A Mad King’s Crazy Castles

Text and photos by Robert W. Bone

Munich's Rathaus (city hall) seen from exiting subway.Winter was cold and dark in the Bavarian Alps during the mid-nineteenth century. Still a few people who ventured outdoors at night would sometimes see a mysterious, bright glow gliding silently through the pines and firs.

That would have been Ludwig II, the youthful king of Bavaria, traveling in his elaborate sleigh - undoubtedly the only sleigh in the world equipped with an electric light. It was powered by a large battery placed under the seats.

Winter or summer, Ludwig II was known to spend much of his waking hours moving around the countryside between dusk and dawn. In his short lifetime, Ludwig II was declared officially insane, and he is widely known today as the “Mad King” of Bavaria. Part of the evidence given for his psychotic condition was that he spoke openly of his belief that man would some day fly.

 A sensitive and poetic romanticist, he was also talked out of trying to construct a cable car at the mountaintop castle he was building. It would have connected to another nearby castle, one that was built by his parents and the summer home he knew and loved as a child.

Ludwig II cared nothing for the affairs of state. He commissioned avant-garde art and experimental music, much of which was too advanced for the time. These included the operas of his socially inept and generally unpopular friend, Richard Wagner.

Portrait of King Ludwig II, grandson of Ludwig I.On top of everything else, the king was homosexual, and unfortunately trapped in an age when none dared emerge from that condemned closet.

Today he might be considered an artistic eccentric, and one who would fit neatly enough into respected elements of society. But this is now and that was then, and he ended up dying tragically and mysteriously.

He was found dead, floating in a shallow lake on June 13, 1886. A strong swimmer, the king did not drown. Many believe he was shot, simply as a result of political intrigue. He was 40 years old.

Thousands of visitors today hike through the Mad King's unfinished Neuschwanstein, the most famous castle in Germany. Visitors sometimes look up to see hang gliders flitting around the sky near the ramparts and turrets, a sight the royal dreamer and wannabe flyer would surely have loved.

The castles of Ludwig II are among the most popular sights for tourists of today. However, there are actually dozens of palaces and castles extending from Munich to the Austrian border, whether Gothic, Baroque, or Neoclassical. Some are open to the public.

Starting from Munich, I joined a small group that set out to examine some of these sumptuous constructions, cramming as many as possible into a week's time. It was like dining on beer, sausage and apfelstrudel daily - but a Bavarian feast for the eyes instead of the stomach.

Our eyes glazed over when we tried to grasp the complicated family tree of the Wittelsbachs, rulers of Bavaria for more than seven hundred years, including their relationships with their wives, husbands, mistresses and lovers. So we concentrated on the art and architecture. Here are a few highlights of this short but fascinating exploration.

Munich

Statue of King Ludwig I in MunichThe incredibly large and opulent Baroque palace of Nymphenburg, one of Munich's most popular attractions, was built to celebrate the 1664 birth of a royal heir, Max Emanuel, a long-awaited baby who grew up to become the great-grandfather of Ludwig II. The palace continued to be occupied by the Wittelsbach family for several generations.

The first King Ludwig dallied there and his grandson, Ludwig II, was born there.

A popular room in the palace is devoted to dozens of portraits of the first Ludwig's mistresses - trophies in oil of conquests that included the notorious Spanish dancer, Lola Montez. She was the inspiration for the expression, “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets” - or so we were improbably told by our guide.

I was more impressed with the fact that Mozart played in the palace at age 7 - not with toys or blocks of course, but on the piano.

We also visited three other palaces in Munich: exquisite, 18th-century Amalienburg, with its circular hall of mirrors, Schleissheim, now the official state gallery for Baroque paintings, and Lustheim, which contains a beautiful collection of Meissen porcelain.

Prien

From this attractive Bavarian village on the shores of Lake Chiemsee, we took the passenger ferry to the small island of Herreninsel to see another of Ludwig II's “mad” creations - the unfinished palace that he built in an attempt to duplicate the French palace of Versailles.

Herreninsel was the king's plan to duplicate Versailles.On display among the gold, porcelain and cherub-bedecked chambers is Ludwig's king-size golden bed with its moon-shaped night light, which once contained a single candle. There is a secret spiral staircase that led from his bed to an indoor swimming pool on the floor below. Construction on the palace was halted after his death, and today the unfinished portion is almost as interesting as the remainder.

Oberammergau

The fairy-tale-like village is famous for its Passion Play, performed every 10 years since the early 17th century. The theater, built expressly for that purpose, is an interesting tour itself.

A half-hour's drive from Oberammergau is Castle Linderhof, the only one of the Ludwig II palaces and castles that was completed during the king's lifetime. Like Herreninsel, this was Ludwig's homage to France's King Louis XIV, with many elements copied from Versailles. The surrounding gardens are as famous as the palace itself.

Fuessen

Neuschwanstein castle, built by the Ludwig II near parents home.The village of Fuessen is the usual headquarters for visits to two nearby castles, Ludwig II's Neuschwanstein, with its occasional hang gliders, and the neo-Gothic Hohenschwangau. The latter, the childhood summer home of Ludwig II, is credited to Ludwig's father, Maximilian II, who renovated a 12th-century fortress, keeping the medieval style but modernizing it to comfort standards of the early nineteenth century.

In later years, Ludwig II used the castle to keep a telescopic watch on his construction of Neuschwanstein, until enough of it was completed so that he could move in himself and continue his nightly ramblings through the forests and nearby mountain villages. Today Neuschwanstein is famous also for serving as the model for the Sleeping Beauty castles of Disney amusement parks throughout the world.

In this spectacular Alpine setting, I concluded that Neuschwanstein, the magnificent edifice of Bavaria's celebrated Mad King, will probably remain the standard by which all romantic castles are judged between now and, well…kingdom come.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

German National Tourist Office, 122 E. 42nd St., New York, NY 10068;  Phone (212) 661-3377; www.cometogermany.com.

Bavaria Tourism, Leopoldstrasse 146 80804, Munich, Germany; www.bayernby/en/index.html.

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