Castle Hopping in Southern Germany-Exploring “Mad” King Ludwig’s Legacy

Postcard image of Neuschwanstein Castle from Mary’s Bridge (courtesy of my husband since I have a strong fear of heights)

Germany is famous for it’s many castles, but none inspire the imagination more than Neuschwanstein , the fantasy creation of King Ludwig II in the Bavarian region of Southern Germany. This castle, his boyhood castle home of Hohenschwangau, and one of his other fantastic constructions, Linderhof Palace, are all in close proximity of each other, and are an easy visit from the nearby town of Fussen, Germany.

Neuschwanstein castle famously inspired Walt Disney’s creation of the original Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland. The Sleeping Beauty’s castle has become a Disney logo, and as a result, to those of us that have grown up watching Disney movies and television,  Neuschwanstein will seem familiar and may inspire dreams of princess dresses and tiaras.  And like the theme park version, Ludwig’s creations is is all about fantasy and not function.  The initial castle design was developed by a painter, and reflected idealized romantic concepts of medieval castles. As a result, it does not feel “real”.  Ironically, ruins of two real medieval castles had to be removed to make way for the construction of Neuschwanstein. Construction on this castle started in 1868, but by the time of Ludwig’s death in 1886, only a about 15 of the planned 200+ interior room rooms had been completed.  But what was completed and is open to visitors, is unique and grand and a masterpiece of craftsmanship inspired by religious themes and Germanic legends. It is a fascinating glimpse into the tastes of a man who preferred to escape into a dream world rather than be king. Interestingly, Ludwig incorporated state of the art technology into his pretend medieval world-telephone lines, running warm water, self flushing toilets, central heating, and battery operated bell system for the servants. Unfortunately, he only lived in the castle for a total of 172 days before he was removed from office and declared “mad” for his overindulgencies, and then found dead under mysterious circumstances. Within weeks of his death, the castle was opened for public viewing, which explains it’s museum-like atmosphere.

Ludwig’s boyhood home as seen from a window in Neuschwantein

Ludwig’s boyhood home, Hochenschwangau, was built by his father over the ruins of another medieval castle. While the inside is also grand with his and hers royal spaces, there is a more comfortable, lived in feeling here-maybe it’s the clutter of all the “stuff” that is in each room and that is part of living in a home day in and day out.  The walls in many of the rooms look like pages from a book of fairy tales, still decorated with the original brightly colored murals, depicting lively scenes from many Germanic legends and highlighted with lines of text from the stories. Unlike Neuschwanstein, which is owned by the state, Hohenschwangau is still privately owned by Ludwig’s descendants.

Horse drawn carriage waits to take passengers back down after their visit to Neuschwanstein castle.

Neuschwanstein, and Ludwig’s boyhood home across the valley, Hohenschwangau, can easily be visited together.  With almost 1.5 million visitors annually, it’s best to reserve tickets ahead of time, especially during the peak summer months.  Pick up tickets at the ticket center in the valley between the two castles.  The inside of both castles can only be visited on a guided tour, in either English or German (note-photography is not allowed inside the castles). Like a Disney theme park, tour times are assigned, starting first with Hohenschwangau and then two hours later, an assigned time for Neuschwanstein. The time gap allows you to get from one castle to the other.  Hohenschwangau is a 30 minute uphill walk from the ticket office, while Neuschwanstein is about a 40 minute steep uphill walk.  Horse drawn carriages can take you near the top for both castles if you’d rather not hike, though the wait line could be long.

About 45 minutes from Neuschwanstein is Linderhof Palace, another of Ludwig’s over the top creations, and the only one that was fully completed.  Inside, the vestibule is a tribute to the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, and that king’s over the top creation of Versailles. The rest of the building follows suite – ornate heavily gilded details, mirrored walls, painted “tapestry” walls, muraled ceilings, huge crystal chandeliers, elaborate canopied bed, and the list goes on.  The grounds around the palace are also a nod to the formal French style of Versailles complete with fountains and follies (fancy outbuildings).  This is where Ludwig spent much of his time, planning his other fantastic creations.

Ludwig used up all his private funds and went heavily into debt to build his dream homes.  Another project, Herrenchiemsee which was supposed to be similar in scale and scope to Versailles, barely got started before his death.  His obsession with the fantasy world he was trying to create was responsible for the conspiracy to have him declared mad and removed from office.  The German word “schwan” means swan, and these graceful creatures became the symbol of Ludwig’s reign.  So it is fitting that Ludwig’s castles have become his “Swan Song” with millions of people eager to see them each year.  It also seems fitting that his fantasy creation continues to inspire through an even greater fantasy industry as new generations of Disney fans grow up with the Disney castle logo and the Disney theme parks’ castle centerpiece, both inspired by a “mad” king’s passion.

Thanks for visiting.

Rose