Monday, 4 November 2013

Once Upon a Time in Bavaria...

Once upon a time there lived a little girl called Mrs Walker and she longed to be a princess, living in a fairy tale castle. One day, she travelled in a pretty coach all the way to the top of a mountain and there she walked through the doors of the most magical castle she had ever seen...

Hello again, my dear chums! I have returned to you from the magical fairy-tale land of Bavaria.  My big brother lives over there and so while on a visit I was determined to travel to possibly the best-known castle in the world, Neuschwanstein Castle, which sits on a mountain by the Alps.  If you don't know the name, the shape of it will certainly be familiar.  It was the castle that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang swooped over and it was an inspiration for the appearance of Hogwarts and Disney's Sleeping Beauty's castle on screen.  It is about as fairytale as castles get, but that, my friends, is the point...

Mmmm, 'turret-y'....
First, a little history. In the mid nineteenth century, King Ludwig II decided he needed a retreat from the pressures of life.  He built such a fortress of solitude in the little village called Hohenschwangau, near Füssen in southwest Bavaria.  The notoriously odd young man became King of Bavaria from 1864 until his death just over 20 years later at the age of 40 (which is awfully young in the opinion of this 40 year old).  He was an ardent fan of the composer Richard Wagner and his music lent inspiration to the 'Swan King''s dreams of a home fit for a romantic hero.  The swan is the symbol of the area and the 'schwan' in the name of the castle and the village refers to that.  Neuschwanstein Castle and its sister castle below it, Hohenschwangau Castle, were built on the ruins of older structures. The King wanted an escape from reality, and in the music of Wagner, most notably Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, he found such an escape.  His plans for his castles were to make this dream a reality...

Christian Jank's 1869 project drawing for the castle
When he had the idea to build it, it was conceived with the idea of building somewhere worthy of Wagner to visit.  In a marvellous insight into his home life, Ludwig wrote to Wagner that the castle would be '...more beautiful and habitable than Hohenschwangau [castle] further down, which is desecrated every year by the prose of my mother; they will take revenge, the desecrated gods, and come to live with Us on the lofty heights, breathing the air of heaven.'  The lofty heights is no exaggeration as Neuschwanstein is at an elevation of 800m, nestling in the soaring Alps.  You can walk up to it, but most of us tourists seem to opt for the overcrowded buses that swings you back and forth up a winding path until you reach an equally winding, steep footpath.  After a lot of pausing to admire the view (while wishing you were fitter) you arrive at what can only be described as 'the stage door'...

Just out of shot, Mrs Walker attempting to breathe after the climb...
When visiting the castle, you have to purchase a ticket at the foot of the mountain.  You really don't want to forget that, because can you imagine having to go all the way back down again.  The only way to see the inside is by a tour, and there are only so many of these per hour.  They have a couple in English, a couple in German and then 'Other' which involves an audio tour in your chosen language.  It is heaving with tourists from all over the world and in the summer they have around 6000 visitors a day through the doors.  As you can imagine that has a very definite effect on the experience.  I was feeling a little 'regimented' by the time our tour number was asked to queue for admittance as I don't like being marshalled about in my artistic experiences and thought it would end up being a rather brisk, soulless affair, being herded from room to room.  Then I went in...

Waiting the start the tour with a couple of other tourists...
 You immediately feel that you are in the presence of something insanely special. The ceilings of the corridor are richly patterned with Gothic curls and they lead you up to the first of the halls that utterly took my breath away.

Entrance Hall.  Just out of shot, Mrs Walker has swooned...
The walls have the most amazing murals, painted on plaster-of-Paris to resemble fresco painting, depicting Sigurd's saga.  These were Germanic tales that served as a model for Wagner's 'Ring of the Nibelung'.  Painted by Wilhelm Hauschild, a Munich professor, they reminded me of the art of Dicksee or Paton.  The images have a sort of impersonal nature of early Victorian art, but the passion and romance of the narrative instantly brings to mind the Pre-Raphaelites.  The stories and images are rich with potions, lost love, fire and dragons.  The women have long sweeps of hair and the men are magnificent and shiny of armour.  They are often resplendent with weaponry too.  Goodness.  I thought it was the most impressive thing I had ever seen.  Then we went into the Throne Room...

Wow.  Just wow.
Bearing in mind that I was with Miss Walker who is 7, I was not allowed to swear, but to be honest if you were to exclaim the entirely justified expletives every time you were astonished by the beauty of the place, you would be hoarse within minutes.  I do believe I overused the words 'Goodness me...' while gazing entirely enraptured at the Throne Room.  First of all, as you can see in the above picture, there is no throne as the King died before it was made.  He had envisaged something canopied and golden but it was not to be.  Again Hauchild did the paintings which involve such things as sanctified kings, apostles, St George and a dragon, Lucifer's fall and Jesus riding a rainbow.  Awesome.  The floor is equally as decorative covered in millions of little mosaic pieces showing the animals and plants on earth.  If I had my way I would have just reclined there for the rest of the week gazing at it all, however the next tour party was hard on our heels so on we went...

The Dining Room.  Where's a footman when you need one?  
On to the Dining Room, which has a smashing statue of  Siegfried fighting a dragon in gold-plated bronze.  The idea of fighting a dragon, the personification of the battle of good and evil is everywhere in the castle and tells you something of Ludwig's ideas.  This room is on the third floor of the castle, which seems a bit of a tall order for the staff but there is a hand operated dumb-waiter that services all floors so the food could be quickly and efficiently served to the King from the kitchen far below.

The bedroom...
Redefining Gothic, the bedroom is a cavalcade of heavy wood carving and romantic art.  The bed was surprisingly large, but Ludwig was six foot four in height (she says, raising an eyebrow).  His bedroom is decorated with murals of love and faithfulness but never paid host to a Queen because the King remained unmarried.  I'll come to that in a bit...

The Living Room
I loved the big swan on the table.  The living room had the murals on all walls but they were painted to look like tapestries, with a ripple effect at the top (just like the newly uncovered one at The Red House).  Again the room is wood, gold and crystal clear scenes of romance, which all rather contrasted with the next room we visited...

The grotto.  A cave in the middle of a castle.  No, really.
Now, I've been in a grotto or two in my time, but never have I walked out of a living room into what seems to be an underground cavern, complete with stalactites.  Built with plaster-of-Paris over a steel frame, it was meant to represent the cave in Mount Hoesel from the Tannhaeuser saga.  It even has a waterfall.  Bonkers.

The Singers' Hall
Illustrated with scenes from the Parsifal saga, the Singers' Hall must be the most consciously theatrical room, complete with a little stage up one end.  The King had imagined that Wagner's opera's would be sung there, grand concerts befitting the splendid scenery but sadly he never saw any.  He continued his building plans and applied for loans to fund it, but they were turned down.  In 1886, he applied for a futher 6 million marks but by then the Government had decided enough was enough.  A report was written that he was unsound of mind and he was taken unwillingly into custody.  The next day, the King and the man who had written the report, Dr Gudden, were found drowned in Lake Starnberg.

'Mad' King Ludwig.  I don't care how mad he is, look at his home!
It is a prevailing 'truth' that Ludwig was as mad as a bag of frogs and to cement this, a specialist had declared him insane.  However, you know me, I question everything.  It strikes me that the evidence is a bit flimsy.  Yes, his vision of life was extremely theatrical and romantic.  The castle is astonishing, the stuff of magic and breathtaking beauty but that doesn't mean he was mad.  Well, I hope not, because that probably means we're all equally as crazy.  I'd live there, in fact had I not been acting like a responsible parent I think I would probably pulled the toddler trick of going limp onto the floor and refused to move.  I know I'm prone to hyperbole but my goodness, it is wondrous.  He did not use public money to build it, he used his own funds and borrowed hideous amounts, but did not act in a reckless manner with his people's purse.

I suspect that part of the stories of his madness grew out of his alleged sexual preference.  Engaged to his cousin, he eventually pulled out of the actual marriage (although he blamed his potential father in law for keeping them apart).  He maintained close friendships with men and wrote adoring letters to his hero, Wagner.  All of this is often given as proof that he was homosexual, but I think this is a rather insulting conclusion to come to.  There is no proof that he ever had a gay relationship and I have a horrible feeling that his mad/gay label are flipsides of the same coin.  He was gay therefore he must have been mad, or he was mad therefore gay.  Neither thing are provable and both say more about the times he lived in rather than him. I rather suspect he was inconvenient to those in charge, all bound up with his castle and fantasies rather than the real, modern world.  As Ludwig asked the doctor who had declared him insane, 'How can you declare me insane? After all, you have never seen or examined me before.'  In reply, Dr Gudden said that that was unnecessary as he had the servant's gossip.  Consider that, my friends, and shiver. 

Back down the mountain, with the castle in the background.
The painting on the restaurant is to remind you that you're in Bavaria.
Despite the King's reputation, it's heartwarming that he is remembered so fondly by the people of Bavaria.  Obviously, a big part of that has to be the tourist attraction that brings millions to such a tiny area to spend their Euros with gay abandon, but part of it has to be a recognition of what he was trying to achieve.  Ludwig dreamed of 'this paradise on earth, where I can live out my ideals and thus find happiness.'  I see nothing crazy in that.  

Sadly I don't think my twentieth century terraced house can cope in that much Wagner...


  1. Wow! Mrs Walker I am at a loss for words. Fab-u-lous Dah-ling just about covers it!!

  2. I am so green with envy I look like a Frog. You visit all of my favourite places! I have never made it here, nearly ..... so nearly, but our coach could not travel through the deep snow. This is a marvellous tribute to this castle and to Ludwig too. Minerva x

  3. Holy Mackerel. I think I would pull the limp toddle trick too. I read about King Ludwig a while back and I agree, I don't think he was mad; eccentric, maybe, but I think other people wanted his position and power, thus he was declared mad.

  4. Dear Kirsty
    There was a fabulous documentary about this very man not so long ago on good old BBC4, with Dan Cruikshank waxing lyrically (and somewhat dramatically) about King Ludwig's architecture and grand visions, as well as his rather unusual life and suspicious death. Well worth a look if you can find it from the small amount of info I have given you and if it is still available somewhere on iplayer! Lots of sumptuous sweeping vistas and close ups of the decoration. I found it all fascinating, as was your post too.
    Best wishes

    1. Dear Kirsty
      The programme was called 'The Fairytale Castles of King Ludwig II with Dan Cruikshank, but is currently not available on iplayer (Boo!). There are a couple of clips there though and always the chance that it will be repeated on BBC4 at some ridiculous time of night...
      Best wishes

  5. king ludwig was totally kookie-time. from what i've read, he asked other countries to give him money just so he could keep building! but i admit, he was like a visionary artist. his is the castle for disney and like you said, all other kinds of things. bravo mr. nutty-pants! you made the awesomest castle ever!

  6. Wow, what an amazing place! Especially like the grotto - such wonderful imagination.

  7. Cheers M'dears! Yes, it was a place of splendor and I can thoroughly recommend a visit. If anyone wants to know what trains and the suchlike you need to take, feel free to give me a shout and I can share my limited knowledge with you.

  8. You neglected to mention the other waterfall, the one on the mountainside off to the left. Or perhaps you were distracted?

    Back in 1981 I was with a university choir touring Bavaria among other places. We were permitted to sing a couple of short pieces in the singer's hall.

  9. Of course! Yes, we saw it but did not venture round that side due to the crowds. My daughter has a bit of a problem with heights too so we didn't go across the bridge but the sound of the waterfall was incredible.

    How lovely to sing there!

  10. Gaaaaaah. I want to go there. I'd probably want to live there, too, but I am not a King (nor a Queen) so I don't get to live in a castle with that many twiddly bits... Don't get me wrong, I've managed to incorporate a LOT of twiddles, brocade, velvet and damascene patterns into decor, and a few swords for added "castle" atmosphere, but I live in a tiny apartment with rules on how much I am allowed to decorate that somehow prohibit me from turning the top floor of this building into a Gothic penthouse.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx