanstein from a distance, but even then the results were clear. Contemplating this comparison, we sat down to a quick lunch in the village, where the disgruntled waitresses are forced to wear traditional Bavarian dirndls in 38 C degree weather.
Before we hitched a ride on the tram going up to Neuschwanstein, we stopped at the Museum of the Bavarian Kings (Museum der Bayerischen Könige). We’d reserved our “Swan Tickets,” which included entry to both castles and the museum, far in advance—a very, very smart decision that enabled us to skip through all the lines like we were holding Disneyland Fastpasses. (If we hadn’t done so, it’s unlikely that we would’ve gotten the chance to see…anything.) Note that no photos were allowed inside either of the castles or the museum. T-T
I wasn’t that interested in the historical documents and treasures of Bavaria’s former royal family, the Wittelsbachs, so I wandered over to a secluded side room that was cut to reveal breathtaking panoramic views of the lake. I had the entire room to myself, and I just sat there for a while, marveling at the beauty of Alpsee, preparing my feet for the 300+ steps we were about to encounter inside Neuschwanstein.
It is my intention to rebuild the old castle ruin of Hohenschwangau near the Pöllat Gorge in the authentic style of the old German knights’ castles, and I must confess to you that I am looking forward very much to living there one day (in 3 years); there will be several cosy, habitable guest rooms with a splendid view of the noble Säuling, the mountains of Tyrol and far across the plain; you know the revered guest [Richard Wagner] I would like to accommodate there; the location is one of the most beautiful to be found, holy and unapproachable, a worthy temple for the divine friend who has brought salvation and true blessing to the world. It will also remind you of “Tannhäuser” (Singers’ Hall with a view of the castle in the background), “Lohengrin'” (castle courtyard, open corridor, path to the chapel); this castle will be in every way more beautiful and habitable than Hohenschwangau further down, which is desecrated every year by the prose of my mother; they will take revenge, the desecrated gods, and come to live with Us on the lofty heights, breathing the air of heaven.
Ludwig II, letter to Richard Wagner, May 1868
Our first objective was to observe Neuschwanstein from Mary’s Bridge (Marienbrücke), a vista point built by Maximilian II high above Pöllat Gorge as a birthday present for his mountain-climbing consort Marie Friederike of Prussia. Making our way onto the overcrowded platform was an ordeal that had me questioning the bridge’s carrying capacity. Definitely a one-time deal.
See the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, check!
In 1866, Bavaria and ally Austria were defeated in the Austro-Prussian War (Seven Weeks’ War), and Bavaria was forced to sign a mutual defense treaty, which effectively rendered the kingdom under Prussian control. Ludwig II was no longer a sovereign ruler. He increasingly withdrew from human contact, fixated on his royal dignity, and preparations for the “New Hohenschwangau” began in the summer of 1868. His envisioned “worthy temple” was as much an escape from society as it was an homage to composer Richard Wagner, with whom Ludwig shared an intimate friendship. Ludwig would only live in his fairy-tale castle for 172 days before he was declared mentally unfit to rule Bavaria, then forcibly interned in Berg Palace (Schloß Berg). A mere two days after his eviction, Ludwig was found dead in nearby Lake Starnberg together with the doctor who had certified him as insane. The debate survives to this day as to whether or not the incident was a murder or a suicide.
At the time of Ludwig’s death, construction of Neuschwanstein ceased with only a third of the interior completed. We toured the lavishly decorated apartments and state rooms on the 3rd and 4th floors (rooms on the 2nd floor remain unfinished). For me, the most memorable were the Grotto-Conservatory and Ludwig’s dark, Neo-Gothic Bedroom. The entire castle interior was so very dark—perhaps a haunting reflection of the young king’s troubled spirit. The Grotto is essentially an artificial dripstone cave between the Salon and Study, based on the idea of the Hörselberg in the Tannhäuser saga by Wagner. A glass door slides down into the rock, leading to the Conservatory that boasts an uninterrupted view of the landscape Ludwig so cherished. (He had his own cave! King Ludwig, The Royal Introvert.) The leitmotif of his Bedroom is Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, at the center of which sits an elaborate bed canopied with a forest of Gothic church spires—a testament to Ludwig’s devout longing for Christian glory. Most of Neuschwanstein’s original furnishings and fancy frescoes are based on Wagner’s opera themes.
At the conclusion of our tour, we were met with sinister skies. Lightning lit up the surrounding hillsides and was answered by the thunder’s low, menacing growl. It was the ultimate backdrop for our fairy-tale adventure, a scene pulled directly from the pages of a Brothers Grimm storybook. Romance and a hint of danger. With half my heart set on turning back to the castle, I unfolded my umbrella as the first droplets of rain fell. But the poor thing was no match for Bavaria’s powerful winds. My little pink umbrella died a hero’s death that day, and I didn’t even have the time to mourn. The wind whipped at our heels, howling from every direction, and we rushed to the tour bus that would drive us back to Füssen’s train station as streaks of light ripped through the clouds.
About an hour into our train ride back to Munich, we arrived at Kaufbeuren Station. Of course, this would be the perfect time for us to get off at the wrong stop, at the edge of an approaching electrical storm. It turned out to be a good mistake. A few trains later, we boarded one heading towards Munich and had our pick of the seats in a near-empty car! Score!