Schloss means castle or palace in German, and while Germany is home to numerous big and small Schlösser, few are as iconic and world-famous as the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. It’s understandably so: from its magnificent design with pearl white walls and elegant towers guarded by the red gatehouse, to the spectacular alpine setting where it sits atop a rugged hill overlooking the vast valley, Schloss Neuschwanstein’s beauty evokes a fairytale world, so much so that Walt Disney has modelled the Sleepy Beauty (and/or Cinderella) Castle after it.
I remember when I was a kid, I saw a photo of the castle for the first time on the internet. I was captivated, fascinated by how surreal it looked. Since then it had become a dream of mine to visit the castle some day. I’d had to wait for a long, long time before this dream was realized – more than a decade in fact – but meanwhile, I’d occasionally look up stories about this fabled palace and its creator, King Ludwig II.
The Fairy Tale King
Ludwig II of Bavaria is often referred to as the ‘Märchenkönig’, or the ‘Fairy Tale King’. Sadly, his life was far from a fairy tale. Having lost his father to an unexpected illness in 1864, he ascended the throne at the young age of 18, assisted by the late King Maximilian II’s cabinet. Even if he had been more prepared for office, it still wasn’t easy to be king at that time.
It was a time when conservative elites all over Europe struggled to maintain stability after the 1848 revolutions. Although conservative order had generally been restored, the monarchs were shaken, whereas liberals and socialists continued to seek ways to bring about change. In Germany – or more precisely, the states that would form the Deutsches Reich in 1871, the cry for unification was loud and clear, and Prussia was leading the efforts under Otto von Bismarck’s blood-and-iron policy. With little experience and knowledge of politics, the young king, despite his initial enthusiasm, was completely dominated by his ministers.
Fuelled by the romantic legends of medieval knights, he had longed to be a hero for his people; a ruler like Louis XIV, the Sun King of France. But reality was disappointing. In 1866, he was forced to bring Bavaria to war against Prussia, and his inevitable defeat utterly shattered his dreams. Discouraged and hopeless, he began to retreat into his own fantasy world, one that was centered around Richard Wagner’s operas.
Ludwig had always loved the creative arts, and now he delved into this fantasy that was constructed through music, literature and architecture – and never emerged again.
State of the Art
To create his dream world where he could reign as an absolute monarch, he designed and commissioned a series of castle projects, including the Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee palaces, as well as the subject of today’s story, Schloss Neuschwanstein.
For his most beloved castle, he’d chosen a hill above the Hohenschwangau village, where he’d spent the best part of his childhood in his father’s castle, Schloss Hohenschwangau. Literally translating to ‘New Swan Stone’, Neuschwanstein was to be built at the site of the ruins of two medieval castles. The location was at the summit of the rock Die Jungen (Youth) , which made it especially difficult to build an edifice on such a grand scale. In the end they had to flatten the peak using dynamites, creating a plateau of 4,300sqm for the castle’s foundation.
While the palace drew inspiration from medieval Romanesque castles, its construction would have been impossible without the state-of-the-art techniques from the 19th century. Thanks to Bavaria’s leading position in science, technology and economy, Ludwig was able to employ the latest industrial methods in his seemingly crazy project. Dynamite, for instance, was one of the newest inventions of the time. The steam locomobile was also used to transport heavy materials uphill. Inside the castle, the throne room is supported by steel, and the king enjoyed all the modern comforts that era offered: central heating, running water, Bavaria’s first telephone lines, an electric bell system and even an automatic flush toilet.
Ludwig had expected to move into his new paradise within three years, but the whole project was not complete until 1886 – 17 years later. Even then there were still rooms unfinished, and major parts of the initial design left unrealized. Next time we’ll find out why it had taken so long to build and the composer Richard Wagner’s influence on the king and his fantasy castle. Stay tuned!