The Real-life Disney Castle
Just under two hours’ drive south of Munich, nestled into the Bavarian Alps, stands Germany’s very real fairytale castle: Schloss Neuschwanstein. Perched upon a jutting lump of rock, the castle is stunning from the first moment you glimpse it. A vision of glorious white limestone jumps out at you, set against the dark hills and forests that frame it. Your first impression is one of disbelief. It’s not that it looks odd in any way. It is dramatic and has towers seemingly coming out of every inch of its walls. But it is in proportion, and though it looks precarious, the castle is clearly sitting on the mountain. You can just about convince yourself that it isn’t actually floating in the air. The thing is, it just looks almost too
like what you dream a castle should look like somehow. It is the very picture of a child’s imagination of a castle. There’s a very good reason as to why: The castle acted as the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle. So you have seen a version of the castle numerous times throughout your life. Aside from this, Neuschwanstein has appeared in numerous films (like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
and The Great Escape
) and has been visited by more than 61 million people since it opened to the public in 1886. Yet, there is still an aura of mystery about Neuschwanstein. But it’s a mystery well worth the drive. Here are some things you might not know about the castle (and some things you should definitely know before visiting!)
How to Get to Neuschwanstein
If coming from Munich, you should leave at least two hours to drive down to Neuschwanstein. Most of the drive is on the Autobahn. The last section cuts away from the main roads and winds up towards the mountains through gorgeous scenery. Head for the town of Füssen, and then take the turnoff for Hohenschwangau. Here you will find another beautiful castle. This was the original home of Ludwig’s family, and the young King (well, he was a prince at the time) was born here.
By Public Transport
Though it is possible to reach Neuschwanstein by public transport, it’s not that easy. Get the train from Munich to Füssen, then get a bus to Hohenschwangau (the small town Neuschwanstein is next to). You should get off at the stop “Hohenschwangau Neuschwanstein Castles, Schwangau”.
With a Tour Group
If you don’t have access to a car, or if the idea of driving on the notoriously hair-raising Autobahns scares you, then your best bet is to join a bus tour in Munich. You can get day trips from the Bavarian capital down to Neuschwanstein easily enough, and most leave from the Hauptbahnhof (main station). You can get tours just of Neuschwanstein, but the best option is to go on one of the trips that also includes a trip to the nearby palace of Linderhof. Linderhof is another of Ludwig’s creations, and although much smaller than he fairytale dream castle, it is a perfectly proportioned palace in miniature and well worth a visit in its own right. Tours should cost 50-60€. Be aware that they will last all day, so don’t make any plans for the afternoon. But don’t worry, you won’t be left feeling like you have wasted a day!
What to Do When You Arrive in Hohenschwangau
Get Your Ticket
If you are with a tour group, then your tickets will be sorted for you. If you are traveling independently, then the first thing you need to do upon arriving is head to the ticket office. This is well signposted from Hohenschwangau, as is parking. The main problem with Neuschwanstein is its popularity. You can only view the castle as part of a tour, and so the number of visitors is somewhat limited. Especially in the summer, it is possible that all the tours for that day will be sold out before lunchtime. You are normally able to book tickets in advance online, and you really should do this to save yourself some hassle. If not, you are best to head there early in the morning. The thing is, this is a blessing. Because you really will want to spend several hours at the castle.
Climb the Hill to the Castle
Once you have your tickets and know which tour you will be joining, you are next faced with a choice: Do you walk up the steep hill to the castle, do you take a horse-drawn carriage up to the castle gates, or do you take the shuttle bus up most of the hill? Now, obviously, there is something pretty apt about approaching a fairytale castle in style. Sitting in a carriage you can really let your imagination run wild as you return to your very own dream palace. But really the best option is to take the bus up. It is a far cheaper option. It also saves one hell of a steep walk.
What to do at Neuschwanstein
If you choose to take the bus, you’re also in luck, as it will take you right to the Marienbrücke. And this is really a must see. The Marienbrücke (Mary’s bridge) is named after Ludwig’s mother. It spans a deep gorge to one side of the castle and offers one of the most spectacular views you will ever see. It is from this bridge that the most famous view of the castle can be seen. I am terrified of heights, so I can sympathize with anyone who thinks they should maybe give this a miss. On my second visit, I spent ten minutes hyperventilating and lost about half of my body weight in panicked sweating before I could be persuaded to step out on to what can only be described as a suspiciously old-looking wooden bridge. But my breathlessness wasn’t caused by fear for long. There really are no words for the impression that view can make on you. So I won’t even try. You just have to go and see it for yourself.
View of Neuschwanstein from Marienbruecke. Photo by Fraser Bonar
Enjoy a Tour
Once you have successfully torn yourself away from the bridge, it is just a short walk to the castle gates. Here you will join your tour and be shown around the wondrous interior by one of the very knowledgeable guides. I can say with certainty that your guide will be passionate about Neuschwanstein. The Bavarians have really taken the castle and the man who built it to their hearts. This wasn’t always the case, however.
Learn About Bavaria’s Conspiracy-Theory
During his reign, Ludwig took very little interest in politics and tended to shun the court in Munich. This together with his habit of building extravagant palaces in the countryside did little to win him favor with many of the politicians in the capital. It was believed by many (and still by some today) that Ludwig was using public money in order to finance his building sprees. This wasn’t actually the case. But what was true was that he was rapidly bankrupting the royal family and taking huge loans in order to fulfill his architectural dreams. The castle as you see it today—magnificent as it is—is, in fact, far from finished. The reason for this has entered into Bavarian history and legend. After he had spent only 11 nights in the castle, Ludwig was arrested. Deemed to be insane, and unfit to rule, he was taken from the castle. Taken by escort towards Munich, he was held overnight in an old castle on the shores of the Starnbergersee (Lake Starnberg). He went out for a late evening walk along the shore. It was a walk that was to be his last. His body was found a few meters from the edge of the lake, floating in the water. His death was never explained completely, and while no-one was ever held accountable, it is popularly believed that he was murdered on behalf of his political critics in Munich. There is a small and modest memorial to him near the site of his death and a cross, standing in the water, marks the spot where his body was found. Ludwig, the Märchenkönig (fairytale King) entered into the history of his land. Though he may not have been popular in life, his legacy—and moreover—his castles have come to be symbols for Bavaria itself.
Enjoy the Beauty
Neuschwanstein was his greatest creation. It stands as one of the most spectacular buildings in the world. And this is all without its tallest tower, its chapel, and with many of the rooms far from finished. There are many stories that can be told about this wondrous place, but the stories will never compare to the experience and aura of the place. All that really needs to be said is this: you will not know the magic of Neuschwanstein until you visit it.