After almost two years in Bavaria, I can finally say that I have been to all three of King Ludwig’s ridiculously over-the-top castles.
And so can my boyfriend, who pretended to be as impressed as I was as he was marched around them all.
When I first arrived in this barmy little part of Germany I couldn’t help but notice that the name and face of “Konig Ludwig” was everywhere. Here he is:
From beer bottles to beer mats, from pub signs, to pub lanterns, and from bread bags, to fridge magnets; the late Bavarian King is on all of them. There’s even a signposted walk that goes through our town called the King Ludwig Way. He is clearly Bavaria’s most famous person, besides that Pope who did a runner.
Hundreds of thousands of people a year come to this part of Germany to visit Ludwig’s castles, and it’s not hard to see why. The thought, craftsmanship, attention to detail and money Ludwig II ploughed into these beautiful palaces is beyond belief. And kind of depressing when you think that most of our stuff comes from Ikea.
Sadly Ludwig died in mysterious circumstances at aged 40 in 1886 and barely spent much time in his eccentric creations or live to build more he had planned.
The King is said to have had a very sheltered childhood with little contact with the real world. This led to him being ill-prepared when he became King of Bavaria aged just 18. He developed a fascination with the operatic composer Richard Wagner, and was at odds with his catholic beliefs and supposed homosexuality. He was shy, felt misunderstood, and built his dream castles as a way to escape the pressures of his life.
After whittling away most of the royal family’s fortunes on his castles, Ludwig was declared “insane” by doctors who had never examined him in person. He was banished to Berg Castle on the Starnberg Lake. It had once been one of his favourite residences but was practically turned into a prison after his arrest.
The following day Ludwig and his doctor were found dead, floating in the lake after going for a walk. It is not known whether they were murdered, if they died accidentally, or if Ludwig killed the doctor then committed suicide.
I have developed a bit of a fascination with Ludwig myself, and have been captivated by his remarkable and tragic story. As a result I have not only visited his palaces, but also his summer holiday home, the spot where he died and also his tomb (morbid I know). I saved my German guy from the tomb visit, but the rest he has most definitely seen. “I would never have bothered if I hadn’t met you,” he added cheerfully.
The castles now belong to the Bavarian State, although some of the entry fees still go to Bavarian royalty.
Here’s my insider guide to the castles and other locations associated with the ‘mad fairy tale’ king.
Neuschwanstein: No I can’t pronounce it either. Sounds like “Noishvanstine”.
If you’ve ever wondered where the hell everyone in Bavaria is, they are here at Neuschwanstein. Germany’s most popular tourist attraction heaves with people from all over the world even on a quiet day, but even at its busiest, it’s well worth a visit. The palace sits in a gorgeous setting in the mountains and is believed to have been the inspiration behind Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle.
Construction began on Ludwig’s dream medieval palace near Fuessen in 1869. He dedicated it to Richard Wagner and many of the artworks inside depict scenes from his operas. Sadly the castle wasn’t finished before Ludwig died, and he only spent around 170 days in it.
My favourite bits inside were the King’s wood-panelled bedroom and his bathroom, where his toilet is actually disguised as a very regal-looking chair. The water from the taps here came direct from a nearby spa (as you do). The palace also features an artificial grotto and an amazing kitchen beautifully advanced for its time. Ludwig loved technology, and he also had one of Germany’s first telephones here. Sadly you can’t take pictures inside any of the castles.
The palace is about a 40-minute uphill walk from the town of Hohenschwangau. (There are horse-drawn carriages for those unable to walk and lazy people). You need to buy tickets from the ticket centre in the town for a 30-minute tour of the palace. As these get booked up you may have to wait a few hours for your tour, so leave plenty of time. In the meantime you can also visit 12th century Schloss Hohenschwangau, which was renovated by Ludwig’s father Max. There are lovely views from here of the green hills and stunning alpine lake below.
The views from outside Neuschwanstein of the Bavarian countryside below is also great, plus you can take a walk along Mary’s Bridge for that all-important photo of the castle nestled in the mountains. Unfortunately it was really foggy when we went so we couldn’t see said castle. The castle was also undergoing renovations on one day we visited (I’ve been twice) and it was covered in scaffolding in parts. Hardly the fairy tale we were expecting, but still.
You can catch a train to Fuessen from Munich and catch a bus to the castle. For latest ticket prices and opening times, please see the official website here.
Linderhof: My personal favourite.
Much less touristy than both of the other castles, stunning Linderhof in Ettal is the one I would most recommend seeing if you only can do one and you’re blessed with decent weather. Although this palace is smaller than the others, it is set in a stunning green valley with wonderful gardens, forests and a few out-buildings including a Moorish Kiosk. This was Ludwig’s private retreat, where he hardly had visitors, and it just feels much more personal than the grander palaces of Neuschwanstein and Herrenchiemsee but nonetheless extravagant.
You could easily spend a day here exploring the gardens and surrounding land (only open in summer). But if you’re pushed for time you could see Linderhof and Neuschwanstein in the same day, as they are about an hour’s drive from one another and looped together on tours. Again Linderhof, inspired by Versailles, can only be seen by joining a tour of the inside but you can wander the grounds in your own time.
If taking public transport you can catch a train to Oberammergau and then a bus. See the official site here for more information.
Herrenchiemsee: The one Ludwig only spent 10 days in.
Built on an island on the stunning Chiemsee with the Alps in the distance, this palace was also modelled on Versailles and dedicated to King Louis XIV of France. Ludwig went to great lengths to ensure that this palace was similar or even better than the one in France. The most famous room is the Hall of Mirrors, which also features more then 2, 000 candles. The palace also boasts a 60,000 litre capacity bath and one of the world’s finest porcelain collections.
What’s more surprising than the extravagance of this place is the fact that Ludwig only spent 10 days here and even then it wasn’t complete as his money ran out (this palace cost more than Linderhof and Neuschwanstein combined). He never intended to really use it for anything either. It was, as the knowledgeable guide said, just a ‘time capsule’ for him to escape his everyday life. There is also a great museum on site telling you all about Ludwig’s life and a self-service restaurant with a terrace on the palace’s forecourt. Nice touch.
To get to the palace you need to catch a boat to the Herreninsel from one of the departure points on the Chiemsee. We caught the short boat trip from Prien, about an hour’s drive from Munich and on the Munich-Salzburg train line. It is then a 15-20 minute walk through countryside and woodland to the palace (horse-drawn carriages also available). Again the palace can only be seen by joining a tour, lasting around 30-minutes.
For information, visit the official site here.
Ludwig’s Island Retreat: The Casino, on Rose Island, Starnberg Lake.
This is nothing like a casino at all, so gamblers don’t come disappointed. Instead the Roseninsel is a romantic little island with a very sweet-smelling rose garden and villa, where Ludwig used to hang out with his friends. You can catch a tiny boat to the island from the small town of Feldafing on the Starnberg lake, then spend a couple of hours wandering through the gardens and touring the inside of the summer house for a few Euros. Starnberg is about a 15-minute drive from Munich, with trains stopping at Feldafing from Munich on the S6 line.
We attempted to tour the house with our 18-month-old son in tow. Ever tried doing a historical tour with a loud little man and a group of unimpressed Germans? Big mistake. I dropped out, leaving my boyfriend to go it alone while I entertained our little chap in the garden. “Take some pictures” I instructed. This is one that came back.
Fortunately he did take some more, revealing the intricate and sometimes simple interior.
Although no where near as grand as the castles, the villa was built without a kitchen (that was situated in a building to the side of the villa instead) so the cooking fumes did not overcome the smell of the roses from the garden. Tall trees were also planted around the garden to stop the rose smell from escaping. The smell is amazing and I would recommend visiting in summer when the flowers are in bloom.
It was a lovely afternoon out, and one that can be combined with a trip to….
The spot where Ludwig Died: Berg, Starnberg Lake.
Marked by a simple cross erected by his mother, this is where Ludwig was found dead. Although Berg Castle is closed, you can wander through the woodland leading to the cross. There is also a pretty neo-Romanesque memorial chapel built in honour of Ludwig. Berg is about an hour’s walk from the town of Starnberg (one of Germany’s richest areas. Look out for women dressed as Cruella De Vil).
For details on the chapel, call +49 (0)8151 5276. For details on catching the boat to the Rose Island, call +49 (0)171 722 2266.
Ludwig’s final resting place. The crypt of Michael’s Church, central Munich.
Drawn in to the Renaissance church from the busy shopping street of Kaufingerstrasse, I discovered this was actually where poor Ludwig was finally laid to rest – in a rather creepy crypt besieged by visitors and worshippers (entrance 2 Euros). The crypt is full of tombs of late Bavarian Royals, but there’s no second guessing who the largest and most decorated one that sits behind iron gates belongs to.
It’s also ironic that the king’s tomb is in Munich because he grew to hate the city’s residents for their opposition to his close friend Richard Wagner.
It seems the troubled King, who in the end just wanted to cut himself off from the world bestowed upon him, will never truly be left to rest in peace.