The vision of the pinnacled and turreted castle of Neuschwanstein, perched high on its crag and rising above the mist, is perhaps the most reproduced of all tourist images of Germany, a Disney-like fantasy amid a setting of breathtaking alpine beauty. Neuschwanstein is not the only royal castle at Hohenschwangau: if it weren’t literally and figuratively overshadowed by Neuschwanstein, Hohenschwangau, in the valley below Ludwig’s castle at the southern end of the village, might be more widely famous.
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If Schloss Neuschwanstein seems too good to be true, that’s no surprise. The most theatrical of all “Mad” King Ludwig II’s castles has its origins in his desire to rebuild an existing ruin in the style of the German Middle Ages. Ludwig was inspired by the recently restored Wartburg in Thuringia; his architects, Eduard Riedel and Georg Dollmann – who would go on to design Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee – worked from drawings by theatre designer Christian Jank. Work began in 1869, the castle was “topped out” in 1880 and the king was able to move into the (still unfinished) Pallas, or castle keep, in 1884. Ludwig chopped and changed the plans as he went along, incorporating a huge throne room that required modern steel-framed construction methods to make it viable.
The exterior of Neuschwanstein, in a sort of exaggerated Romanesque, is theatrical enough, but the real flights of fancy begin inside, where the decorative schemes are inspired by Wagner’s operas Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. The Byzantine-style Thronsaal (Throne Room), inspired by the church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, was intended to represent the Grail Hall from Parsifal and was completed in the year of Ludwig’s death, 1886. Ludwig’s bedroom is in a heightened Gothic style, with the king’s four-poster bed more closely resembling some fifteenth-century church altar than a place in which to sleep. The highlight – and peak of the king’s Wagnerian obsession – however, is the Sängersaal, or Singers’ Hall, which occupies the entire fourth floor and was inspired by the famous hall at the Wartburg that was the scene of the Singers’ Contest from Tannhäuser.
If you’ve not seen it on your way from the bus, it’s worth strolling uphill to the Marienbrücke after the tour finishes for the dramatic views down into the Pöllat gorge and across to the castle.
Standing on a low wooded hill above Alpsee, Schloss Hohenschwangau was a ruin when Ludwig’s father, Maximilian II, bought it in 1832 while still crown prince, and had it rebuilt in a prettily romantic neo-Gothic style. Ludwig II spent much of his childhood here, and it was here that he first encountered the legend of Lohengrin, the Swan Knight; the Schloss is decorated with frescoes on the theme by Michael Neher and Lorenz Quaglio. Schloss Hohenschwangau still belongs to a Wittelsbach trust, not to the state of Bavaria, and part of its charm is that it feels altogether more homely than its showy neighbour.
“Mad” King Ludwig II
“Mad” King Ludwig II
For someone who was so shy and reclusive in life, King Ludwig II has achieved remarkable and lasting popularity in death. Born at Schloss Nymphenburg in 1845, he had spirited good looks not unlike those of his cousin, the Austrian Empress Elisabeth, and cut quite a dash when he came to the Bavarian throne in 1864 at the age of 18. Ludwig was fascinated with the French royal dynasty, the Bourbons, to which his own family was related. This developed into a fixation with the most illustrious of the Bourbons, Louis XIV, whose absolute power contrasted so starkly with the relative powerlessness of the Bavarian monarchy after its defeat alongside Austria in the 1866 war against Prussia. Seemingly overcompensating for this political impotence, the king retreated increasingly into an extravagant fantasy world, becoming steadily more eccentric and – towards the end of his life – rather corpulent.
He was a patron of Richard Wagner, whose fantastical operas fired the king’s own vivid imagination, and though he disapproved of Wagner’s anti-Semitism he continued to support the composer financially, even planning a lavish festival theatre to host the composer’s operas in Munich, which was to remain unbuilt. A political reactionary but at the same time a romantic, Ludwig devoted his attention to fabulous but ruinously expensive projects to realize his fantasies in built form: a castle straight from the age of chivalry at Neuschwanstein, a homage to the Sun King at Herrenchiemsee and an eclectic but breathtakingly opulent “villa” at Linderhof. Eventually his spending caught up with him, as foreign banks threatened to foreclose. Ludwig’s refusal to react to this crisis in rational fashion prompted the Bavarian government to act unconstitutionally, declaring him insane and removing him from the throne. He was interned at the castle of Berg on Starnberger See, where he and his doctor were discovered drowned in mysterious circumstances on June 13, 1886. Very shortly afterwards his palaces – which had been intensely private places during his life – were opened to the paying public.