There’s Disney World…and then there’s this. I remember, not only as a little kid, seeing Cinderella’s Castle on the horizon as we traveled on the monorail but as an adult as well. Seeing my kids eyes get bigger and bigger as we got closer and closer to the Magic Kingdom. I’m sure after all those years, I was just as enthralled as they were about the castle that has become so much a part of our lives, whether it be the parks, the movies or the television shows, and you really couldn’t see the image of mouse ears without equating the castle in the same image. It was and will always be an iconic image of being a kid. And then there was this. Neuschwanstein. This wasn’t a fabricated castle set to dazzle the minds of kids, it is the real deal. There’s no monorail to take you to the entrance or view it from the horizon. It’s not needed. The majestic castle seems to rise up out of the mountain, like it was always supposed to be there. It is, and this is no embellishment, right out of a fairy tale. For many years as a kid, I remember seeing a painted picture of the castle and it would be safe to say, that I assumed it didn’t exist. Even though my parents lived in Germany for several years and told me of this castle and Mad King Ludwig II, who built it, I simply couldn’t comprehend the place truly existed. To me, it was more of a curiosity, and yes, very Disney like, so the thought that you could actually walk in the castle? Well, that simply wasn’t possible. But here we are, in the throes of Bavaria driving through the countryside to see what is truly defined as Germany. Most of us have seen the castle in pictures, or maybe in our dreams, but to see it in person is thrilling on so many levels. My trip to the country I was born took a long time to come to fruition, but this was the spot. It would all culminate here.
Some facts about Neuschwanstein
Believe it or not, one of the most beautiful castles in the world was only lived in by its creator for a total of 172 days. But he stared at it much longer as it was being built. Crowned at the very young age of 18, Ludwig had very little knowledge on politics, finances or government at any level, but what he did know, and want, was a castle built for a king by a king. What would be his crowning achievement would ultimately be his demise as well. Labeled Mad throughout history, the guides in the castle would merely suggest he was eccentric, at a time when eccentric simply wasn’t permitted, especially by royalty. And what you don’t know is that Ludwig not only began construction on Neuschwanstein, but several other properties at the same time. He was for all intents and purposes, “the castle king”. But it was this spectacular vision which superseded all of the others and, quite possibly, the root of his madness. It is no secret that he was an impatient individual and the mere fact that it took so long to construct Neuschwanstein, more than likely ate at him. In fact, in the castle just adjacent, Hohenschwangau, where he grew up with his brother Otto and parents, there sits a telescope firmly planted in plain view where Ludwig could watch the construction of his masterpiece. Imagine that, in the late 1800’s with construction already deemed slow, especially on the side of a mountain, watching in agony, day in and day out as the vision barely resembles what the end result would show. Gone mad? yeah, that would probably do it. It’s probably good for him that Neuschwanstein was a home for the holidays, and not the permanent residence. At its peak, only 15 of the original plans of up to 200 rooms and halls were completed. 15 is a rather loose number as a few of these rooms appear not up to standards. The guide said the number was closer to 10 rooms out of 110 but regardless, only a small percentage was and is finished. Essentially by the time Ludwig moved in, only his quarters and his servants quarters were completed, as well as an area reserved only for Richard Wagner, the composer, who Ludwig had quite the affinity. The artwork and designs of the house even reflect Wagner’s works. Ludwig died by drowning in a lake mysteriously immediately after being deposed by the government and classified as insane. Ironically, the psychiatrist that diagnosed him as such died alongside Ludwig. Not quite the fairy tale ending to the fairy tale king.
The tour of Neuschwanstein can also be included with the tour of Hohenschwangau, and I would encourage both, so you can get a feel for the entire history of the property and of the family. They are timed tours for each castle and are broken into different languages. The tours start about every five minutes or so and take no more than 30 minutes. Remember, not many rooms were completed so the tour duration reflects that. Hohenschwangau is a cozier castle and easy to tour as the rooms are smaller. If there is one certainty in both castles, it would be the views that are afforded. It’s looking out these windows that you grasp the full magnitude of the Bavarian landscape. It could be one of the most beautiful views in the world, whether it’s the landscape or the opposing castle view. Between the two castles, you’ll find several souvenir shops, a few hotels and some restaurants. There are even small cafes that you can grab a local beer and brat to give you fuel for the journey up the mountain. The walk from the small village to Howenschwangau is about 10 minutes at most, while the walk to Neuschwanstein is a bit longer at 20-25 minutes and quite steep. There are shuttles that can take you up but were not running when we visited (possibly because it was shoulder season in mid-March), and there’s also the option of taking a carriage ride for around 6-7 euros up and 3 euros down. Wondering about the price discrepancy? Just wait, you’ll figure it out quickly enough. We didn’t take the carriage as the line was quite long and our tour didn’t allow us the time. Keep that in mind as the carriage is slower than you think. There’s a small path that leads to the Marienbrucke (Mary’s Bridge) which offers the best view of the castle you can find. At the time of our visit, a barricade was up to prevent people from taking this path, but like the countless dozens ahead of us, we jumped it and went anyways. I mean how many times am I going to be coming back? Although snow and ice made it difficult, the views were as advertised, fairy tale like. The Schlossrestaurant Neuschwanstein right outside the gate offered some good Bavarian dishes and a view of the countryside but a better view of the castle.
Like usual, we were in the last group to leave which pretty much sums up our travels. We like to bring up the rear. Not so much because we’re slow, but because at the end of the day, and the sun is setting on the horizon, we get the rare opportunity to look back at the castle behind us with very little tourists or cars to muddy the view and imagine what it must have been like 150 years ago. It’s also my chance to reflect on how lucky we are to travel this beautiful world and see things that we never thought possible. It’s as if we were in a fairy tale.