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Neuschwanstein - a fairytale castle

Updated on February 22, 2009

Neuschwanstein is a monument to the dreams - or some would say the extravagant folly - of King Ludwig II, known to his critics as Mad Ludwig. This romantic young king wanted to be the greatest patron of the arts in Europe, not a monarch and that's why he built Neuschwanstein in the style of the German knights of medieval days.

It was that romance that inspired Walt Disney to use Neuschwanstein as the model for the fantasy castle of Disneyland, now instantly recognised all over the world.

Sadly though, Neuschwanstein is crumbling away and experts say the facade of the elaborate mock fortress is in such a sorry state that extensive renovation work must be carried out soon. In recent years, frosty nights and sudden changes of temperature have taken their toll on Neuschwanstein, which is built of red brick and clad with limestone slabs hewn from quarries in Hohenschwangau. The limestone soaks up water "like a sponge", and when the temperture drops, tension in the facade increases and cracks appear.

But most of the 1.5 million visitors a year who admire the eccentric castle fail to spot the "creeping deterioration".

Ludwig succeeded to the Bavarian throne in 1864 but temperamentally was quite unsuited to rule. His greatest passion was the musical theatre of composer Richard Wagner, and he wanted to build castles.

After the frustrations of his first years on the throne, the artistic and misunderstood young king took refuge in his beloved mountains and poured his energy and his dreams into three extravagant and ornate castles.

Neuschwanstein, built mainly in the late romanesque style of the early 13th century, is the most famous of them. With its rounded arches and towers, spires, minarets and profuse ornamentation, it rises hundreds of metres above as visitors approach on a 25-minute walk up the steep, winding road with necks craned to see the sheer, soaring walls.

Less strenuous is a horse-drawn carriage ride for a few dollars. Even then, it's still a 10-minute walk and it's twice the price to go up as to come down.

Construction of Neuschwanstein castle began in 1869 when Ludwig was 24. But only the king's living quarters and representational rooms on the third and fourth floors were completed when he died mysteriously in 1886, aged 41. Work planned, but not yet begun, was then cancelled.

Inside is the illusory world created by the so-called "mad" king in which fact and fantasy are blended. The decorations are devoted almost entirely to the re-telling of medieval German legends and every room blazes with colorful paintings and frescoes reviving the sagas of Lowengrin and Tannhauser in particular.

It is gloriously and unashamedly opulent, with almost every centimetre covered in gilt and stucco, magnificent murals, rich oak carvings and paintings.

Neuschwanstein gains its particular quality from Ludwig's friendship and patronage of the then-struggling composer Richard Wagner and intended it to be a "temple" in his honor and a venue for the great operas. The murals and paintings depict the legends upon which Wagner's operas were based and the swan motif based on the Lohengrin saga occurs repeatedly. But Wagner never set foot in the castle and Ludwig lived there for no more than a month.

A government commission from Munich went to the castle, declaring Ludwig "mentally deranged" and unfit to rule and took him to Berg.

Next day he was found dead in a lake, together with his doctor.

Whether he suicided or was murdered was never proved.

A Neuschwanstein visit during high tourist season means joining a conducted tour, which does not give time to linger and study the detail in the rooms.

Passing through the vestibule, with its richly decorated vaulted ceiling and painted wrought-iron chandeliers, entry is to the sumptuous, church-like Throne Hall. Carrara marble stairs lead up to the apse where a throne of gold and ivory should have been. But this did not eventuate after the king's death. The magnificent mosaic floor contains more than two million stones and depicts animals and plants from all over the world.

Views from the balcony offer splendid vistas of the Bavarian Alps, lakes and lowland.

The lonely, unmarried king had loved sumptuous bedrooms. Fourteen sculptors worked 41/2 years to complete his room, which is late Gothic in style, in contrast to the other romanesque rooms.

The whole room is devoted to scenes and characters from Tristan and Isolde. The bed, with its exquisite embroidered canopy, reading chair and washstand are elaborately carved in oak.

Other rooms include the king's dressing room, the dining room, chapel, living room, study and anterooms, each as richly ornamented as the next.

Inspired by a new production of Tannhauser, the king planned a Singers' Hall, modelled on that of the 13th century Wartburg Castle but did not live to see its completion. Today, concerts take place in the hall each September. Bookings can be made through the Schwangau tourist office. Myth has it that Ludwig bankrupted his already financially strained country with the building of his castles. But he paid for everything out of his private purse and he remains today as the Bavarian people's favorite king.

Far the most impressive view of the castle is by a short walk to the Marienbrucke, the slender bridge that spans the deep Poellat gorge with its 45m waterfall, just to the south of the castle. This is a remarkable sight, with breathtaking panoramas of the plains near Fussen beyond the castle, over lakes, thick forests of beech and pine and the splendor of the Bavarian Alps. There are some excellent marked mountain walks from the Marianbrucke.

There is another castle to see in Hohenschwangau. The Castle of Hohenschwangau, constructed in the 12th century, was rebuilt in its original medieval style by King Maximilian II, father of King Ludwig II, and is also worth a visit. Ludwig spent 17 years or his youth here and was obviously influenced by the romantic structures of Hoenschwangau when he built Neuschwanstein.

In winter, Neuschwanstein, without the hordes of tourists and the queues, is a different experience altogether. Then it's easy to wander through the rooms at leisure listening to the tour on earphones.

They may even flood the throne room with some of Wagner's wonderful music, which will make your throat tighten as you look at the empty space where Ludwig's throne should have been. You can feel a deep sense of sadness for this creative young king who tried to create an art in harmony with his personal view of the universe and was declared insane.

Do stand on the Marianbrucke bridge and see the spires and turrets of this most magical castle rising out of the mist, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and forests. Thank heavens for his "madness" which created such a monument. TARGET SOLUTION alpine antitype aplenty aptly inapt inaptly inept ineptly leap leapt lepta nape neap nepit pail pain paint painty pale paly pane panel pant pantile pate paten patent patently patient PATIENTLY patten patty peal pean peat peaty pein pelt penal penalty penial pent petal pettily petty piety pile pilea pine pineal piney pint pinta pintle piny pitta pity plain plaint plait plan plane planet plant plate platen play plea pleat plenty pliant tape type yelp

HOW TO GET THERE Neuschwanstein is out of the way if you are not driving. You can either take the train from Munich to Fussen (about two hours), then a bus to Hohenschwangau. Or, preferably, take the train farther to the health and ski resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen and stay overnight in this delightful town, wrapped around with the snow-capped Alps.

Then take the 8am bus - there are only three a day, even in summer - from outside the station to Hohenschwangau. The trip takes two hours.

Because it is the local bus service, it travels through all the little towns and villages along the way, including the picturesque ski resort of Oberammergau. The scenery of alpine meadows, picture-postcard villages surrounded by mountains, is splendid.


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    • Alexandru profile image

      Alexandru 5 years ago from Budapest

      Will work on the pictures too soon!

    • profile image

      allgau 5 years ago

      Great article, but no pictures :(

    • Betty Reid profile image

      Betty Reid 5 years ago from Texas

      Cool info. It would be cool to have links to indoor photos too.