Neuschwanstein, the elaborate fantasy of “Mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria, is the quintessential fairy tale castle. High on a hill above his boyhood home, Ludwig began this most extravagant project in 1869 and it was still not completed when he died, under mysterious circumstances, in 1886. This castle, however, remains his crowning achievement. It was used as a model for Cinderella’s castle in Disneyland.
Guidebooks usually advise tourists to first visit Hohenschwangau, Ludwig’s home as a child, to set the stage for an understanding of Neuschwanstein, but a little pre-trip research is all that’s necessary to appreciate the reasons for Ludwig’s escape from reality and the rationale for his extravagances. Add to the mix his obsession with Richard Wagner and his operas, and all becomes plain. So the savvy tourist can dispense with Hohenschwangau and cut to the chase.
Take the shuttle from the base of the entire Konigschlossen complex to Marienbrucke (Mary’s Bridge) which offers a spectacular view of the castle and makes the visitor wonder how the castle was ever constructed (“How could so many materials be brought to such a location?”). From the bridge, it is a mostly downhill walk to the castle itself. A strict schedule of timed tours is adhered to, so pay attention to the tickets which are purchased at the base of the complex. Guides are extremely knowledgeable and informative. Ludwig had certain flair, even if his decorating is a bit bizarre. Especially noteworthy are his bedroom (the intricate woodwork took a team of craftsmen several years to complete), the Throne Room (with no throne because it was never finished), and the Theater/Music Room, designed for Arts’ performances. Note also the man-made cave next to his bedroom. Keep in mind that the tour requires the climbing of an incredible number of stairs and is not for the faint of heart.
Neuschwanstein is located near the southern terminus of Germany’s Romantic Road, a succession of medieval villages, from Wurzburg in the north to Fussen in the south, which embody and exemplify the medieval spirit and style of the country. The marketing of them all as a package has been extremely successful and the entire area is thronged with tourists and tour buses, especially during the summer.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber is the most visited town on Germany’s Romantic Road and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a perfectly preserved, walled, medieval city whose residents adorn their homes and businesses with beautiful hanging flowers and keep them spotlessly maintained to further enhance the ambiance of the setting. The streets are kept free of vehicles making the overall experience extremely pleasant. The only blemish, in this fairy tale scene, is the crowd, which descends on the town with bus after bus, loaded with tourists of all shapes and sizes. You should arrive early in the morning (or spend the night) to avoid the rush of midday. Walking is the only way to see the city (the city walls can also be walked and offer views of the countryside). This is a place to be savored and appreciated, taking the time to stop occasionally at a cafe or in one of the many shops which offer a little bit of everything German.
Dinkelsbuhl, Germany, another one of the Romantic Road villages, is also a typical, walled, medieval town. The cobblestone streets complement the houses, most of which date to the 1500’s. Note the Gothic Georgenkirche which was built in the 15th century. Gingerbread is a major product and should be sampled.
Other significant stops along the Romantic Road include Wurzburg, one of the loveliest cities in all of Germany, with its supremely elegant and stately palace, the Residenz, another in a long line of palaces built in Bavaria in the 17th and 18th centuries. Some of the artwork is by the painter, Tiepolo, and should not be missed. Note also the Treppenhaus (stairway) at the center of the castle.
Fussen, at the southern terminus of the route is another lovely German village with pedestrian-only streets and well-kept buildings. Pay special note of the 15th century castle, and the lovely church clock tower. Fussen also makes a good entry point for visits to Neuschwanstein and to the amazing Wieskirche, a Rococo masterpiece, located just off the Romantic Road, which has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its incredible splendor. With its frescoed ceilings and gilded accoutrements and lovely marble columns, it is certainly one of the most extravagant and delightful churches in the world.
Excursions from any of the Romantic Road villages might include the cities of Nurnberg and Bamberg, both to the east.
Nuremburg, Germany, was virtually destroyed by bombing during World War II. However, many of the most important buildings have been restored or reconstructed, so that the city has reemerged, especially as a tourist sight. Visitors can see the Zeppelinfeld Arena, the huge amphitheater where Adolf Hitler held rallies during his rise to power, as well as the Justice Palace where the War Crimes Tribunal took place following World War II. The City Gates and some of the medieval walls remain intact. Check out the Beautiful Fountain in the Marktplatz (market square). Tourists may also visit the Albrecht Durer House, a Gothic residence of the famous painter, the Kaiserburg, official residence of numerous German kings, and several churches, St-Lorenz-Kirche and St-Sebaldus-Kirche.
Bamberg, Germany, is a beer-drinkers heaven (because of the numerous breweries in the vicinity) which also boasts cobblestone streets with mansions as well as palaces, along with beautiful churches. Domplatz is the focal point for the visitor with its Alte Hofhaltung (the imperial palace complex with Gothic buildings and rose garden), the Kaiserdom, an impressive cathedral with four huge towers, and the Neue Residenz, another opulent palace. Nearby is the Alte Rathaus, the old town hall, which was built on its own little island in the middle of the river between what were once two separate towns that have evolved into present day Bamberg.
Many of these villages are located in a well-known section of Germany called Bavaria, which boasts charming, little, picture-book-perfect Villages. The dramatic setting, at the base of the German Alps, adds to the splendor.
Oberammergau is a picturesque village in the Bavarian Alps with numerous painted houses and shops selling the local specialties, wooden carvings. This town is particularly famous for its production of the Passion Play, every ten years, using town residents as actors. The concept was the result of a promise made by the town fathers as a tribute to God for sparing the town from the Plague.
Mittenwald is another of Bavaria’s quaint, Alpine towns. It is famous for its painted houses (even the church bell tower has painted frescoes on its exterior) and as a center for violin-making. Its setting amidst the Bavarian Alps is dramatic and extremely photogenic.
Ettal Monastery (Kloster Ettal), in the town of Ettal, a short distance from Oberammergau, is a splendid abbey with another Baroque masterpiece, the Church of Our Lady. Note the beautiful frescoed dome and elaborate decorations throughout. The exterior of the abbey is made even more beautiful by its dramatic setting, nestled in the mountains.
Also in the area is Linderhof Palace, another of Mad King Ludwig’s castles in Bavaria. It is his smallest castle, but gilded to the nines. The rooms have painted ceilings, tapestries on the walls, huge chandeliers, etc. The grounds are also elaborate, with fountains and many statues. Of special note is the Grotto, a make-believe cave with its own pool containing a shell boat similar to the one in Wagner’s opera, Lohengrin. Also on the grounds is Ludwig’s private Moorish Kiosk.
1. At Neuschwanstein, some visitors spurn the shuttle bus and prefer to walk up to the castle from the ticket area. Big mistake! The climb is extremely steep and takes a long time (although some seem to enjoy it). It’s much better to ride up, then walk down, chuckling at the walkers who are panting and sweating.
2. Try some Schneeballen (snowballs), a local treat in Rothenburg