STOP THE BUS! Every cell in my body wanted to scream this when, after about 2 hours of driving along winding country roads, we turned a corner and I finally got a glimpse of our destination. Perched on the side of a mountain, as if floating on a sea of lush cedar trees, Neuchwanstein Castle gleamed inspite of the rain clouds.
In my earlier posts about Munich, I mentioned how visiting Bavaria is like walking into a fairytale—with the royal jewels displayed in The Treasury, the enchanting gardens in the heart of the city, and the gold leaf-covered rooms at the Munich Residenz. But all of them pale in comparison to how dreamlike Neuchwanstein Castle is. Perched on a hill, with its many towers and parapets, and a backdrop of snow-capped blue mountains, the castle is probably the closest real thing you and I will ever see to a fairytale castle.
We considered renting a car and driving to the castles ourselves as it was promised to be fairly easy. But we really wished to take advantage of the commentary from knowledgeable tour guides and learn about the castles and, more importantly, the man who dreamed them to reality.
The story is something we’ve heard many times before. He’s young and beautiful, and comes from a powerful family. He’s also artistic, talented, and relentlessly passionate. With his unlimited resources, he could pursue anything he loves. Or anyone. And that’s when this story and those we’ve heard before usually take a turn. He followed his heart and society said it’s wrong. It’s taboo. It’s insane. What would you do if you were in his shoes? What would you do if you were the King of Bavaria?
King Ludwig II: The mad king or the sad king?
Ludwig II’s life has been enveloped in mystery and intrigue. He ascended the throne at a tender age of 18 and with his youth and striking looks, he easily gained overtures and favour of many important people—making him popular not just in Bavaria but in all of Europe. Anyone who paid close attention, however, soon got acquainted with his eccentricities.
Friendship with Richard Wagner and other men
His admiration (or what some would call obsession) with opera composer Richard Wagner was scrutinized by high members of the court. They questioned why the 19-year-old Ludwig asked 51-year-old Wagner to ‘move in’ to the royal court. They suspected the artist’s influence on the young king. Soon, controversy of King Ludwig and Wagner’s relationship has taken hold of conservative Bavaria, and the king was forced to ask Wagner to leave the city to never return.
The pressure to have an heir soon followed. His engagement to his cousin was announced when he was 21, but he very shortly postponed the wedding, and then cancelled it all together.
Although the king never pursued another relationship with a woman, he continued very deep friendships with fellow men much to the dislike of his highly conservative court.
A life of seclusion
Soon the king excused himself from all forms of large gatherings and formal social events. He preferred a life of seclusion and spent his time pursuing personal projects. Left to his own imagination, Ludwig II proceeded to build fairytale castles—all with dedications to various men he admired.
The cost of living in the wrong time
King Ludwig’s refusal to actively participate in his kingly duties (preferring to be alone at all costs) created tension with the king’s cabinet. At 40 years of age, without any medical examination, the king was declared unfit to rule by his ministers due to ‘mental incapacity.’ The day after he was ‘seized’ and asked to relocate to another castle, King Ludwig was found dead on the shore of a lake after taking an evening walk with his psychiatrist. He was pronounced dead from drowning though the water was just up to his waist and no water was found in his lungs at autopsy. To this day, the story of King Ludwig II’s death remains unknown.
The fairytale king’s legacy
King Ludwig’s creative imagination created several beautiful castles during his reign. Two of them are more special than the rest—the same two that were fully inspired by men that the king ardently admired. Neuchwanstein Castle is a homage to Richard Wagner; in the heart of the castle is a theater with frescoes depicting scenes from Wagner’s operas. Linderhof Palace, on the other hand, is a tribute to the Sun King, Louis XIV, judging by the portraits of the French king in almost every room of the palace.
In my mind, King Ludwig II is the opposite of mad—he was inspired. He was a patron of the arts, and he admired passionately and without restraint. His sexual orientation is questioned in almost everything written about him, and it’s sad that he clearly lived in a time and place that was not prepared to embrace his ways. Undeniably if he were around today, he wouldn’t be the mad king but the fab King Ludwig II of Bavaria.
Our day tour took us first to Linderhof Palace. It’s the smallest castle that King Ludwig built, and also the smallest we’ve ever seen in all our travels. But it is, by far, our absolute favourite. The best part to us is how intimate the palace felt. I am certain that there are mansions in Toronto that are definitely much bigger than the Linderhof Palace.
In fact the palace only has 4 functional rooms: the audience chamber, the dining room, the hall of mirrors and the bedroom which is the biggest room in the palace. All rooms connect to make one circle.
There is no kitchen in the floorplan on the left because it’s located underneath the dining room. King Ludwig II has been to take seclusion to an all together different level. In some of his castles:
The floor underneath his dining table opens so that his kitchen staff can lower it, place food on the table, and then raise it again so that the king can have his food without having to see anyone.
The peculiar king treasures his privacy.
The exterior of the castle is a simple stone facade that’s reminiscent its French inspiration Châteaux de Versailles. The formal gardens are of Italian Renaissance influence, crowned by the most impressive fountain of Neptune which King Ludwig II woke up to every single morning.
With less space to decorate, King Ludwig II definitely opted for the opposite of ‘less is more’ tenet. Every single room is lavishly decorated with nothing short of luxury and opulence. The décor is very similar to Châteaux de Versailles but in a smaller, more intimate space that actually feels livable once you get used to the marble and gold leaf.
We headed to Neuschwanstein Castle at lunch. The tour itinerary allowed us to have 2 hours to ourselves to have lunch at the village of Hohenschwangau and make our way up to the castle entrance so we can, as a group, have the guided tour of the castle. But my husband and I had another thing in mind. Our plan was to:
- Get sandwiches to-go
- Eat the sandwiches in the 50-minute hike uphill
- Hike past the castle for another 20 minutes
- End up at the Marienbrücke (Marie’s bridge) with enough time to photograph the castle from the best view point in the area
- Walk back down to the castle to meet up with our tour group
We executed like pros. With a mozzarella sandwich in one hand, and a bottle of water in the other, we hiked up the winding paths leading up to the castle. I wanted as much time as I can get to photograph the castle so I did a speed-hike and did the typically 50-minute climb in just half an hour. The panting-while-chewing combination was less than pretty but I was pleasantly distracted by the views. It had just rained so the forest that lined the pathways were gleaming green:
Soon we were standing at the foot of the castle. The stone walls majestically towered over us but we only had time for a few snaps before we had to continue walking to get to Marienbrücke, which will give us the most picturesque view of the castle.
About 10 minutes past the castle, we got a prelude to the promised spectacle with an amazing view of Hohenschwangau.
Finally, we reached the bridge that sits on top of a spectacular gorge. If you look down (and beyond the 300-feet death drop), you will see a beautiful stream fed by an even more beautiful waterfall. But if you look towards the horizon, you will see the most magnificent view of Neuschwanstein Castle. It will take your breath away.
We were not allowed to take photographs inside the castle which is a shame given how every inch of it is so lavishly decorated.
My favourite section would have to be the king’s personal winter garden which is really 4 feet by 5 feet space with a chair overlooking an amazing view of Bavaria (image left). To get to it, one has to pass by the grotto which is a small man-made cave complete with stalactites. Walking through it somehow makes your forget that you are indeed in a castle. And towards one corner is a chair facing a window that looks towards the horizon. I can imagine the peculiar king sitting by his lonesome, dreaming away. The overwhelming feeling of solitude in the space is quite heartbreaking.
In one small window of the castle, we also got a great view of the tourist-ridden bridge Marienbrücke. The bridge sits against a backdrop of a dramatic gorge with cascading waterfalls, combined with low-hanging clouds, jagged rocks, and rich cedar trees—the picture is simply captivating. But it makes me wonder if the introverted King Ludwig II ever did the same and looked out to people walking past the bridge, perhaps also looking back at him or the castle. Perhaps. What were his thoughts? How did he feel? One can only imagine what goes on in the creative, daydreaming mind of a mad, sad, fab king.