One of the things that I was most looking forward to in my trip to Munich wasn’t even technically in Munich. It was in the small Bavarian village of Hohenschwangau.
Here in this picturesque place on the side of a mountain lies two spectacular castles. One whose namesake comes from the village in which it is located, Hohenschwangau Castle; and the other which is better known for being the inspiration for Cinderella’s castle, is Neuschwanstein.
The names of both these idyllic luxury homes are quite long and hard to pronounce. Whenever I told someone about this castle, I called it “Neuschwhateveritscalled”. Eventually I ran into a couple Germans in Edinburgh (Christian and Ali) who couldn’t accept my jargon and taught me to say it properly, and over many beers of course. But to their credit, I can impress even the most articulate of Germans with my pronunciation so it was worth all the hard work, and the hangover!
Finally the day came when I got to visit my treasured Neuschwanstein and it was glorious! My hostel offered to book day trips for you with a guided tour, but this was a rather expensive option and the train ticket was not included. Also, once you arrive, they castles provide their own guides so the addition of the tour is a tad superfluous. At any rate, I inquired about the better option and the young lady at reception told me that I honestly could go it alone. So I did.
As you can imagine, the German train station is quite efficient in my opinion. If you ask a German, they will lament about its unreliability, but compared to transportation systems we have in the U.S. they are light years ahead of us.
For instance, they have this ticket (the Bayern ticket) that allows you to travel anywhere in Bavaria for a day including metro, buses, and whathaveyou for the low price of €23 euros. This might sound a tad pricey at first, but when you factor in that you can have up to 5 people on this ticket (for a €5 fee per person), your individual cost drops to about €7 per person! The receptionist told me that people often linger by the ticket machines to jump on to other people’s Bayern ticket so I went early hoping to catch a couple moochers, or maybe be one.. But to no avail. But I was still happy with my €23 solo ticket as opposed to €35 tour.
However, what I was disappointed with was that no one mentioned to me once I boarded the train that I would have to disembark, take a bus around construction, then reboard the train. This omission cost me an additional hour of travel and backtracking, but in the end I arrived in Füssen at the end of line and took a bus to the castles.
Immediately getting off the bus, I was struck by the fantastic image of Neuschwanstein up on the hill, surrounded by trees. Absolutely stunning! Though it also became immediately clear that this tiny village is most certainly capitalizing on the opportunity that befell them. Stepping off the bus you are swarmed with cafes, gelato stands, restaurants, hot dogs, souvenir shops, and so on and so forth. Bypassing all that pomp and circumstance, I approached the ticket booth.
As I said earlier, there are two castles in this village and both are worth seeing. There is also a museum of the Bavarian Kings, but I didn’t visit it so I can’t tell you whether or not it’s any good. The older of the two castles, Hohenschwangau, was the castle of King Maximillian II and Queen Marie. Here is where they raised their two children, Ludwig and Otto. Ludwig, heir to the throne, was the mastermind behind Neuschwanstein, though sadly he didn’t live in his castle long before he died of suspicious circumstances.. But more on that later. Back to the castles.
So two castles, seven ticket options (details of which can be found here). You can see everything (both castles and the museum) for €30 but since the castles came with tours, I figured the museum was just an extra expense. In fact, I wasn’t even planning on going to Hohenschwangau but once I got there, I figured why not see both? You never know when you’ll be back and you don’t want to get to the airport with regrets. So, yolo! And also this ticket was fairly inexpensive (€21 for students) and most definitely worth it! The ticket, once purchased, is only valid for the tour at a certain time. You have no free reign of the palace and all tours last about 30 minutes. The village, however, is free game.
Now, because of my unfortunate detour, I didn’t quite arrive in time to make the earlier tour that I had hoped for but it was ok because they are constantly running about every one to two hours. And in several languages. Since I was shooting for English, I had an hour to wait for my tour of the first castle Hohenschwangau and then Neuschwanstein about two hours after.
In the meantime, I perused this quaint little village and all its splendid greenery. Aside from all the trees, there is also a gorgeous green lake on the property, Lake Alpsee, that you can walk around in about 90 minutes time. I didn’t quite have that much time before my tour and the last thing I wanted to do was miss out on my one shot to see Hohenschwangau castle! So I just casually walked along the nearest trail and turned to head back towards the castle. It was beautiful though. One of my favorite parts about visiting this area. I had no idea it was even here, but seeing that gleaming greenish teal water and emerald evergreens was like a little glimpse of heaven for me.
Then it was up to the castle.
And then the tour was underway. Our guide was a very sweet young German girl with a solid grasp of English. Her accent was a bit thick but I didn’t have too much trouble understanding her. Hearing her could be a bit of a chore at times, but I imagine it is a little intimidating giving a tour in your second language. Overall very interesting! Hohenschwangau was only recently vacated in the last 100 years, which I though was quite cool. I had no idea anyone besides the Royal Family was still living in castles.
The bummer about Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein was that you couldn’t take pictures inside the castles. But, what you can’t see here, you can see on Google images.
At the end of the tour I had a bit of time to kill before I started trekking up to Neuschwanstein so I went back to the lake to have a proper look. Still brilliant.
On to Neuschwanstein!
But first, a quick word on the village at Hohenschwangau. Not only is there food EVERYWHERE, but they also capitalize on the laziness of their tourists. Arriving to both castles you can either walk like a capable human being, or pay €3 each way for the bus (and if you really want to show off, you can pay €6 for a horse drawn buggy). I chose walking. And aside from the land mines left behind from the horse traffic, it was quite pleasant.
On the map I was provided when I bought my ticket, it was suggested to allot 40 minutes for the walk from Hohenschwangau. This is a gross overestimation, unless of course you are a tortoise. Otherwise, 20 minutes is more than enough. But since I had even more time to spare now, I decided to treat myself to a pretzel at the snack bar on your way up the hill. It was about €2 which I was ok with, until I saw the prices at the next food stand. Way cheaper! But you know what they say, haste makes waste. So, for anyone out there going to Neuschwanstein, my advice to you is wait it out! There will always be a cheaper option up the hill.
Snack story aside, the castle was well worth the effort to reach it. Before even getting to the grounds, you can already see its grandeur the moment you turn the last corner. Knowing this, the kind people at Neuschwanstein have installed a nice viewing platform that gives you a perfect picture with the whole castle in the background. Absolutely amazing!
As I started up the hill towards the entrance, I spotted a familiar sight: the blue and yellow book that could only be a Rick Steves guidebook. Judging by these people’s fantastic choice in travel guides, I instantly knew they were good people. And I was right!
This married couple from Minnesota completely echoed my views on the main man, Rick. They were vacationing in Germany and followed the insightful advice by Rick to take a trip to Neuschwanstein. Now, as much as I love Rick Steves, I could not afford to buy his guidebook for every country I was going to visit. Therefore, when I saw their Germany book and compared what I did to what Rick said to do, I was enthralled to see that I had done it correctly. Not a single mistake made (well, aside from my overpriced pretzel).
With my newfound confidence, I strutted into the castle for my tour. This guide was much better than the first. Even though he too had a strong accent, he spoke loudly and clearly enough as to be completely understood. He was also very welcoming of our questions and provided a wealth of information about the castle and its creator, King Ludwig: the mad king.
Heather, my overly enthusiastic tour guide from my first day in Munich, was my first source for information about the so called “mad king” Ludwig. According to her, the people of Bavaria considered this monarch a little batty because of his preference for solitude. Unlike previous kings they had in the past, Ludwig did not enjoy the celebrity status of kinghood. Therefore, he built Neuschwanstein hours outside of Munich as an escape from the intimidating life of a royal (also, it was very near his childhood home of Hohenschwangau). Apparently, he would dress up in costume and prance around Neuschwanstein, pretending he was in another world.
When I asked the “official” tour guide about this peculiar factoid, he explained it a little differently. From his perspective, Ludwig wasn’t mad in a crazy way; he was frustrated with his relative lack of control. You see, at the time of his reign, monarchs were not the source of power. The right to make laws and decisions fell to the court, much like the relationship of the congress to the president. This helplessness, you could say, was what drove Ludwig to build Neuschwanstein. If he couldn’t make laws, he would spend the country’s money. This lead to his name, The Mad King.
At any rate, I couldn’t be happier that Ludwig, mad or not, built this beautiful castle. It was absolutely spectacular. Unfortunately for the King, he was only able to live in his fantasy world for 72 days before he died. In fact, the castle was not even finished. Only the first and third floors were complete (subsequently those are the only floors you can tour). The poor king didn’t even have a throne in his throne room. It was in the process of being constructed from Italian marble when he died “suspiciously”.
When I asked about his death, the information I was given was also a little “suspicious”. I was hoping for a great mysterious story involving murder or mutiny, something juicy! But really, what happened (as far as anyone knows) is that the King was away at Lake Starnberg when he died by drowning. No one is sure if he was committing suicide or if he was “helped”. Essentially he just died and no one was there to see it, so it’s suspicious. I’m not so sure about that, but it adds intrigue to the expedition I suppose.
As I already mentioned, I couldn’t take any pictures which explains the lack of breathtaking images from the throne room, dining hall, Kings chambers, and chapel. But if you want to see some of what I’m talking about, you can’t take a virtual tour. WARNING! It’s not as good as the real thing.
Once my tour was over, I headed back down the hill and toward the train station. Two hours later I was back at my hostel drinking a couple cold ones with my Irish friends on their last night. It was a successful day trip, one that I recommend to anyone going to Munich. You will never see anything like Neuschwanstein. Not even Disney does it justice. You will have to see it to believe it.