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Neuschwanstein (“New Swan Stone Castle”) is one of the most beautiful and famous castles in Germany. Originally ordered to be built by King Ludwig II, this fairy tale castle is the epitome of neo-romantic style. The famous German castle overlooks the picturesque Hohenschwangau valley and is located only a short distance from the popular tourist town, Fussen.

Construction on the castle began in 1869, but given the exact tastes of King Ludwig II, progress was very slow going. It took 14 carpenters four and a half years just to complete the woodwork in Ludwig’s bedroom. The King was an immense devotee of Richard Wagner, even going as far as naming the castle after a character in one of Wagner’s operas–the Swan Knight. In none of the other castles in Germany will you find more instances of Ludwig’s fondness for Wagner’s work. Tapestries depicting scenes from Wagner’s opera can be found inside.

Construction was halted on the castle and King Ludwig II was removed from power due to intrigue within his own cabinet. The King himself was rarely concerned with matters of state and was sometimes thought to suffer from hallucinations. However, what frightened the cabinet were the rumors of their possible removal. Under Bavarian law, a King could be removed from power if he were found unfit to rule. The cabinet produced this report and deposed of the King. However, Ludwig’s mysterious death – ruled a suicide at the time – suggests that the cabinet was not content to merely remove him from power. This bit of mystery makes the atmosphere of Neuschwanstein one of the most intriguing of the castles in Germany.

Throne Room

Unfortunately, many of the rooms in the enchanting castle remained bare. Only 14 rooms were finished before Ludwig’s death. Yet the beauty of this famous German castle cannot be denied. The sun reflects magnificently off the pearly walls of Neuschwanstein. Inside, the throne room is the picture of opulence. Intricate frescos of angels and other Christian depictions can be found. There is no throne, only a raised dais at the end of the room, as the King was removed from power before a throne could be built.

One of biggest ironies of this castle is that a structure built to be a private refuge, “sacred and out of reach”, should now be host to thousands of tourists each year. Another irony is that although the castle was built largely as a stage for Wagnerian productions, the composer never set foot in Neuschwanstein. Nor was the castle’s throne room was ever completed in time to contain a throne.

To execute his dream project, the king commissioned a stage designer as architect. The castle that Christian Jank designed for Ludwig inspires awe and surprise in visitors to this day. But in part because the Disneyesque image of Neuschwanstein has become such a cliché, it is easy to dismiss it as an ostentatious example of poor taste, an anachronistic piece of foolishness. Nevertheless, ever since it was opened to the public, this great building has acted as a powerful magnet. The castle’s unique location combined with Ludwig’s “fantasy in stone” creates a special magic. But like any work of art, the more one knows about Neuschwanstein, the more one can appreciate it.

The engineering architect was Eduard Riedel (after 1874, Georg Dollmann; from 1886 to 1892 Julius Hofmann), and Neuschwanstein is an engineering marvel. The castle’s construction lasted 23 years, until long after Ludwig’s death. Although built in the Germanic late Romanesque style of the 13th century, the castle was equipped with the best technology available in the late 1860s. Quite unlike any real medieval castle, Neuschwanstein has a forced-air central heating system. Its rarely-used kitchen was of the most advanced design. The winter garden features a large sliding glass door. Out of all of Ludwig’s amazing “fantasies in stone,” Neuschwanstein seems to be the most fantastic. With some of the structure still not totally complete, Ludwig moved into Neuschwanstein’s finished rooms for the first time in 1884. The king spent eleven nights in his dream castle from 27 May to 8 June. Contrary to popular legend, Ludwig’s building projects did not bankrupt the Bavarian treasury. Neuschwanstein, like Ludwig’s other castles, was financed entirely from the king’s own funds.

Wagner and Ludwig

To understand the story, you’ll need to know a bit about Ludwig. As a child, he loved swans. This is not surprising, considering the castle he lived in was called Hohenschwangau (or “high region of the swan”) and contained artwork depicting the story of Lohengrin, a medieval knight of the Holy Grail who rescues a princess with the aid of a swan. Ludwig liked to feed swans and draw pictures of them, and when at age thirteen he heard of Richard Wagner’s opera “Lohengrin,” he was very excited. He memorized the entire libretto, and this led him to an interest in Wagner’s other music and writings. Within a few years, this interest turned into an obsession. In 1863, Ludwig got a copy of Wagner’s “The Ring Cycle.” In the preface, Wagner talks about “the miserable state of the German theater,” and that “a German Prince would need to be found to provide the required funds” to produce the opera. Ludwig took this as his personal mission. The very next year, at age eighteen, Ludwig became king when his father died. His first official duty was to send for Wagner and have him brought to Munich. Wagner, who at that time was in his fifties, was a gifted musician but not, apparently, a very nice guy. History records Wagner as arrogant and self-centered, prone to excess, indiscretion, and intolerance. It so happened that at the very time Ludwig summoned him to Munich; Wagner was trying to evade his creditors and was very much in need of a patron. So Ludwig and Wagner struck up an almost symbiotic relationship. Ludwig funded Wagner’s work and put him up in a handsome villa, and Wagner played the part of mentor and idol. Not long thereafter, though, amid reports of yet another affair and worries that Wagner might be exerting too much influence over the young king, he was forced to leave Bavaria and move to Switzerland. Although Ludwig was upset, he continued to support Wagner, and the two kept up a steady correspondence.

Meanwhile, Ludwig was not having a very good time as king. He lost an important war against Prussia, was forced to submit his army to Austrian control, and then ended an unhappy engagement. Depressed and bitter, he withdrew from the public eye as much as possible and consoled himself by planning the construction of several great castles. In 1869, work began on his most ambitious castle, Neuschwanstein.

Ludwig had always wanted a medieval castle. That is to say, Neuschwanstein was made to look a lot older than it really was. But the most distinctive feature of the castle was that it was designed to be a stage for Wagner’s operas, both literally and figuratively. Some rooms were designed explicitly as places where an opera might be performed, but in every room and corridor of the castle the architecture and artwork reflected the German mythology that formed the basis of Wagner’s operas. All but a very few of Wagner’s operas are depicted in one way or another in the castle. One of the most unusual rooms—if you can call it that—is called the Grotto. It’s actually an incredibly convincing artificial cave, complete with stalactites and a waterfall. The Grotto was intended to represent a cave from Wagner’s opera “Tannhäuser.”

Around the time construction began, estimates were that Ludwig would be able to move into the castle within about three years. But the work proceeded at a painfully slow pace and more than a decade later, the castle was still not complete. In 1883 Wagner died, causing Ludwig tremendous grief. So the composer never actually set foot inside the castle that had been built in his honor. A year later, Ludwig decided to move in, even though the structure was still unfinished and the throne room was not yet ready to hold a throne. But the king resided there for a grand total of only eleven nights.

Memorial Cross at the site where the body of Ludwig II was found in Lake Starnberg

After Ludwig died under suspicious circumstances in 1886 at the age of 41, construction on Neuschwanstein continued for another eight years. When the builders finally stopped, only a third of the rooms had been finished and decorated.  Without Ludwig, Wagner may never have achieved the successes he did, and without Wagner, Neuschwanstein would never have been built. But there is much more to the story of the life and death of King Ludwig II than Neuschwanstein. The “swan king,” as he is sometimes called, built other equally interesting castles and led a fascinating, if deeply troubled life. His story, like his castles, is a reminder that there is more to Bavaria than meets the eye.


Across the ocean and above the lands
Sits a legacy for all curious eyes.
An ivory castle on a lonely peak
Where even the clouds bow down
Beneath its soaring majestic spires.
It was the dream of one king not long ago
That flustered the brow of every fair maiden.
To build for beauty, hold art above war.
Dismissing tradition and logic for lies
And following a single dream to lands end.
But now the king has been gone for years.
And Bavaria has never quite been the same
Since the death of Kind Ludwig the mad.
His castles stand proud and greet the wanderers
And journeyman, and dreamers and historians alike.
Though all are rare in craft and dripping in style
One of his lonely dreams stands above the rest.
Reaching beyond the Alpine rolling skies
Coloring heaven with a touch of human royalty.
A place any Sleeping Beauty would pray to wake.
It is here, I fell in love again, twice in the time of a year.
First with the earth, its inhabitants achievements
And the very nature that hides them in its breast.
The lakes that capture the suns final rays,
The heaving mountains with their fancy caps of snow,
The whispering cow bells carried by the gentle winds
And the serenity of the painted villages sleeping below.
Blessed be whoever may fall upon this place
Tucked into the heart of the Bavarian Alps
For this is the spot where I proudly left my heart,
And left Neuschwanstein for widened eyes to behold.
(By Robyn Schwartz (10/17/2001)
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