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The first time I  saw photos of Neuschwanstein Castle, I was just a kid who’d recently relocated to a small logging community in North Idaho.  Lounging on the brown shag carpet of our mobile home, I was flipping through an old National Geographic magazine from the stack my mom always had lying around the house.  A consummate dreamer who never had the chance to travel, she surrounded herself with articles about exotic cultures, bizarre landscapes, and all manner of spectacular wildlife.  Combined with her love of photography, National Geographic was an obvious choice with its full-page glossies of Iguazú Falls in Brazil and lions hunting on the Serengeti.  Lovingly collected from thrift stores, yard sales, and used book stores, her pile of magazines grew with age as we did.

It would be years before I learned the name of this famous castle.  As a kid, I only cared about the photos.  Back then, I didn’t know how to pronounce the funny name (Noish-von-shtine) and I didn’t know where it was in Germany until we moved to Switzerland.

Knowing our days in Switzerland were numbered, we spontaneously decided to visit on our way home from Trav’s job interview in Germany.  It would only add a couple of hours of drive time. After first missing the exit and ending up suddenly in Austria, we turned around and crossed back into Germany, hoping the castle would still be open by the time we arrived.

Hohenschwangau Castle
Hohenschwangau Castle in Bavaria, Germany

Hohenschwangau Castle in Germany is the childhood home of Ludwig II, who built Neuschwanstein Castle on an adjacent hill. Both castles are located in the village of Hohenschwangau and are visible from town.

The tiny village of Hohenschwangau is home to both Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau Castle.  The two castles share a single main ticket center, which isn’t located immediately at the entrance to either.  In an effort to divide and conquer since it was pushing 5 pm, I dropped Travis off to scope out the ticket situation and continued on in search of parking.  Throngs of tourists crowded around a horse-drawn carriage and advanced en masse down the main street, at times right down the center like a Wild West posse.  I carefully nosed the car through to the nearest paid parking lot.

Meeting up with Travis at the ticket office, we were briefly distracted by a fantastic motorcycle with custom Route 66 detailing.  For those not familiar with it, Route 66 is a famous highway in the US that opened in 1926 and linked Chicago with the California coast nearly 2500 miles (4000 km) to the west. Though much of the road has long since fallen out of use, been rerouted, or been replaced by multi-lane freeways, parts of it remain and are now famously referred to as “Historic Route 66.”  Though the highway’s heyday was before our time, we came to more fully appreciate it after living in New Mexico where we often found ourselves on segments of this fantastic highway that are now national scenic byways.

Little did we expect to see a motorcycle in Switzerland with Route 66 custom detailing.

As luck would have it, the ticket office was open until 5:30 so we nabbed a couple of the few remaining tickets for the last tour starting around 7 pm.  We briefly debated about staying so late since we still had a 4-5 hour drive home, but of course we decided to stay – we were at Neuschwanstein Castle!

Building in Bavaria with classic German architecture

Fantastic old building along the shores of Alpsee, Germany

Stroll Along the Alpsee

If you end up with some time to kill before your castle tour starts, we’d highly recommend a stroll along Alpseestraße to the edge of Alpsee.  The lake is stunning.

Alpsee, Germany

Alpsee between Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau Castles

Grateful that we had some time before our tour started, I nipped into the nearest WC (bathroom).

A word of caution: do NOT pay the 50 cents to use the public WC near the lake.  Just don’t do it.

The smell alone probably took a year off my life, and I have low standards, folks.  When I was a kid, we didn’t have running water or electricity for years, so I’m no stranger to an outhouse.  I’ve used some gnarly facilities in Central America, particularly Guatemala (no reflection on Guatemala, which is a superb place to visit).  However, DO thank the kind passerby who gestures frantically in broken English that your skirt is neatly tucked up into your panties, informing the castle’s 6,000 daily visitors that the day is “Saturday.”

Thank you, kind stranger!

Cheeks flaming, I was more than ready to skedaddle.  But first, another detour.  We were amazed to see iced coffee for sale.  Ice in Europe?!  We bought two, enjoying the unexpected addition of creamy vanilla ice cream balls swimming in our coffee.  The blissfully cold drink all but erased the memory of my recent indignity as we set off up the hill to the castle.

Trail to Neuschwanstein Castle

Tourists can opt for a carriage ride along the trail to Neuschwanstein.

Because the trail is heavily shrouded in trees, you won’t actually see the castle until you’re practically at its doorstep.  Rising up into the pale blue sky, it definitely bears a strong resemblance to Disneyland’s famous Sleeping Beauty Castle.  Built in the 1950s, the Disney castle drew heavily from elements of Neuschwanstein, as well as the  Château d’Ussé in France.

Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria

With mountain views behind the castle and lake views below, it couldn’t have been built in a more perfect spot.

View of Forggensee (Lake Forggen) and the countryside from Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

Passing the castle, we continued along the trail to Marienbrücke, the famous Queen Mary’s Bridge (named after Ludwig II’s mother), stopping to admire the castle’s fairytale towers and tiers of windows along the western face.

Neuschwanstein Castle, southern Germany

Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria, Germany

Neuschwanstein Castle, southern Germany

Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria, Germany

Though the hike to the bridge took us less than 10 minutes, it offered some of the best views of both castles and of the surroundings.  A viewpoint along the trail offered an impressive vista of Alpsee and Hohenschwangau Castle perched on its own hill far below.  From the village below, Hohenschwangau had looked immense crouched above us, but from Neuschwanstein, it was nothing but an inconsequential lump of molded rock, dwarfed by the natural landscape.

Alpsee & Hohenschwangau Castle from the trail to Marienbrücke, Germany

Not surprisingly, Marienbrücke was crowded with tourists.  Most stayed only long enough for a quick glimpse of the castle and a photo with their selfie stick, leaving en masse to catch the next tour (the one before ours).  Within minutes, the bridge was virtually empty.

Marienbrücke (Queen Mary's Bridge) in Germany

Marienbrücke (Queen Mary’s Bridge), Germany

View of Pöllat Gorge from Queen Mary's Bridge, Germany

View of Pöllat Gorge from Queen Mary’s Bridge, Germany

This incredible castle, which means “New Swanstone Castle” in English, is not even very old.  Under the orders of a young Ludwig II of Bavaria, construction began in 1869 on the same site where two more modest castles once stood.  As a child, Ludwig II lived at Hohenschwangau Castle.  As an adult, he was desperate to build a castle more grand than his father’s (who doesn’t?!).

“…this castle will be in every way more beautiful and habitable than Hohenschwangau further down, which is desecrated every year by the prose of my mother; they will take revenge, the desecrated gods, and come to live with Us on the lofty heights, breathing the air of heaven.” (source)

Crossing the bridge, we continued up a side trail for a few minutes to a clearing for a slightly different view. Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

After less than 15 years of construction, Ludwig II moved into his new palace before it was even complete.  As the work continued around him, he made frequent changes to the plans, always in keeping with his desire to imitate the grand castles of the Middle Ages.

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

What I found most impressive about the castle, though, far more than its size, luxurious fineries, or even its jaw-dropping location, was its unique style.  This quickly became apparent after we hiked down from Marienbrücke and started our 35 minute audio tour, which was far too short.

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

The numerous paintings, sculptures, furniture – all were clearly a reflection of Ludwig’s appreciation for art and music, his eye for detail, and a singular love for German composer Richard Wagner.  Ludwig II didn’t just want to build an impressive castle; he wanted to build a home where he could retreat from the world and live in his imagination, almost as a child would.  He wanted a home fitting of the heroes of days gone by.  We saw the ever-present swan motif repeated throughout nearly every room, often intermingled with scenes from Wagner’s operas, particularly the tragedy of Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and his silver swan, and the love story of Tristan and Isolde.

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

Sadly, interior photography is banned so I don’t have any of our own photos to share.

The most incredible rooms were Ludwig’s own bedroom, featuring frescoes from Tristan and Isolde;  the Throne Hall with its unusual “circle of life” mosaic floor and golden staircase; the Singer’s Hall with chandeliers shaped like crowns along the entire upper floor; the Grotto, a room built to look like a cave; and the Conservatory, a bright sun-room boasting tall arched windows, huge plants, and a gravel floor, all overlooking the lake and fields far, far below.  It’s really unfortunate that the tour was so short, as I could have spent hours wandering through each room at my own pace.  (Travis is likely grateful he wasn’t subjected to that.)

Replica of Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

The great tragedy of this castle is that Ludwig II was never able to fully enjoy it.  At the time of his death, it remained unfinished.  Not only did Wagner, Ludwig’s hero, die before he was able to visit the castle, but Ludwig himself only spent a matter of days there before his untimely death in 1886.  After miring Bavaria in debt with “frivolous” projects like his beloved Neuschwanstein Castle, he was dethroned and declared insane based on little more than anecdotal evidence from his servants.

Portraits of Ludwig II on display at Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany. Check out those eyes!

While in official custody at Berg Castle on June 13th (my birthday), Ludwig II took a stroll along the shores of Lake Starnberg with Dr. Gudden, one of the very same doctors who had determined his mental instability.  Late that same evening, the bodies of both men were discovered floating in the lake in the pouring rain.  Dr. Gudden’s body showed evidence of physical assault, but Ludwig’s body was unmarred.  His death was ruled a suicide, yet an autopsy revealed his lungs had not been submerged in water.

Marienbrücke from Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

It’s ironic that this enigmatic, reclusive king who once proclaimed, I want to remain an eternal mystery to myself and others did in fact receive his greatest wish.

Know Before You Go
  • Neuschwanstein is one of the most visited castles in Europe with over 1.4 million visitors a year, or as many as 6000 on a busy day.  Prepare for lots of tourists and long lines.
  • It is possible to visit the castle and walk around the outside for free, but you can only tour the interior as part of a guided tour.  We paid €12 per adult ticket.
  • Tickets can be purchased in advance through an online reservation system but still have to be picked up at the ticket office in the village of Hohenschwangau, not at Neuschwanstein Castle itself.  A reservation fee of €1.80 per person is charged. The ticket center sells tickets for tours the same day only.
  • Photography (even without flash) is not allowed inside.
  • Marienbrücke (Queen Mary Bridge) is closed for refurbishment through Nov 15, 2015.   You can still visit the castle, but this bridge offers (in my opinion) the best exterior views of the castle.  It’s about a 10 minute walk from the castle.  If your heart is set on seeing it, check their website for closures before your trip.
  • Parking is available for motorcycles, cars, and even RVs in 4 large lots not far from the ticket office.  We paid €6 to park all day.
  • Dogs are not allowed in the castle, but we saw quite a few small dogs on leash on the trails up to it and around it.
  • A useful map shows the village of Hohenschwangau, both castles, parking, etc.  When you buy tickets, they’ll also provide you with a map.
  • Official website for Neuschwanstein Castle (EN, DE)
Map of Neuschwanstein Castle

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Well…. obviously anyone who loved Wagner that much had to be a little crazy… 😉