If you’ve ever seen the Disney Castle, then you’ve already glimpsed the basic facade of one of the most famous German castles in Bavaria. It looks
medieval and dark with highlights of chivalric romance. But it’s based on a dream conjured by Bavarian King Ludwig II who loved damsels in distress and knights in shining armor so much that he bankrupted his accounts to build these stone homages to an era long dead. While his contemporaries constructed modern palaces, Ludwig hired a stagemaster (not an architect) to bring his fairy tale dreams to life. Outside of Munich at the end of the so-called Romantic Road, Neil and I spent a rainy day visiting Hohenschwangau and Neschwanstein Castles.
At first when black clouds rolled in, we were a bit disappointed not to get iconic blue skies with the gray Neuschwanstein spires. But then boom–thunder pounded the valley and we looked at each other. It was the creepiest and coolest moment on the trip. Fog climbed out of the deep ravine and swallowed the castles like something out of a horror movie. The trees seemed closer as we walked along the path and climbed to the entrance. It was dark, zombie apocalypse dark. So while we didn’t get that picturesque landscape, we got to see a completely different tour of Fussen.
The Darker Side of Wagner at Neuschwanstein Castle
Inside the fairy tale castle, Ludwig fashioned rooms to imitate works by Richard Wagner such as Tristan and Isolde. Rooms contain carvings and murals to depict romantic scenes that the king loved. The composer had his own corner in the house too and alongside more stately rooms such as the king’s study and his reading room, Ludwig had ordered a cave room and stone palm tree pillars installed. The intended effect was supposed to be surreal and unearthly. But with the fog, rain and thunder, the castle morphed. Things started to darken and reflect the man’s deep obsession with the composer and his stories. Neil and I thought that the entire home dripped with it, emitting a stage-5 creeper alarm especially when our guide said that the king would often host the composer for private performances and lengthy visits. In the rainstorm darkness of the day, intricate carvings look ghoulish and Wagner’s cave looked more like purgatory.
I believe that the king became entrenched in these medieval stories, so deeply vested that he just couldn’t find the way out to reality. When you look around at the wall paintings, you can see court ladies with long silk robes and knights riding in on white horses. It’s all so cliche, but to a king with questionable mental stability, it was his world. With thunder rattling the mountains, the castle tour was like a little walk through that psyche.
It’s a habit for many travelers and photographers to always hope for good weather and sunny skies. But sometimes it works out best when the weather is rainy with low visibility. Though Ludwig wanted his castle to be filled with fairy tale magic, on a cold dreary day it’s a nice walk through a pseudo-horror flick.
How to Get to Fussen
Package tours, the famed Romantic Road, and public buses connect Fussen to the rest of Germany. As a day trip from Munich, a visit here will start early and require ticket purchases for timed tours at both castles. Note that walking to the castles takes time and Neuschanstein is a steep walk to the summit. Allot plenty of time for the bus or walk up (we saw one guy lose it when the bus came a little late and he missed his tour). Horse-drawn carriages are available. But it seems cruel to ask two clydesdales to haul 10 tourists hunting for that fairytale approach to these Bavarian castles. If you’re on a road trip on the Romantic Road like we were, signs clearly mark the castles and parking lots (5 Euro). We recommend staying one night in Fussen. Local restaurants are very good and crowds thin out in the late afternoon.