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The Fairy Tale Castle

June 12, 2015




Most fairy tales have a dark side, and the story of the world’s most famous fairytale castle, the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, is no exception. Neuschwanstein has a dark side that is easy to overlook in the blinding light of stunning aerial photos and postcards of this painfully beautiful building. But the day of our visit was overcast; a moody breeze was blowing down from the Alps, underscoring the unhappy fate of the man responsible for our visit.


That man was Ludwig II, the handsome and moody young king who came to the Bavarian throne at the age of eighteen. Ludwig was not close to his parents and shared a temperament with his eccentric grandfather, who was forced to abdicate after an affair with notorious singer and femme fatale Lola Montez. Ludwig had little interest in governing, and became a figurehead after the unification of Germany during the 1870’s. He was an athlete (an excellent swimmer) a lover of art and music, and probably gay. Believing he’d been born in the wrong era, he found sanctuary in myths and stories of heroic knights and fanciful exploits. The great love of his life seems to have been a spiritual connection with composer Richard Wagner.



Ludwig II of Bavaria at eighteen


At an early age, Ludwig became enchanted with Wagner’s work, and without the young king’s financial support, the composer might have been hounded into debtor’s prison without ever penning his greatest operas. Ludwig challenged himself to make tangible Wagner’s heroic world of Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and the Ring Cycle. To achieve this task, he spent more money than was at his disposal.


In spite of nearly bankrupting his country to finance building projects, Ludwig was popular with his people, often riding out into the countryside to engage commoners and show an interest in their lives. The stuffy Bavarian nobility were less fond of their dreamy king who spent money recklessly and shunned crowds and courtly duties.


Today, Ludwig is known primarily as the builder of Neuschwanstein Castle, although it isn’t a castle at all. Castles were built for defense; Neuschwanstein is a pleasure palace, a fantasy unlike anything on Earth. Various architectural elements have been combined in an eccentric yet harmonious manner to create a visual thrill, an image of soaring whimsy and enchantment. It is an over-the-top manifestation of Wagnerian imagery, although it’s reasonable to think that more people today are familiar with Ludwig’s castle than Wagner’s operas.



Work continued for seventeen years, but the project was so huge that few rooms, with the exception of the throne room—patterned in gold and blue with Byzantine sentiments recast with Germanic motifs—were completed. Neuschwanstein was left unfinished when the king, nearing forty, was deposed and removed from the castle. His stay at Neuschwanstein lasted less than six months.



Photos weren’t permitted inside during our tour, but I was struck by how cold and gloomy the rooms were; fireplaces were installed merely for show; electrical heating (innovative at the time) was planned but never installed.


Ludwig was insistent that no image of himself be shown at Neuschwanstein, although a small bronze bust of the king appears at the entrance of the tour. After being deposed, the king and his doctor were found in an Alpine lake, both dead. The king, who you will remember was an excellent swimmer, was found drowned in three feet of water. The doctor had been bludgeoned to death, and Ludwig was deemed a suicide, even though the king had never exhibited violent or suicidal tendencies. His body was hastily buried, with questions about his death persisting to this very day.


Bavaria can thank Ludwig for the booming tourist industry provided by his castles, giving travelers something to do other than guzzle beer. On the day of our visit, foul weather wasn’t stopping thousands of tourists from visiting the castle, as they do every day.


Interesting that future dreamer Walt Disney would pattern his Sleeping Beauty Castle after this particular building, and sad that the tale of Ludwig II of Bavaria didn’t have a happy “Disney” ending. Still, solace can be found in the fact that while happiness is elusive, some troubled souls have managed to make their dreams last forever.      




Neuschwanstein on a clear day


Very nice, Steve. I loved the story and the pictures make me want to go there. Was just the first picture yours or did you go back on a better day? I bet inside was fantastic albeit gloomy.
By: Linda on June 12, 2015
quite an impressive structure that never quite made it to fruition. interesting historical gent.
By: TexWisGirl on June 12, 2015
More stuff I never knew!!
By: fishducky on June 12, 2015
This is a somewhat common story where a royal spends more than he has to build monuments to himself. So many castles to see and so little time!
By: Tabor on June 12, 2015
We may have been within sight of that castle but we didn't stop to visit it. I wish we had. Thanks for the story, Stephen.
By: Catalyst on June 12, 2015
A fascinating tale, beautifully told. As you always do.
By: Mitchell is Moving on June 12, 2015
It soars toward the sky, but its history is definitely earth-bound. I took the tour, and I remember a tiny bridge over a deep cavern...totally frightening but with a great view. Thanks for the background; I'd forgotten whatever I did know, which wasn't much!
By: Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma on June 12, 2015
Yes, i remember this. Beautiful from the outside, but the reality of living there is no fairy tale.
By: mimi on June 12, 2015
I adore castles! Thanks for sharing all the pics. I guess Ludwig did his share of "fan-girling" over Wagner. Terrible how he died though. Reminds me of that Russian Czar and his whole family...
By: Lexa Cain on June 12, 2015
Absolutely incredible!
By: Diane Laney Fitzpatrick on June 12, 2015
BRAVO! Love the castle, loved the tale. I hope this vacation was a Castlepalooza!
By: Val on June 12, 2015
I never knew the history behind this "enchanted castle"....sad story- probably more to it than we shall ever know. Thanks for educating us! And hope you aren't having too much jet lag! Cheers!
By: Kathe W. on June 12, 2015
You're making me homesick now! :-)
By: Pixel Peeper on June 12, 2015
There my have been some odd parts to this castle but the castle really suits the setting.
By: red on June 12, 2015
What a sight and story. I bet you have many photos of this enchanting building.
By: Daniel LaFrance on June 12, 2015
What a beautifully distinctive castle, however poor Ludwig and his Doctor.
By: John on June 13, 2015
Wow! Pixel used to live in a castle. Interesting history lesson as always.
By: cranky on June 13, 2015
interesting tale.
By: Ellen Abbott on June 13, 2015
That majestic backdrop and imaginative design certainly make for a iconic scene. I wonder who was Ludwig's Julia Morgan, the woman who designed and built our neighboring Hearst Castle?
By: Tom Cochrun on June 13, 2015
Interesting ... those Germans were a weird bunch of people weren't they.
By: Tom Sightings on June 13, 2015
Unbelievable that such a castle really exists. There are vain people on this planet but this one beats quite a few of them. That said, it is beautiful.
By: The Blue Grumpster on June 14, 2015
Wow, that would really be some sight to see in person. I am really glad the Allies did not destroy it (simply out to spite) during WWII.
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on June 15, 2015
I could stare at these photos all day. What a beautiful piece of architectural history! Sad story but I'm so thankful you shared it with us. I learned something new. Too bad you couldn't take pictures inside. :-(
By: Bouncin Barb on June 15, 2015
Nicely done and probably the largest castle I've ever seen in my life!
By: Michael Manning on June 19, 2015

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