Neuschwanstein Castle

A trip to Germany may conjure images of beer steins and pretzels and legs kicking in lederhosen; and if you’re there in late September, Oktoberfest is an occasion not to be missed. Yet this is a country of unique forms of beauty, where majesty deviates and blooms. Never is this more apparent than in the Bavarian Alps, and, more particularly, in the village of Hohenschwangau. With a mere 1010 residents at the last census, this tiny paradise is home to the self-titled ‘Hohenschwangau Castle’, a modest, four-turret structure that sits humbly in the hills. It is worth a day trip for the views alone, but this is not the focus of the pilgrimage to Hohenschwangau. Well, Hohenschwangau Castle may indeed be a fine example of traditional architectural beauty, you’d be hard-pressed to even notice it at all.

It is no secret that the village of Hohenschwangau is the stopping place for those seeking the splendor of another landmark. A landmark that is said to have spawned the setting for more than one Disney princess. Rumor has it, in fact, that upon a trip to Hohenschwangau, Walt Disney himself was so inspired that he modeled his Californian theme park on the wonders he encountered.

I am, of course, referring to King Ludwig II’s picturesque Neuschwanstein Castle. Translating literally as ‘New Swan Stone Castle’, it is like no other place on earth: a white stone wonderland that spears the surrounding shrubbery like Zeus’ scepter; and though few things could make the mountains and forestry of Southern Bavaria look so pedestrian, Neuschwanstein is Christmas for the eyes.

Commissioned by King Ludwig II in 1868, Neuschwanstein (or Schloss Neuschwanstein, to coin the Deutsch) was conceived as an ode to the operas of Richard Wagner a mere two years after Austria and Bavaria fell to Prussia in the Seven Weeks’ War. In a letter to the aforementioned Wagner, Ludwig declared his intentions for Neuschwanstein were to “rebuild [the] old castle ruin of Hohenschwangau…in the authentic style of the old German knights’ castles.”

While, sadly, the War stripped him of his stately powers, Ludwig’s notoriety as an outlandish, reclusive monarch— think Kanye West via Edgar Allan Poe— didn’t abandon him, and some say his retreat into fantasy during this time is said to be responsible for one of the greatest architectural feats of the millennium. The story goes that he poured his heart and soul into the opulence of a created world where he could live out his dreams of monarchy unburdened and undisturbed, ignoring the loss to Prussia, instead losing himself in his imagination; others say that solitude constricted his mind like a serpent, and eventually sent him mad.

Whatever the case, the result quickly became a regional landmark, though one Ludwig himself never got to see completed. He passed mysteriously a few weeks before it opened, and a whole six years before the completion of the final turret. Over the years, its majesty has extended to the world, and a little-known fact is that Adolf Hitler himself actually painted Neuschwanstein in 1914, so moved was he by its majesty.

These days, Neuschwanstein is a pilgrimage for many, and a reason to visit Bavaria, with over one million people making the voyage every year. A common misconception of Neuschwanstein though is its height— the highest tower reaching only 213 feet— with many unaware that its stunning silhouette is only possible due to the strategic positioning on the foundational hill chosen. The white limestone and royal blue topped turrets are every part the Disney castle, however, and entering through the front facade you could be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported to California.

The resemblance ends there, though, with the grand interior eclipsing anything you’ll find in a theme park, and this is no accident, Ludwig himself telling his friend, Wagner, that,”…this castle will be in every way more beautiful and habitable than Hohenschwangau…guest rooms with a splendid view of the noble Säuling, the mountains of Tyrol, [stretching] far across the plain…”

From the moment you walk inside, you’re drowned in opulence and magnificence, the walls all but dripping gold. Space is generous, with room to breath, and great murals of religious iconography are plastered throughout, illustrating works of poets Walther von der Vogelwide and Hans Sachs, rendered by gifted hands. Two-hundred rooms were conceived, though only fifteen of which were finished. Arguably, the most impressive of these is in the West Wing.

The Throne Room is 20 metres by 12, and stands 13 metres tall. It perfectly encapsulates the very fabric of the castle: the opulence, the majesty, the scale. Upon entering, you’re greeted with a white stone staircase reminiscent of the limestone exterior; the deep dome ceiling playing off the tops of the turrets, a slightly lighter blue, however, and one that contrasts the sapphire pillars surrounding it, the patterns of the archways beneath, the endless array of gold panels populated by shimmering idols, religious iconography that makes you feel like you’ve just entered the waiting room of God himself. Lights glitter from the ceilings in large circles, chandeliers on steroids.

This is a place to get lost; a place you’ll never want to leave.

Ludwig was a dreamer. Maybe one of the most daring dreamers of all time. And there is a sense of optimism about his castle, one that channels the beliefs of its king and creator, one that says that maybe it’s not so bad to dwell in dreams.

Neuschwanstein is worth the trip, no question, matter how far you have to travel. To call it breathtaking would do it a disservice: it snatches your breath, fills a balloon, straps it to your wrist and sends you to the sky. It is a marvel in a world overrun by false icons of beauty, a world where it is easy to forget what awe-some really means. Though it started life as a pet project for an eccentric king, over time it became so much more. It was a beacon of hope for a Bavaria ravaged by war; and it’s a must see for any ambitious traveller looking to be inspired.

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