An easy trip from Munich is the village of Hohenschwangau near Füssen in southwest Bavaria, Germany, home to Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein castles. We boarded a train in Munich and wound our way through the German countryside. In the distance, there were still traces of snow dusting the mountain-tops. Pine forests overlooked flat grassy meadows dotted with white, pink, purple and yellow wildflowers. Creamy coffee and lavender grey cows grazed, the jingle of their cowbells audible through the open train windows.
We passed through Biessenhofen on the hour and could hear the church bells ringing as we passed tidy houses with wooden balconies bedecked with hanging baskets of flowers. A pair of nuns cycled past, their habits flying back in the breeze. Nato, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Munich anymore.
At Füssen we caught a bus to Hohenschwangau and a short walk took us to the charming Hotel Alpenstuben where helpful staff checked us in and advised us on the best way to see Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein and castles during our stay.
Hohenshwangau castle – Image courtesy of Reiner Kraemer @ Flickr
A 20 minute walk from town is Hohenschwangau, the older of the two castles. Both castles names contain ‘schwan’, German for swan, which the region is known for. Hohenschwangau means high swan county palace while Neuschwanstein means new swan stone castle.
During a hunting trip in 1829, Crown Prince Maximilian (the later King Maximilian II of Bavaria) came across the remains of the medieval fortress of Schwangau, built and run by a family of knights before changing hands and falling into disrepair, and thought it a perfect for a summer residence. The Castle was reconstructed from 1833-37 in neo-gothic style whilst his wife Queen Marie had plants gathered from all over the Alps to create the castle’s alpine garden. The King and Queen and their two sons Ludwig (later King Ludwig II of Bavaria) and Otto (later King Otto I of Bavaria) spent their summers here.
The largest room in Hohenschwangau castle is the banquet hall, also known as ‘the hall of the heroes’ as paintings of scenes of the Wilkina Saga and its hero Dietrich von Bern look down on the diners as they eat. Speaking of food, one of the items on display is 120 year old bread. Bread and salt were a customary gift, (these were from the King of Russia) and storing these together in a small cupboard created the dry conditions required for the bread to desiccate, preserving it indefinitely
King Maximilian was studious; in his 3000 book library his customised reading chair remains, bearing some resemblance to a modern La-z-boy. He didn’t spend all his time studying though, the Queen’s room is on the ground floor and the King’s on the first floor but secret stairs connect the bedrooms.
Queen Marie’s bedroom is known as the oriental room as King Maximilian had it furnished in this style upon returning from a trip through Turkey and Greece. Rich Turkish carpets cover the floor and the walls are painted terracotta and sky blue and gold and decorated with frescoes.
The King’s bedroom walls were painted with a mural including nymphs bathing in a pool. Originally they were nude, but King Maximilian had an artist paint clothes on them once his children were born. When King Maximilian died suddenly in 1864 and an18 year old Ludwig succeeded to the throne, he moved into his father’s room in the castle and had an illuminable moon and stars installed in the midnight blue ceiling.
Queen Marie continued living on the ground floor, and though King Ludwig never married he wanted a little place of his own. 1869 construction of King Ludwig’s dream home, Neuschwanstein began. His telescope through which he monitored the progress of his castle remains pointed out a window at Hohenschwangau.
Neuschwanstein castle from Hohenschwangau castle
We opted to take the horse and cart uphill to Neuschwanstein Castle. It proved an entertaining ride, the horse farted noisily all the way up the hill which gave us the giggles, which made the driver laugh. You are likely familiar with gothic medieval style Neuschwanstein castle – it inspired Disney’s logo ‘Sleeping Beauty’ castle and featured in the movie ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’. Designed by a theatrical designer, and intended as homage to Richard Wagner the castle is breathtakingly dramatic, inside and out.
Like Hohenschwangau, Neuschwanstein was built on the ruins of earlier castles in the style of a medieval castle. In 1886, in enormous debt, King Ludwig was deposed by the Bavarian Government. Days later he died in mysterious circumstances. Incomplete Neuschwanstein castle was pressed into service as a tourist attraction 6 weeks later, and building plans for were simplified and completed.
The largest room is the Hall of the Singers, the roof features cassette decking of interlocking wooden panels which are hollow to provide natural amplification like a guitar. Castle concerts, often featuring the music of Wagner are held here in September and attending one would be quite an experience.
Another large room is the Byzantine style Throne Hall, with mural covered walls, a mosaic floor and a chandelier is fashioned after a Byzantine crown. At one end is an apse was intended to hold Ludwig’s throne which was never completed.
The Kings suite of rooms has some interesting additions, which seem both regal and fairytale-esque. An artificial grotto originally equipped with an artificial waterfall and ‘rainbow machine’ forms a passage between the dining room and study. The king’s bedroom is dominated by a huge bed adorned with carvings which took fourteen carvers over four years to complete. A mural depicting the legend of Tristan and Isolde adorns the wall and the kings hand basin was fed from a pure mountain stream (this is spoilt somewhat by the knowledge that that the toilet was too).
Ludwig did not fear technology; the palace was fitted with some of the cutting edge technology of the time including a battery-powered bell system for the servants, a telephone line that connected to the town Post Office in order to send telegrams, an early form of central heating, running warm water and toilets with automatic flush.
The castle provides breath-taking views of the nearby waterfall and lake and a short walk takes you to a nearby suspension bridge which is a perfect vantage point for a photo of Neuschwanstein. Once you are all castled out, head down the hill and relax with a stein of German beer – I recommend Augustiner – Prost!