Neuschwanstein Castle, with over 10,000 visitors a day, is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Germany. It is also a candidate for UNESCO's World Heritage list. But is it really worth a visit?
The castle towers are indeed white as snow, just like on all of the pictures most visitors will have seen on the Internet. But now, standing here facing the battlements and gables, everyone seems to be in awe - at least a little bit. The surroundings are somewhat tacky, and yet undeniably beautiful.
On this sunny Sunday, hundreds of people from all over the world have flocked to Neuschwanstein Castle in southern Bavaria. They are not only admiring its unique architecture, but also the majestic view over the Lechtal valley, 150 meters (500 feet) below. Green as far as you can see, stretching into fields, meadows and woods. Located between them are white churches with red roofs, surrounded by turquoise lakes. It's a fairytale landscape.
Bavarian fairytale, strictly organized
The grating sound of a loudspeaker interrupts the idyllic scene."Little Anne at the museum shop is looking for her parents." In a crowded place, these things can happen. But here it is an exception rather than a daily occurrence. At Neuschwanstein, two worlds come together that usually wouldn't be able to coexist: Bavarian picture-book landscapes, managed with Prussian precision.
The approach to Neuschwanstein is spectacular. From a great distance, one can spot the castle that Bavaria's King Ludwig II began to build from 1869 onwards, on a jagged rock in front of the steep rugged cliffs of the Ammergau Alps. From the small town of Hohenschwangau at the foot of the castle, my car rolls - as if by magic - into a free parking lot. Coaches are already dropping off masses of visitors.
"Sometimes we have motorists acting stupidly," the responsible parking lot attendant tells me. "But usually we have everything under control." Who are his favorite guests? "The Chinese. Disciplined at all times and quick to leave," he says. Italian school kids are the most difficult to manage, he admits.
From the parking lot, we cross through the village on foot, passing souvenir stands selling knickknacks. Despite the hot weather, "royal umbrellas" with Ludwig II's image are a sales hit as well as the build-it-yourself castle, which has a fair number of prospective buyers. It's possible to buy these on the way back, thereby avoiding having to carry souvenirs up and down the castle hill.
The ticket office is located at the edge of the village. Here again, the line moves fast. After five minutes of queuing, it is our turn. "German?" Yes. "Group 452. Entry is in two hours. You have plenty of time. Getting up to the castle won't take longer than an hour. That'll be 12 euros ($15.80) ." Well, that didn't take long at all.
Evolution of a tourist destination
It is obvious that Neuschwanstein is used to handling masses of visitors. Shortly after Ludwig II's death in 1886, the castle was opened to the public. Quickly it became a tourist hotspot, even though in the beginning most visitors tended to be local fans of the Bavarian monarchy.
In the 1930s, large numbers of tourists began to venture into this remote part of Bavaria. Back then, the Nazis "discovered" the not even 60-year-old romantic castle and declared it part of ancient Germanic cultural heritage. With military precision, the National Socialists' mass leisure organization "Kraft durch Freude" (Strength Through Joy) perfected the German peoples' vacation. They turned the little town of Hohenschwangau into a functioning tourist center - with cobbled streets, "real" Bavarian guesthouses, artificially aged fountains and newly built "authentic" alpine apartments.
Everyone up the hill
All obvious remnants of the Nazi era were quickly removed after 1945. Ever since then, this has been a place of peaceful international understanding. There are guided tours in German and English. In addition to that, audio guides in 16 further languages can be provided, among them Korean, Thai and Arabic.
The different nationalities turn the ascent to the castle a very varied and mixed affair: Some visitors arrive fully kitted out for a mountaineering expedition comparable to a Himalayan climb. Others appear to have just thrown on whatever happened to be within reach in their suitcases. As we make our ascent, some seem to imagine undiscovered medieval secrets behind every tree and avidly photograph mysterious signs, felled trees and themselves - posing in front of mysterious signs and felled trees, of course.
Others, having managed to climb some 50 meters in altitude, find themselves drenched in sweat, their facial expressions revealing their fear of failure. At this point, some people utter encouragement, saying motivational things like, "Don't worry, another half an hour at most will see you at the castle gate" - "Really? We can manage that!" - "Yeah! You'll easily make it."
A brief treat
Finally, we get to enter the castle. Group 452 is now listening to a professional castle guide. The tour takes 45 minutes, but only because there is a delay caused by the undisciplined group just one room ahead, overrunning on the set time. So, what is there to see? The private chamber including the canopy bed - which was not bad. The living quarters - which seemed narrow and bourgeois. The throne room - which was disappointing. Was that all? I feel a growing sense disbelief; Is this what King Ludwig risked his very existence for?
The construction is thought to have cost three million marks, an enormous amount of money back in the day, even for a king. When, in 1886, Ludwig II finally fell from power, six million marks had already been pumped into the building - taken from the impoverished rural population of Bavaria. "If the castle had been completed according to Ludwig's original plans, it would boast over 180 rooms," our guide says, as way of justification for the short tour.
Castle of a visionary
Back outside. Little Anne has managed to find her parents. Actually there are happy, satisfied faces everywhere. At this point everyone knows the way back to the car park and where to get hold of a build-it-yourself castle. Not just any castle, the build-it-yourself castle, the castle that's known the world over, if for no other reason than because of Disney. The castle, which for generations has defined what a castle is supposed to look like and what it shouldn't.
And today this apparently incomplete castle of Neuschwanstein has turned out to be a gold mine for the Free State of Bavaria, 150 years after it was partially completed. King Ludwig may have been a ruthless spendthrift, but he was also a visionary.
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