The castle of Wagnerian proportions

Bavarian King Ludwig II's homage to Richard Wagner: Neuschwanstein Castle, the inspiration for Disney's Sleeping Beauty Castle
Bavarian King Ludwig II’s homage to Richard Wagner: Neuschwanstein, the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle – click on photograph for larger image

IT is unlikely that Füssen would consistently feature on a Central European itinerary if not for the legacy of Bavaria’s ‘mad’ king Ludwig II. This does not detract from the small town as another lusciously scenic representative of the Bavarian countryside. After all, the town is surrounded by six lakes – a haven for water sport enthusiasts and easily accessible by bike – and fondly embraced by the Lech River, a tributary of the mighty Danube.

No, it is the close proximity of arguably the world’s most beautiful castle, Neuschwanstein, which places Füssen squarely in the sights of international and local travellers.

But who was this ‘mad’ king?

Ludwig II, who expressed the visionary desire, ‘to remain an eternal enigma to myself and to others’, was born to Bavarian crown prince Maximilian II and Prussian Princess Marie at Schloss Nymphenburg in Munich. Being the issue of a marital union between two of Europe’s more powerful political entities, Ludwig spent much of his childhood growing up at Hohenschwangau Castle near Füssen. However, he was forced to take the throne at the tender age of 18 when his father unexpectedly passed away. Despite his youth, Ludwig became very popular among the Bavarian populace.

The young monarch was a great admirer of the composer Richard Wagner who upon meeting the new king, opined, ‘He is unfortunately so beautiful and wise, soulful and lordly, that I fear his life must fade away like a divine dream in this base world … You cannot imagine the magic of his regard: if he remains alive it will be a great miracle!’ Wagner’s words would prove to be tragically prophetic…

Neuschwanstein, known today as the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, represent the architectural expression of castle romanticism and Ludwig’s undying admiration for Wagner

Influenced by French cultural expression embodied by the Chateau de Pierrefonds and the Palace of Versailles, which he visited, Ludwig set out to elevate Bavarian culture through the commission of a ‘New Swan on the Rock castle’ – a dramatic Romanesque castle with soaring fairy-tale towers situated on a rocky Alpine outcrop overlooking his childhood home, Hohenschwangau. Ludwig laid Neuschwanstein’s cornerstone in 1869 on the ruins of two medieval castles, Vorderhohenschwangau and Hinterhohenschwangau.

Neuschwanstein, known today as the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, represent the architectural expression of castle romanticism and Ludwig’s undying admiration for Wagner. The king personally oversaw every step of the castle’s construction. Operatic themes from Wagnerian operas such as Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Parsifal abound throughout the palace. Ludwig’s varied building projects became an escape for the sensitive king, particularly following Bavaria and Austria’s defeat at the hands of Prussia.

Despite financing the castles himself or through loans, Ludwig’s debts mounted and he maintained his aloofness from affairs of state. Irritated by the constant clamouring of his ministers, Ludwig considered replacing the cabinet, which led to their revolt. Attempting to depose the king by constitutional means, they concocted a medical report declaring the king mentally unstable and unfit to rule. Despite political support, Ludwig dithered in his response, enabling authorities to serve the deposition on him.

Ludwig was taken under escort to Berg Castle on the shores of Lake Starnberg. The following day he was discovered deceased along with a psychiatrist near the lake shore in shallow water. Ludwig’s death was officially ruled a suicide but anecdotal evidence suggests he may have been shot.

Visiting the king’s architectural legacy

Though Neuschwanstein is closer to the small village of Hohenschwangau, I recommend Füssen as the best staging point for a visit to this region. Within easy reach of Munich, the town is a quaint destination in its own right. Tourist attractions include the Benedictine Monastery of St Mang, Holy Ghost Hospital Church, Franciscan Monastery and some interesting shopping and dining along Brunnengasse, Schrannenplatz and Reichtenstrasse.

Füssen is also an ideal destination for more energetic travellers. A brisk walk to the scenic Lech Falls or a 34km bicycle ride along the shores of the Forggensee will burn up the calories and amply reward the fitness-conscious! Other cycling routes to explore include trips to Hopfensee, Weissensee and Alatsee.

Regular buses from the station ply the short distance between Füssen and the castle ticket office. I would advise an early arrival at the castles, prior to tourist buses from Munich or elsewhere swamping the area. A suggested itinerary would include a visit to both Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein – and in that order. Hohenschwangau is impressive; Neuschwanstein takes your breath away!

All tours are timed and escorted in groups within specified time-frames. Hohenschwangau is the closest to the ticket office and fairly easy to reach on foot. Neuschwanstein is a good half hour walk uphill, so consider that when timing your tours. Horse carriages and buses situated near the ticket office ferry passengers up the mountain at a reasonable price.

Remember to work Marienbrücke into your itinerary if you wish to take picture postcard photos of the fairy-tale castle!

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