High in the Bavarian Alps there’s a fairy tale castle with an unpronounceable name….
At the age of 7 I discovered that Disney’s “Magical Kingdom” castle is real (or at least, based on a real castle); ever since then I have wanted it. Today I got to do the next best thing to owning it: I got to see it and touch it and smell it.
The iconic castle seen in Disney’s animated movie “Cinderella” and at Disney Land is based on Neuschwanstein Castle (translation = New Swan Stone Castle) – a 19th-century palace built on a rugged, sonty hill above the village of Schwangau in southwest Bavaria, Germany. For some very childish and immature reasons (i.e. I wanted to be a princess and live in said castle), Neuschwanstein has been on my personal “Bucket List” for 30 years. Shane, being the kind and patient husband he is, agreed to take me there today. IT WAS AWESOME!
Built 800m up in the Bavarian alps, right near the German/Austrian border, Neuschwanstein Castle was commissioned by King Ludwig II of Bavaria in 1869 and was designed to be a private retreat for the reclusive king. Construction on the palace lasted for 17 years (until Ludwig’s untimely death), and even then only 15 of its 200 rooms were fully completed. The inside of the castle (no photos allowed inside, sorry blog fans!) is wonderfully decorated, with each room painted with murals that depict a scene from one of Richard Wagner’ operas (Ludwig was a keen Wagner boffin apparently). With its towering spires and ornate exterior, Neuschwanstein is a universally recognisable symbol of the era of Romanticism. Due to its beauty and stunning alpine setting, the castle has been used in numerous movies and is the setting for many childhood princess fantasies and imagined fairy tales.
Ludwig II is sometimes called “Mad King Ludwig”, though all evidence indicates he was not, in fact, insane, just very eccentric and perhaps gay (his younger brother, Otto, was insane). Ludwig’s diagnosis of insanity is believed to have been conveniently fabricated by the Bavarian government so they could remove Kind Ludwig II from power as put an end to the king’s castle-building spending spree. It seems that Kind Ludwig II, like many people born to immense wealth, had no idea about the value of money and spent the equivalent of 1 billion Euros in his enthusiastic construction of fairy tale castles like Neuschwenstein (he built another 2 palaces as well: Herrenchiemsee and Linderhof). His extensive debts and other “embarrassing behaviours*” are reputed to have motivated the state-endorsed assassination of the 40-year old Kind Ludwig II in 1886. Ludwig’s uncle, Prince Luitpold, replaced him and it is Luitpold’s descendants that still hold the title of Dukes of Bavaria.
*The litany of King Ludwig II’s bizarre behaviour included his pathological shyness; his avoidance of state business; dining out of doors in cold weather; wearing heavy overcoats in summer; sloppy and childish table manners; dispatching servants on lengthy and expensive voyages to research architectural details in foreign lands; never marrying or producing an heir; and having lots of “very close” male friends that he frequently entertained in his private quarters (ahem).
As if one fairytale castle in a day wasn’t enough, we also went for a tour through Hohenschwangau Castle (translation = High Swan County Palace). This 19th century palace was the childhood residence of King Ludwig II and was built by his father, King Maximilian II, on top of a much older medieval fortress. The castle was originally designed to be the royal family’s summer palace, but Queen Marie (Ludwig II’s mother) lived there permanently with her sons. Hohenschwangau is literally a stone’s throw from Neuschwanstein and though not quite as “fairy-tale-esque” in appearance, was still well worth visiting – if nothing else to see how Ludwig grew up (in opulent splendour, in case you were wondering), and get an understanding of the kind of isolation he and his brother were intentionally kept in.
Schwangau, the village below Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau is really cute, though over-run by tourists. It was so insanely busy that people were waiting in line for up to 3 hours to get tickets into the castle! The sheer number of tourists was mental – thank goodness we had the foresight to prebook our tickets through a small tour company that organises everything for you, including coach transport to Schwangau and back to Munich. Part of the reason the tour with “Mike’s Bike’s” appealed to us too was that they give you a fair degree of freedom to do your own thing – we weren’t forced to stick with the rest of the tour group all day and had heaps of time between castle visits to ourselves to enjoy the scenery and have lunch at our own pace. Being Germany, we felt compelled to enjoy a hearty lunch of schnitzel and beer (for Shane, just water for me thanks – not even German beer has convinced me that the stuff is drinkable).
Both Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau have perfect views over the surrounding farmland, forest and the 2 alpine lakes: Schwansee and Alpsee. The natural setting of these castles is beautiful and we were lucky enough to have the time and opportunity today to hike around Lake Alpsee along forest trails where we actually found ourselves alone and able to enjoy the peace and quiet of the lake. The waters of the lake are so crystal clear and clean that it was very tempting to just strip off to our underwear and go for a dip!
We also hiked up to Neuschwanstein via a forest trail that goes up the back of the hill the castle is on, past waterfalls and streams of crystal clear water. Being under the shadow of the alps, seeing the steep granite slopes tower above us was awesome, and then getting to see the castle at the top was just the perfect end to a great day. I can happily tick that one off the Bucket List now!