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July 2004

Form and fantasy

Find out what inspired King Ludwig II to create his famous castles

He took his breakfast at sunset; spoke to the ghost of Madame Pompadour; disdained company and reveled in solitude. Was King Ludwig II completely noncompos mentis, or just a bit eccentric? Although opinions on Ludwig’s mental health have varied over the years, the elegant design and beauty of the three castles he commissioned is unquestionable. Neuschwanstein, Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee Neues Schloss are some of the most impressive architectural structures in Bavaria.

At the age of just 22, King Ludwig II commissioned his first castle, Neuschwanstein. Located just a short distance away from Hohenschwangau, a castle where Ludwig often stayed as a child, Neuschwanstein was originally planned as a “temple” to the operatic master Richard Wagner, who was a close friend of Ludwig’s father, Maximilian II. Ludwig had long been familiar with Wagner’s dramatic operas and their stories of intense tragedy and deliverance. Ludwig decided to center the design of the rooms upon the original medieval legends (Sigurd, Gudrun, Tristan and Isolde, Parsifal, Lohengrin and Tannhäuser) Wagner had used for inspiration and for his newly-found devotion to Christian mythology, in particular, the Holy Grail.

Visitors to Neuschwanstein arrive in the nearby town of Hohenschwangau, approximately a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Munich, and then must either walk up the castle path, or take a horse-drawn carriage (€ 5) or bus (€ 1.80) to reach the castle. From either the bus or the carriage drop-off points, it is a short walk uphill to the Marienbrücke (Mary’s Bridge), a spectacular steel construction that allows visitors to stand above the impressive Pollätschlucht (Pollät Gorge) and enjoy a good view of the castle. If you choose to walk up to Neuschwanstein, it will take about 30 minutes to reach the bridge. Cafés and restaurants line the path, so if you need to stop to catch your breath, you will certainly find a pleasant place to sit down and enjoy a gentle respite.

Tickets for tours of Neuschwanstein must be bought at the ticket office in Hohenschwangau, and visitors may enter the castle only as part of a tour. You should check the Websites of all castles before leaving Munich as opening and closing times vary according to season. Visitors are given a specific tour time, and must be at the castle gates at the appointed time. Those who fail to arrive on time are obliged to buy a new ticket. The tour lasts 35 minutes, is available in English or German and costs € 9. Audio guides are available in 11 different languages. Tours cover 14 different rooms in the castle, the most impressive of which is the Throne Room. With a domed blue ceiling representing the sky and a tiled floor with an animal and plant mosaic representing the earth, it would certainly have been a striking setting in which to have an audience with the king. Perhaps most interesting is that Ludwig never planned on holding court here, but used the design and decoration of the room to express his fantasies of personal greatness, enduring respect and authoritative leadership. In between the salon and study, the tour crosses through the grotto. In this replica of a dripstone cave, Ludwig had a small desk and chair as well as a small waterfall. The tour ends in the Singer’s Hall, a large concert room on the upper floor, which was modeled on a similar space in Wartburg Castle in Thuringia and is home to a magnificent mural depicting the legend of Parsifal. Visitors are then free to continue on through the kitchen on their way to the exit. A plain but large room, it contains all the original fittings (except for the crockery) and, unusual in its day, hot and cold water taps. Please be aware that touring Neuschwanstein for disabled or elderly people can be quite difficult owing to the number of stairs that must be climbed inside the castle.

Ludwig lived in Neuschwanstein for only 170 days, so in order get a better idea of where he spent more time, it is worthwhile to visit Linderhof, the “Royal Villa” he began building in 1870 at the age of 24. Inspired by the Petit Trianon, one of the summer residences at Versailles built for Madame Pompadour, Ludwig set about building a similarly regal palace in Hochtal. The king was attracted to the area both because his father had a small hunting lodge there and on account of the proximity of a Benedictine monastery, which he believed was connected to the Holy Grail. Eventually, when it became clear that Ludwig’s grand plans greatly exceeded what the small valley could accommodate, he decided to switch locations: the royal residence would be built on Herreninsel at Chiemsee, and a smaller palace would be built in the valley.

Completed in 1879, Linderhof has an extensive 124-acre park, containing 4.5 miles of pathway, and several themed structures within the grounds: a Moroccan House, a Moorish Pavilion and a Grotto of Venus. When approaching Linderhof, the structure is somewhat hidden from view–a deliberate ploy of Ludwig to construct an atmosphere of privacy and solitude. Resembling a French villa, the design expresses Bavaria’s glorious past in the face of the recent founding of the German Reich, which had appropriated both territory and sovereignty from the Bavarian King. In order to avoid disappointment please be aware that scaffolding will obscure the facade for much of 2004.

Entrance to Linderhof is permitted only with a guided tour, for which you can buy a ticket at the main entrance (€ 7). Tours last approximately 25 minutes and are available in English; audio guides can be obtained in a variety of languages. A guide takes you through 11 different rooms and it is the bedroom and dining room that immediately capture the imagination. The focal point of the former is the opulent bed, which is surrounded by a golden balustrade that was meant to function as an impenetrable barrier. Running up the wall from the head of the bed and extending to its length is a dark blue canopy, offering Ludwig the possibility of drawing the cloth and closing himself off from the world. It was in the dining room that Ludwig entertained the ghosts of Louis XIV, Louis XV and Madame Pompadour over dinner. He insisted that the maid set several places at the table and that the chef cook a dinner large enough for four. The table was based on the wishing table in the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale The Wishing Table, the Golden Ass and the Cudgel-in-the-Sack and could be lowered to the kitchen below with a crank, thus alleviating the need for servants in the dining room. It is fantastic to imagine the “soirees” Ludwig must have held here in the flickering candlelight.

The park behind Linderhof, designed by Court Garden Director Carl von Effner, is well worth a visit on a summer’s day. Designed in the image of the Versailles gardens, cascading fountains, manicured lawns and bright flowerbeds abound. There is a tall, 300-year-old linden tree where it is believed that Ludwig once had a tree house—there is no longer any evidence of such a structure—and when he was in residence at Linderhof, he would take his “breakfast” at sunset hidden from view amongst the branches.

If Linderhof is the “Royal Villa” one can only dream of the majestic palace that exists on the Herreninsel. Located on Chiemsee, the island can be reached by ferry, which leaves regularly from the town of Prien, approximately a one-hour drive from Munich. A round-trip ferry ticket costs € 5.80 and entrance to the castle is € 7 (this also includes entrance to the King Ludwig II Museum, the Augustinian Monastery and the Art Gallery Julius Exter, which is near the village of Übersee-Feldwies on the southern shore of Chiemsee). Upon arriving on the island, a pleasant 15-minute walk takes you through the meadows and forests of the island to the palace. Like Linderhof, Herrenchiemsee Neues Schloss is not visible when you are on the island and you come out of the woods, into the sunlight, and stumble upon it. Four immense fountains flank the left and right sides of the front facade and another one occupies the central space of the garden.

The cornerstone was laid for Herrenchiemsee Neues Schloss in 1881 and, while the building was in progress, Ludwig furnished a smaller castle, the Altes Schloss, near the jetty from where he could supervise the progress of his grand project. Similar to Versailles, the Neues Schloss has a Hall of Mirrors and a formal French garden, designed also by Carl von Effner. Ludwig came to the palace every October, but, similar to Neuschwanstein, it was unfinished upon his death. Tours of the palace are extensive, and tourists view approximately 20 rooms. Herrenchiemsee Neues Schloss is home to the King Ludwig II Museum, which contains many photographs and personal belongings of the king. One of the most interesting collections on display is the correspondence between Richard Wagner and King Ludwig, from which one gets a sense of their fiery and complex relationship. From July 23 to August 1 a special music and drama festival will be taking place at Herrenchiemsee. For more information see

Should you choose to visit one or all three of King Ludwig’s castles, you will be sure to discover a veritable treasure trove of historical and architectural delights that will beguile even the most seasoned globe-trotters. For further information see the Websites listed below.

Herrenchiemsee Neues Schloss: schloss/objekte/hch_ns.htm
Recommended Reading:
Krückmann, Peter O. The Land of Ludwig II: The Royal Castles in Upper Bavaria and Swabia. Prestel Verlag, Munich, Berlin, London and New York, 2000. MacIntosh, Christopher. The Swan King. Tauris Parke Publishers, Hampshire, 2003. Sharp, Inez. “Royal Blue.” MUNICH FOUND, Dec. 2003/Jan. 2004, pp. 32–33.

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