Perched in the Bavarian Alps, a short train ride from Munich, is the famous Neuschwanstein Castle. Known as the inspiration for Disney’s Cinderella Castle, the unfinished Neuschwanstein is the fairytale passion of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Among his accomplishments as monarch, Ludwig is remembered for building castles. They were so lavish and costly, he brought his family fortune to its knees and construction had to stop, leaving two of the castles unfinished.
Last month on my exploration in Bavaria I visited two of Ludwig’s castles… Neuschwanstein, the fairytale castle, and Herrenchiemsee, the Bavarian copy of Versailles. I have learned a great deal about Ludwig’s life. In each castle you can sense his eccentricities and his passion for the grand and spectacular. There is much more to his story and in this blog I tell stories about the castles and recall the intrigue of his life and death.
Born in 1845, at 18 years old he unexpectedly ascended to the throne on the sudden death of his father. He reigned as a constitutional monarch over Bavaria until his own suspicious death in June 1886. Ludwig never wanted to be king. As a constitutional monarch some believe that the fantasy world he built around himself also reflected his desire to be a real king. He was a man more interested in the arts and music than in his responsibilities to the country. He was shy and a dreamer and left enormous stone castle-palaces as his legacy.
Ludwig II was an attractive young man and women adored him. He was engaged to a sister of Elisabeth II, “Sisi,” Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, but postponed the wedding three times… Ludwig II directed his love to composer and writer Richard Wagner instead. The combination of spending the family and country treasure on castles which some viewed a frivolous, being homosexual, and being more interested in the arts ultimately resulted in his being accused of insanity and conveniently certified so by four doctors.
Ludwig II was a recluse. Wagner was one of the few that Ludwig wanted to be around him. As Wagner’s patron, Ludwig rescued Wagner from financial ruin and lavishly spent money to support Wagner and his career. When Ludwig was arrested in his bedroom at Neuschwanstein, he was taken to a residence called Berg Palace at Lake Starnberg. Mysteriously, Ludwig was found drowned in the lake the day following his arrival there along with one of the psychiatrists who certified him as being insane.
There is much speculation as to how the two men died and nobody knows with certainty what occurred. The suspicious deaths were investigated and there is an official story but it has unexplainable holes in it. To this day there are societies of crime investigative enthusiasts who examine the facts and try to logically explain the deaths, inconsistencies, and piece together what may have occurred.
Ludwig II didn’t like being in the public eye and made excuses to keep people away from his castles. As you might imagine, these are quite large and very visible to the curious population. Following his death, the government quickly moved to open them to local visitors and tourists. Getting to these castles is an adventure in itself! Neuschwanstein is reached by train along with a bus ride or walk up a steep road. Herrenchiemsee is on an island in Chiemsee, Bavaria’s largest lake. One gets to the palace by train also, a water ferry and then a walk through the woods.
Although certified as insane, Ludwig II likely was just an eccentric dreamer. His fairytale castle Neuschwanstein is medieval themed. Herrenchiemsee, patterned after Versailles, is devoted to King Louis XIV of France. Ludwig was obsessed with the “Sun King” Louis with much of the decoration in Herrenchiemsee devoted to him or to himself whom he envisioned as the “Moon King.” At Neuschwanstein the walls and ceilings are decorated with scenes from Wagner’s productions.
An example of his eccentricity is the Hall of Mirrors, the largest room in Herrenchiemsee. Lined with mirrors, the hall is an astounding 1000 meters long and has more than 2400 candles for light! The ceiling is painted with 25 scenes from the life of Louis XIV of France whom he admired. Ludwig used the room as a place to look at… for himself… it wasn’t used for any other purpose!
There are other eccentricities like the disappearing table which would magically appear at meals from the floor below. Set for 16 including himself and 15 imaginary friends, there was always an excuse for not entertaining others… there was no room at the table for more!
At 40 Ludwig II died mysteriously. Until I visited these two castles I knew nothing about him or his life. He certainly must have been a colorful person and through the castle monuments he left a legacy for posterity. If you go to Bavaria or nearby Salzburg, Austria, make time to visit Ludwig’s castles. You will find them well worth the trip.
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