9 November 2016
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.
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.