Bavaria in Southern Germany is the quintessential land of fairy tales and Teutonic mythology. Centered on the famous Romantic Road that runs south through Bavaria to Fussen, Southern Germany is home to the Bavarian Alps, the Black Forest, and of course the famous fairy-tale swan castles of Mad King Ludwig. Built to realize his dream of raising Bavaria to new heights of medieval-rennaisance splendor, Ludwig II peppered the region with castles and palaces, a practice that had largely gone out of fashion by the end of the 19th century. The resulting edifices were nothing short of architecturally spectacular. The greatest, Neuschwanstein, is considered by many to be the world’s most beautiful castle. It is easily the most visited site in Germany, and is the most popular image used to promote German tourism.
There are few places in the world richer in legends and stories than Bavaria. Along with the nearby Rhine Valley, it is considered to be the cultural heartland of the German people. Its spectacular scenery has been inspiring writers, artists and musicians from time immemorial. The Grimm Brothers are among the most famous of the region’s authors, and many of their fairy tales were set in Bavaria. The great Romantic composer Richard Wagner also made the area his home, and his operas restructured many Teutonic myths to take place in Southern Germany.
Ludwig II, the second-to-last independent ruler of Bavaria, was born in 1845 and was raised on the region’s legends. Less than ideal monarch material, Ludwig may have been the last of Europe’s truly romantic kings. During his youth he apparently spent many hours musing over the history and culture of his homeland, and dreamed of turning Bavaria into a medieval fairy-tale utopia. His close friendship to Richard Wagner, another great German romantic, fueled his vision. When he ascended the throne in 1864, he made it his mission to spend the rest of his life, and considerable sums of the national treasury, turning his dreams into a reality.
Ludwig was raised in Hohenschwanngau Castle, an ancient fortress that had been acquired and restored by the royal family in the 1830s. Although considered one of the fairy-tale castles, it was not actually built by him. The first of these was Linderhof Palace, a small castle which he converted from an old hunting lodge. Completed in the 1870s, it was largely a tribute to Wagner’s operas. The second castle was the New Palace, which hearkened back to the French Rennaisance and Versailles. Completed in 1885, it was built in honor of Louis XIV of France, whom Ludwig revered. But it was his third and final castle, Neuschwanstein, for which Ludwig is most famous. It was still under construction at the time of his death.
By 1886, Ludwig’s architectural excesses had pushed Bavaria to the brink of bankruptcy, although it was later revealed that most of the construction had been paid for by Ludwig personally and that Bavaria was going bankrupt for other reasons. Ludwig was declared insane, removed from power and arrested. He turned up dead in a lake shortly thereafter. All further construction on Neuschwannstein was halted. However, the fairy tale castle was already a beloved landmark of Bavaria, and a tourism mecca in the making. After serving as a Nazi treasure depot in World War II and an American operations center in the years just after, Neuschwanstein became integral to restarting Germany’s long-dormant tourism industry. It is by far the most popular and most visited castle in continental Europe.
Hohenschwangau, which literally stands in the shadow of its much better known neighbor, is a beautiful and amazing castle in its own right. It is still owned by the ancient Wittelsbach family. Built on the site of the medieval fortress Schwanstein, it is nestled on a tree-covered hilltop by a clear-blue lake. Its iconic, yellow-brick keep dates only to the early 19th century, and was an inspiration of romantic castle architecture that would later be adopted by Ludwig and many other palaces across Europe built or remodeled during the period. Among Hohenschwangau’s most memorable features are the fantastic paintings of legends and mythology that are said to have inspired Ludwig’s own dream castles. Also here is the famous telescope through which the mad king watched the progress of construction on Neuschwanstein.
Neuschwanstein, the last and most ambitious of Ludwig’s creations, is possibly the world’s most beautiful castle. Certainly its mountaintop setting is magnificent. The central concept is that of a medieval castle, rather than that of a Rennaisance palace. However, because it was built in the late 19th century, with access to state-of-the-art architecture and design concepts, and also because it did not serve a real military purpose, the final design was a delicate, lofty affair that looks like it came straight out of a Grimm Brothers story. Its fairy-tale appearance and beauty was so unique that it became a prototype of the designs later used at the various Disney parks. The interior of Neuschwannstein is somewhat less impressive, as much of it was unfinished when Ludwig died. The real icing here is the magnificent setting. Neuschwanstein overlooks not only two towns, but also the beautiful yellow-brick Hohenschwangau castle where Ludwig grew up. A bridge was added between two nearby mountains, allowing for a breathtaking view of the castle where photos are tradationally taken from.
The Swan Castles are both located just outside of Fussen approximately 105 miles southwest of Munich. Both castles are open year-round except for December 24-25, December 31-January 1 and Shrove Tuesday. From April to September they are open from 9:00am-6:00pm; and from October-March from 10:00am-4:00pm. Admission to each is E9.00, or E17.00 for a combined ticket. Web: www.neuschwanstein.de, www.hohenschwangau.de (official websites).
Ludwig’s other two major creations, the Linderhof Palace and the New Palace, are also popular Bavarian destinations. This is especially true of Linderhof, which is only about ten miles away from Fussen and easily visited on a trip to the Swan Castles. Among the mad king’s lesser creations is the King’s House of Schachen, a tribute to his Arabian fantasies, including a replica of the Peacock Throne.