Neuschwanstein Castle - Dream vs Reality
In recent years we visited a few castles across Europe. Since we love getting a glimpse of how the wealthy and powerful people shaping our history used to live, we decided to visit one of the most iconic castles in Germany, Neuschwanstein.
Besides of being the childhood dream of Ludwig II of Bavaria the castle also served as inspiration for the Disney Cinderella castle. We had seen many hero images of the castle and imagined it to be just as glorious as legend suggests, so we got very excited at the chance of seeing it for ourselves. Having seen royal palaces in Austria, Hungary, Spain and France we had high expectations for this fantasy trip.
An eccentric dream from an eccentric mind
Neuschwanstein was to be built as one of the many castles and palaces that Ludwig II envisioned to match the grandiose architecture he saw in France and the reconstructed castle of Wartburg.
The king whose power was waning after the Austro-Prussian war and the Unification of Germany in 1871, retreated more and more into fantasy trying to recreate the world of bygone great kings from epics and legends.
Construction started in 1868 by demolishing the remains of the old keep and was overseen by Ludwig II himself. While architecture of the era was moving towards art nouveau the king had his sights firmly set on the past and ordered the castle be kept medieval in appearance. The walls are decorated with images from the king’s favorite themes, the grail legend and the Lohengrin legend. Although the looks of the castle were to be medieval, architects used the latest technologies of the time: central heating, warm water, English toilets, an electric bell system for the servants and the telephone were all installed. Still the castle is dwarfed by the likes of Schönbrunn or the Royal Palace in Madrid where monarchs had lived for centuries and is only the unfinished fantasy of an eccentric rich man.
The forgotten little brother
Neighboring the Neuschwanstein castle is another, the oft forgotten Hochenschwangau castle. This one is a lot older than its famous younger brother, there are mentions of it from the 12th century and was owned by the knights, later counts of Schwangau. The ruined castle was bought back in 1832 by the father of Ludwig II, Maximilian II – as the castle had many owners throughout the centuries with the Wittelbach dynasty being one of them – who had it renovated and used it as the official summer and hunting residence. Ludwig and his brother spent a lot of time here as children.
Its throne room is adorned with scenes from the Wilkina Saga, the Oriental room was the suite of Ludwig’s mother. The tour takes you through the dressing room of Ludwig and Otto, Ludwig’s bedroom, and Queen Mary of Prussia’s study room. Although its style resembles that of Neuschwanstein it is more authentic due to its place in history. From the rooms you get a view of the valley and the surrounding hills. The castle is charming, cozy and stately while being modest. While Neuschwanstein is the child of a megalomaniac mind, Hochenschwangau is a small gem with real history.
Unprepared for tourists
Around 1.3 million tourists visit Castle Neuschwanstein annually according statistics. It is the most visited castle in Europe and is popular not only due to the location and the scenery, but also because it inspired Disney’s Cinderella Castle. And who wouldn’t like to visit a real-life fairy tale castle?
It seems though that the infrastructure surrounding the castles is not prepared for the masses it draws during the high season. The parking lots are filled up before noon, and only the smarts and quick thinking of the lot attendants will help you find a space guiding you like an orchestra conductor in the overcrowded lot.
There are 2 roads leading to the Hochenschwangau castle, a shorter one with steep stairs and a longer one that is a more relaxed and manageable hike on a narrow path, that pedestrians have to share with the buses and horse carriages. Neither the bus nor the carriages are following a timetable and since your tickets will be for a specific time slot you are better off walking then hoping to catch either with masses of tourists waiting in line for them.
The path leading to Neuschwanstein is only partially covered by the bus and the horse carriages, the last 20 minutes you must hike up a rather steep road. Since there is no timetable for the buses and you cannot reserve a ride you will most probably have to walk from one castle to the other which might be stressful for elderly people. In fact, we saw quite a few exhausted elderly mixed with some younger folks sitting down on the few roadside benches to catch a breath.
Both castles can only be visited at your designated time slot with guided tours and audio guides. You can specify your preferred language when buying your ticket either online or on site in the ticket center and audio guides get distributed at the entrances. You will have to get in line at the ticket center to get your ticket even if you purchased them online, but at the time of our visit there was a separate line for pre-purchased tickets, so we did not have to wait in the winding line with all the other visitors. We definitely advise buying your tickets online.
We chose to buy tickets for both castles and we were not able to choose our own time slot for the second castle, only for the first, instead it was assigned by the customer support. They only gave us one and a half hours to get from one hilltop to the other which ended up a bit of a workout for our parents.
The tours are rushed and are over in less than 30 minutes. Visitors are ushered from one room to the next by the guides following the strict timetable, and delays caused by you taking a better look are not permitted, as the next group is already waiting at the door.
At Hochenschwangau the audio guides are triggered manually by the guide in each room, which causes them to wait up until the whole group is in the room, the groups were also smaller in size, more appropriate for the room sizes.
This was not the case at Neuschwanstein, where the groups were way over sized and did not fit into the rooms at once. The audio guides were automatic and assumed that you can follow the flow of the tour. We had to stop many times because the group did not fit into the rooms, causing the audio guide to be several rooms ahead of our actual location becoming useless the further we went on.
The rooms at Hochenschwangau were properly lit, and you could take a few moments to look around. At Neuschwanstein the rooms were dark to the point you could not see much and since we were huddled like sardines in the smaller rooms walking around to get a closer look was not an option at all.
The waiting areas are inadequate for the number of visitors, there are only a few restaurants on the road and reconstruction works and scaffolding both on the inside and out of Neuschwanstein hindered us of taking our own hero image.
The scenery and the outside of both castles is worthy of a fairy tale, but the tours are not worth the overpriced tickets. You are better of hiking the surroundings and enjoying the views from afar.
Just as the grand dreams of Ludwig II did not come true, our fairy tale dreams were lost in the crowd waiting for a special experience that was never to happen.