Being a History buff, I’m a sucker for castles. Living in the north east of England I am spoilt for choice as there are numerous fine examples within an easy day trip. The Normans built them to consolidate their hold over the country they conquered in 1066AD and, in my neck of the woods, to guard against marauding Scots. They are some of my favourite places, providing enduring fascination. Some are now museums, some are stately homes and others just picturesque ruins. Most of my castle visits have been shared with just a sprinkling of other people, the only exceptions in Britain being The Tower of London and Edinburgh Castle, which are both on the international tourist trail, and Warwick Castle, which has been transformed into a major entertainment venue by the Tussauds organisation. It seems to me that usually, castles are a bit of an acquired taste.
So it came as a massive surprise to find that when I decided to visit a German castle in the Alps of southern Bavaria, Neuschwanstein, I found myself fighting for space with hundreds, if not thousands of tourists from around the world. At first I couldn’t understand why. It is situated in a fairly remote, rural area. It is a 3 hour journey by train and bus from the nearest city (Munich). Even when one gets to the village below the castle ( Hohenschwangau), there is a stiff 30 to 40 minutes walk up a hill, or one faces a very long queue to board a crowded bus or horse- drawn wagon. The crowds are so vast that one can only visit Neuschwanstein on a guided tour and these have to depart every 5 minutes throughout a 9 hour day to accommodate everyone in the high tourist season. Even then, many people are turned away as they have arrived too late. One reviewer on Trip Adviser gave up his plans to visit the castle after learning that the queue for a ticket was 2 hours long and then there would be a further 5 hour wait before finally getting in. I had seen photos of the castle perched on a precarious rock , surrounded by mountains and had imagined a quiet, rather lonely place, cut off from the world in splendid isolation. I couldn’t have been more wrong! The place was heaving, and this was in September, outside the main tourist season. So I didn’t get much peace and there was little opportunity for quiet reflection. Maybe I should have done more research before going to Neuschwanstein. Even a cursory glance at Trip Adviser reveals mass adulation for the place. The last time I checked, it had attracted no less than 858 reviews!
So what’s all the fuss about? Why has this particular castle, tucked away in an obscure corner of Germany, attracted such a massive following? Every year it is visited by 1.4 million people. In summer, 6000 visitors a day stream through rooms only intended for one inhabitant. Neuschwanstein is one of the most popular castles or palaces in the whole of Europe. Why? What is even more astonishing is that it is not even a real, authentic castle. It’s a 19th century fake. In Britain, we would call it a “folly”, not the genuine article. It is actually the realisation of a King’s fantasy. Although loosely based on a medieval model it was largely conceived inside the King’s head, a product of his vivid imagination and romantic attachment to the past. That King was Ludwig II of Bavaria, sometimes called “Mad King Ludwig”, and it is his colourful back-story that partly explains the castle’s immense popularity.
Many people these days don’t seem to mind if something is a fake or not. From imitation “Rolex” watches to false eye-lashes; from spray tans to tribute groups — people don’t seem to care so much whether something is real or counterfeit. So why worry if a so-called “medieval” castle was not actually built in the Middle Ages or that it has never been involved in a battle and was never intended to? This castle was an eccentric monarch’s fantasy home. Ludwig had a megalomaniacal passion for creating fantastic architectural projects. Neuschwanstein was never meant to be an instrument of war. It is a fantastical confection of towers and spires, spectacularly situated on a high rocky ledge above a river gorge. It has the elements of a castle but is merely an extravagant invention. Since the arrival of gunpowder into Europe at the end of the 15th century, the original fortified castle had been largely made redundant anyway. I believe it is the fantasy element that has fascinated so many people and goes a long way to explain the great popularity of this place. People don’t just come to see the building, they come to hear about the “Mad King”.
Ludwig II was really a king without a kingdom as in 1871, Bavaria had been incorporated into the newly unified Germany led by Prussia. It was the King of Prussia who became German Emperor, not Ludwig. He was reduced to the role of vassal. Although Ludwig was convinced that he had been chosen by God to rule, he never had any real powers. Disappointed with the real world, he began to have Neuschwanstein built in 1868. It was here where he hoped to escape into a dream world based on the myths and legends of the Middle Ages which he was so enraptured by. These were the themes of the powerful operas of Richard Wagner, whom Ludwig greatly admired. Wagner would give private recitals to the King in his other pseudo-medieval castle at Hohenswangau down in the valley. The new mock castle was dedicated to Wagner and decorated with large picture cycles based on the stories told in his operas. The interiors are thus adorned with medieval Kings and knights, poets and lovers. They also prominently feature the swan, the heraldic creature of the royal courts of Swangau and also the Christian symbol for purity. Ludwig saw himself as a pure, ethereal messenger of God, sent to earth on a divine mission.
Yet the Middle Ages appearance of Neuschwanstein is just an illusion. Behind the medieval façade lies a very modern building for its time. It has hot- air central heating, running water on every floor, hot and cold water in the kitchens, flushing toilets, electric bells to summon the servants and a lift to carry the King’s meals up to his chambers. Beneath limestone cladding, the building is really made of brick, not stone like the original castles. The spectacular Throne Room which also doubles up as a chapel, incorporates a steel frame. I think this intoxicating mix of the new and the old is another reason why so many people are drawn to visit it. The Throne Room was inspired by Byzantine churches. It features an enormous chandelier, a cupola decorated with stars and a beautiful mosaic floor featuring plants and animals. It’s all a bit “over the top” and I certainly wouldn’t want to live there myself, but it makes for a fascinating visit.
Ludwig built Neuschwanstein as a retreat. He allowed virtually no-one to visit him there. It is therefore richly ironic that vast numbers of people now come to visit what was supposed to be a private refuge. Here he lived out his fantasy life. From 1875, Ludwig lived mainly at night and slept during the day. He spent less time in his capital, Munich, and more and more time up in the mountains. He travelled around on elaborate coaches and sleighs. Sometimes he wore historical costume. Ludwig identified himself with Parsival, a legendary medieval figure who was famed for his purity. Unfortunately, Ludwig’s castle- building turned into an expensive obsession. He had several other castles built as well as Neuschwanstein. He got into great debt, and the foreign banks he had borrowed heavily from began to close in. The king’s behaviour became increasingly bizarre and erratic. Finally the Bavarian Government, supported by his family, declared him insane and deposed him in 1886. His brother has previously been certified as well. Ludwig was interned at Berg Castle. The very next day he drowned in mysterious circumstances in Lake Starnberg, together with the psychiatrist who had declared him insane. They were found in only a few feet of water. These mysterious deaths have never been properly explained. Did Ludwig take his own life because he couldn’t live with the humiliation and disgrace? Did he and his psychiatrist make a suicide pact? We will never know. It is this mystery that has added spice to the tale of “Mad King Ludwig”. I believe that it is this strange story with a mystery at its heart that helps to draw thousands of tourists to this remote place. It has certainly been hyped by the modern tourist authorities. You can now buy: Ludwig tea-towels, Ludwig chocolates, Ludwig mugs, Ludwig calenders, etc etc. This rather sad, deluded man has become a tourist cash-cow. People love a mystery, and to misquote Churchill, Ludwig is “a mystery wrapped up in an enigma.”
So, we’re beginning to get to the bottom of why this fake castle in Bavaria is such a massive tourist draw. It is in a spectacular mountain location. It was built for an intriguing, mysterious character( though never finished in his lifetime). It is an eccentric mix of the ancient and modern. On top of all this, it is a perfect fantasy version of a castle rather than being hampered with the imperfections of the real thing. But the biggest reason behind Neuschwanstein’s phenomenal popularity, I believe, is it’s connection with the Disney Organisation, which has made “fantasy” its stock in trade. Walt Disney used it as the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty’s castle in the cartoon film of the same name. It was also the template for Cinderella’s castle in the Magic Kingdom theme parks. It’s image is replicated in the Disney Tourist Parks in the States, Hong Kong and Paris. The shape of Neuschwanstein also features on the logo for Walt Disney Pictures, Disney TV, Disney Music Group and Walt Disney Studios. In other words, it has been placed at the very centre of 20th and 21st Century popular culture. I think this is the real reason why it is so overwhelmingly popular. People see it as the archetypal “fairy-tale” or “story-book” castle. Instead of a real castle, it is Disney’s imitation of an imitation that has come to represent a castle in the modern, global public’s consciousness.
I doubt whether many of those tourists are serious students of history or architecture. Neither do I believe that many of those who flock to see Neuschwanstein have read the biography of so-called “Mad King Ludwig” and are desperateto to see where he lived. The mountain location is stunning but this is still not the main reason for the tourist stampede. I believe it is the power of the Disney cultural empire that brings so many to this corner of Germany. I hate using the word, but this castle has become “iconic”. The hype of the Disney organisation has sold this imaginary image of a romantic, medieval castle to the world. It is an idea of a castle rather than the real thing. This is why when I went there, even though it was slightly out of season, I had to fight for space with fellow tourists from all over the world. I met Europeans, Americans, Australians, Kiwis and especially Asian people. That is why I counted 30 large coaches parked up by 11 am and noted that the small village of Hohenschwangau has 5 enormous car parks ( all full). This is why this tiny rural settlement has: souvenir shops, restaurants, cafes, hotels, guesthouses, and all the other trappings of a mass-tourist hot-spot. It’s certainly not your average peaceful Alpine village. The bells of the cows in the meadows are drowned out by the drone of the traffic and the clicking of a thousand cameras. This is why I had to duck and dive amongst the selfie-sticks and queue for everything. The trouble with mass tourism is that it is always in danger of “killing the goose that laid the golden egg.” The density of the crowds means that it can be more like a rugby scrum than an historical or educational visit. Any vestige of a medieval atmosphere ( fake though it is), is extinguished by the pressure of the constant crowds.
Despite all this it was still worth the visit. The wonderful location, the fantasy nature of the castle, the mysterious back story, all make for a memorable occasion. Even the tourist hordes are an interesting phenomenon in themselves. I can also add that one can fairly easily escape the crowds by walking along the lovely shoreline of the nearby Alpsee lake. From here you can view both the upper and lower castles ( Schloss Neuschwanstein and Schloss Hohenswangau), in their proper Alpine setting.
My wife, Chris, and I stayed in the nearby town of Fussen. It’s a picturesque, historical place, with attractive old buildings festooned with illusionist paintings, a monastery and its own castle. It had a sprinkling of tourists but when we visited the beautiful baroque monastery and the interesting schloss up on the hill, we virtually had them to ourselves. We met less than a dozen other tourists in the whole of our 2 hour visit. Only 3 miles away the mass tourist hordes were pouring in to Neuschanstein. It’s the power of hype and the power of popular culture. That is why it has ended up on so many people’s “bucket lists” — a must-see sight that has to be ticked off. We met an American on the train down from Munich, who had come all that way just to see that one castle. He wasn’t interested in anything else and was returning to the city as soon as he had made his brief visit. Everyone to their own I know, but I find it difficult to understand this approach to travel. I like to stay in an area for several days at least and soak in the atmosphere. But many don’t stay. They flock to see this “fairy tale” caricature of a castle before rushing on to the next thing on their tick list.
It was a memorable experience for me but I cannot wait to get back to the genuine castles in my home region, where I will have space to breathe and where visitors are generally there for the history rather than the fantasy. It’s so strange that an out and out replica can become so much more popular than the genuine article. Still “that’s life”, as they say, or in this case “that’s Mass Tourism.” One can only imagine what “Mad King Ludwig”, so jealous of his privacy, would think if he returned to his former retreat today. At least all those tourists have paid off his debts and have given his estate such a handsome profit which accumulates every year!