Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Mad King's Fairy Tale Castle

It’s the perfect castle in the perfect setting. Perched high in the German Alps, Neuschwanstein Castle is the epitome of the fairy tale palace with its beautiful white limestone facades accentuated by numerous turrets and spires. Windows are carved out of every wall and help attest to the fact that it was built as a home, not a fortress.

Standing at the base of the path, I watched a bus loaded with tourists pass me and was glad I had chosen to take the 30-minute hike from the parking lot to the castle. Aside from nearby Hohenschwangau Castle, there isn’t too much else to do. Nor is anything else necessary.

Neuschwanstein Castle towers over the village of Hohenschwangau, which is just a short bus ride or drive from Fussen, where the nearest train station is located. The mountains are dotted with evergreen trees and conceal numerous lakes graced with swans, the royal symbol. King Ludwig II, who ordered the castle built in the late 1860s, was a nature lover, and the views along the hike are spectacular.

I watched the shadows of clouds float lazily over a landscape dotted with villages that, aside from the modern roads, might have looked the same for centuries. The lakes were a rich blue, and all the vegetation was a lush green. When I rounded the last corner and got my first glimpse of the castle up close, I just stopped and stared.

It rose out of the rocky foundation and seemed to flirt with the sky. I knew right then why Disney chose to build the castle in Dinseyland in its likeness. My tour wasn’t for 20 minutes, so I walked around the base of the palace and climbed to its upper courtyard.

From the walls, I took in the same scenery I had seen on the hike up, but I saw it now as Ludwig II would have. For a moment, I let myself pretend it was my realm, and I was overseeing it from my seat of power.

I looked across a gorge at the Marienbrucke bridge spanning a small stream and waterfall. It was crowded with tourists from all over the world, and I realized I was making it into a few hundred photographs. I wanted to walk over and join them, but it was time for my tour.

I found the line I was supposed to be in and waited for the rest of my group to show up. The group in front of me was German. Though guided tours are only offered in German and English, many other options are availably by audio guide, and I heard a plethora of languages, including French, Italian, English, German, Japanese and Spanish.

When enough of us were there, our guide led us through the doors and into the first rooms, which belonged to the king’s servants. With their oak-paneled walls and carved furniture, even they lived well.

The tour seemed to jump around a little bit due to the fact that King Ludwig II died under mysterious circumstances before the castle’s completion, and the building was never finished. He supposedly drowned in a lake with his doctor, but both were excellent swimmers, and Ludwig had many enemies in his government who thought he was squandering resources on his retreat.

Walking through rooms with finery I had only thought existed in Versailles, I marveled at the beautiful paintings and depictions of medieval legends and heroes. Every inch of the interior dripped with elegance.

The throne room was particularly breathtaking. Though there was no throne, the platform for it was flanked by tall candelabras and capped off by a dome on which was a painting of Christ and His canonized kings.

As we walked, our guide related some of Ludwig’s and the castle’s history. The two are equally intertwined with the composer Richard Wagner, a close friend of the king. It was in a letter to Wagner that Ludwig first wrote his concept for Neuschwanstein.

After seeing the rest of the interior, the tour was over and I found myself back in the courtyard. I gazed over a parapet down to Hohenschwangau Castle, which should be seen in conjunction with Neuschwanstein on the combined admission ticket for €17. It’s a sight in its own right, but is outdone by Neuschwanstein.

Aching to see the castle from another angle, I took the short hike over to the Marienbrucke. And stopped. I don’t have a huge fear of heights, but the thought of walking out onto a bridge built more than a hundred years earlier and paved with wood planks made me hesitate. After all, I could see the castle just fine from the solid hill.

But I had to walk out there. It’s where the best photo of the castle’s side is. So I stepped onto the planks and rolled my eyes as they flexed with my movements and those of the rest of the tourists. I stared down at the waterfall farther below me than I cared to think about, and eventually let my eyes rise to see the castle again.

It was so easy to imagine the castle as the setting for any number of fairy tales. That it was real and I was standing, gazing at it took a while to set in. It simply awed me. To me, it will always be the most beautiful building in the world.

---This was first published here in a slightly different form.


Anonymous said...

What a beautiful castle. It's a shame Ludwig never had the chance to see it finished. (I'm guessing it's still unfinished?) I need to go there myself someday.


Brandon Darnell said...

Yes, it's still unfinished. I think there are something like 80 unfurnished rooms in the castle.

Natasha said...

I am in love with Germany! I cant wait to go back! It was so beautiful. and the view from the castle was amazing!