The Crazy King's Castle

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
Trip End Oct 18, 2006

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Tuesday, October 3, 2006

October 3, 2007

It was a beautiful Tuesday morning when I arrived at the Munich Hauptbahnhof, intending to secure a reservation on a night train to Prague before heading to Füssen for the day to see Neuschwanstein. By now you can probably guess what's coming. I probably don't even need to write this next paragraph. In fact, go ahead and get a piece of paper. Now write down your guess. Go on. Write it down. Ok, for those of you who wrote, "No reservations left on overnight train," or some such rough approximation thereof, you win. Once again, my fault for waiting until the morning of, especially since I'd been in the Hauptbahnhof no less than 5 times since my arrival in Munich. But this is what makes travel so interesting. No?
"Aso, wie kann man nach Praha fahren?" I said to the man behind the ticket counter. He didn't visibly cringe at my poor German sentence construction, as I'm sure of you who are fluent may have just then. Instead he just chose to reply in English. He told me there was no availability on the overnight but, with my Eurail pass I could travel on the 4:44pm without a reservation. He then told me where to find the train to Füssen and informed me that it was leaving in exactly 2 minutes.
Now, there's one thing I've learned about trains in Germany. Actually, about Germany in general. When they say 2 minutes, they mean 2 minutes. None of this stuff like in Italy where two minutes means, yeah in two minutes, if everyone showed up for work today, and if Gianni is finished with his cigarette and... No. I knew I had to hoof it. And, in fact, I ended up sprinting the last 500 yards, yelling at the conductor who was just stepping into the last car as I rounded the corner and caught sight of the platform.
I thanked her profusely once I was aboard. If I had missed that train it would have cost me an hour or more and I had to be back for that 4:44. So if I wanted to see the castle, I needed to get out there ASAP. It was now 9:00am. Thing is, in all my hurry to catch this train, I missed a bit of direction from the guy at the ticket counter.
After an hour and a half (time enough to have made to Füssen I thought) I asked one of the conductors when she expected we would arrive. She understood my pidgin-German, and explained to me that I had missed a connection if I was trying to get to Füssen. It vaguely hit me then, the ticket counter guy saying something about a change of trains in Buchloe. So for all my efforts to make it onto the first train of the day bound for Füssen, I still ended up being screwed. I got off at the next stop and back-tracked to Buchloe, where I switched to the proper train to get me to Füssen. Ah well, more time to enjoy the lush, green fields of Bavaria rolling by outside my window.
They really are stunning - the fields - and backed by towering forests of pines that lead right up the Alps, which come skyrocketing out of the horizon in every direction. I'd seen the Alps passing through Switzerland and in Northern Italy near Lake Como and in Austria and Garmisch, of course. And this was just as good as all that. The Alps, I think, in all their incarnations, probably provided the prettiest natural scenery of the trip. When considering the quaint towns along with the coastal scenery of Cinque Terre I might say that made for a more stunning view. But for pure, unspoiled nature, this was hard to beat.
Once in Füssen, I boarded a bus that took me through the little town to the base of the hill where tickets are sold to tour Schloß Neuschwanstein. For those who don't know, or don't think you know, what that is Neuschwanstein is perhaps the most famous 19th century neo-romantic castle in the world. It's the structure that served as inspiration to Walt Disney when he built his iconic castle for the Magic Kingdom. It is the most photographed castle in Europe (so you've probably seen it), which has helped solidify it in many Americans' minds as the prototypical castle-form with its soaring spires and turreted portico.
It was commissioned by Ludwig II, King of Bavaria, as a retreat and as an homage to Richard Wagner, the King's inspiring muse. One of several Royal residences, this was to be his most grand, to the chagrin of many other powerful men in the government who felt the drain on the treasury was unwarranted. After only six months in residence at Neuschwanstein, and with much of the castle still unfinished, Crazy King Ludwig was taken to Berlin and summarily declared insane. Thus the moniker. A short time later he was found drown in a lake along with the psychiatrist who certified him under suspicious circumstances. Whether or not foul play was involved has never been established, mostly because no one cared to investigate too diligently. As a result, much of the grand castle were never finished. But the fourteen rooms that were are on display to the public today.

The idea for the castle was outlined by Ludwig in a letter to Wagner, written in May of 1868; "It is my intention to rebuild the old castle ruin at Hohenschwangau near the Pollat Gorge in the authentic style of the old German knights' castles...the location is the most beautiful one could find, holy and unapproachable, a worthy temple for the divine friend who has brought salvation and true blessing to the world." The foundation stone of the building was laid September 5, 1869. Neuschwanstein was primarily designed by Christian Jank who was not an architect or even an engineer, but rather a theatrical set designer. This says a lot about what Ludwig intended for this site. The whole place is an amalgamation of fantastic devices from the setting itself to the little rooms such as the Grotto - straight out of Wagnerian myth. The architectural know-how was provided by the Munich court architect, Eduard Riedel first, and then by Georg Dollman and Leo Von Klenze.
The castle was originally called "New Hohenschwangau Castle" until the king's untimely death. It was then re-named Neuschwanstein, the castle of the Swan Knight, Lohengrin, of Wagner's opera of the same name.
One has a choice as to how they wish to ascend to the castle; on foot or by bus. Much like at the Alhambra in Granada, my tour ticket granted me entrance at a specific time. I really wanted to do the hike, but wasn't sure I had enough time to make it. It would be cutting it close for sure. Also, by taking the bus I could ensure I had time to walk over to the bridge behind the castle, which affords the best opportunity to photograph the entire structure. It sits directly above the gorge with an arresting view of a waterfall behind it - quite a sight. I was able to take some really nice snaps up there (see attached).
The bridge was terribly crowded though. At times I couldn't pass there were so many onlookers trying to get a photo of their loved one with the castle in the background. And 60% of them were Asian; Japanese I think, must have been a tour group. I'd hate to see it at the height of the summer season. That would be unbearable, I'm sure.
After exhausting the photographic possibilities on the bridge, I hoofed it down the path towards the castle. Along the way I stopped at a scenic overlook with a great view facing away from Neuschwanstein. From there one could see a gorgeous mountain lake nestled between the peaks and another palace (Schloß Hohenschwangau, the one built by Ludwig's father) overlooking the placid waters. Unreal.
I milled about for a little while near the entrance of the castle before my tour started. It was another fantastic early fall day, crisp, but not too cool with the sun shining brightly overhead. It reminded me of one of those perfect Saturday afternoons when, as a nine year old, we would take the field with our over-sized helmets flopping from side-to-side as we played flag-football. There's something about that kind of weather that always reminds me of innocence.
The tour lasted maybe forty minutes or so. We saw servants quarters and the throne room and the King's bedchambers. Pretty nice digs, but I'd hate to pay the heating bill. By the time it was over the clock read nearly 4:00. Clearly, the 4:44 train to Prague was not in my future, so I stopped at the bottom of the hillside for a brat and a beer and then sauntered over to the rail station for my return trip.
Once back in Munich, I decided to ask the ticket agents about the overnight train again. Who knows, maybe they had a cancellation. Besides, I had no idea what else to do. My last resort would have been to call Pia and Norbert and explain the situation to them and spend another night there. Well, the guy behind the ticket window told me it was too late to reserve anything. Instead he rather casually suggested I just jump on the train and find an open seat. I was a bit confused at first. I mean, the guy from earlier in the day had made it sound like a reservation would be required. But I figured, what the hell? Nothing to lose. Right?
So I went across the street looking for a way to kill some time as the train wasn't due into the station until almost mid-night. I found a place with fairly decent slices of pizza and then went into a bar, hunkering down to do a little writing. There were still several hours to go. Around 11:00 I made my way to the platform, needing to stretch my legs and having over-stayed my welcome in the bar unless I wanted to order another beer, which I didn't.
Soon the train arrived and I did as my friend at the ticket booth had suggested. I found the first non-sleeper car and took a seat near the door as I entered. I was glad to be making a try to get to Prague that night. But with every new patron that stepped into the car, I felt certain that some surly Czech dude was about to approach me and inform me that I was in his seat. Then I heard someone further down the aisle explaining to his travel companion that the seats with little paper tags hanging from the luggage rack above them were the reserved seats. All the others were free for the taking. I quickly popped into the aisle and glanced above the seat I was occupying. It was free and so was the one next to me. So I heaved my day-pack onto the seat next to mine and finally felt confident that I would actually be proceeding to Prague that night.
This had been the day I was supposed to have had before arriving in Munich. However, after the wash-out my first day in Garmisch and then the beautiful weather the next day I had decided to put off Neuschwanstein, hoping I would get to see it later. So everything worked out in the end. Just like it has this whole trip. Just like it always does. Just like it always will.
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