Neuschwanstein castle

On vis­it­ing one of the seven places on my wish­list: a dreamy, but real, castle in the air.

It is hard to say for just how long I have wanted to write this piece, but today has finally arrived. I am on a plane from Paris back home, five hours have passed and five more remain. I could not have pos­si­bly writ­ten this any ear­lier than four days ago, and I have indeed con­tained myself for four weeks, so I will say it quickly and with­out much cel­e­bra­tion: I finally vis­ited Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria, one of seven places I have always wanted to visit in my life and it still floats in my mind like a pleas­ant dream, not unlike how it floats among the clouds above the grassy plains of Bavaria.

The spe­cial place Neuschwanstein holds for me is why this essay is a sep­a­rate piece and not simply a pass­ing sec­tion in part three of my Notes from Europe’. The third part will be pub­lished as usual in the coming week.

Some don’t really con­sider it worth­while’, said the tour guide with dis­be­lief, lead­ing us through the eccen­tric King Ludwig II’s love story with Wag­ner­ian operas set in stone. Even Mozart per­haps does not have such a grand com­mem­o­ra­tion for his works as Wagner does. Every room, neigh every inch of every room is dressed with behe­moth paint­ings describ­ing scenes from Wagner’s many operas. On a cer­tain level, it is emo­tional. You feel con­nected with Ludwig, a mis­un­der­stood char­ac­ter in my opin­ion.

I heard at least thirty people describe the castle as look­ing like a paint­ing’. It does of course, and so do the views of Bavaria and the Alps from inside the castle as you look out through the win­dows. This is truly the stuff of fic­tion, an out-of-this-world beauty asso­ci­ated only with fairy tales and which Disney has made us believe is entirely made up. In Neuschwanstein it exists. The castle served as an inspi­ra­tion for Sleep­ing Beauty’s now famous castle, but the real thing looks more impres­sive when you stand before it. The splashes of Royal Blue, the tall spires, the castle that is iron­i­cally best described as some­thing straight out of a fairy tale, Ludwig II’s dreamy and ambi­tious con­struc­tion stands for all the world to see as the sophis­ti­cated, bold and beau­ti­ful imag­i­na­tion of the so-called Mad King’ looks over a real castle, Hohen­schwan­gau, a Kight-era fortress his father bought when Ludwig II was born a lone child in Nymphen­burg Palace in Munich.

Neuschwanstein castle, Bavaria.

This is true: Neuschwanstein is not a castle at all, strictly speak­ing, because it’s archi­tec­ture, con­stric­tion and inten­tion do not involve, at any stage or in any form, pur­poses of for­ti­fi­ca­tion, defence or attack. Besides its alti­tude and van­tage point over Fuessen and Hohen­schwan­gau, there is little Neuschwanstein offers by way of defence or for set­tle­ment. But to look at this lovely white mas­ter­piece as any­thing other than Ludwig II’s attempts at lit­er­ally real­is­ing the cas­tles he once built in the air would be a folly.

Neuschwanstein, for all intents and pur­poses, is the castle in the air. Perched atop its sur­round­ing cities, you can see hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres from the castle on a clear day. From Marien­bruecke, a bridge between two Alpine facades, you can see fur­ther, and you can see what is arguably the most famous view of the castle.

This was some­thing of a prob­lem for me, since I have acro­pho­bia. One step onto Marien­bruecke and you realise, strong as the bridge is, you are sus­pended high, and some­what pre­car­i­ously, between rock­faces. There has recently been a land­slide dan­ger­ously close to one end of the bridge, there is a rook flos­ing far down below (which, on closer exam­i­na­tion, will turn out to be a rapid stream), and there are at least fifty to sixty people crowd­ing the bridge. With over a mil­lion-and-half vis­i­tors per annum, this is pos­si­bly the world’s most famous castle. And yet it is some­how peace­ful. Serene, majes­tic, tall, uncon­cerned in some ways, lost in other ways much like its dreamer, one of the most sin­gu­lar kings of Bavaria. Mys­te­ri­ous like him too (we will come to Ludwig in a moment).

As I step onto Marien­bruecke — know­ing that I have waited all my life for this moment, and that I would have to over­come my second great­est fear as I take step after step in a howl­ing wind — there are only two things I can use to dis­tract me: the beau­ti­ful Alps on my right, and Neuschwanstein on my left. Slowly the castle comes into view and it becomes incred­i­bly hard to lose one­self. What acro­pho­bia? Until someone’s hat blows off in the wind and all our eyes follow it, things get dizzy, and you slowly realise where you are, how high you are, that only a piece of metal stands between you and hun­dreds of feet of free fall. But it is not hard to get lost again: just look north­wards and there stands Neuschwanstein.

Ludwig II was an only child and, from what I gather from sev­eral accounts, an intro­vert. I con­nect with him imme­di­ately. He was a nearly six-and-a-half foot behe­moth, charm­ing to look at, dif­fi­cult to be with: he much pre­ferred to be in his own, beau­ti­ful mys­te­ri­ous world than the uglier real one. This was so much so that he once even made con­scious efforts to run away from war with Prus­sia. But Ludwig had at his dis­posal one thing few other dream­ers did: immense per­sonal wealth. With it he realised he could build his dreams and make them come true: Lin­der­hoff, a replica of the French palace of Ver­sailles, and his most famous of all, Neuschwanstein, were three he man­aged to start con­struc­tion.

Only Lin­der­hoff was com­pleted, Neuschwanstein partly, and an even more ambi­tious attempt called Falken­stein, even higher than Neuschwanstein, stands as little more than a wall in memory of Ludwig II. (If com­pleted, Falken­stein would undoubt­edly have stolen the crown away from Neuschwanstein, being more other-worldly and being located much higher up the Alps.)

By the time Neuschwanstein was even partly built, full with elab­o­rate paint­ings on the wall, a golden throne room with steps lead­ing up to the throne area like a temple for Green gods, a chan­de­lier that weighs as much as a modern car, a singer’s room with over five hun­dred can­dles, and intri­cate wooden carv­ings involv­ing four­teen expert wood carvers work­ing four years just to make the crown atop Ludwig’s bed, and win­dows open­ing to awe-inspir­ing land­scapes that would — and indeed did — leave vis­i­tors speech­less, and the king­dom of Bavaria in severe debt. Today, the province’s high­est sources of income happen to be Ludwig’s cas­tles.

This castle, besides all its mys­te­ri­ous aura, bears a close con­nec­tion with Ludwig’s equally mys­te­ri­ous death. Having been declared mad by what can only amount to legal trick­ery (with­out any formal med­ical exam­i­na­tion too — anyone reminded of Lis­beth Salan­der?), Ludwig was dragged to an asylum from his home in Neuschwanstein. He went off for a walk one day with his doctor and dis­ap­peared into the woods either never to be seen again (as one story puts it) or to be found float­ing in the river and having died under unknown and as yet unde­ter­mined cir­cum­stances clas­si­fied for­mally as drown­ing’. Ludwig was an expert swim­mer and the lake was calm as ever that evening.

And so stands the fairy tale castle as a state­ment of the dreams of the Mad King Ludwig II him­self, as a real­i­sa­tion of Wagner’s great­est works, as the symbol and pride of Bavaria, and an under­rated marvel of human cre­ation. Yet I still cannot bring myself to point to that one thing that makes me love Neuschwans­tine so much and makes me want to visit it so much. Per­haps Ludwig has some­thing to do with it, per­haps it is some­thing as simple as the envi­ron­ment under which I first came across it (of which, unfor­tu­nately, I have no memory), or per­haps, on a deeper level, it is some­thing that cannot be put into words. But after having spent an entire day there, some­thing is indeed cer­tain: one does not see Neuschwanstein castle, one feels it. I hope to stand hum­bled before it soon once again.