Even if you’ve never heard of Neuschwanstein Castle, I can almost guarantee that you’d still recognize it. You know that blue-turreted, romantic castle perched atop a rocky outcrop with frosted mountains and fertile farmland in the background that pops up on your computer’s screensaver from time to time? The one you used to see plastered on the walls of travel agencies? The one from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? Even if those don’t ring a bell, you’d know its outline from the Disney logo and the Sleeping Beauty Castle that dominates the popular Disney theme parks. You’d be hard-pressed to find many sights more perfectly made for the postcards!
My beautiful wife Danielle has always ranked Neuschwanstein high on her bucket list. Even before we began dating (and that was a long, long time ago folks), I remember her raving about how she wanted to visit that German castle from all the pictures. We fulfilled that childhood dream of hers on our European road trip in July.
My brilliant sister-in-law had the wisdom, foresight and organization to purchase tickets for the castle tour in advance. When we arrived in the town of Hohenschwangau, we skipped the thronging lines of people and settled in for the few hours we had to wait for our tour of the castle.
It was one of the most scenic waits of my life. The castle dominates the tiny town; we could see it from almost anywhere. The chalky limestone castle-walls stood out sharply against the mountain-blue sky. The traditional timbered houses of Hohenschwangau accentuated the stereotypically Bavarian atmosphere. The best part though, was watching Dani. Each time she looked up the mountain, her face transformed into one reminiscent of a young child on Christmas morning. She practically vibrated with enthusiasm! We wasted away a few hours by laying in the grass, shopping for Christmas ornaments, and watching bees drinking nectar from wildflowers. And explaining repeatedly to my nephews that bees are actually nice and only sting when we scare them. And also that bees drink nectar. And they make honey. And they live in houses called hives. Their response to all of these explanations? “But why?” It was fun.
We paid for a horse and carriage to cart us up to the castle entrance. I mean, what better way to arrive at a fairy-tale castle? We ate some stale pretzels and drank a beer near the gate, almost missing our tour time. But it all worked out and we found ourselves entering the castle through the courtyard. As I followed the guide through an arch into the heart of the palace, it occurred to me that I was a castle-virgin. Neuschwanstein was my first castle…and I think it might be tough to beat!
One of the things that surprised me during the tour was how small the castle felt on the inside. From the valley below, the place looks enormous but inside it felt kind of…cozy? It felt more like an ornate home than a fortress or place to conduct kingly business. The intimate atmosphere is probably due to when and why Neuschwanstein was constructed. Unlike most castles in Europe, Neuschwanstein was never intended to be a defensive stronghold. It was built in the late 1800’s to be “Mad” King Ludwig II’s private residence. Accordingly, comfort and luxury took precedence over practicality. Newly invented technology such as electric lighting, telephones, a rudimentary forced air heating system and indoor plumbing were prioritized in the design. The famous Rapunzel-like towers were incorporated, not to serve some pragmatic defensive purpose, Ludwig just thought they looked pretty! The intricate royal bedroom furnishings were so intricate they took fourteen master wood-carvers nearly five years of full time labour to complete. That’s why Neuschwanstein is so eye-poppingly gorgeous; it was built to be visual eye-candy for a king. Its sole purpose was looking good!
As we herded through the halls, stairways and rooms of the castle, it became clear just how infatuated Ludwig II was with German mythology and operas written by Richard Wagner. Everywhere we looked, we saw paintings, carvings, mosaics and murals depicting scenes from the tales Ludwig loved. I later learned that even the name Neuschwanstein, New Swan Stone if translated into English, derives from the Swan Knight, one of Wagner’s famous characters. The crown jewel of this story-focused design was an artificial cave, complete with once-dripping stalagmites, stalactites and a specially-designed rainbow machine that recreated a grotto from an ancient myth. The detailed artistic representations of German fables, epics and sagas was fascinating. I’ve never seen so concrete a representation of Romanticism in my life. I half expected to find Goethe, Shelley or Keats scribbling poetry on parchment in some isolated nook of the castle! They would have fit right in. I wished I could have taken my time to meander slowly and fully appreciate the art that covered every square inch of the interior.
The tour ended in the ornate but throneless throne room. Sadly, the royal chair that was ordered never made it to its designated place. King Ludwig died suspiciously less than a year after the construction of the top floor was completed. He only spent eleven nights in the castle he had planned, designed and obsessed over for decades. I guess the best laid plans of mice and men often do go awry! Even if Ludwig didn’t get to enjoy Neuschwanstein much, I suppose his legacy lives on through his pet-project.
We were surprised at how short the tour was, less than a half an hour. It’s a shame that only fifteen rooms out of 200 in the design are finished. I can only imagine the lavish ostentatiousness that Ludwig planned for the rest of the castle. I wish he had lived just a bit longer so I could have seen more of his lavishly inventive vision!
Although I was disappointed that our short jaunt inside the castle was over, there was a bright side. Remember how I mentioned running water earlier? Well, lets just say the bathrooms are beautifully positioned! I reaped one of the many benefits of being born a male: peeing while admiring a scenic panorama. My view from the urinal (not the view from the urinal…key difference in this context) is included in the photo below. It was a great way to conclude my visit!
Danielle ranks Neuschwanstein as the definite highlight of her trip. I’m stoked that we visited her number one bucket-list destination as part of our unforgettable trip through Germany. Now every time I see the Disney logo, travel agency poster or the screensaver pictures, I can smile and think, “I’ve been there!”