King of the Castles: the fantasy builder of Neuschwanstein
In my languages’ classroom at school in England, the teacher had put up a tourist poster of an amazing fantasy castle which I later found out was called ‘Neuschwanstein’. As an adult I was able to visit this enchanting 19th century dream palace of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, one of many built by this mysterious and castle-obsessed monarch.
Ludwig II was brought up in Hohenschwangau Castle, a mock-castle built by his father, King Maximilian II. When Ludwig was only 18 his father died suddenly and Ludwig had to ascend the throne unprepared. Already interested in German mythology and obsessed by the opera of Wagner, one of the new king’s first actions was to summon the composer to his court. Their music festivals and concerts seemed to inspire the king to lose himself in a fantasy world in which he dressed as characters from opera and designed Disney-esque castles that would serve as sets for Wagner’s performances.
King Ludwig began Neuschwanstein (meaning ‘the new swan on the rock’) in 1868. It was to be a Romanesque fairy tale fortress with wondrous towers, not far from Hohenschwangau. Perched on a rock, the castle would be seen against the sky. Its walls were to be decorated with scenes from the legends behind Wagner’s operas. Ludwig first occupied it in 1884, but the castle remained incomplete at his death in 1886, and parts were never finished.
Entrance tickets for Neuschwanstein (open daily except Christmas and New Year) must be bought at the ticket office in Hohenschwangau village below the castle, where you also park before walking up the path to the entrance. The apartments can only be visited on a guided tour lasting 30 minutes. There are reduced ticket prices if you want to see Ludwig’s childhood home of Hohenschwangau as well.
For a rural retreat, in 1886 King Ludwig built the ten-roomed private palace of Linderhof (open daily) in the Graswang Valley near Ettal. Here, he commissioned gardens around a large pool with a 25 metre high fountain in the romantic style. There are terraces and cascades, with a music pavilion at the top, and a grotto. Further from the palace a landscaped park leads to open meadows with views of the mountains. (The park is closed from October to March.)
Versailles was the inspiration for Herrenchiemsee, which in contrast to Linderhof is big, magnificent and unfinished. It was begun in 1878 on an island in the Chiemsee, the largest lake in Bavaria. The huge state rooms and the impressive State Staircase, along with the Great Hall of Mirrors, are highlights of a guided tour lasting 30-45 minutes. Allow time too for the Ludwig II Museum and the gardens and park. From April to October you can ride in a carriage from the boat pier to the palace, or if you are more energetic you can walk the 7 km trail round the island.
The ‘Konigsschlösser’ combined ticket allows you to visit Neuschwanstein, Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee once in a six month period for 24 euros.
Today tourists visiting King Ludwig’s castles bring a huge amount of money to Bavaria – an irony when you consider that his building obsession seems to have bankrupted the king and caused him to be deposed. Where outsiders were once barred by the reclusive monarch, 50 million people are estimated to have visited since his death!