I love castles – the manicured gardens, the lavish ceilings decorated with gold leaf and perspective-defying art, the fountains that erupt in explosive sprays of delight. Visiting a castle makes me feel seven years old again, back when I first believed in a world in which beauty and elegance were everyone’s top priority.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunch supporter of democratic values, so it’s always struck me as screamingly unfair that a tiny number of people lived in opulence funded by the blood and sweat of an enormous peasant class. Still, I can’t help but be impressed by the craftsmanship and unapologetic glamour of castles. I live in Canada, a country that’s accomplished a great deal considering the fact that we were mostly all farmers only three generations ago. In Canada, the closest thing we have to castles are the historic CP hotels, the elegant dots that connected our land-unifying railroad. While lovely, they’re still only hotels. When I travel to Europe, I aim to visit at least one magnificent castle and on my recent trip to Germany, I managed to see four: the Charlottenburg palace in Berlin, the Nymphenburg palace in Munich and the Linderhof palace and Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria. The four royal homes that I visited were all magnificent, but I’m going to tell you about Neuschwanstein because it wasn’t what I’d expected.
So, what’s the difference between a castle and a palace? It’s pretty simple: Castles were built for protection while palaces were built to showcase royal wealth and power. By now, most travellers know about Neuschwanstein because it’s rumoured to have inspired Walt Disney’s vision of the magic kingdom. It’s a quintessential fairy tale castle, high on a mountain top, decorated with pointy turrets and a breathtaking view of the Austrian Alps. It was built by “mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who ruled from 1864 until his mysterious death in 1886. Ludwig began building Neuschwanstein in 1868, just two years after Austria and Bavaria were conquered by Prussia, effectively stripping him of his power. Lonely and suffering from an unrequited love for composer Richard Wagner, King Ludwig retreated into a fantasy world of Baroque elegance, building four castles of ever-increasing opulence where he was able to live out his dream of sovereign power.
Essentially, Ludwig built a fairy tale world for himself, but he did it at the country’s expense, draining Bavaria’s coffers. Royal commissioners eventually declared him mentally unfit to rule and legend has it that he was murdered by his relatives to bring an end to the shame of his irresponsible spending, not to mention the shame of being single. He’d been briefly engaged to a royal cousin, but he broke it off at the last possible moment. In the 1880’s, the closet was inescapable for a young gay King. Within months of his suspicious death, tourists were already paying to peek inside Neuschwanstein.
On the August day my husband and I visited the castle, the weather was unusually hot for Bavaria, not exactly ideal for mountain climbing. We had rented a chic Airbnb in the Munich neighbourhood of Maxvorstadt. We met our Neuschwanstein tour bus at 8:30 am, next to the city’s central train station, where several double-decker busses from different tour lines were lined up waiting for passengers. We easily identified ours, showed our guide the tickets we’d purchased several months earlier, then climbed aboard. The bus was clean and comfortable and we were pleased to learn that snacks would be available for purchase en route.
You can drive straight from Munich to Neuschwanstein in less than two hours, but our bus stopped twice – first for lunch in the charming town of Oberammergau, famous for the epic passion play it stages every decade to ward off the plague, then at Linderhof palace, a royal jewel box, built by King Ludwig II as his permanent residence in the years before he moved into Neuchwanstein. Sadly, we didn’t have time to explore Linderhof’s interior, so we decided to make the most of the gardens.
The Linderhof palace faces an opulent fountain dedicated to Neptune, beyond which lies a magnificent terraced garden laced together by a grand marble staircase, all very Itallianesque. We climbed to the highest level and took photos of the palace below with the Alps in the background. I found the sight of such opulent civilization nestled in the rugged green mountains shockingly beautiful, rather like finding a lavish wedding cake in the forest.
As we drove from Linderhof palace to Neuschwanstein, our tour guide filled us in on the surprisingly sad details of King Ludwig’s life, from a childhood spent almost entirely in his family’s castle, isolated from other children, to his one-sided love affair with Wagner, who appears to have maintained a connection to the King because it advanced his career and paid for his operas.
Ludwig, who in his teens was idolized as the handsomest prince in Europe, eventually became addicted to sugar and opium, which he used to try to numb his misery. His weight ballooned, his teeth fell out, and on the day he was murdered, his health was apparently so poor that he was unable to escape from his pursuers. Owning a palace, or several, is apparently no guarantee of happiness.
As our bus pulled into the tiny village of Hohenschwangau, a cluster of restaurants and gift shops that sits between Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castle, I could see that we would probably spend the rest of the day being herded around like alpine cattle. The village is dominated by restaurants, guesthouses, souvenir shops and parking lots. This site draws two million people each year, all of them clamouring to visit Neuschwanstein.
As we left the bus, our tour guide was very clear: we had exactly three hours to do whatever we wanted in the village, but we had to be back on our bus at a specific time or we’d be left behind. It felt a bit like the fairy godmother’s warning to Cinderella.
The climb up the steep mountain road to the castle promised to be both daunting and time consuming. If we’d been wearing proper hiking shoes and the weather had been cooler, I probably would have enjoyed a 40-minute hike, but considering my flip-flops and the humidity, we chose to wait for a shuttle bus. When an empty bus finally arrived, we piled on and braced ourselves for an adventurous ride. We lurched around hairpin turns at startling speeds, tossed around like dice in a cup. At the top, we trooped off the bus, grateful to be alive, then marched dutifully to Marienbruke, a bridge that hovers over an epic waterfall, from which you can take a perfect picture of Neuschwanstein. There were so many tourists crammed onto the small span that I was certain it would collapse. When my husband pointed out the steel girders beneath the wooden boards, I felt reassured enough to briefly join the tide of humanity standing over the waterfall. Apparently, King Ludwig identified this gorge as one of the best “beauty spots” in the region, which is saying something considering how dramatically beautiful everything there is.
After snapping our souvenir bridge photo, we met our guide at the castle entrance and waited for our official admission time. For safety reasons, Neuschwanstein’s administration admits only a certain number of visitors per hour. At our appointed time, we entered the castle where we were told that our tour would be restricted to three areas and that absolutely no photography would be permitted owing to copyright restrictions. I was surprised and disappointed.
The interior of the castle was stiflingly hot, surprising for a stone building, and quite dark owing to the small windows, the shuttered kind you would expect to see a princess leaning out of. The walls and ceilings were beautifully decorated with allegorical paintings, most of which represented scenes from Wagner’s operas – romantic images of knights, damsels and deer. Compared to the interior of Versailles, Neuschwanstein has a distinctly cottagey feel – it’s all dark wood and draperies instead of mirrors and gold leaf.
Our group shuffled along, listening distractedly to our German tour guide’s precise English. We visited three floors of the castle, climbed a few stone staircases and did our very best to avoid bumping into anything precious. I found none of it particularly memorable. If we’d been allowed to look around on our own with a self-guided audio tour, I think I would have enjoyed it much more. At one point, our group was told to pick up the pace because another group was close on our heels.
During WWII, Hitler used Neuschwanstein to hide artwork looted from the countries he invaded. The fact that the castle was remotely located on a mountain top made it an excellent place to stash stolen treasure. Floor to ceiling, the castle was crammed full of paintings and sculptures, all rescued by Allied soldiers after Germany fell. I learned this bit of history from an excellent documentary, “The Rape of Europa,” which is when the urge to visit Neuschwanstein first struck me.
Knowing about the stolen treasure made my visit to Neuschwanstein more rewarding than it otherwise would have been. It felt authentic while everything else, from the ridiculous crowds and awkwardly roped off rooms, to the fact that Ludwig built the castle as an escape from his own reality, felt strangely artificial, like visiting the Disney castle rather than a genuine piece of European history.
By the end of our visit, after we’d spilled out into the heat and sunlight and hiked back down the mountain road with the tourist horde, I realized that I’d spent the afternoon touring an elaborate movie set, one that a sad king had built more than a hundred years earlier. I felt disappointed rather than elated. If I had it to do over again, I’d plan my day around Ludwig’s Linderhof palace, which was exquisite, with a scale and beauty that charmed me in a way Neuschwanstein didn’t. Better yet, I might visit Ludwig’s Herrenchiemsee castle, built on an island in southern Bavaria. Modelled on Versailles, Herrenchiemsee is the largest of his building projects, still incomplete when King Ludwig died. Since it’s more remote, I’ve read that hardly anyone visits it and you can roam around more freely.
My inner princess wasn’t truly satisfied by Neuschwanstein, so one of these days I’ll don my golden slippers and another swirly frock and make a second pilgrimage to the land of mad King Ludwig – solo. I learned some very important things from this trip:
1. Trust your instincts. Everything about Linderhof castle was utterly delightful to me, yet I chose to leave it for Neuchwanstein, which I hoped would be even better. It wasn’t. While it makes sense to plan for your holidays, don’t be so rigid that you can’t treat yourself to freedom of choice.
2. Comfort can’t be underestimated. Germany was hot and sticky in late August, which made our long days of sightseeing uncomfortable. It might seem like a minor detail, but for me, factoring in comfort is a top priority. If you plan to spend all day moving, spring and fall are the best times to travel.
3. A partner who shares your passions makes travelling together better. In the 23 years we’ve been together, my husband and I have travelled to Europe eight times, with varying degrees of success. This trip to Germany made me realize that he just doesn’t enjoy Europe the way I do, preferring sun and sand to churches and cobblestones. Time spent enjoying the beauty of Europe is so precious to me that, in the future, I’ll be better off travelling with a tour group than with my spouse. Here I come, Switzerland!
Photographs provided by Greer Johnston