Who could resist visiting the castle that Walt Disney used as inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s castle? If you are staying in Munich, it is worth the trip to visit Neuschwanstein Castle.
Though it is possible to DIY by taking a train, then a bus, and then buying a ticket to enter the castle, but we decided to do it the easy way – we booked a tour.
We met our tour guide at the Munich HBF at 9:00 am. We had booked the tour through Viator; it was supposed to be a train trip to Neuschwanstein, but it turned out that we would be riding a bus instead. That was fine; the bus was quite comfortable and there was no traffic. We were given a few minutes to pick up a sandwich or snack and to use the WC before we boarded at 9:25. The drive to Hohenschwangau took about 2.5 hours, which is comparable to how long the train ride would’ve been. All but the last 45 minutes was on the autobahn. Once we exited the autobahn, the drive became very scenic – lots of rolling, green hills and content cows. Soon, we could spot the castle off in the distance.
The bus dropped us off in the tiny town of Hohenschwangau. We were given about 15 minutes to use the WC and/or grab a very quick bite to eat while Sarah, our tour guide, purchased our admission to the castle.
We walked through the town down towards the lake. By the lakeside, Sarah started the tale of King Ludwig. We were in the Schwangau region of Bavaria and the local swan and its children floated nearby as she spoke.
I have always heard of Ludwig referred to as “Mad King Ludwig” so was intrigued to learn more about this crazy character that built his fairy tale castle on the mountain.
Ludwig was the elder of two sons. His brother, Otto, was three years younger and much better suited to be king. Their father, who was a beloved king, was a cold father. Ludwig and Otto spent their childhoods in lessons for 8 hours/day, then another 2 hours for sports. Their father wanted them to know what it was like to be hungry, so had their plates taken away before they finished eating at mealtimes. No conversation was allowed. Theirs was a very, very strict upbringing. The boys were terrified of their father. Their mother did not interact with them much, either. She enjoyed hiking in the Alps (unusual for a woman of her time), but rarely took the boys with her. Story time was the only time where Ludwig had any human connection.
Ludwig was a very shy, socially awkward child. He did, however, love fairy tales. His favorite was the legend of Lohengrin, a knight of the Holy Grail who is known as the Knight of the Swan because he arrived in Bavaria on a boat being pulled by a swan. He fell in love with Elsa, whose father had died and needed protection. When they married, he promised to protect the family’s lands. In return, Elsa had to promise to never ask him two questions: what is your name? where do you come from? They lived happily for many years, but eventually Elsa wanted to know the answers to these two questions. He told her, and then left her because she had broken her vow to him.
Visible from where we stood was a beautiful yellow castle. This was Ludwig’s family’s summer home. His parents lived in the main part of the castle; the boys were raised in the servant’s quarters. The interior is filled with paintings that tell the history and legends of Bavaria.
It was now time to start the long, steep hike up the mountainside to the castle. It is possible to take a horse and carriage ride to the top; there is also a city bus that will drop you above the castle. But, we wanted to hear about Ludwig, so stayed with Sarah and the tour group and walked up the hillside. She did a good job of breaking up the walk by telling us bits of the story at several points along the way, allowing us to catch our breath.
At age 15, Ludwig attended his first opera, Lohengrin and absolutely fell in love with it. He spent the next three years attending every production of the opera in Bavaria.
Ludwig’s father died when he was 18. Ludwig had never wanted to be king. His plan was to abdicate the throne to his younger brother, Otto. Unfortunately, his brother was only 15 at the time, and so could not yet be king, so Ludwig had no other choice but to become monarch.
One of the first things he did was to summon Richard Wagner to court. Ludwig became Wagner’s patron. He paid off Wagner’s massive debts and provided him with a place to live, which allowed him to complete Der Ring des Nibelungen (the Ring Cycle). But, in 1866, cabinet members forced Wagner out of Bavaria, though Ludwig and he remained friends.
Meanwhile, Bavaria went to war in 1866 and in 1870. Of course, Ludwig had no desire to ride into battle, so he sent Otto instead. Otto returned from war a changed man. He suffered from severe insomnia and depression which continued to worsen over the next ten years. He even spent 6 days in Munich thinking he was a dog. He was diagnosed by a psychologist with madness and was no longer fit to be king, even if Ludwig died with no heir.
So, Ludwig was now permanently stuck in a position he never wanted. He eventually started a romance and became engaged to Sophie (a cousin to Princess SiSi of Austria who was a good friend of Ludwig’s). Sophie was a big fan of Lohengrin as well. However, he kept postponing the marriage because his heart wasn’t in the relationship. The engagement was eventually cancelled, and Ludwig never married.
In the 1860’s, Ludwig’s attention turned to building his fairy tale castles. Three were constructed; he had plans for 4 more. Neuschwanstein is the most famous; it was started in 1869. The castle was designed by a stage designer that had worked in two of Wagner’s operas. Neuschwanstein is Ludwig’s dedication to his best friend, Wagner.
Ludwig was quite the micromanager – he continually changed his mind about how the castles should be constructed. He bankrupted his country paying for their construction and had to borrow $3 million. Even so, only 6 rooms in the entire castle were ever completed.
By the time he reached his 30’s, Ludwig was completely nocturnal. He only had a handful of personal servants; he had dismissed the rest. He would get up at 5 pm and eat breakfast, then meet with the cabinet secretary between 8 and 10 pm (this was the only time he spent ruling his country). Following that, he would go out for a carriage or sleigh ride, depending on the weather. These carriages/sleighs were decorated based on fairy tales. He also liked to dress up in costumes and have his portrait painted.
He loved to eat and was quite overweight in his later years. He really loved sweets, but never saw the dentist. His teeth rotted out; the few that remained caused him extreme pain. He treated the pain by drinking alcohol and taking opium. In the last year or so of his life, he was addicted to both.
Given his lack of leadership and his drug and alcohol problems, the cabinet talked his uncle, Luitpold, into taking over for Ludwig. Four psychologists were called in to make the determination that Ludwig was mad. Of course, none had ever met him nor examined him…
Ludwig was arrested, escaped, and fled to Neuschwanstein. The guards caught up with him there and took him to Schloss Berg, an 18 hour journey, where he was imprisoned. The following evening, he died under mysterious circumstances whilst out for a walk with his psychologist. To this day, no one knows what happened, but there are 16 different conspiracy theories about it.
By now, we had reached the castle. We thought we were done hiking up hill but were wrong; we continued going until we reached a viewpoint where we could take some pictures. The view from the top was lovely!
Our tour started promptly at 2:25 and lasted exactly 35 minutes. Those Germans are indeed known for their efficiency and promptness! I wish I could share pictures of the interior, but photography is not allowed. If you make the effort to get to the castle, it is definitely worthwhile to take the short tour.
After the tour, Clayton and I walked back down to town, briefly stopping for some warm Austrian donuts. They were quite tasty!
There were plenty of people that paid to take the horse and carriage ride back down the hill as well. We also saw this tired puppy that needed a lift:
We had a little bit of free time before the bus left at 4:30 to take us back to Munich. There is a nice café overlooking the lake, so we had a couple of beverages and relaxed until it was time to board.
We had a wonderful day with wonderful weather (not raining; not too hot) and a wonderful tour guide from Sandemans (booked through Viator). Ludwig may not actually have been mad, but he created a picture-perfect castle that is well worth a visit.