I love a good castle. It wasn’t until I got a really good look at the Italian countryside that I realized Europe is literally littered with castles. In Umbria especially they pop up every mile or so, always accessorized by stone villages and a narrow winding road as its only entrance. But these are medieval castles, their purpose was to intimidate and protect during an era when all hell could break loose just because your neighbors felt grabby. The fortified stone building on a hill faded out of style with the Renaissance in favor of more ornate airier structures that eventually evolved into confections like Versailles and Buckingham Palace. And just as we look back on their generation with rose colored glasses – authors, poets, artists and architects of the 1800s romanticized the medieval period with chivalry and fairytales. They made it seem like a golden age of good manners, literally painting the likes of battles with no blood, no dirt, and generally no unpleasantness.
It was this state of mind that possessed two Bavarian kings to build medieval style castles in the early and late 1800s. Both made to look as if they belonged to an earlier time, but designed for fantasy instead of defense. Some people refer to them as the Disney castles because Walt Disney modeled Sleeping Beauty’s castle after one of them. To others they are two of the castles of the eccentric “Mad” King Ludwig II. The castle of Hohenschwangau was built by his father and was one of his childhood homes. The grander castle of Neuschwanstein was built by Ludwig, though he died before it was fully finished. Both are within sight of each other in a stunning location at the edge of the alps, less than a two hour drive from Munich and Salzburg.
One look at these castles and you know why we got up early after an exhausting day in Munich, and drove the two hours further south and further away from our airport to see them. Again, I need to rave about the German highway system. We never got lost. Even though there was lots of snow in the higher elevations, the roads were completely clear. No trash, no potholes, no confusing exits, no complaints. If you ever plan a multi-city trip to Germany I highly recommend driving.
The snow that missed Munich the day before unleashed at least six inches on the village and castles of Hohenschwangau, blanketing its angles and edges in white. It was the coldest day we had experienced yet, but the trade-off was worth it. This is what cartoons like Heidi taught us to expect of winter in the Alps, and it delivered.
We parked conveniently, and made a beeline for the ticket office up the hill racing with the tour bus passengers that were just released. We lost. The line was long but fast, and we walked away with tickets to both castles. First was for the smaller and older Hohenschwangau. Our assigned times for both castles were about two and half hours apart. We thought that was reasonable and began our ascent to Hohenschwangau, about a 5-10 minute walk uphill. I should probably mention that if you have any mobility issues, you may want to re-consider this trip. These castles are on steep hills and mountains and the interiors only use stairs. Neither castle has a ramp or elevator. Definitely wear comfortable shoes, because you will walk.
Pictures of the castle’s interior are not allowed. Think suits of armor, pastel murals of fairytales in every room, brightly painted tile stoves, coffered ceilings, medieval motifs, hidden passageways and you’ll get an idea. It felt very Bavarian in its clear bright colors, natural in its wood carvings, and modest in its scale. Fit for a king, but not a mad king.
We descended the hill and detoured to the crystal blue waters of Lake Alpsee. Reflection wouldn’t allow my camera to pick up the craggier mountains behind the green hills, but trust me they were there.
Back at the village we were faced with a dilemma. The walk up to Neuschwanstein castle is a very steep thirty minute trek uphill. The shuttle doesn’t run during the winter months because it’s too dangerous with possible ice. The only other alternative is a large carriage that takes about a dozen people at a time for a reasonable fee. If we were staying the night, we might have opted for the walk, taken pictures along the way, and had a beer at the top. But we had a four hour drive after this that we didn’t want to be exhausted for, and if I’m being honest, we’re lazy and we’d rather not walk a mile up a forty five degree incline. So carriage it was.
There comes a point of no return when entering a long line. A point when you’re too committed to reconsider. You’re in this now, invested, you’re going to follow through. That’s how we felt about a half hour into the carriage line. It wasn’t moving fast with only about three carriages on the circuit slowly going up the hill. We were concerned about meeting our assigned ticket time about forty five minutes into it. We nearly panicked when one of the men in front of us turned out to be holding the place for a tour to return from the giftshops. That is, we quietly panicked, several parties behind us became rather passionate about the affront and boldly got in front of not only the tour group, but everyone else that was previously ahead of them, all the time yelling angrily and hand gesturing. (I’m not pointing out their nationality on purpose because it’s not fair to the rest of their countrymen, you can guess though.)
We did make it to the carriage. We didn’t make our ticket time. No worries though, we showed the attendant our ticket and he let us in with another group.
Pictures are not allowed in Neuschwanstein castle either. We were impressed with Hohenschwangau, but we were awed by Neuschwanstein. The entire interior is caked in colorful Neo-gothic and Romanesque murals, carvings, tapestries, paintings, sculptures, and boule work. The style is as unexpected and beautiful as it is over the top. Every window frames a panorama of the mountains, lakes and countryside worthy of Bob Ross. There are also plenty of eccentric details, like turning corridors into fake grottos, and adding very modern touches like all-glass solariums that give away the palace’s actual age. Definitely fit for a mad king.
The tour moves quickly so one really doesn’t have time to take it all in, but still very memorable. We exited through the gift shop where I got my hands on the only book about the palace in English. But before we left, I broke the rules and took one picture from inside the castle.
We took more pictures from a glass floored balcony angled toward the castle. We would have liked to have gotten the iconic picture you see advertised from the bridge across the ravine, but it was closed because of snow and ice. This didn’t stop the hiking boot sector though, they were routinely scaling the fence and making their way down the trail. We didn’t want our final chapter to be “They fell down a cliff attempting to get a better picture, if only they were wearing hiking boots like the others.” So we passed.
After I finished pouting we began our descent back down, stopping at the restaurant near the castle. It was okay, I’ve since heard the food in the village is a lot better. But if you are feeling puckish on your way down from the castle, I highly recommend the warm round dough balls dusted in powder sugar. They have a name with at least eight syllables, that I’ll never recall, but we remember them as round beignets. Because that’s what they taste like.
We wanted to linger in the village but we couldn’t. The time was almost five o’clock and we had a four hour drive ahead of us to Frankfurt-Hahn airport, where we were staying at the only hotel nearby for our mid-day flight. We drove through the nearby Fussen on our way to the highway. If you have time, plan some of it there, the town is adorable and looks like a lot of fun.
Our time was over in Germany. I don’t know when we’ll go back. I’d like to the see northern part someday if we can, and I know we didn’t see as much of Munich as we would have liked. We found the people to be very friendly, the food to be hearty and crowd pleasing, the transportation to be top-notch, and of course the country itself was beautiful. And of course, their exit signs are hilarious to the immature (us).
Where should we go next? I’m thinking somewhere warmer.