Bavaria is Germany’s southern-most province, bordering Austria. The entire province has, without a doubt, some of Europe’s most spectacular scenery, thanks in large part to its proximity to the German Alps. The majority of Germans dream that one day they can live in Bavaria, and when you visit the place you will understand why. Bavaria seems to be lost in time. It looks the same as it did 100 years ago: rustic wooden farmhouses resembling gingerbread houses, grassy meadows with brightly colored wild flowers, blue-green pine forests, emerald-green lakes, mountain streams, picturesque medieval villages, and majestic churches and castles high atop the hills and mountains. Bavaria’s spectacular scenery combined with its fresh alpine air and tranquility help make it a favorite place to take a vacation.
The best way to visit Bavaria is to go to Munich, its largest city, and then take day trips by car or by private tour bus companies. Ask your hotel’s front Reception Desk for such tours—you will be picked up early in the morning and then dropped off at your hotel later in the evening.
One place in particular that you must visit is the small town of Fussen, famous for its two castles: Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau, once owned by King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Of the two, Neuschwanstein Castle—resembling a knight’s castle from a fairy tale—is the most famous. Believe it or not, this particular castle has become one of the most popular destinations in all of Europe, having almost 1.3 million visitors per year.
The distance from Munich to Fussen is 85 kilometers. Neuschwanstein is one of the most photographed castles in the world. It has even been featured in several movies, such as the well-known children’s adventure movie, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”—the aerial views of the castle and the surrounding countryside in this movie are breathtaking! When you see the castle in person, it would more than likely look familiar. Atop a rugged hill, surrounded by forests and lakes, it has a commanding view of the German Alps. Very few castles in the world have such a spectacular natural setting. Thankfully, the inside of this castle is just as spectacular—it looks the same as it did in 1886, the year of its completion. It took 17 years to build, employing anywhere from 200 – 300 craftsmen working on site every day. Its construction was a marvel of architectural and engineering genius, using many different types of building material such as oak, white lime stone, sandstone, marble, and steel. The amount of building material used was enormous, for example, 513 short tons of Salzburg marble, 1710 short tons of sandstone, and 400,000 bricks. (One short ton = 2,000 pounds or 907 kilograms.)
Inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s Castle
When Americans in particular visit the castle, it may look familiar to them, even though they have never been there. Apparently when the American, Walt Disney (the creator of Disneyland), was a young man touring Europe he visited this castle. He was so inspired that he used this castle as a model to create Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disneyland, U.S.A.
Upon arriving in Fussen, the tour bus will drop you off at the base of a hill near several restaurants and hotels. Nearby are two beautiful lakes (Alp Lake and Swan Lake) where you can go swimming, hiking, or canoeing. Walk up the long winding road to the castle. You will find the Alpine air exhilarating, giving you plenty of energy. Once you reach the castle, plan to spend at least a couple of hours touring it and the surrounding area.
King Ludwig II—The Fairy Tale King
Neuschwanstein Castle is no ordinary castle: its outward appearance and setting will fascinate you and so will its history, which is full of intrigue and mystery (right up to the end of World War II). Its builder and owner was the young king of Bavaria, Ludwig II. By all accounts, he was handsome, charming, healthy, wealthy, intelligent, and loved by the people he ruled over. Yet, by the time the construction of Neuschwanstein Castle was nearing completion, he was declared “mad”, arrested, removed forcibly from the castle, and then found dead a few days later of very mysterious circumstances. What actually happened to the young, popular king is an unsolved mystery. Even more puzzling, is why he was killed. Some historians speculate that his own family (the royal family) murdered him, as they did not approve of his unconventional lifestyle and neglect of “duty”.
King Ludwig II was known as der Marchenkonig—the Fairy Tale King. In some ways, Ludwig’s life was similar to a fairy tale, except his life did not end happily ever after! He sought refuge from reality in his castles, as he was not comfortable with all of the required duties of a king. Even from his youth, he was fascinated by Germany’s Medieval Ages with its powerful kings, regal queens, chivalrous knights, and fair maidens. He idealized Germany’s medieval and chivalric past, trying to recreate it in Neuschwanstein Castle. While this may have appeared bizarre to some people, in reality, his idealism of the Medieval Ages was in many ways part of the Romantic revival that swept through Europe in the 1800’s, a longing by many people to relive a period of time when life was simpler and more spiritual.
Richard Wagner’s Influence
The king’s idealism is evident throughout the interior of Neuschwanstein Castle, as it is decorated with paintings and tapestries whose inspiration came from the Teutonic operas, Tannhauser and Lohengrin, of Richard Wagner, the famous German composer. All of the men and women depicted in these paintings and tapestries are handsome, strong, robust, confident, and richly dressed in medieval clothing. You can feel the power of these images. King Ludwig’s obsession with these operas and how they depicted everyday life in Medieval Germany gives this castle, both inside and outside, a very unique style.
The cost of constructing this castle in such a remote mountainous area combined with its luxurious interior (e.g. the curtains in some of the rooms were made from spun gold), was enormous. This castle as well as several others was so extravagant that it bankrupted the king’s vast fortune and threatened to also bankrupt the Bavarian Treasury, as the king’s personal debts were massive (involving millions and millions of German marks).
Touring Neuschwanstein Castle
Begin your tour of Neuschwanstein Castle in the vestibule with its brightly painted, decorative vaulted ceilings. Next enter the impressive Throne Hall painted in Byzantine style with its chandelier resembling a Byzantine crown. The stairs at the end of the Hall are made from expensive Italian carrara marble. The paintings on the wall have a biblical theme, depicting Jesus Christ with his 12 apostles, Mary, and his favorite disciple, St. John. The floor of the Hall is an amazing mosaic, containing over 2 million stones symbolizing different animals and plants from all over the world.
Make sure to go out onto the balcony of the Throne Hall for a grand view of the German Alps, the two lakes (Alp Lake and Swan Lake), and Hohenschwangau Castle, where King Ludwig II spent his youth. As far as the eye can see, there is nothing but mountains, forests, lakes, and a few old-style hotels that blend in perfectly with the scenery.
Visit also the Dining Room and the king’s bedroom, built in neo-gothic style with rich oak-wood carvings. The woodwork in the king’s bedroom is so elaborate that it took a group of 14 carpenters 4.5 years to complete it. Look closely at the curtains and bedding: they are covered with the Bavarian coat-of-arms, the swan and the lion. You will notice a washstand near the bed. It may seem unbelievable, but the washstand, including the entire castle, had running water. Make sure to look out the balcony window for an amazing view of a 149 ft. high waterfall. The king’s bedroom, unfortunately, has a tragic history for it was in this location that the king was arrested on June 12, 1886, and forcibly removed from the castle (never to return).
Next, visit the Chapel with its rich wooden paneling and beautiful stain glass windows, the Dressing Room with its huge medieval-themed wall paintings, and the Living Room with its magnificent wooden-beam ceiling and wrought-iron wooden doors. You may notice that several items throughout the castle have either the shape or picture of a swan—it was the king’s favorite animal (usually set against a light blue background). Visit the Study with its exquisite oak woodwork and spun gold curtains and chair coverings; the Singer’s Hall with its spacious layout, polished wooden floors, unique angular and paneled pinewood ceiling, and huge paintings that will dazzle you—the craftsmanship is truly remarkable; and the Kitchen with its polished stucco-granite columns, hot and cold running water (an incredible feat for 1886), and grill.
Neuschwanstein Castle was incredibly modern for its time: in addition to its central heating and hot and cold running water, it had a turbine-powered spit in the kitchen for roasting meats, a battery-powered bell system used to summon the servants, toilets that flushed automatically, and telephone lines. The castle may have had a medieval look, but it was designed with state-of-the-art modern conveniences—it had the best of both worlds.
King’s Ludwig’s Scandalous Lifestyle
King Ludwig II built several extravagant castles throughout his short lifetime, all cost a fortune, which earned him much criticism, and the nickname “Mad King Ludwig”. He was tall, handsome, wealthy, intelligent, and of royal blood—women especially adored him. Even today Bavarians revere him—you will see his picture displayed in many places. Yet for all of his looks, charm, and money, he remained single. It was expected, if not demanded, by his family that he would marry, have children, and settle down to a life of marital bliss and duty. He, however, didn’t want any of this. Most guidebooks describe him as being “lonely” and a “recluse”. He never met the “right” woman probably because he wasn’t looking for a woman—some historians now speculate that he was gay (homosexual). Even nowadays that could cause problems for someone in the position of king, but back in the late 1800’s it could have easily contributed to his death, especially given the fact that Bavaria was known to be a very religious and conservative state.
King Ludwig’s Mysterious Death
The large number of handsome young male servants and soldiers in attendance at the king’s castles ensured that the king wasn’t lonely—stories about his wild parties with his men must have absolutely scandalized his family. The fact that he didn’t even try to keep his lifestyle secret would have infuriated the royal family even more. Thus, it should have come as no surprise that on June 12, 1886, the king was arrested and removed from the castle. He was declared insane, his power was transferred to his uncle, Prince Luipold. Days later, King Ludwig’s body was found in Lake Starnberg. The official cause of death was listed as drowning (even though he was reputed to be an excellent swimmer). There was no proper investigation into the circumstances of his death. Furthermore, all of the reports and documents connected with the investigation of his death were either tampered with, destroyed, or lost. So ended the life of the owner of the world’s (soon-to-be) most famous castle.
It is ironic that one of the major criticisms against King Ludwig II was his construction of Neuschwanstein Castle, as it was viewed as a waste of money. That same castle now has 1.3 million visitors annually and is a major source of revenue for Bavaria. The king, who was once decried as being “mad”, is now revered as being a “genius”, a “visionary”. Right up to the beginning of World War I, the king’s family made a fortune from opening up his castle to the public (for a fee). As a matter of fact, six weeks after King Ludwig’s death, his family opened up this castle, and started making money. So much for his family mourning his tragic death!
German Food, Beer, and Wine
After you have visited the castle and walked back to the main tourist area, make sure to dine at any of its many fine restaurants. Be adventurous and try the German cuisine, it is quite hardy and appetizing. Typical German main dishes are sauerkraut (pickled cabbage), boiled potatoes, roast pork, and sausages. For variety, try a platter of the various grilled local sausages, as they are incredibly delicious, especially with mustard. Other main dishes include cabbage rolls, sauerbraten (German Pot Roast), or schweinshaxe with bratkartoffein (roasted ham hock with fried potatoes). For dessert, try Crème Bavaroise (Bavarian cream) or Apfelstrudel (Apple Strudel pastry).
Of course, you must also try the German beer, it is some of the best in the world, thanks to Germany’s strict quality control standards. Two popular beers are Lowenbrau (a pale lager) and Bock (a strong lager). Or, if you prefer wine, try some of Bavaria’s Franconian wines. Two types of grapes grow in Franconia (North-West Bavaria): pinot noir and Fruhburgunder (a rare type of grape that produces a wine of high quality). Try Bocksbeutel, a highly recommended brand of Franconian wine.
If you prefer to relax and really experience Bavaria at its best, then you may even decide to spend a night or two at one of the nearby hotels. The Hotel Muller is highly recommended. It is located between the two castles and is built in the style of a Bavarian hunting lodge. You can reach it by foot, by shuttle bus, or by horse-drawn carriage! It has a café and restaurant on site, and is known for its excellent selection of wines. Another hotel with a view of the castles is Villa Jagerhaus Hotel. It has a café and elegant restaurant on site, and serves several local and Bavarian dishes. Try the wonderful breakfast buffet in the “King Ludwig Salon”.
Queen Mary’s Bridge (Marienbrucke) and Tegelberg
After lunch, walk to Queen Mary’s Bridge (the Marienbrucke) for a spectacular view of Neuschwanstein castle and the entire area. You will pass the viewpoint “Die Jugend” (the youth). You can sit on one of its benches for a rest and enjoy the panoramic view. For photos that will be truly memorable, walk onto the bridge and see for yourself what makes this entire area so special. Once you cross the bridge, you will find a winding road that leads to a hunting lodge (which is nowadays a restaurant) in the area known as the “Tegelberg”. The walk, however, is approximately three hours. It is far easier to use the funicular (cable railway) near the castle to access Tegelberg, which is described as being one of the nicest places in the German Alps. On a very clear day you can even see Munich from that location!
Visiting Hohenschwangau Castle
If you have time, you should also visit this area’s other famous castle: the royal castle of Hohenschwangau, originally constructed in the 12th century and then restored in 1836 by King Ludwig’s father. It, too, has a medieval style of architecture, but far less whimsical (romantic) than Neuschwanstein Castle. It was here at this castle that King Ludwig II met the famous composer, Richard Wagner. This castle has a beautiful setting and richly decorated interior. Some of its interesting rooms include: the Queen’s Bedroom with its Turkish-style décor (it looks like something a Turkish sultan would have lived in); the Schyren Room, dressing room of Queen Mary, with its scenic wall paintings; the Music Room of the King, with its square piano that Richard Wagner played while entertaining the king; and the Hall of Heroes with its huge wooden banquet table and grandiose wall paintings. In reality, all of the rooms in this castle are worth seeing, as they have a very distinct style of Teutonic (Germanic) imagery and surprisingly a wide range of bright colors that liven up each room, making it difficult to believe that this castle is over 800 years old, especially given the mint condition of its furnishings and works of art.
Nazi Stolen Art and Gold
Thankfully this area was not damaged during World War II even though the Nazis used Neuschwanstein Castle, first as a depot (storage area) to store their plunder (primarily valuable works of art) from France, and then as a depository by the German Reichsbank for vast amounts of gold, all of which mysteriously vanished in the last days of the war. As mentioned earlier, this castle’s history is anything but dull!
So much mystery, beauty, wealth, and tranquility surround both of these castles. The physical setting looks like something from a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. It is difficult to believe that so much intrigue could have taken place in such a remote, but magnificent and peaceful setting. This part of Bavaria is what many parts of Europe used to resemble a long time ago—no wonder so many people adore this area. It’s nice to escape modern life (much like King Ludwig II tried to do), even if it’s only for a day or two!
About the author:
Eric Alexander Hamilton lives in Vancouver, Canada. He loves travelling and has lived in several cities such as Paris, London, and Zurich. His passions in life are photography and writing, particularly about travel, self-help and spiritual topics. To him, writing and photography are a natural match, as witnessed in his web site, www.lifedestiny.com. With each passing day, he is trying to follow the advice of the famous American writer, Jack London:, who said: “The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.” It’s advice we should all follow.