The Castles of a Mad King
Located on a ridge overlooking the town of Füssen in southern Germany stand an ivory fortress that arouses such feelings of awe and happiness that Walt Disney used it as a model for the Sleeping Beauty castle in Disneyland. And fittingly so. No other castle in the world is more famous – or more photographed – than the fairy tale castle of Neuschwanstein .
As a youth in his fathers’ castle of Hohenschwangau, young Ludwig II of Bavaria was obsessed with German mythology and the legendary swan-knight Lohengrin. He even drew a sketch of the knights’ castle of Schwanstein, and became an admirer of the German composer Wagner, whose operas were often the subject of the German knights.
He became king in 1864 after his fathers’ death. Following the bad advice of his advisors, the young king (he was only 18) waged a costly war against neighboring Prussia. With the loss of the war he considered abdicating the throne, but the people wouldn’t allow it. But, from that moment on, he kept away from political matter and renewed his interest in the legendary knights.
About a mile from his boyhood home of Hohenschwangau, on a rocky crag, stood the ruins of an old watchtower. It was said this was the original Schwanstein, home of the legendary Lohengrin. Here he would build a new Schwanstein, hence the castles name: Neuschwanstein.
Beginning in 1869, the greatest craftsmen in the land labored for seventeen years to build the dream of a young king’s obsession with legend. The castle is not only filled with the romantic, medieval themes Ludwig visualized, it also has its’ share of modern conveniences. The kitchen was equipped with hot and cold running water, and a heating system that circulated warm air was incorporated in its’ design.
But the young king kept his sights focused on the legends of Germany. For his throne room, he looked to Parsifal, also the subject of an opera by Wagner. Parsifal, one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, was the father of Lohengrin. While on a quest for the Holy Grail, Parsifal was the only one of the knights who won sight of it.
Tours of the castle take you through fifteen of the castles rooms. But Ludwig’s large, Byzantine throne room – known as the Hall of the Grail – would never house a throne. The young king died before one could be built. The kings bed, with its’ intricate carvings, took more than a dozen men four and a half years to complete. And a carved doorway leading from the bedroom to a secret passage is undetectable to the unsuspecting eye. Outside, paths wind around the castle. One leads to the Marienbrueke (Marien bridge), a footbridge at the backside of the building that spans a deep gorge and offers one of the best views of the castle and a 125-foot waterfall.
The same year work began on Neuschwanstein, work began on his only completed castle, Schloss Linderhoff. Located on the grounds of his fathers hunting lodge near the town of Oberammergau (site of the Passion Play that takes place every ten years), this became Ludwig’s smallest and favorite castle. He spent most of his time here.
At the entrance, a golden fountain shot a jet of water 100 feet into the air. Surrounding the building were French, Italian, and English style gardens where the king and his guests could wander. The kings’ bedroom windows faced a cascade of man-made waterfalls located at the back of the building that cooled the summer breeze. His dining room table, specially designed to rise and descend through the floor to the kitchen below, made it possible for the servants to wait on the king without having to enter his room.
But the castle is only a small part of his fantastic life-style. Ludwig had a fondness of peacocks, and a supply of the birds – which it is said he requested from the Shah of Persia (Iran) – wandered the grounds. A Moorish kiosk equipped with an opulent peacock throne was purchased from the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1867 and moved to the Schloss Linderhoff site. Ludwig often sat there, dressed as a turban-wearing sultan. Also to be found on the
grounds is an artificial grotto, complete with a lake, waterfall, stalagmites and stalactites, and a swan shaped boat in which Ludwig would allow himself to be rowed while listening to Wagner’s operas.
Ludwig also greatly admired Louis XIV, and – in 1878 as Schloss Linderhoff was completed – decided to build a castle fashioned after the French Kings palace at Versailles. Named Herrenchiemsee, this was to be his last and largest castle.
Ludwig’s’ Herrenchiemsee was to be more elaborate than the palace at Versailles with a bigger and better hall of mirrors, and spectacular chandeliers that hold more than 4000 candles. Candlelit concerts are held here in the summer. Ludwig also had a special bedroom built, reserved for the use of the long dead French king, whose ghost he reportedly believed to entertain. Ludwig was to spend only ten nights here at Herrenchiemsee, and although it was never finished, Ludwig managed to build the central portion of this castle and its’ large French garden.
The king spent a large percentage of the royal purse on his castle building endeavors, and was sinking deeper in debt as he sought additional lines of credit. It seemed he had no grasp of reality and his ministers plotted to have him declared insane. In 1886 he moved in at Neuschwanstein. While residing there he was declared mentally unfit. All funding of his castles was cut off, and neither the castle at Neuschwanstein nor Herrenchiemsee would be completed.
Ludwig was moved to the little castle of Berg, near Lake Starnberg, where he was confined under the care of his keeper, Dr. Gudden. Three days after his imprisonment, the bodies of King Ludwig and Dr. Gudden were found in the shallow waters of the lake. To this day, one question remains unanswered: was it murder or suicide? Ludwig was a good swimmer, so an accidental drowning was ruled out. Many believe that his death was a suicide, the last act of a man whose life had been robbed of purpose. Others are of the opinion that Dr. Gudden killed the king and then died of a heart attack.
A cross stands at the waters edge at the site where the kings’ body was found. And, at the village of Berg on the lakes eastern shore, you’ll find the King Ludwig II Memorial Chapel.
Within his short reign, the wealth that had taken his family generations to amass was spent. Although he built three magnificent castles, his greatest dream was never realized. Had he lived and his funds not run out, he would have built Castle Falkenstein (artist conception on right), which was to rise even higher than Neuschwanstein.
Today Ludwig’s castles have become a major source of income for Bavaria and Germany. More than 2 million people visit these castles every year.
IF YOU GO: All of these fantastic structures attract thousands of tourist every week and the waiting time in line - especially in the summer - can be long. Get there early and see the castles if your vacation plans allow. The castle of Neuschwanstein is atop a steep hill. It is advisable to take the tour bus up toward the castle; private cars are not allowed on the road leading to the castle. You can - if you so choose - walk down to the town from the castle, but the trail is steep. Do not run, you may not be able to stop once you start. Schloss Linderhoff is located on relatively flat terrain, and - after leaving your car - you can walk the grounds to arrive at the castle. The Moorish kiosk and grotto are a "must see" as well. The castle of Herrenchiemsee is located on an island and requires ferry passage.