When I added Munich to my list of places to visit, I hadn’t realized how close it was to Neuschwanstein Castle, the beautiful folly of King Ludwig II. I had expected that the castle would be somewhere else – further north, perhaps – so when Google showed me that Neuschwanstein Castle was a popular day trip and only about two hours away from Munich, I had to go. I did study the building extensively while building a 3D puzzle in my younger days, after all.
Once again, I opted for a guided tour, at the special rate of €30 as I received a special discount voucher through the hostel. Had I gone myself, using the Bayern train ticket, it would have cost about €22 plus another few euros for the bus ride from the Füssen train station to the area of the castle itself. Our guide, Javier, was enthusiastic but our group was scattered over a couple of train cars which made it difficult to communicate with him until we arrived in Füssen. I don’t know if those seated close to him received more information on the ride out, but I really felt as though this tour was a bit lighter on information and history than either the free walking tour from my first weekend or the trip to Dachau.
There was a “special reserved bus” – which was nothing more than a chartered city bus shared by several of the tour groups. We were dropped off outside of a small snack bar, manned by a frighteningly efficient Bavarian with an affinity for loud rock music. He managed both the inside counter and the outside ordering window, dropping fries into the fryer, serving up sausages and opening beers. I think there was some sort of kickback in place with the guides as they got to use the special employee bathroom, bypassing the massive lines. After a quick snack, a trip to use the bathroom (the one on the train was pretty disgusting) and the confirmation of our ticket times to visit the inside of the castle, an additional €12 fee, we were on our way to the first stop of the tour!
Hohenschwangau Castle is where King Ludwig II grew up – his boyhood home, to be exact. It is within direct sight of Neuschwanstein and the King would pass the time studying the progress of his dream castle. Apparently he was only 19 when he inherited the throne and, as our guide said, would be part of the “emo generation” today. He was apparently a friend and patron of Richard Wagner and was so consumed by his artistic passions that he completely ignored his duties – which included ruling Bavaria.
Hohenschwangau was apparently first built in the 12th century, destroyed by Napoleon and then rebuilt by King Ludwig II’s father. Our guide told us that the eventual plan was to destroy Hohenschwangau and Lindehof, the hunting palace, in order to prevent other generations from living there once Neuschwanstein was completed. This never happened – the King lost his power far before Neuschwanstein was completed and therefore before he could ruin anything.
We moved down towards the picturesque lake beside Hohenschwangau, posing for pictures and admiring the alpine scene in front of us. Javier promised us that we would just have a little walk uphill in order to reach Neuschwanstein but that he had faith we could do it. I would like to point out, for the benefit of my readers, that I was nowhere near recovered from my terrible cold on this day. We also had a few older couples with us and although they seemed game for the adventure, we didn’t think it would be that bad.
Well, it was. We took the long route up and I had the perverse pleasure of being the one who was visibly (and noisily) dying. I focused on the backpack of the guy in front of me, similar to on the ruck marches I did in basic training, keeping my breathing focused and concentrated. But once we stopped, to hear stories about the crazy King and his obsession with swans? Wheeze City, Population Me. The guide was horrified and more than slightly concerned – he kept checking on me to be sure I was okay and wanted to ensure I had an inhaler. I kept insisting i was fine and just kept heading up the hill at my pace.
There were two people in our group, who appeared to be mother and son, that chose not to do the inside tour. Javier showed them the beer garden and told them when to meet us… the tours at Neuschwanstein are very tightly scheduled and organized as it is one the most visited sites in Germany… and the German efficiency is on full display! We slid our tickets into automated turnstiles which let us through the gates and up into the castle – only our tour number was allowed to go in at that point. Once we were in and gathered, our guide quieted down and a young Bavarian man, employed by the State, took over to lead us through some of the completed rooms in the castle.
Apparently photos are officially forbidden but our guide told us it was ok so long as we were discreet and didn’t use our flash. I don’t know what the official story is, but all of us were taking photos and nothing was said.
The interior of the castle was really dark, which surprised me. The King’s bedroom didn’t even face out towards the beautiful mountains or scenery, which surprised me, and which helped to diminish the amount of natural light streaming in. The paintings on the walls were very detailed and I’m sure that a significant portion of the castle construction budget was spent on artistry! The castle was built over a period of approximately 20 years as they more or less wrapped up construction after the King was removed from power.
Ludwig II was also known as the “Swan King” and the details of the castle represented this. Some of the chandeliers had swan sculptures, the spout at his sink was a swan and there were swans hidden in the paintings and carvings around the rooms. He also loved castles – the photo above shows the top of his bed with intricately carved castles and towers.
Going through the official tour was a bit of a rush – German efficiency and all – with a new tour group right behind us. We would finish in one room and they would enter less than thirty seconds later, the guides using a strictly choreographed routine and never straying off script. We didn’t even have the opportunity to ask questions, which is a bad omen for the guides as they could easily be replaced by robots.
Finishing up the tour, we had the chance to either get a snack, visit one of two shops or take some photos from the castle balcony. We were completely unsupervised at this point, our Bavarian guide having directed us down the stairs before disappearing. I didn’t see, or use, a normal staircase at all during the visit as we moved from floor to floor using endlessly spiralling stairs, with the last ones being coated in galvanized steel. I’m not sure what that was about but I’m assuming it was only partially complete during the construction phase.
We walked to the Marienbrücke, a bridge that was build for Ludwig’s mother who apparently loved to go hiking. It was also uphill – of course – but it offers beautiful views of the castle and surrounding area. Located between two parts of a canyon wall, the wind whips through greatly challenging those trying to take photos. You can’t deny how amazing the castle is, though, or be surprised that Disney chose it as the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty when you see it from the bridge.
Instead of walking down the paved path we had used before, our guide suggested that we take the walk down through the gorge. He said that it was challenging for people with knee problems – which was probably an understatement – as we had to climb down uneven stairs and scramble over some rocks. The worst part, however, was when we were almost to the bottom and reached a suspended metal platform, bolted to the rock, which we were supposed to walk on. Some of the people in our group were wearing flip flops – light, loose shoes that would not handle this walk well. We could also see rocks and rushing water below us, a pleasant surprise should the supposedly steadfast German engineering choose that day to fail.
I was very glad to reach the bottom of the gorge – as were the others – and we emerged into a beautiful pastoral scene, complete with free range chickens and alpine architecture. Our guide led us right back to where we started, beside the snack bar, and quickly told us about how Ludwig II was declared insane and removed from power. Days after being removed, he was found dead – along with his psychiatrist – floating in a lake but they have never been able to prove whether it was murder or suicide that led to his death.
Six weeks after the death of King Ludwig II, Neuschwanstein Castle was opened to tourists. It took longer than anticipated, went crazily over budget and still isn’t finished – but after 128 years of steady, paying visitors I’m willing to bet that the state of Bavaria has come out ahead.