Neuschwanstein lies high above the valley, on a rock that is not really suitable for construction. The local authorities should never have approved this. I am sure there were some bribes involved… It takes at least 30 minutes on foot from the valley to the castle.
Of course, you could take the horse-drawn carriage, the one with the electric motor humming secretly.
“Mom, I have a side stitch,” a little girl complains.
“Never mind,” the mother replies heartlessly. She wants to go to the castle as quickly as possible, the child is just bothering her now.
At the panoramic viewpoints, the couples are taking couple photos which they can throw once they will separate. Only a few are clever enough to ask for individual photos. These relationships are already on the decline. The most complicated ones are the Latin American women, who have very precise ideas and instructions for their husbands, which they seem to have taken along for this purpose only. Kitsch castles magically attract wannabe princesses.
The person who looks the happiest is an old man with no camera, no mobile phone, nothing. He is simply enjoying the views of Hohenschwangau Castle, the Alpine lake and the mountains. And smiling, from one ear to the other. He looks as if he fulfilled a lifelong dream for himself.
Behind and above the castle, Marien Bridge spans the Pöllat Gorge.
But even in this Corona-virus summer, you have to queue for the acrophobic view.
I can’t even imagine how it looks like in normal years, with 1.5 million tourists annually. And I also can’t quite understand why people do this to themselves, only to stand on a shaky construction for a minute, when you can explore the hiking trails through the mountains and see the castle from every angle.
The castle somehow looks fake, as if made of plaster. The edges still sharp, the walls without dents or marks, never besieged or shot at and as if it was never inhabited. Beautifully planned, but without a soul, like one of those new buildings in Beverly Hills with overly ornate oriels.
Or as the brochure of a Chinese travel agent writes:
Under a blue sky and white clouds, shrouded in mist, milk-colored walls reflect golden light, and gray tips stretch into the firmament – this is Neuschwanstein, the model for Disneyland!
Tours leave every 5 minutes. The group numbers are displayed on an illuminated panel and announced like in a railway station.
While I am waiting in the courtyard and in the heat for the tour at 1:30 pm, I can still take some photos, but the castle is off limits again. Maybe because it looks pretty untidy. Cable drums and vacuum cleaners are filling up the corridors. Parts of the furniture are covered with plastic tarps. Scaffolding on many walls. It feels like walking through a construction site.
And actually, that’s what it is, because only a small part of Neuschwanstein was completed. Of the more than 200 rooms planned, only 15 have been completed and furnished. The rest is in some intermediate stage like the unfinished buildings you see in Kosovo and where you don’t know if the money ran out or the owners were shot. Just like with King Ludwig ll.
If you thought that the castle looks a bit exaggerated with all its turrets and bay windows, then let me tell you that this is the slimmed down version.
Originally, it was planned to be even bigger and more bombastic:
And for what purpose?
The unusual aspect of Neuschwanstein Castle is that it was built without any political, statesmanlike or representative goals. It was intended as a completely private retreat. At least that is what Ludwig II claimed, although I wonder what the throne hall was for. Or do you have something like that at home?
Much emphasis was also put on incorporating they latest technical gadgets, i.e. a telephone, a hot-air central heating system, an electric call system for servants, a cable car and a landing platform for flying cabs.
The few rooms that were finished in Neuschwanstein seem much darker and more gloomy to me than those in Hohenschwangau Castle.
The throne room is modelled, quite modestly, on the Hagia Sophia.
Although Bavaria had already been parliamentarized and was actually ruled by the cabinet and not by the king, Ludwig II saw himself as a king by the grace of God. The walls are lined with pictures of canonized kings. The chandelier has the shape of a Byzantine imperial crown. The floor is decorated with the most elaborate mosaic in Germany, with 1.5 million individual pieces.
The guide calls the room a “refuge from reality,” and one wonders whether the king had ever spent some time in reality at all. Other kings allegedly mingle among the people, disguised and unrecognized, in order to find out what the polls conceal. Ludwig II probably would have panicked at the mere thought of going for such a walk.
In the throne room there is a painting showing St. George playing Dungeons & Dragons. In the background, there is a castle, which I naturally identify as Neuschwanstein.
This is not Neuschwanstein, but Falkenstein, another castle planned by Ludwig II. Why somebody needs more castles when they already have one, and why they are already planning new castles before the existing ones are even finished, it’s beyond me. Maybe the king was really crazy, after all. On the other hand, this real estate mania persists until today. Many people fall victim to it, although private ownership of land that nobody has created is a really strange concept. Whoever believes in this hoax really should be incapacitated.
On Falkenstein, there are only ruins now, often haunted by treasure hunters. On the one hand, there is the legend that Ludwig ll buried a treasure there before his abduction (see chapter 170). On the other hand, it is said that from October 1944 to March 1945, the SS blocked access to the mountain and brought a Nazi treasure from Munich to Germany’s highest castle ruins (at 1267 meters).
Of course, there were Nazi treasures at Neuschwanstein Castle as well, but more about this in chapter 181.
By the way, this is how Ludwig II wanted Falkenstein Castle to look:
When the architect dared to point out that such a monstrous castle would not fit on the small rock, he was fired.
At some point, I have to mention all the other castles and castle plans of Ludwig ll. Not only to fight against the unjustified dominance of Neuschwanstein, but because the building mania was decisive for the king’s demise (see chapters 135-138).
Because readers want to continue the tour in the present castle, here is only a very brief overview of the legacy of the Bavarian king, which should not fade into obscurity next to Neuschwanstein:
On Mount Schachen, Ludwig II had a modest royal house built. From the outside, it looks like a somewhat larger wooden hut, into which the king liked to retreat, especially for his birthdays – a quirk that I can well understand during this birthday hike of mine.
But the interior of the royal cabin does look different from my Walden cabin (chapter 104). The Turkish Hall was modeled after Eyüp Palace near Istanbul.
Building without kitsch was not the king’s strong point.
Linderhof Palace was rather small by Ludwig’s standards, and it even made it to completion. It is the only palace in which Ludwig II actually lived for a longer period of time.
Herrenchiemsee Castle on an island in Lake Chiemsee, on the other hand, was to become the Bavarian Versailles. Only bigger, of course. With this castle, it is less obvious, but it was not finished either.
And then there were the building projects which were buried together with the king and were quite possibly the reason for his early death:
I have already mentioned Falkenstein Castle in chapters 155 and 156.
In addition, Ludwig II was pursuing plans for a Byzantine palace that would blend in wonderfully with the Alpine surroundings,
and a Chinese castle, which was modelled on the Beijing Winter Palace.
Imagine how many Chinese tourists this would attract!
Speaking of Chinese, Japanese, American and other tourists: I also list the alternative castles to point out to visitors from far away that you don’t necessarily have to go to Neuschwanstein. Again and again, I get asked how to get to Neuschwanstein from Hamburg or Rostock and back in one day. Don’t do that, it would be pure stress! Germany is full of castles and palaces, there is one every 20 km. Just rent a car, drive along a country road and you will see enough castles left and right.
At most other castles, you will not have to queue for tickets. Often, the entrance is even free.
The more daring among the desperate, who didn’t get any tickets, try to jump into the castle by parachute. If they don’t hit it, at least they are having a wonderful view.
But now, you want to learn more about Neuschwanstein, so we continue with the tour, which one would probably appreciate more if one were familiar with Wagner’s operas. The musical taste of the author of these lines is too refined for that noise, though.
The bedroom is designed like a gothic cathedral. On the walls and the tiled stove, the tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde is unrolled, which Ludwig II took to heart so much that he never married. (An often overlooked factor that speaks for the king’s mental clarity).
The theme of the living room is the Lohengrin saga. Swans flutter, swim and loom everywhere. Swans on the wallpaper. Swans on the soup tureen. Swans on the carpet. Swans on the paintings. Swan-shaped door handles.
One leaves the living room through an artificially created dripstone cave, supposedly a homage to the Tannhäuser opera.
From Tannhäuser to the Wartburg, it is only a small logical leap, and since the king was a man of rather short mental leaps, the largest hall in the castle, the Singers’ Hall, is a copy of the Wartburg.
Framed by portraits of Parzival, the king wanted to enjoy private screenings of his favorite films here. Ludwig II is often portrayed as a patron of culture and the arts, but in reality he was just interested in his private pleasure. The people had nothing to gain from hundreds of actors singing, dancing and operating for one man. The National Theater in Munich was also blocked by Ludwig II more than 200 times for private performances.
And that’s it. A rather short tour, much shorter than this article. I wouldn’t fly in from Shanghai for that. Especially now that my blog is also available in Chinese.
When I take another look at the castle from the outside, I remember how one could describe Neuschwanstein: “The whole thing doesn’t come alive: it is put together, calculated, synthetic, an artifact.” This is what Nietzsche had said about Wagner.
And for this, 39 people lost their lives during construction.
A visitor who would also like to have more information, asks who financed the whole frippery.
“Ludwig II himself paid all this,” the guide says.
“Well,” I dare to interject, and she becomes a bit more specific.
“He paid for it out of his own appanage,” that is, tax money, “and of course he needed loans, which the House of Wittelsbach all paid back after his death.”
The contemporaries did not take the financing so lightly. Quite the opposite, the construction craze broke the king’s neck, literally.
In the last episode (chapters 137 and 138), I summarized how the Bavarian government planned to get rid of Ludwig II and what shabby tricks they used to do so. We were just on 7 June 1886, when the Council of Ministers commissioned a psychiatric report, which the psychiatrist Gudden conveniently completed on 8 June 1886.
We reenter the story on 9 June 1886. A government commission travels to Neuschwanstein Castle to inform the king that he has been made redundant. However, it does not reach Ludwig ll. Apparently, the royal camp knows what is being played, and the royal staff, local gendarmes and the fire department deny the government commission access to the king and even lock up the government representatives, including the foreign minister, for several hours.
Ludwig II consults with his people, who recommend that he either travel to Munich and speak directly to the people, or flee abroad. The king remains defiant: “Here is my castle, and here are my toys. Here I will stay.” We all know people like this, who prefer to wallow in misfortune rather than take friendly advice.
On the evening of 11 June 1886, a second government commission travels to Neuschwanstein, this time with a more stringent mandate, which is why it is also called the “catching commission”. It no longer consists of civil servants and ministers, but of doctors and nurses, professional groups notorious for their brutality and mercilessness. The head of this task force is Bernhard von Gudden, who seems to be involved in every mischief.
We do not know exactly what happened at Neuschwanstein Castle and how much violence was necessary, but in the night of 11th to 12th of June 1886, this commando unit abducts Ludwig II to Berg Castle on Lake Starnberg, which you will remember from chapters 2, 3 and 10.
“I mean, it’s okay that you don’t want me to be no king no more. But why can’t I stay at Neuschwanstein Castle and watch Wagner operas,” Ludwig II and the readers are asking.
The reasons are at least twofold:
Firstly, the king was very possessive of Neuschwanstein Castle. Not only should no one else ever enter, let alone live in it. There was also a rumor that Ludwig II had decreed that Neuschwanstein Castle was to be blown up after his death. Since German leaders like to go a little crazy when their careers come to an end, such an overreaction could not be ruled out.
Second, although the Bavarian government found Neuschwanstein aesthetically and financially dreadful, it already had new plans for the magnificent building.
Until then, castles had been functional buildings that served defensive, accommodation, government or at least representative purposes. An old castle could house a district court or a high school if necessary. Neuschwanstein, however, was not suitable for any of these purposes, because the border to Austria was already defended by the Alps – and anyway: who is afraid of Austria? -, and because nobody lived near the castle. Furthermore, a courthouse or other office building that could not be reached for a few months due to deep snow was impractical.
So what to do with Neuschwanstein? To use it as a movie set was the obvious and good idea until a boring official pointed out that cinematography had not been invented in 1886.
As with the Singers’ Hall (chapter 166), Wartburg Castle served as inspiration for the question of follow-up use. Although only partially accessible to visitors, it had become a popular destination for excursions and travel. A few years earlier, an inn had opened in that castle. Guest rooms accommodated visitors from all over Europe, who were guided through the castle from 6 o’clock in the morning.
It was the birth of castle tourism.
What seems perfectly normal to us now, was like a revolution back then. Common people, even foreigners, could walk through princely and royal chambers. And the princely and royal houses were dependent on entrance fees. They had to sell fridge magnets and other frippery to finance their lifestyle. Tourism was the forerunner of the revolution, one could say.
And the Bavarian government recognized this opportunity.
The Bavarian government also recognized that a castle with a legend could be marketed even better than a mere castle. And with this, the death sentence was handed down.
On the evening of 13 June 1886, just one day after his abduction, Ludwig II allegedly went for a walk on the shores of Lake Starnberg. Allegedly accompanied by Dr. Gudden.
Why someone should go for a peaceful stroll with the psychiatrist who snatched the throne, his power and his castle from him, is not clear to me. But we don’t have much time to ponder this question, because a shot is fired.
You remember the spot on Lake Starnberg where Ludwig II is said to have drowned (chapter 4). Isn’t it suspicious that there is a clear field of vision and for aiming a rifle right there?
If someone wanted to drown himself, why would he do it in such a widely visible place? Besides, the lake is really shallow at that spot. You can stand in the water. And it was June, so the water was not too cold either.
No, probably Ludwig II was not dead on the spot, but dragged himself to the lake and wanted to swim away – one does not always act rationally in such situations. But soon he ran out of strength.
And Dr. Gudden? Had he knowingly led the king to this place? Or was he himself shocked and suddenly understood that he too was a puppet? There is no time for him and us to think this over, because a second shot is fired. The psychiatrist is dead.
Six weeks later, Neuschwanstein Castle is opened to the public.
The tragic thing about the story is that the castles for which the king was executed have become a lucrative source of income for the State of Bavaria. In the long run, they have paid off. But their architect had to die first. Only 15 years after his death, the debts were all paid off.
Today, the stones of contention are the most famous image of Bavaria, and even Germany, in the world. Nobody wants to see the Hohenzollern castle, and only a fish is named after Bismarck. Ludwig II would smile smugly about it.
If Wagner had been as talented as Shakespeare, he would have turned this into a royal drama.
After the pompous castle and the dramatic story, I have a longing for nature. The water in the Alpine Lake is crystal clear. You can see all the way to the bottom. My morning wash-up yesterday (chapter 116) has left no permanent water pollution.
But even at the King-Ludwig-II-memorial-suicide-by-jumping-into-the-lake spot, you have to stand in line. This hara-kiri is especially popular with Japanese tourists.
Driven by open questions and the fear of not being able to answer them to the full satisfaction of the detail-obsessed readership, I go to the Museum of Bavarian Kings located by the Alpine Lake.
In this museum, there are restrictions as if I was visiting the king himself. I even have to lock up the camera before I can enter the exhibition. What I understood perfectly on the guided tours in the castles annoys me in a much less frequented museum. I like to take pictures of the information panels so that I can read them later in peace. Instead, I have to write everything down, soon running out of patience.
And it’s a pity, because from the gallery on the second floor, you have a beautiful view of the lake and of Hohenschwangau Castle.
The building itself is also interesting, old on the outside, modern on the inside. It won the German Steel Construction Award in 2012.
In the house museum of the Wittelsbacher is of course proud to point out that this is one of the oldest dynasties in the world, which has been involved in politics since the 11th century.
Through a determined marriage policy they ruled as kings of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Greece and Hungary and as emperors of the Holy Roman Empire. Wittelsbach women sat on the thrones of France, Austria, Sweden, Bohemia, Naples (not Nepal) and Brazil.
However, they only became kings of Bavaria in 1806 thanks to Napoleon. So, people who are afraid of a Bavarian becoming German chancellor will have to worry once Emmanuel Macron will interfere in German politics just as he does in Lebanon.
But the museum is not a place of unreflected adulation. About Ludwig II, it says: “The unprepared monarch soon reached the limits of his political decision-making and actionability.”
The exaggerated construction of the castle is depicted in the museum, as are other fantasies of the monarch, such as the flying peacock cart that was to take him across the Alpine Lake to Hohenschwangau Castle.
Those who are only here for the kitsch castle have long switched off, and so for the remaining history freaks among the readers, I can still learn something about the house of Wittelsbach in the 20th century. But before I do so, I remember that I wanted to check on the veracity of the purported Nero order (chapter 171).
“Is there an archive here?” I ask one of the royal wardens.
“Yes, but it is secret.”
“Although the Secret House of Wittelsbach Archives are organizationally a department of the Bavarian Capital Archives, the holdings belong to the Wittelsbach Compensation Fund or are privately owned by members of the royal house.”
He actually says “royal house”. Maybe I had to give up my camera when I entered the museum so as not to disturb the medieval niff.
“According to the special agreement between the House of Wittelsbach and the State of Bavaria from 1923, if you want to look at the files, you need the approval of the head of the Wittelsbach family.”
“And who elected that guy?” I am tempted to ask, but I give up in desperation. No wonder that the death of King Ludwig II has not yet been resolved, if the relatives keep their thumbs on the files. Are there any other countries that were so stupid as to grant their former rulers special rights after the revolution, not only over land and castles, but even over historiography?
So I cannot verify what is claimed here about the Nazi era: “The members of the Wittelsbach family were opponents of the National Socialists out of deepest conviction, even though they were not active in any resistance group.” To me, that sounds a bit like muddling through. Crown Prince Rupprecht did not give up his hope for reintroducing the monarchy even during National Socialism.
The Nazis, in turn, didn’t like that very much. They feared that Rupprecht would become the identification figure of the resistance. He evaded arrest by fleeing to Florence. His wife Antonia, the children and Prince Albrecht, whom he had somehow forgotten when he fled, were sent to the concentration camps in Sachsenhausen, Dachau and Flossenbürg and to the SS special camp “Alpenhotel Ammerwald”.
But you needn’t worry about the princes and princesses. They had special houses in the concentration camps, where they were doing comparatively well. All members of the family survived, unlike the Eastern Jews, whose expulsion from Bavaria had been suggested by Crown Prince Rupprecht in the 1920s. Because the prince was not such an anti-Nazi, it turns out.
This, however, I don’t learn in the museum. I have to research it on my own with great effort. One example: Rupprecht wrote in 1923 in a memorandum that he had distributed: “Anti-Semitism is stronger than ever at present, for understandable and not unjustified reasons. The minimum demand is the expulsion of the Eastern Jews, which must take place without fail, because these elements have had a poisoning effect.”
Perhaps not by chance, because in 1923, Rupprecht attempted to regain the throne in a coup, ostensibly to forestall the Nazis. That did not work, but in 1946, he was ready again. He suggested to the Americans that only a king could guarantee that National Socialism would not resurface.
Somebody was really hungry for power.
The concentration camps seem to have left the most lasting impression on Princess Irmingard. As a 19-year-old, she had still tried to escape alone across the Alps to Switzerland, but was arrested by the Gestapo. She turned the experience into writing and painting.
The Nazis not only had an eye on the royal family, but also on their castles.
Neuschwanstein served as a depot for looted art during World War II. It was perfect for this purpose because there were hundreds of empty rooms, a heating system was installed, and it was located as far away from the front as possible. Moreover, American airmen would never have dropped bombs on a building that they recognized from the Disney movies as Cinderella’s Castle.
It is well known that the Nazis stole art from murdered Jews and other civilians as well as from museums in the occupied countries. Neuschwanstein Castle was the main depot of the Reichsleiter Rosenberg Task Force, housing mostly art stolen from France.
When the Western Allies approached the Alps in May 1945, the SS was to blow up Neuschwanstein to prevent it from falling into foreign hands. (Those who speak out against foreign visitors – see chapter 119 – thus find themselves in an unfortunate tradition.) In the very last days of the war, however, even the very last SS men noticed that the winds were shifting. And so, the appointed SS major general refused to blow up the treasures. The “Monuments Men” of the US Army were able to take possession of the treasures, catalog them, and largely restitute them.
Never to be found, however, was the gold treasure of the German Reichsbank, which was stored at Neuschwanstein Castle at the end of World War II, but was taken to an unknown location in the last days of war.
That is why they are still digging for it (see chapter 155), although I would not be surprised if there is at least as hefty a curse on it as on Tutankhamun.
As I step out of the museum, I meet the gentleman from Fulda again, whom I met in the queue in front of the ticket center (chapter 123). In general it is not that crowded with tourists, I notice, because I recognize the same people again and again at the different castles, at the rest areas, on the bus. Probably, 2020 was the best possibility for a relatively relaxed visit in Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein.
For the coming years, I recommend the long hike instead.
On the other hand, if we are lucky, the pandemic will last for a few more years.
- Here you can find all articles about King Ludwig Trail.
- There are more reports about hikes from all around the world.
- Reservation of tickets for both royal castles.
- The entrance fee to the Museum of the Bavarian Kings was an exorbitant 12 €, and with the train ticket home for 25 €, my wallet was as empty as the royal coffers. Without any support for this fairytale blog, I will never be able to travel again.