The Fairy Tale in the Alps: An Afternoon at Neuschwanstein Castle

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Castles Germany
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Should I begin this post about Neuschwanstein Castle with once upon a time?

Like many children, I grew up with a deep appreciation for fairy tales.  And no, not the animated Disney films that propagated unrealistic standards of both love and physical attractiveness.  True to my bookworm self, I spent my childhood with my head buried in the fables of Grimm and Anderson, and when I reached my pre-teen years, I found myself addicted to the fantasy, feminist storytelling of Gail Carson Levine and Margaret Peterson Haddix.  My early love of history only fostered the obsession with all things medieval.

I first discovered Neuschwanstein when I was in the ninth grade.  While searching for the perfect background for my first laptop, I stumbled upon a European travel site offering free, downloadable wallpapers of various sights from around the continent.  A stylized, fairy tale-esque castle covered in snow caught my eye, and I installed the wallpaper thinking the place was, most likely, fictitious.  (I recall there being a caption, but hey, I couldn’t read any more German at the age of fourteen than I can now.)

A year or two later, I happened to be watching the Travel Channel when a special about Germany’s Bavaria region came on.  The featured attraction?  My laptop’s wallpaper, more commonly known as Neuschwanstein Castle!  Suddenly, I had a new dream destination to add to my ever-growing list of future travels.  I was only slightly disappointed to learn, later on, that the castle’s history was less than rich.  Neuschwanstein was built in the late nineteenth century by a Bavarian king, “Mad” Ludwig II.  Ludwig, a fiscally irresponsible dreamer, nearly bankrupted himself in his quest to build a residence that perfectly encapsulated his love of all things opulent and medieval  He died (perhaps murdered) shortly after the castle’s completion.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2015, when Kevin and I started to plan our four-day adventure throughout Austria and southern Germany.  Obviously, we would visit Neuschwanstein, even though the castle was slightly out of our way and had to be squeezed into an otherwise jam-packed day that would begin in Liechtenstein and end in Munich.  Kevin took full advantage of the autobahn’s liberal (read: nonexistent) speed limit to get us to the castle before closing, and while we didn’t have time for a tour, we had ample opportunity to walk up to the castle and explore the grounds.

At the base of the castles – oh, did I not mention there are two castles on site? – visitors can park for a small fee.  We visited in early September and paid six euros to park close to the trail that led to Neuschwanstein.  I’d say that, given the general parking situation in most of Western and Central Europe, this was a fair price.  I’m understandably cynical when it comes to parking in Europe.

castleI was particularly excited to view the castle from Mary’s Bridge (Marienbrucke), the classic overlook that provides visitors with a full view of the castle in all its Alpine glory.  If you’ve ever seen a photo of Neuschwanstein, chances are it was taken from Mary’s Bridge.  Imagine my disappointment – neigh, devastation – when I saw a sign proclaiming the bridge to be closed for construction.  I’d dreamed of visiting this castle for years; I didn’t want to take an expensive tour that wouldn’t even permit me to take pictures, rather, I craved the view that enchanted me every time I used my computer.  Along with the Eiffel Tower and the red roofs of Bologna, this castle had, throughout my adolescence, come to symbolize all of the travels I had yet to experience.  My teenage bedroom was covered in maps from National Geographic and photos cut from travel calendars as opposed to boy bands.  (Spoiler alert: I was a nerd in middle and high school.)

I can’t lie, it took more than a few minutes of complaining for me to move past the Mary’s Bridge letdown, but when I did, I realized that access to an over-photographed vantage point wasn’t essential to enjoy the beauty and history of the area.  Kevin and I then began the long trek up to Neuschwanstein, which, I must confess, is not for the faint of heart and surprisingly absent in guidebooks that feature the castle.

castleNow, to make it to Neuschwanstein, travelers face more of a hike than a stroll.  The switchback path is made of asphalt, not dirt, but the climb is steep and most will break a sweat.  The castle offers horse-drawn carriages, but I question the ethics of using horses in any non-rural farm setting, so I can’t recommend it as a viable option.  For folks who are up to the hike, the walk truly is wonderful.  Just when you start wondering how much further you have to go, you’ll start to notice the first hints of the castle peeking over the tops of the trees.  My advice is to not rush the climb, and keep an eye open for those first castle views.  They may not be the classic Mary’s Bridge panorama, but they are lovely and whimsical.

Even without a ticket, visitors are allowed to explore much of the castle’s exterior.  Timed tours gather in the outdoor foyer near the door to the castle, so prepare yourself for some crowds, but feel free to walk around and soak in the aesthetics.  In studying the castle’s architecture, one can glean just how much Ludwig longed for the fabled romance of the Middle Ages – without the incessant warfare, of course.  It is obvious to visitors that Neuschwanstein was never intended to see battle; this castle was for ornamentation purposes only.

For my readers who are fans of Disney, here’s some trivia for you: Walt Disney castlehimself actually visited Neuschwanstein Castle, and the sight inspired him to create Disney World’s fairy tale castle in its likeness.  My hunch is that’s why this castle complex, deep in the Bavarian Alps and quite a trek from Munich, remains so heavily touristed from visitors all over the world.

Unfortunately, like most popular sites in the U.S. and Europe, Neuschwanstein and the surrounding village of Schwangau, Germany cater to the almighty dollar – or euro, in this case.  Tacky shops are a dime a dozen and the constant influx of tourists come, take a few snapshots, and leave.  Don’t feel the need to pay for anything besides parking and a trip to the bathroom; don’t forget, you’re in Bavaria, so public restrooms are rarely free.  Simply enjoy the grounds, the architecture, and the natural beauty of the area.  There are food options near the castles, but nothing beyond standard tourist fare, so I’d suggest eating elsewhere or packing ahead for a picnic.

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Remember how I casually mentioned that Neuschwanstein has a neighboring castle?  Hohenschwangau may be less photogenic, but it’s more legitimate when talking about lived-in royal residences.  Hohenschwangau actually served as Ludwig’s childhood home and may also be toured by visitors, although it is not included in the Neuschwanstein ticket.  After a long day of travel, one might be relieved to learn that the walk from Neuschwanstein to Hohenschwangau is mostly downhill, so I recommend starting at Neuschwanstein.

Since we had limited daylight left and one more stop yet to make, Kevin and I didn’t do as thorough an exploration of Hohenschwangau, but I did manage to snap some photos of the castle from a distance.

Are there more authentic castles and palaces to visit in central Europe?  Absolutely.  Neuschwanstein is about as old as the Eiffel Tower and Ludwig barely resided in the palace, despite all of the political and fiscal drama he stirred up in its construction.  His insistence on funding Neuschwanstein at the expense of his personal coffers famously earned him the nickname “mad” and even possibly resulted in his murder.  However, the architecturally stunning Neuschwanstein and the underrated Hohenschwangau are certainly worth stop, especially since they are surrounded by gorgeous Alpine scenery…and for those who are able, the accompanying hike offers some much-needed exercise to burn off all those pretzels and apple strudels.

Visitor Tips:

  • If you’re interested in touring either Neuschwanstein or Hohenschwangau, be sure to arrive early in the morning or approximately forty-five minutes before closing in order beat the crowds.   This place gets packed in the summer, with thousands of tourists passing through daily.  Tickets can only be purchased at the base of the castle, and there is no option to pre-book online.  If you’d rather save the ten euros, you’re more than welcome to stroll and enjoy the expansive castle grounds.
  • Travelers with disabilities or limited mobility are encouraged to visit Neuschwanstein’s website to learn more about accommodations and issues regarding access.
  • Come prepared with plenty of water.  As I mentioned above, the hike to the castles is a little strenuous, and you don’t want to sour your vacation day with dehydration.

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