During my stay in Munich in April of 2014, I could not pass up the opportunity to fulfill one of my lifelong dreams – to visit Neuschwanstein Castle, a fortification I had been first drawn to as a Disney-crazed child. Back then, while watching Sleeping Beauty and other fairy tales, I never imagined I would someday see it with my own eyes. After I moved to Czechoslovakia in 1991, I quickly became a castle addict, and Neuschwanstein always ranked high on my list of the places I wanted to visit.
I also had desired to see Linderhof Palace for many years. When I was nine years old, on vacation with my parents near Munich, my Mom and Dad went on a trip to Linderhof Palace while I opted to stay with our family friends and play with my ever-growing collection of smurfs. As an adult I would long to see the opulent Bavarian palace.
I took Gray Line Munich Tours on a one-day excursion to both locations. While waiting in line for the bus to arrive, I met two Americans, the retired couple of Gary and Brenda. I was always thankful to meet kind people during my travels.
However, they were not the only nice people I met. A 17-year old American high school senior named Caleb sat next to me. When I told him I lived in Prague, he apologized that he had never heard of that place. It was clear to me that Caleb was intelligent. I wondered how much emphasis the American school system – Utah, in this instance – put on teaching students about events in Central and Eastern Europe – not much, it seemed. That was a big mistake, in my opinion.
On a whirlwind one-week trip to Europe with his parents and four siblings, Caleb was set on becoming a pediatrician. It was rare that I met teenagers who were motivated and focused. I recalled teaching some classes of teenagers English in Prague. Some read magazines in the back of the classroom or slept with their heads on the table during the entire class. Others just sat there, not doing any work, just hoping knowledge would come to them without having to make any effort. It made me so happy to meet a teenager like Caleb. Of course, I had taught some motivated teenagers, but not many.
Our guide, Lucy, provided us with background information about Bavarian King Ludwig II, who had the palace and the castle built. King Ludwig II created his own fantasy world because he was dismayed that he could not be an absolute monarch. He really did not have great power in the government, which was administered in Berlin. Ludwig II could not accept his royal post in a constitutional monarchy. He idolized French King Louis XIV, who led France for 72 years as the most powerful decision-maker in that realm. The Bavarian king also adored Richard Wagner’s operas, and art dealing with themes from the German composer’s works dominated Neuschwanstein. Soon after Ludwig became king, the government experienced a financial crisis, and Ludwig II withdrew from society, hiding in his own special, imaginative and theatrical realm.
On trial on June 8, 1886, the king was declared mentally ill and legally incompetent to rule. The statements for his defense were not taken into consideration. His death was mysterious. It seemed to jump out of a Sherlock Holmes whodunit. Five days after hearing the verdict, Ludwig took a walk with his doctor. He did not have any of his guards accompany them. What happened next? Nobody knows. Later both bodies were found in the water. The mystery may never be solved as the Wittelsbach clan will not allow Ludwig II’s corpse to be exhumed.
The only palace of Ludwig II that was completed during his reign, Linderhof Palace was designed according to small French summer palaces. Ludwig spent eight years there. The moment I saw Linderhof, I was gaping at its Baroque façade. Yet even the beautiful exterior did not prepare me for what I saw inside. To say the Second Rococo style interior was ornate was a drastic understatement. I was dizzy, overwhelmed by the lavishness of the palace.
We walked up a majestic marble staircase flanked by two lions sporting the Bavarian coat-of-arms. First came the Music Room, adorned with a richly decorated gold-with-white harmonium, officially termed an Aeolodicon pianino. It resembled an upright piano. I tried to imagine watching Ludwig play Wagner’s compositions on it. He must have been so passionately moved by the music as if in a trance. Actually, Ludwig had presented the harmonium to Richard Wagner as a gift, but the composer had rejected it.
The Music Room was sometimes also referred to as the Western Tapestry Room, though there were no tapestries in the space. The Rococo wall hangings only looked like tapestries. I noticed a life-size figure of a peacock; Ludwig had adored peacocks. The stucco ceiling adorned with gilded gold leaf also captured my attention.
In the Silver Waiting Room there was an impressive picture of Versailles. I knew that Ludwig had been captivated by that French chateau. I thought back to my trip to Versailles, that warm February afternoon about six years ago. I had been on cloud nine. The Small Throne Room was opulent, too with a Bavarian coat-of-arms embroidered above the throne. I liked the second waiting room because it was decorated in purple silk that gave the space a certain vitality.
Ludwig’s favorite color, blue, dominated the King’s Bedroom. The bed and canopy were covered in blue velvet. The combination of dark blue with gold embroidery strongly appealed to me. The bed was huge – eight feet long. Ludwig had been 6 foot 4 inches tall. The half-ton chandelier could hold 108 candles. The frames of the Meissen mirrors were decorated with figures of birds, angels and flowers, for instance. Apollo greeted visitors from the ceiling painting.
Since Ludwig was a recluse, the Dining Room was set for only one person. It made me think about how many times I ate lunch alone and how I actually enjoyed being by myself in a restaurant, not hurrying through the meal, sipping tea while reading a book or studying a foreign language. Everybody in the Czech Republic thinks it is so strange to see a woman seated alone. I wondered if Ludwig enjoyed eating alone, too.
However, I read that often there were four or five places at his table because Ludwig often had imaginary guests, among them King Louis XIV of France. (No, I have never had imaginary guests while at lunch) The dining room table could be lowered to the ground floor, similar to a dumb waiter. Large Meissen vases also adorned the space. I recalled the collection of Meissen that had impressed me so much in Dresden’s Museum of Porcelain the previous year. I noticed a pineapple at the top of the Meissen chandelier. It was a delicate touch.
The East Tapestry Room did not consist of any tapestries, either. Just like the West Tapestry Room, it flaunted wall paintings rendered on coarse canvas that resembled tapestries. The wall paintings took on themes from Ovid’s book The Metamorphoses. Apollo and Aurora made appearances in the space, too.
The Hall of Mirrors was breathtaking. This was where Ludwig II used to settle down with a book about France. Or he would peruse poems written by Friedrich Schiller or Alexander Pope. The Bavarian king even let his pet chamois loose in the room for a while but put a stop to it when the exotic pet broke a mirror.
The ornate golden mirrors gave the impression that I was looking down an endless corridor, as if I were looking into a seemingly never-ending hallway I had to walk through to get to the next stage in my life. It was beautiful and terrifying at the same time. I tried to imagine the room at night during Ludwig’s reign. It must have looked so dramatic and eerie with so many candles burning. As if that wasn’t enough to gawk at, there were also 94 vases decorating the walls. (There used to be 97, but three were stolen.) Nymphenberg style porcelain rounded out the room. The most valuable object in the palace was the white chandelier carved with Indian ivory – a truly exquisite piece.
Soon the tour ended, but we still had time to take a look at the gardens, though not to examine them closely. The 19th century garden was a mishmash of Renaissance and Baroque styles, featuring three terraces, cascades, and wooden pavilions, for instance. There was a grotto, a Moorish pavilion and a chapel on the premises, among other places. We saw the gold-plated bronze fountain featuring the goddess Flora, who was accompanied by cherubs. A fountain spewed water 30 meters into the air. I would have loved to have seen the grotto, but there was not time.
Next we were off to the castle I had dreamed about for decades. We had to walk up a steep hill to get there, and it reminded me of the approach to Karlštejn Castle near Prague. On the way I admired captivating views of the countryside. Hohenschwangau Castle, where Ludwig’s parents had lived, was visible, too. I wondered if Ludwig enjoyed living so near to his mother or if sometimes it was too close for comfort.
Neuschwanstein Castle, was built from 1869 to 1892 in Romanesque Revival style and is still unfinished. The interiors were completed by 1886. Ludwig paid for the castle’s construction with his private funds, and he borrowed some money for his fantasy home. The 19th century was a popular time for castle building or rebuilding, and the historicism style which copied older styles was trendy. Ludwig II moved into this fairy tale abode in 1884, but he only actually lived there 172 days.
Ludwig’s creation looks like a castle should look, I thought to myself, passing through the gate sporting the Bavarian coat-of-arms. Towers, turrets, balconies, pinnacles, gables, sculptures, frescoes – the exterior seemed to resemble a stage set. In fact, the plan for the castle was made by a stage designer – Christian Jank, though Eduard Riedel served as the architect. I loved the simple geometric Romanesque forms and the Gothic style that made me feel as if I had stepped back into the Middle Ages. I almost expected to see knights jousting in the courtyard or King Ludwig II reading a declaration from a balcony. Ludwig, indeed, had transformed the theatrical world into a reality of marble, brick, limestone and sandstone, for instance. The castle courtyard was even based on a stage set from Lohengrin, a medieval fairy tale opera by Wagner. I loved the rugged cliffside location that was so romantic.
The main courtyard consisted of two levels. The Rectangular Tower in the upper courtyard soared 45 meters into the sky. The Knights’ House encompassed three storeys while the massive Palas was five storeys high. After admiring the exterior for about a half hour, it was time for the tour to start. I was so enamored with the exterior and could not wait to see what the inside beheld.
The Throne Room had no real throne, but it did hold many other artistic delights. The space was designed in the style of a Byzantine Church. A rendition of the sun dominated the cupola. Beneath it were figures symbolizing pre-Christian cultures, such as those of Rome and Greece. On one wall there was a large painting of Jesus Christ with six European holy kings below him. I spotted the Czech patron saint, Wenceslas, among them. On another wall Saint George was slaying the dragon. The 12 Apostles also made appearances. The room was decorated with red silk and gold embroidery. The gilt bronze chandelier weighed 2,000 pounds and was four meters high. Made of Bohemian colored glass, it held 96 candles. Even the floor was a masterpiece, decorated with motifs of animals and plants.
What impressed me the most in the King’s Bedroom was the Neo-Gothic bed’s richly carved wood canopy of pinnacles that resembled Gothic church spires. A Madonna and Child painting adorned the headboard. The sink was shaped like a swan, a design inspired by Lohengrin, the Swan Knight in Wagner’s opera. Ludwig had fantasized about becoming this knight of the Holy Grail. The furnishings in the room featured blue silk embroidered with designs of lions and swans.
The wall paintings depicted scenes from Wagner’s operas. They were so colorful and vibrant. In the King’s Bedroom scenes from Tristan and Isolde decorated the walls. I recalled learning in college that the score of this romantic opera by Wagner steered Western music in a new direction, away from tonal harmony. The castle’s guide told us that it was in this very room that Ludwig was informed that he had been declared mentally ill and could no longer rule.
The Dressing Room featured an illusionistic ceiling painting of a garden scene. The curtains were made of violet silk, richly ornamented, embroidered with gold. The king’s jewelry box was impressive, too. The murals depicted scenes from the lives and verses of Walther von der Vogelweide, the most prominent Middle High German lyric poet who lived from 1170 to 1230 and Hans Sachs, a 16th century poet, singer and playwright.
The Living Room was all about Lohengrin. Wall paintings inspired by the opera dominated the walls. A swan figure featured prominently in the room. Even the door handles were shaped as swans, an exquisite detail, I mused. A vase was swan-shaped, too.
There was an artificial cave grotto, too. It resembled a stage set for one of Wagner’s operas. When Ludwig ruled, it had been equipped with electric lighting and even had a waterfall. The guide told us that, though the castle had a medieval appearance, it incorporated modern technology of that time period. There were two telephone lines, one to the post office and another to Ludwig’s mother. The toilets had automatically flushed, and the stove had modern features. There was running hot water, too.
In the Study the wall paintings were based on the Tannhauser opera in which Knight Tannhauser had been obsessed with Venus, caught under her spell. Then he wants to marry Elizabeth, but he cannot tell her about his evil deed. In a singing contest he praises Venus, and the others are disgusted with him. Tannhauser takes off for Rome to ask the Pope for forgiveness. The ending is not very uplifting. Both Tannhauser and Elizabeth die.
Soon we came to the most important room, the Singers’ Hall. I gazed in awe at the 96 pine wood panels with paintings of the zodiac. Scenes from the legend of Parsifal, a knight who searches for the Holy Grail, adorned the walls. I also admired the coffered ceiling. Interestingly, the space was not furnished during the king’s lifetime.
I was flabbergasted at the unique and lively interior. It was as if I were walking through a dream. I could not believe that these fairyland furnishings were for real. It was like something out of a Disney film filled with knights, kings, bards and maidens in distress. Then we went down many stairs, stopping on the way to take photos of some of the most breathtaking views I have ever seen.
Finally, we reached the kitchen, so large for making meals for one person. It had groined vaulting, and the stove occupied the central area. There was a roasting oven, a small spit and a fish tank, for instance.
Below it we came upon one of the most beautiful decorated tiled stoves I had set my eyes on – it was made of colored glazed tiles from 1880, designed by Julius Hofmann. The exquisite object resembled a tower and was crowned with a lantern dome.
It was hard to leave the castle of my dreams and say goodbye to all those turrets, towers and gables. I was happy that I had realized one of my dreams, and I had just visited two of the most fascinating places I had ever seen. On the bus I was seated next to friendly people with Brenda and Gary to one side and Caleb on the other. I knew I would always remember this beautiful, sunny day. I felt as if nothing could go wrong.
Something did, though, but not to us. At about 6 pm our bus had to stop on a road in the Bavarian countryside because there was an accident ahead. Traffic was at a standstill in both directions. I saw a motorcyclist on the ground, his leg oddly twisted. He was trying to move his head up, so he was conscious. The driver of another stopped vehicle was seated Indian-style next to him. Someone from another car hurried to the injured man and covered him with a blanket.
Pieces of his motorcycle littered the road. It had been smashed to smithereens. The car he had hit head-on was in a field where a farmer rode on his tractor as if nothing had happened. It took 10 minutes for the ambulance to arrive. The police also came onto the scene. Caleb had finished his first aid training a year earlier and explained how the bystanders and then the ambulance workers were treating the motorcyclist.
Then I felt guilty for enjoying my day and realized once again how life can change at any moment. Just think how that moment of impact with the car changed that motorcyclist’s life. Who knew if he would walk again? What if he died on the way to the hospital? What if he went into a coma and never woke up? And here I was, having fulfilled a life-long dream, still overwhelmed by the breathtaking sights and remarkable tours of the palace and castle. And I was surrounded by nice people I had been lucky to meet.
Our guide Lucy approached each person, apologizing, saying there was nothing she could do and asking if people had any urgent connections to make in Munich. She stayed calm and knew how to handle unexpected situations – that was clear. I had been so impressed with her during this trip. That was something else to be thankful for – I had had a great guide who introduced me to these amazing places.
It turned out that we only had to wait about an hour before resuming our trip back to Munich.
When we got there, we said goodbye and I saw Caleb’s father gathering his family in front of the bus. I mentioned to him that he had such a wonderful son, so intelligent and so intrigued with the world, determined and willing to learn. I told him how I had come across teenagers who were lazy, rude and lacked any sort of motivation or interest in gaining knowledge. I had tears in my eyes as I spoke to him. I was that moved by meeting a teenager who I am sure would make the most of the bright future ahead of him.
I was so exhausted that, while walking back to my pension, I tripped in the middle of a street. The cars were stopped, but I fell on my knees and the joints of three fingers. My knees were sore, and my joints were bleeding. Still, I was able to walk without any pain, I had not fallen on my face and my glasses were not broken. I felt very lucky and very thankful.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.