I traveled to Herrenchiemsee on a full-day excursion offered by Gray Line in Munich, the city where I was staying. I had been so impressed with Neuschwanstein and Linderhof Palace that I longed to see more Bavarian castles. Herrenchiemsee’s location on an island made it sound remote and romantic.
First, we took two boats to the Island of Fraueninsel, also called Frauenchiemsee or Ladies’ Island, a tranquil environment of 38.8 acres with 300 inhabitants and no crowds. The church with the distinctive onion-shaped tower was constructed in the 11th or 12th century during Romanesque times. The archway around the door dated back to that era. Romanesque frescoes inside the church hailed from 1130. The interior also included Gothic and Baroque characteristics. During the 14th century the flat wooden ceilings of the three naves were changed into star-shaped and net rib vaulting. A new high altar was added during the Gothic period as well.
Even though fires broke out in the convent during 1491 and 1572, the damage was mostly confined to the exterior of the building. Two Renaissance altars were built in the 17th century. The Gothic altars were transformed into Baroque creations during the 17th century as well.
The church has three naves, nine bays and 11 altars. There is a gallery with heavy Romanesque groin vaults. The round arched arcades are situated on rectangular pillars. The half columns have no capitals or plinths as well. The aisles of the main nave boast star-shaped rib vaults. The sacristy features Late Gothic vaulting and is two stories high. The altar stones are Late Gothic, but the altars’ upper structures are all Baroque in style. The high altar is High Baroque, created in 1694. In the middle of the 19th century the original altar was taken away, and a painting of The Risen Christ Appearing to His Mother replaced it. The upper part shows the crowning of the Virgin Mary. Saint Benedict, Saint John the Baptist and Saint George are a few of the holy characters who make appearances on the high altarpiece.
We did not go inside the monastery, but I knew it had been founded by Bavarian Duke Tassillo III in the 8th century, making it the oldest monastery in Bavaria. In 830 about 45 nuns lived in a convent on the premises. Perhaps the monastery’s most famous abbess was Irmingard, a great-granddaughter of Charlemagne, living in the 9th century. A reliquary of the abbess’ remains is located in the church. Her life is still celebrated on the island. The convent holds the distinction of being the oldest still existing convent in Germany. As of 2007, about 30 sisters resided in the monastery.
We also saw the picturesque cottages on the island and the fishmongers’ stands. The island was so serene. It made me feel at peace with myself and with the world. I felt as though I could accept the joys plus the hardships life had thrown my way. I had a strong feeling of self-acceptance. If only I could take strolls around this island every day, my life would be so much more balanced and much less stressful!
Then we took another boat to the New Palace and Old Palace of Herrenchiemsee. Tourists, notably absent from the Ladies’ Island, had flocked to the New Palace. Created for “mad” King Ludwig II, Herrenchiemsee’s New Palace is a copy of Versailles, though it does differ in some respects.
King Ludwig II created his own fantasy world because he was dismayed that he could not be an absolute monarch. 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. Soon after Ludwig became king, the government experienced a financial crisis, and Ludwig II withdrew from society, hiding in his own special, imaginative realm.
Very few of the interior furnishings of Versailles were original; they had been destroyed during the revolutions of 1789 and 1848. Therefore, Ludwig II could not make replicas of the authentic interiors of Versailles. He traveled to Versailles on two occasions. Construction began on his new rendition of Versailles in May of 1878. (King Ludwig II would die under mysterious circumstances on June 13, 1886.)
First, I visited the ornate garden. The fountains with stunning statuary impressed me as did the parterre with ponds. I saw marble statues of animals, of gods Diana and Venus and of Fata and Fortuna. Curiously enough, the garden was not an exact replica of that in Versailles. In fact, the statues of Fata and Fortuna had been greatly influenced by the gardens at the Spanish royal palace of San Ildefonso, Segovia.
The Latona Fountain is based on the fountain at Versailles, though. Latona, who had given birth to Apollo and Diana, stood proudly in the center of the fountain. Below her were the farmers she had turned into frogs plus tortoises and toads. After giving birth to Apollo and Diana, Latona wandered around the land. She came upon a pond and was very thirsty. However, the farmers would not let her drink from the pond. So, she changed them into frogs. I loved the sculptures of the frogs and tortoises. The figures of the animals seemed so playful rather than merely majestic. They brought a smile to my face.
Then came the tour of the New Palace. The guide explained that there is nothing Bavarian in the palace. Everything was inspired by Louis XIV or Louis XV. We walked up a grandiose staircase that was a replica of the one at Versailles, the version that was destroyed in France during 1752. Stucco marble and statues, paintings, a crystal chandelier and a marble fountain showing Diana with two nymphs all added to the grandeur. However, there was an intriguing 19th century element – a glass roof that somehow complemented the classical characteristics. I was surprised that the skylight did not look out-of-place or mar the elegance of the staircase.
In the Bodyguard Room I saw copies of halberds from Versailles. The ceiling fresco boasted a mythological theme, showing the triumph of Mars as the god peers at a burning city while gripping a white-and-red flag. Stucco marble paneling gave the room a sort of charm. Notably, no guards had ever been stationed in the Bodyguard Room.
In the First Antechamber the white and gold paneling was stunning. The ceiling painting glorified Bacchus and Ceres, who was the goddess of agriculture and fertility, among other things. I was fascinated by the Cornet Cabinet made with the Boullete technique, which was a French way of sculpting. The cabinet was inlaid with dark brown tortoiseshell and showed off gilt bronze figures. The professional and eloquent guide opened the cabinet. I expected to see some ornate jewels inside. However, it was empty because King Ludwig II had never said what he wanted to store there.
The Second Antechamber included large bureaus, and the chandeliers seemed to enlarge the size of the room in a mirroring effect. Overall, there were 50 chandeliers in the palace, made of Bohemian lead crystal and gilded bronze. A bronze statue showed King Louis XIV on horseback. I was enamored by the detail of the horse’s mane and the riding boots. The draperies astounded with green silk and golden embroidery.
The State Bed Chamber was not a copy of the one at Versailles. It was, in fact, much more lavish than its French counterpart. The space featured a gold leaf gilded bed. Red velvet carpet with designs of suns covered the steps leading up to the bed. How I would like to sleep there! The red velvet textiles were made utilizing needlework and gold embroidering and boasted scenes of Venus and Cupid. However, King Ludwig II never slept there. He intended it to be only a copy of Versailles, not his personal bedroom.
A life-size portrait of Louis XIV graced the Council Chamber or Conference Hall, carved in gold and white paneling. The Bourbon lily design was displayed on the carpet and curtains. The largest clock in the palace was in the room, too. There was at least one clock in every room in the palace. This particular clock, made with inlaid rosewood designs and gild bronze fittings, had been constructed for King Louis XIV. The ceiling painting portrayed the gods at Olympus. I took note of the white horses rearing up as though they were frightened of something.
The Hall of Mirrors was impressive as well. The Hall of Peace and the Hall of War were copies from Versailles. They were overwhelming. Some 2,200 candles were in the rooms. It had taken 30 to 40 servants to light them. The space also featured 35 chandeliers. The ceiling frescoes were stunning, copies of frescoes from Versailles showing battles with the French in the Spanish Netherlands, which resulted in a peace treaty during 1678. Both the Hall of Peace and Hall of War were decorated in stucco marble of various hues, and each hall boasted the busts of four Roman emperors. The halls there measured in total 98 meters in length. They were six meters longer than the ones in Versailles.
Next we saw the private apartments built in the style of King Louis XV, but not totally faithful to the rooms at Versailles. The Second Rococo style of the rooms had been influenced by 18th century French and German palaces. King Ludwig II actually lived there from September 7 to September 16, 1885.
The Bedroom was decorated in blue, King Ludwig’s favorite color. I recalled that the elegant bedroom in Neuschwanstein was also decorated in this color. The bed was two meters and 40 centimeters long with a width of one meter and 80 centimeters. (Ludwig II stood one meter and 93 centimeters tall.) Statues of Venus and Adonis also featured prominently in the room. The ceiling painting dealt with mythological figures. When candles had been lit in this space, the blue globe light resembled moonlight. What an atmosphere that must have been! The space featured two secret doors as well.
The King’s Study was dedicated to Louis XV. I was enamored by the 1884 roll-top desk that was a replica of a desk that Louis XV had owned. How I would love to compose pieces on that! It was the most valuable piece of furniture in the palace, inlaid with 16 kinds of wood. Two astronomical clocks decorated the room. A half-ton chandelier was on display, too. Green velvet curtains showed off gold embroidery.
The King’s Dining Room featured the most expensive chandelier and floral décor. The 18-armed Meissen chandelier was breathtaking. It showed off flower buds in various colors and tiny birds. The chandelier had been assembled in the room from small pieces. It was one of the most original chandeliers I had ever seen. Below it were white flowers in a vase made of porcelain.
The table was called a “Tischlein-deck-dich.” It could be lowered when servants needed to set it and then could be hoisted back up, so Ludwig II could dine alone without servants interrupting him. It reminded me of a similar sort of table at Linderhof Palace. White and gold paneling added to the room’s opulence. A porcelain cabinet in the corner of the room also proved intriguing. This space had taken its look from a room in the Hotel de Soubise in Paris.
Overall, King Ludwig II had planned for there to be 70 rooms in the palace, but only 50 rooms had been completed. The king’s private entrance was unfinished, too. I could hardly imagine the grandeur that would have pervaded if King Ludwig II had been able to build all 70 spaces.
During the tour I thought back to my visit to Hadrian’s Villa in what is today Tivoli near Rome. Emperor Hadrian’s immense villa had imitated places and locations around the empire that he had liked the most. For example, there was a copy of the Nile at its estuary, two Greek valleys, several Athenian sites. In total, there had been 30 buildings, including temples, palaces, a theatre and libraries. I thought about how the architecture reflected his inner turmoil and how Herrrenchiemsee, Neuschwanstein and Linderhof Palace reflected Ludwig II’s troubles.
Next I visited the Ludwig II Museum in the palace. In this museum I saw some intriguing artifacts. I was impressed with the long, blood red with silver trim wedding robes made for King Ludwig II and Sophie, Duchess of Bavaria. I could imagine them clad in those lavish robes if they had actually got married. Ludwig’s death mask was on display, too.
In the portrait of Ludwig as Grand Master of the Order of Knights of Saint George, the “mad” king looked devilish, angry even. Perhaps he had just been reminded that he would never have absolute rule in his kingdom. In the picture he was clutching a scabbard with one white-gloved hand.
I also spotted a tiled stove in playful, cheery colors. The stove was decorated in a mixture of green with yellow as well as gray with red and had been originally placed at Neuschwanstein, where I had set eyes on a similar tiled stove. I saw other ornate Meissen vases and sculpture as well. The models of stage sets exhibited Ludwig II’s passion for Richard Wagner’s music. In fact, there were many artifacts from Neuschwanstein and Linderhof Palace. One room boasted the original furniture from a bedroom at Linderhof. The original boat from Ludwig II’s winter garden that had been situated on the roof of the Residence Palace in Munich was on display, too.
Lastly, I visited the Old Palace – the Augustinian Monastery that was founded around 1125. The current monastery buildings dated from the Baroque period, though. The complex consisted of four wings with an almost rectangular courtyard and rose garden. Perhaps it was best known as the setting for the drafting of Germany’s new constitution in 1948, paving the way for Germany’s identity as a republic. Now there is a history museum dealing with the constitution on the premises, but all the placards were in German, so I did not understand it.
My favorite room was covered in Baroque frescoes, an array of dynamic figures in bright colors. Another space was Ludwig II’s Study with intriguing furnishings. While it did not compare to the New Palace in grandeur, the Old Palace had a welcome sense of simplicity and a variety of objects and furnishings on display, not adhering to one, specific theme.
I took a break and sat outside on that beautiful, sunny day and drank some water. There was no doubt about it. Herrenchiemsee was one of my favorite palaces (or castles, as it is often called) though I liked the romantic, 19th century Gothic style of Neuschwanstein even better. Herrenchiemsee definitely ranked up there with Czech castles and chateaus. I was overwhelmed by the beauty and elegance of the palace. I was very satisfied with the tour guide that led our group through numerous rooms. The articulate guide had spoken perfect English and had described each room with contagious enthusiasm. In fact, all the guides that had showed me Bavarian castles and palaces had been excellent, giving vivid descriptions and pointing out intriguing details.
The garden was outstanding, too, with fountains and sculptural decoration that enthralled me. The parterre was stunning as well. I could sit on a bench in this garden all day and read a good book, often gazing around me at the remarkable, calming scenery. I loved those tortoises and frog figures on the Latona Fountain most of all.
The magic of Herrenchiemsee would stay in my mind forever. Versailles had been so crowded when I visited some years ago on one unusually warm February day. It had not been possible to soak up the atmosphere with a throng of tourists elbowing me for positions to take the best photo. During the tour of Herrenchiemsee, I was able to appreciate the elegance of the rooms without fighting my way through crowds as there was only a fixed number of people allowed on each tour.
The mysterious circumstances of Ludwig II’s death came to my mind as we waited for a boat to take us back to the bus. 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.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.