Welcome to the conclusion of our recent European vacation.
[Recap: We started off in Berlin, where we saw some World War II and Cold War historical sites (Part I), museums and other stuff (Part II), and had some misadventures (Part III). We spent one day in Heidelberg, mostly at the castle (Part IV), and continued south to the Bernese (Swiss) Alps, where we had a lovely time sightseeing in and above the Lauterbrunnen Valley (Part V). From München, our last headquarters, we explored Salzburg (Part VI).]
On our last vacation day, we finished our mini-tour of Bavarian castles. (And perhaps started it, since Salzburg may not qualify as Bavaria.)
I’d heard the name Neuschwanstein before, and I was vaguely aware that it was the picturesque castle cast as the Vulgarian stronghold in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but that pretty much summed up my knowledge of it. Even if you don’t know the name, you’ll almost certainly recognize the castle, especially from an aerial view like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the car, not the movie) had on final approach to Benny Hill’s village.
Schloß Neuschwanstein was built in the mid-19th century by “mad” King Ludwig II, on the ruins of a medieval castle (named appropriately, Schloß Schwanstein). He really wasn’t crazy, though he was quite eccentric; and he had a brother who was genuinely schizophrenic, so that when Ludwig (who hated the pomp of the court, and society in general) retreated to his castles and refused to do his required kinging, his subordinates found a claim of insanity a ready excuse to remove him from power. The castle isn’t “real” in the sense that it was never intended for defense, although it did serve as a seat of power during the six months or so the Ludwig lived in it. Neuschwanstein is a tribute to the works of Richard Wagner, the king’s close friend, and so is a fairy-tale castle in the literal sense.
The drive to the town of Füssen, gateway to the Königsschlösser (King’s Castles), was quite pleasant and hardly ever exceeded the speed of sound. I even briefly abandoned my study of my shoelaces to drink in the Bavarian countryside. After we left the Autobahn we drove along a narrow two-lane road through a broad, serene valley in which a small stream wound along a labyrinthine course, taking its good old time going anywhere. A lovely bicycle path followed our road for a few kilometers, and then darted over to parallel the stream for a while, and then back to tag along with us, as if it were a dog trying to figure out which of its owners was more likely to offer it a treat. If we’d had a day with nothing on the schedule I’d definitely have rented a bike for a long, leisurely riding tour, with no clear destination, the only purpose to enjoy the pastures and woods sliding past while the distant Alps brood on the horizon.
Up to this point, we hadn’t visited anything in Germany or Switzerland that attracted huge crowds of people, at least in mid-May. We knew we were going to break our perfect record at Neuschwanstein, so we made sure to arrive early and buy our tickets promptly. We set a second precedent, as well: for the first time we parked in a parking lot that didn’t require (1) negotiating a maze of concrete buttresses to reach an available spot and (2) laser-guided driving accuracy to get between the lines delimiting the parking space. There were vast reaches of pavement on both sides of us—we could barely see, off in the haze of distance, the lines on either side of the car—and nothing above but blue sky. I felt like I was in Las Vegas.
I also discovered, around this time, that there were two castles here. While Neuschwanstein was being built, Ludwig II lived in the “old” family manor, the relatively plain Schloß Hohenschwangau. We splurged for the Königsticket—admission to both castles, and all the rights and privileges thereunto appertaining.
The folks who run tours through the Königsschlösser had clearly learned their crowd-control techniques from Disney World. Our Königstickets bore the start times of both tours in 60-point print, along with an official tour number for each, just in case we forgot how to tell time during our walk up to either castle. The tours began two hours apart. I wondered whether that would be enough time, as a good country kilometer and two steep hills separated the two castles, but I’d neglected to figure in the deadly combination of German efficiency and Disney-World-style forced people moving. Our travel guide had warned us that delays of five hours were not unheard of during peak season; but as we had shown up both bright and early that morning, and a month early for summer, we scored a first tour time just a half hour hence—and that long only because enough time was allowed for an emphysemic sloth to scale the hill on which each castle was perched.
As we began the march up to Hohenschwangau, we caught through the trees a glimpse of Schloß Neuschwanstein (Plate 1). Though a half-hour’s walk distant, it seemed to loom over us from atop its wooded rampart. In fact, it didn’t even look real, way up there, backlit by the sun. I was tempted to say “Camelot! Camelot!” “[It’s only a model.]” “Shh!”
Plate 1. Schloß Neuschwanstein from the village below.
Schloß Hohenschwangau is a sandstone-colored palace, built, like Neuschwanstein, for looks and not for fortitude (Plate 2).
Plate 2. Schloß Hohenschwangau.
We had been issued an information booklet at the ticket booth, which told us to allow twenty minutes for the short but steep hike up to Hohenschwangau. It took us seven, and we were in no hurry. An emphysemic, paraplegic sloth could have made it in twenty.
Schloß Hohenschwangau commanded a magnificent view all around. With Schloß Neuschwanstein still haunting our peripheral vision, I didn’t expect to have much of one; the topology dictated that Hohenschwangau would have the inferior vista. Even this second-rate view, however, was plenty picturesque, as Plate 3 will attest.
Plate 3. View from Schloß Hohenschwangau courtyard.
Arriving more than twenty minutes early, we didn’t have much to do but shlep around the courtyard. Fortunately, for such a small castle, Schloß Hohenschwangau had a really pretty one. How many gardens have you seen with battlements?
For some reason, the staff were adamant about not allowing photography inside the castles. Didn't matter much: after Heidelberg and Salzburg, I didn’t see anything inside this castle that particularly stuck in my mind, save one. A small, circular room in one of the turrets housed a spyglass, through which Ludwig II used to keep tabs on how his new castle (Neuschwanstein, though he called it Neue Burg Hohenschwangau, “New Fortress Hohenschwangau”) was coming along.
Another odd thing about the Königsschlösser, apart from their relative modernity, is that they aren’t closely associated with any major municipality. This fact didn’t register until we started back down to the steep path on our way to Neuschwanstein, and I realized that I’d been smelling cows all morning long. The entire district was redolent of cattle. And horses, though the latter were more of a local phenomenon, as you’ll presently see.
The ascent to Schloß Neuschwanstein was considerably more strenuous. In fact, the guide pamphlet suggested that the emphysemic sloth decline the walk and ride up on one of the available buses, or, if a quainter mode of travel were desired, in a large cart pulled by a team of horses. Hoofing it up on one’s own hooves was recommended only for the hearty of constitution, and an estimated travel time of 40 minutes was given. Again, we cut that time in half, but our hike up to Neuschwanstein was indeed far less pleasant than the previous one. Instead of an intimate footpath zigzagging up the steep hill, punctuated by short staircases and flowerbeds, we faced an unrelenting slog up a wide asphalt road beneath a canopy of tall trees. We appreciated the shade, but the forest robbed us of our view. Worse yet, we were following the route taken by the horse carts, and our ascent soon became a slalom. It wouldn’t have been too bad if they’d left the horse apples in situ. However, a kind of mini-bulldozer zoomed about and endeavored to pick up after the horses, but it only succeeded in converting each compact, conical mass of horseshit into a smear measuring one millimeter by one acre. This formed the basis of an entire fly-based ecosystem: vast stretches of the road were carpeted in a black, teeming multitude, their wings occasionally glinting in the dappled sunlight. I kept leaping away instinctively whenever we approached one of the dung smears, for the flies, disturbed by our looming shadows, all took flight at once, sounding just like an enraged wasps’ nest. And the smell! It was as if the stench had been extracted from the fetid air in every barn in Bavaria and plated onto the blacktop.
Plumb tuckered out, and oxygen-deprived from holding our breath, we arrived at the holding area just below the gatehouse, in what I thought of as the castle’s “red wing”. To the left was an overlook from which we peered down at a narrow gorge with a lovely small waterfall cascading into an abyssal pool. In addition, for those who needed it, there was a cluster of park benches under a canvas roof; I saw no sign reading “Please recover from your heart failure and heatstroke here” was absent, but it certainly wasn't necessary.
We discovered we could also walk around in the interior courtyards while waiting for our tour to start. From there the castle looked much smaller than from the outside (Plate 4). If you’re reminded of Cinderella’s palace at Disneyland, that’s no coincidence: it was modeled after Schloß Neuschwanstein, right down to the digital displays showing numbers of the on-deck tour groups (Plate 4, lower left).
Plate 4. Lower courtyard, Schloß Neuschwanstein.
Why did the upper courtyard (Plate 5) seem even more claustrophobic than the lower? Oh, right—I was used to thinking of it as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s takeoff point. The courtyard scenes in the movie of the same name were either shot at a different castle, or on a movie set. The lighter squares among the flagstones (Plate 5, lower center; three of them are just left of the lady taking the picture) mark where the columns of a proposed chapel were to be placed. That’s right—Neuschwanstein is still unfinished. Construction ended at about the same time as Ludwig II’s life, in a very suspicious drowning incident a few days after he was committed.
Plate 5. Upper courtyard, Schloß Neuschwanstein.
Our tour skipped the second floor—also unfinished—entirely. The parts we saw were all decorated in Wagnerian themes. Much of the imagery was lost on us; I’ve never seen a Wagner opera (though I have been acquainted with some of the overtures). Still, it was all intricately beautiful, the dramatic scenes flowing from panel to panel, covering entire rooms and hallways. We passed through a genuine throne room—the only one we saw in the castles and palaces we visited. The third floor even had a cave!
As I mentioned, we weren’t allowed to snap photos of the inside, but we could take pictures of the castle’s surroundings from inside. We had ample opportunity to do so, as Schloß Neuschwanstein had a commanding view in every direction. Plate 6 is a look back at Schloß Hohenschwangau—the precise opposite direction from King Ludwig spying on his minions while they worked on his dream castle.
Plate 6. Schloß Hohenschwangau, looking down from Schloß Neuschwanstein.
Our tour completed, we had one last stop before returning to the car: a bridge directly over the waterfall we’d seen earlier. Called Marie’s bridge (after a dignitary whose significance escapes me), it offered a spectacular view back to the castle (Plate 7). From there the castle’s perch looked precarious indeed, as though the slightest breeze would send it tumbling into the gorge below.
Plate 7. Schloß Neuschwanstein from Marie’s Bridge.
Woohoo—another mission successfully completed! Nothing for it but to drive back to München and scare up some grub. None of us was particularly inspired; almost by default we chose an Indian restaurant close to the Bavarian one from the previous night. Pakistani and Indian, actually: the menu was written out in German and, I think, Urdu. Fortunately, the names of all the Indian dishes used the standard British transliteration, so we had no trouble navigating the menu. The meal was made slightly surreal by the huge TV in the corner of the room, nor more than two meters from us, blaring music videos billed as Bollywood hits—yet the actors and music were both Middle Eastern (presumably Pakistani) and not Indian. Every single one featured a smooth-talking brutally rejected by a woman whose dress and haughty manner would make the Taliban break off diplomatic relations with Pakistan, who spent the following eight musical minutes trying to win her back. (Or something; I only glanced in the direction of the TV every couple of minutes, and wouldn’t have done so at all except that my taste buds were dying of boredom from my critically underspiced tikka masala, and I hoped that by watching bits of the videos I could entertain them by synesthesia).
Saturday: The trip back.
The next morning, Eric got up early and walked around central München. The rest of us slept in, in preparation for the flight back.
When we checked in for our flight, Eric got the wrong seat thanks to some computer barf, and, even worse, his reassigned seat was in the precise center of the cabin. I can sympathize with his plight: if I can’t stretch my legs into the aisle once in a while my knees lock up in agonizing tetanus, and it’s at least a day before I can walk properly again. It’s a sacrifice I’m happy to make in return for a prized window seat, but to endure the pain and not get to look out a window? Unthinkable. He asked for a new seat assignment, and the airline, terrified that we’d suffer acute separation anxiety if we were forced to sit apart for nine whole hours, gave us all new seats together. Consequently, two of us now had middle seats, and my prized window seat was gone, man. What’s more, the airline was so anxious not to deprive of us of all the comforts of home that they seated us directly in front of the single screaming child in the entire cabin.
I’d learned my Lesson of the Flying Saunas from a week past: I wore shorts on the plane back, and boy, am I glad I did. From the evidence it seems that the airlines, not satisfied with merely cramming us into a tiny space that would make a Mercury astronaut feel claustrophobic, felt obliged to recreate all aspects of gestation, including the temperature and humidity. It’s surprising, but gratifying, that they stopped short of feeding us through our navels.
On the other hand, I’ll have to give Lufthansa credit for some excellent in-flight entertainment. I got to watch two movies I had on my list, Tron: Legacy and Rapunzel. Movies and music were available free of charge, with pause and rewind capability. And with an aisle seat, I could get up and walk around almost at will. The riff-raff toilets were on their own level below the main cabin, and there was even a drinking fountain down there—a great place to go stretch out every couple of hours. I’m a Boeing loyalist, so I’m embarrassed to say it, but: Airbus 360 rulz!
Astonishingly, I didn’t get sick the next week. My standard modus operandi is to get terribly ill about 24 h after any extended flight.1
Well, it was a monumental vacation—and a monumental travelogue. I hope you enjoyed reading it!
1 When we returned from our work/vacation trip to the UK in 1999, I had a surprisingly rough time riding home from work my first day back. I should be this out of shape, I thought as I labored up the short but steep incline above Fremont St. Arriving home, I felt kind of dizzy and thought to check my temperature. Sure enough, I was running a fever. In fact, I must have been in unusually good shape, as the slightest hint of fever usually completely incapacitates me.