Neuschwanstein: “Mad” King Ludwig’s Castle in Bavaria
“Mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria was a political misfit but a creative dreamer. His fantasy castle, Neuschwanstein, is a textbook example of 19th-century Romanticism in Germany that inspired Walt Disney.
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From Munich, an hour’s drive takes us deep into southern Bavaria. It’s a timeless land of manicured fields, painted buildings, content cows, and characteristic onion-domed churches. This is a playground for people enjoying the good life at the foothills of the Alps.
And it’s a land of fairy-tale castles — and the most spectacular: the castles of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, a.k.a. "Mad" King Ludwig. He grew up here in the Hohenschwangau Castle. Ludwig then built his dream castle — Neuschwanstein — a 15-minute hike away.
The castles are hugely popular. And they’re tourable only by appointment with a guided tour. Tickets are sold at the kiosk in the valley floor. To avoid long lines, arrive early or — better yet — call in advance for a tour reservation.
Hohenschwangau Castle, Ludwig’s boyhood home, looks much like it did in 1836. It’s the more lived-in and historic of the two castles, giving a better glimpse at Ludwig’s life.
This is young King Ludwig’s bedroom. And this was his reading chair.
The banquet hall is slathered in epic German myths. Germany became a single united country only in 1871. As if to bolster its legitimacy, this young nation dug deep into its murky, medieval past. These heroes and legends inspired young King Ludwig to build his fanciful castles, Richard Wagner to compose his ultra-romantic operas, and Germans to believe their nation was deeply rooted in history.
Politically, the frustrating reality of young King Ludwig was to "rule" either as a pawn of Prussia or a pawn of Austria — the two dominant Germanic countries. Rather than deal with the politics of Munich, romantic Ludwig escaped here, to the peace and comfort of Hohenschwangau.
Ludwig ruled Bavaria for 23 years until his death in 1886. His best friends were romantic artists — like the great composer Wagner, whom Ludwig idolized.
Neuschwanstein Castle is just up the hill. Imagine King Ludwig as a boy, climbing these hills, dreaming up this ultimate fairy-tale castle. It looks medieval, but it’s only about as old as the Eiffel Tower. Built in the late 1800s, it’s a textbook example of the Romantic style popular at the time.
The castle’s interior is decorated with misty medieval themes — brave knights, fair maidens, and scenes from Wagnerian operas.
Ludwig personified this Romantic age. Longing for the natural beauty and emotion of an earlier time, he built his medieval fantasy on the hilltop not for defensive reasons, but because he liked the view.
King Ludwig intended to sit on a gold-and-ivory throne in the company of six historic kings who were made saints. The religious Ludwig was fascinated by things Byzantine. This room is based on the plan of a Byzantine church, and the one-ton chandelier is the shape of a Byzantine crown.
Just a few months after he moved into Neuschwanstein, Ludwig — who was already planning to build an even more extravagant castle — was declared mentally unfit to rule. Two days later, he was found dead in a lake. People still debate: Was it murder or suicide? But nobody complains any longer about the extravagant cost of his fanciful castles. In fact, within six weeks of his funeral, tourists were already paying to visit them — and they’re still coming.