Tuesday 10 June 2014

Fairytale Castle

One of the most famous castles in the world is Schloss Neuschwanstein (“New swanstone castle”). It’s fame has two sources: one for being the dream home of ‘the mad Bavarian king’ and second for being the inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty castle.

This weekend we have a(nother!) Bank Holiday in Bavaria and for once the weather was gorgeous - over 30℃ and bright blue skies…exactly the picture perfect backdrop I was hoping to see this infamous castle in. So off I headed to the village of Hohenschwangau, near Füssen in the south of Bavaria. It’s a huge tourist destination so the recommendation is definitely to book tickets in advance, unless you enjoy queuing for hours in the baking sunshine!

I decided on a “King’s Ticket” meaning I had guided tours of both Schloss Hohenschwangau and Schloss Neuschwanstein. You can’t get inside the castles without being part of a guided / audio tour and I was curious to see inside them as well. Warning - it’s a slightly convoluted ticket arrangement…you complete an online request form and then wait to see what happens. I heard nothing for 4 days so then emailed them to chase and then was assigned a ticket. You then need to get to the Ticket Centre in the village at least 1 hour before your tour starts and then wait at the entrance until your allocated tour-time is reached, meaning when your ticket is scanned it lets you through the gate. All a little complicated, but manageable!
Hohenschwangau is almost 2 hours drive from Munich so I set off early, admiring the striking Alpen views on my way. 

Then I had my first sighting of Neuschwanstein! Excitedly pulling over on the roadside I started snapping...
Neuschwanstein on the left, Hohenschwangau on the right

There are four car parks and I opted for P4, right under the Hohenschwangau castle, next to the Alpsee (Alp Lake) and the Museum of the Bavarian Kings.

Swans are special in the area (and a namesake) so was good luck to see them
I walked through the village and collected my tickets from the visitor centre, the village is basically one road with hotels, cafes, souvenir shops and restaurants.

I then walked up to Hohenschwangau castle, opting for the ‘long’ but shaded route taken by the horse-drawn carriages and giving views over the Alpsee.

It only took about 20 minutes so I reached the castle with plenty of time before my tour. So I had a look around…

Alpine garden, including spa room, created by Queen Marie of Prussia (Ludwig II’s mother)

Castle kitchen, in the gift shop

It’s forbidden to take any photos of the inside of the palaces, due to ‘copyright’ so when it was time for my tour, the iPhone was packed away!

It was a good tour though, despite the feeling you are being herded through, passing other tour groups also taking place at the same time - approx 300,000 people visit this castle every year, which is nothing compared to Neuschwanstein with approx 1.5million!

Schloss Hohenschwangau (“High Swan County Palace”) is a 19th century palace which was the childhood home of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. It was built by his father on the remains of a 12th century fortress (Schuangau) in 1837. When his father (King Maximilian II of Bavaria) died in 1864, Ludwig became King and moved into his father’s rooms in the castle.

Our tour walked us through most of the rooms in the castle, complete with original paintings preserved by clear lacquer and many pieces of furniture. Ludwig’s mother remained on the Queen’s floors after her husband’s death as Ludwig never married. His chambers included a bedroom ceiling made to look like the night sky - his servants lit candles behind the glass ‘stars’ and moon to help him sleep.

From Hohenschwangau you have stunning views over the Alpsee and also a view of Neuschwanstein - Ludwig’s castle that started build in 1869.

Once my Hohenschwangau tour was over, I had a couple of hours before my allocated slot at Neuschwanstein so hiked up to Marienbrücke (“Marie’s bridge” - named after Ludwig’s mother) where I’d heard you had great views of the castle. 

It was a boiling hot day - probably about 34℃ and the middle of the day so the 40 minute uphill trek was hard work! But i wasn’t disappointed. Whilst slightly alarmed by the volume of people crammed onto the steel bridge (replacing the original wooden one in 1886) and hoping that it wouldn’t collapse as down was a dead drop into a gorge, the view was amazing! Perched on top of a hill in the middle of bright green tree-covered hills and with the Alpsee as a backdrop, the castle looked incredible.

After snapping away, I remembered reading that there was a path further on from the bridge which takes you up the mountain, giving you an even higher viewpoint over both the castles and the valley. 

So onwards (& upwards!) I hiked. And it was definitely worth it! The views were stunning and I happily munched on my picnic overlooking, possibly the best view in all of Germany!

Alpsee on the left, with Hohenschwangau overlooking it and Neuschwanstein in the front
I then had to speedily descend to make my tour time at the castle, so I scrambled down quickly, avoiding the numerous tree roots and rocks (& tourists!) on the way.

Approaching Neuschwanstein, you catch glimpses as it looms above you, peeking out through the fir trees. You’re also treated to some great views of Hohenschwangau.


Waiting for the tour, there’s no shortage of souvenir shops and sweaty tourists so I peeked around the courtyard which was relatively quite as most people were taking shelter in the minimal shade offered.

Neuschwanstein was built on the ruins of twin medieval castles (Vorderhohenschwangau and Hinterhohenschwangau - try saying them quickly!) Ludwig knew the ruins and decided to construct the first of his series of palace-building projects here. He named it New Hohenschwangau castle and after his death it was renamed Neuschwanstein.

The castle is inspired by ‘castle romanticism’ and Ludwig’s enthusiasm for Richard Wagner’s opera. He wanted to build a castle that romantically represented the Middle Ages (the days of Knights) as well as the musical mythology of his friend.

Marie's bridge
It is my intention to rebuild the old castle ruin of Hohenschwangau near the Pöllat Gorge in the authentic style of the old German knights' castles, and I must confess to you that I am looking forward very much to living there one day [...]; you know the revered guest I would like to accommodate there; the location is one of the most beautiful to be found, holy and unapproachable, a worthy temple for the divine friend who has brought salvation and true blessing to the world. It will also remind you of "Tannhäuser" (Singers' Hall with a view of the castle in the background), "Lohengrin'" (castle courtyard, open corridor, path to the chapel) [...].
— Ludwig II, Letter to Richard Wagner, May 1868 (from wikipedia)

Ludwig funded the build from his own money and was very involved in every detail of the design, incorporating Romanesque, Gothic and Byzantine architecture and art.  The building started in 1869 and 15 years later, in 1884, Ludwig moved into the (still unfinished) palace, living there for a total of 172 days before his mysterious death in 1886. 

Unfortunately Ludwig’s friend and inspiration, Richard Wagner, died in 1883 having never 

There are a number of different materials used to construct the building - white limestone, sandstone and marble, creating a huge employment opportunity for people in the area at the time.

The guided tour takes you through a number of the rooms including the Throne Room, Ludwig’s suites (including a handcrafted wooden bed that took 4 men, 4 years to create), the Singers’ Hall, servants rooms and the artificial Grotto but only 14 rooms of the 200+ were finished before his death. Again, photography isn’t allowed but the completed rooms are impressive - walls covered in paintings, mosaic floors, golden chandeliers.

It was surprisingly a modern palace, featuring running warm water, automatic flushing toilets, a telephone and an automatic oven!

The castle is so ornate, inside and out, that the costs to build it spiralled out of control and Ludwig ran out of money. He asked Parliament to support him but they declared him insane and, shortly after, he mysteriously died in a lake with his doctor.

Ludwig wanted the palace to be his private retreat, but 6 weeks after his death, the palace was opened to the paying public to clear the construction debts and it’s been open ever since!  After the tour, you can stand out on the balcony and admire the impressive views.

Spot the 'other' castle!

You can also watch a 15 minute ‘visualiser’ video showing further details about the castle.
After seeing everything, I headed back down the hill, treating myself to an ice-cream on the walk back down!

Collecting my boiling-hot car, I quickly opened all windows and the sunroof to try and cool off! On the drive, I noticed hundreds of paragliders in the sky - clearly making the most of the fantastic weather and beautiful scenery!

I headed from Hohenswangau to Wieskirche (The Pilgrimage Church of Wies), a 40 minute drive away. I’d heard that it was an impressive church interior so made a slight detour to see the nearby site.

Wieskirche is an oval rococo church, designed in the late 1740s in the foothills of the Alps. Legend has it that tears were seen on an old wooden sculpture and so a small chapel was built to house it. However, this chapel was too small for the amount of pilgrims that rushed to see it so they built a separate church.

The interior is decorated with frescos and stucco work, according to wikipedia ”Everything was done throughout the church to make the supernatural visible. Sculpture and murals combined to unleash the divine in visible form”.

The outside doesn’t prepare you for the overwhelming amount of decoration inside - no wonder that it’s a UNESCO world heritage site!

And so ended my Bank Holiday field trip!

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