The fairy-tale castles built by Ludwig II, King of Bavaria – notably Neuschwanstein, Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee – are some of Bavaria’s most-visited attractions and this post brings you some of the stories behind them, highlighting what to look out for when you visit. They are all within an easy day-out distance from Munich and a link is given at the end to various tours from Munich which will take you out to one or more of them.
a little history
Ludwig II was King of Bavaria for over 20 years, from 1864 to 1886. He had many obsessions, including Wagner and extravagant décor, and he was able to live out both in the fairy-tale castles he had built in the countryside around Munich. As the introduction to an exhibition on him at London’s V&A Museum put it, Ludwig’s pursuit of an alternative reality took its most apparent and most extravagant form in his building projects.’ Let’s have a look at the three best-known castles he built.
The fairy-tale castle, Neuschwanstein, set in the Schwabian mountains of southern Bavaria, was Disney’s inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Ludwig II spent ten years having it rebuilt, sparing no expense and indulging every extravagant whim he could think of. The centrepiece of his bedroom, for example, was a magnificent carved walnut bed, and it led through a grotto with plaster stalactites and a real fountain to a winter garden with potted palms and orange trees where hummingbirds flew freely. The Throne Room’s central dome was a rich blue, festooned with golden stars and the throne he planned was to be of solid gold, silver and ivory, sitting under a gilded canopy, although he died before it could be finished.
The enormous 4th floor Festsaal was modelled on a medieval banqueting hall, but the walls were more contemporary, decorated with frescos of Ludwig’s favourite scenes from Wagner operas. Ludwig, very much a loner, liked to go on midnight excursions, driving a horse-drawn sleigh through the forest around Neuwchwanstein. A favourite destination was the Pollat Gorge Bridge, where he could watch the waterfall cascading down and enjoy the sight of his fairy-tale castle llt up against the night sky. For all the expense he’d incurred, it’s thought that Ludwig spent only 170 days at Neuschwanstein.
Linderhof was originally a little hunting lodge, but Ludwig vowed to transform it into a Renaissance-style palace which would ‘breathe the magnificence and imposing grandeur of the Royal Palace at Versailles.’ Of course, it had to have a Hall of Mirrors, and the rest of the décor was also hugely extravagant. In his biography of Ludwig, The Mad King, Greg King lists the Bourbon paintings, thick oriental carpets, cut crystal chandeliers and fireplace mantles of lapis lazuli, and writes that ‘across the tops of malachite, rosewood, ebony and mahogany consoles and bureaux, busts of Wagner, Marie Antoinette and Teutonic heroes stood next to Chinese vases filled with freshy cut flowers whose overpowering scents mingled with the roaring fires …..’
The gardens too were modelled on Versailles, with extravagant fountains, sections divided by sets of marble steps and an array of other-worldly pleasure areas such as the Venus Grotto, built to illustrate Wagner’s Tannhäuser opera, where Ludwig could row a golden swan-shaped boat across a lake to a grotto illuminated in ever-changing colours. He had a Hermitage built, especially to visit on Good Friday each year, directing his head gardener to plant a flowering meadow around it for the Easter weekend, even if it were snowing. Ludwig installed a Moorish Kiosk and when he saw a Moroccan House he liked on display in Vienna, he had it dismantled and brought to Linderhof.
Herrenchiemsee was also modelled on Versailles: look out for fleur-de-lys motif repeated in the décor throughout and for another Hall of Mirrors, this one longer than that at Versailles and requiring 70 servants to light up the 7,000 candles set along it each evening. In addition, there was a second, smaller Hall of Mirrors, a Dining Room with the world’s largest Meissen porcelain chandelier, a bedroom of carved and gilded woodwork, where the bed was carved with reliefs of Venus and Adonis and the walls were decorated with silk hangings depicting Louis XIV’s triumph over sin. Whatever Ludwig dreamed up, he insisted on having it transformed into reality.
But it was at Herrenchiemsee that the whole mad fantasy fell apart. When Ludwig discovered that workmen had tried to cut the vast expense he was incurring by building some of the ‘marble’ columns in cheap paste, he cried out in fury that ‘everything is false’, then left the building never to return. Begun in 1878, the castle was still unfinished when Ludwig died in 1886 and all building work stopped within weeks of his death. The castles, which had been such a drain on the kingdom’s finances, were eventually opened to the public and, ironically, have been a touristic money-spinner ever since.