With 1.3 million visitors annually, King Ludwig II’s fairytale castle of Neuschwanstein certainly isn’t “off the beaten track” by any stretch of the imagination. The iconic Castle is one of the Europe’s best known tourist haunts and has provided and inspired the backdrop for many a Disney classic; from Cinderella, to Sleeping Beauty to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. However, despite the imagined threat of mass tourist hoards jostling for photo opportunities, kitsch souvenirs and imported lederhosen, the temptation to visit Ludwig’s iconic creation proved just too much on a recent trip to the Eastern Allgäu region of Bavaria…
Arriving early afternoon on a damp October day, we were pleasantly surprised, however, to find only a short queue at the ticket booth. After only a brief 10 minute wait we were able to pick up our tickets (though apparently you can be there for hours in the summer). With time to kill before our allotted entry time to the Castle, we explored the trails around the adjacent Alpsee lake, encountering remarkably few people by the serene shoreline; the water perfectly mirroring the colourful autumn woods and dramatic alpine peaks that encircle Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau. As with many other “must see” tourism destinations, it seems that the majority of visitors don’t like to stray too far from the obligatory “touristland” with its overpriced car parks, gift shops and eateries; their loss, our gain, I couldn’t help feeling as we enjoyed the comparative solitude of the lakeside.
The surroundings of Neuschwanstein, set amidst the backdrop of the Bavarian Alps, are truly magnificent. Only 5 minutes walk away from the tourist circus and the coach parks disgorging Nikon bedecked Japanese tour groups, there was virtually no one to be found; in fact, this couldn’t have been so different from the mountain world that the young Ludwig II would have known when growing up in neighbouring Hohenschwangau Castle. During this time he explored the mountains, lakes and forests of the region which were then the exclusive preserve of the Bavarian Royal family.
Ludwig only lived at Neuschwanstein for a few brief months, before his impeachment by the Bavarian State on the grounds of insanity and his unexplained death by drowning, along with his psychiatrist, in Lake Starnberg just to the South of Munich. Prior to this Ludwig had become increasingly reclusive and preoccupied himself with evermore elaborate construction projects, whilst casting himself in the role of a mythical medieval king. Meanwhile, at the mid point of the 19th Century, the rest of the World was in the throws of the Industrial Revolution and descending rapidly into chaos, militarisation and conflict.
Despite this, Ludwig could only retreat further and further into the medieval fantasy world he had created. He had plans for an even more ambitious castle on a mountain peak at Burg Falkenstein near to Pfronten, though this later project was never progressed beyond a basic design concept.
The inside of Neuschwanstein is even more elaborate than the outside and is decorated throughout with epic scenes from Germanic sagas such as Loengriun, Tristan and Isolde and other works featured in Wagner’s operas; of whom Ludwig was controversially a close associate and financial patron. Although Neuschwanstein was only ever intended as a single-occupancy retreat for an ever more reclusive Ludwig, the whole effect is quite breathtaking and gives some insight into the monarch who I once heard described as the “Michael Jackson of his time”.
As Ludwig himself once observed, his life should forever remain an enigma and that has definitely proved the case to the present day. Ludwig was certainly a misfit and went totally against the grain of what was expected of the largely symbolic role of a 19th Century European Monarch; whether he was actually insane remains a bone of contention however. Despite this, his legacy of construction continues to generate millions for the Bavarian economy through tourism and he is now perceived much more positively as a tragic, if somewhat misguided, visionary.
Our visit to Neuschwanstein was just one excursion amongst a few fine days spent in the Eastern Allgäu during October. We found many beautiful and dramatic landscapes to explore in the area around Füssen, Pfronten and Tannheim. With intense autumn colours, morning mists and low-angle sunlight, it was a perfect time to enjoy the surroundings at their uncrowded best.
In their haste to get to the next “must see” destination, most visitors to Neuschwanstein, however, won’t get much chance to see the real treasures that the Eastern Allgäu has to offer; the very things infact that Ludwig II loved and treasured about his homeland – the mountain peaks, the lakes, the interplay of light, shade and changing weather conditions. I’m not going to say any more about these things but let the pictures speak for themselves…