October 2, 2007

The Fairy Tale Castle

Well, I guess we can go home now: Kevin and I have finally visited Neuschwanstein, the fairytale castle in southern Bavaria, just at the foot of the Alps. It’s apparently Germany’s “most-photographed” castle, hosting about 1.3 million visitors a year – as many as 6,000 per day in the summer. Some Indian friends of ours, also studying here this year on a Humboldt Fellowship, visited Neuschwanstein as soon as they arrived in Germany, and a couple of weeks ago, just before they went home, they visited Neuschwanstein again. So, Kevin and I thought that before we returned to North America we should probably go see Neuschwanstein, too. And last week, we finally did.

Ask any tourist in Germany, and he’ll probably tell you that Neuschwanstein is the most “German” of all German castles. Yet it was actually built in the late 19th century as an idealized version of a medieval German castle and had no parallel in real life. Conceived by the King of Bavaria, Ludwig II, or “Crazy King Ludwig,” as he is often called, it was intended as a refuge from the increasingly tumultuous affairs of state as well as an architectural realization of Wagnerian operas, such as Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, and Tristan und Isolde.

Ludwig was extremely fond of Wagner and became his chief patron – or his chief con, as others would have it. At one point, members of Ludwig’s own court had Wagner run out of the country in order to put an end to his money grubbing ways, but Ludwig merely doubled his annual financial support of the composer. Wagner, in return, patronized Ludwig’s artistic aspirations and is said to have called him Parcifal, after the innocent and brave seeker of the Holy Grail, from his opera of the same name.

Ludwig (right) and Parcifal (left).

I recently came across an English version of the Parcifal saga, and Wagner’s analogy was only too apt. The young knight Parcifal, whose innocence bordered on cluelessness, was rent from his mother’s bosom and forced to claim his birthright as the keeper of the Holy Grail; Ludwig himself ascended throne at the tender age of 18, after the sudden death of his father, Maximillian. After many adventures Parcifal finally gets the Grail, thereby redeeming his uncle, who’d been forced to guard the cup as atonement for his sins. Ludwig’s own uncle, the king of Prussia, invaded and conquered Bavaria just two years after Ludwig ascended the throne, and no doubt he thought his uncle had some atoning to do. For the rest of his life, the monarch was nothing more than a vassal of Prussia. Ludwig spent the rest of his life on a quest to retrieve his lost title – the Holy Grail, if you will. Since he never again enjoyed absolute control over his own kingdom, he created a make-believe world instead, and a fairytale castle high up on a hill where he could act out his fantasies as both knight and king.

In 1885, though, the real world came crashing down around him. The Bavarian royal treasury was thoroughly bankrupt, and foreign creditors threatened to freeze the family’s reamaining assets. Yet the Ludwig continued spending exorbitant sums on the construction of Neuschwanstein and became increasingly withdrawn. (Since 1875 he’d slept during the day and woke only at night.) Finally in 1866, the royal family had him declared insane, stripped him of his crown, and interned him in Berg Palace, southeast of Munich. Three days later, he was found dead in the shallow waters of Lake Starnberg, along with the unlucky psychiatrist who had him committed. No official explanation has ever been given for his death, and poor Ludwig never even got to the finished result. Construction wasn’t completed until 1891. The fairytale was over before the opening credits.

I must confess, though, that I found the castle itself much less interesting than the story of its creation. Its limestone façade lacked any trace of soot or patina – it just looked too new, like some theme park version of a castle. In fact, Neuschwanstein was the model for Cinderella’s castle, the centerpiece of Disney World. I actually wonder how many times Walt Disney visited Neuschwanstein before planning his own fairytale theme park. I imagine him walking through its outlandish interiors and thinking, “Yeah, this is exactly what we need in America,” and then going home to his sketchbook and copying it out brick for brick. There’s this particular hallway in Ludwig’s castle that has been decorated to look like cave of Venus, from the opera Tannhäuser, complete with plaster stalactites, and I swear to God, I’ve toured the same cave at Disney World, only it there it’s the workplace of the Seven Dwarves.

My main complaint, however, was the other tourists: pushy foreigners who don’t speak a word of German, or even English, and have no concept of queuing. Lord, I detest the pleebs! But at least we didn’t have to deal with 6,000 of them, the tourist season having ended a few weeks ago. On the crystal-clear September day we visited, there were only about 3,000 other visitors.

Still, the view from the Schloss was breathtaking, just as Ludwig himself described it in a letter to Wagner:
“[T]he location is one of the most beautiful to be found, holy and unapproachable, a worthy temple for the divine friend who has brought salvation and true blessing to the world. … [T]hey will take revenge, the desecrated gods, and come to live with Us on the lofty heights, breathing the air of heaven.”

I took the above shot from the Marienbrücke, a narrow, wooden bridge that’s suspended several hundred feet above the Pollät Gorge, and I can say that from those “lofty heights” the air was, indeed, crystal clear (although Kevin thought it was going to make him sick). I even thought I saw a few of those “desecrated angles” circling overhead that day, but maybe they were just paragliders.

But my favorite moment all day was the walk down the mountain, along a rocky trail that is avoided by most tourists. The woods were quiet and peaceful, only a smattering of sunlight broke through the tall canopy to reach the leafy carpet below. And I thought how nice it would be if all of Neuschwanstein could be this secluded, even if that meant that tickets would cost thousands of dollars, putting out of reach of all but a rare few – even yours truly. Maybe I’d save up all my money so that Kevin and I could visit it just once in our lives. Ascending the mountain on horseback and touring the castle alone with your lover – now that would be the way to see Neuschwanstein. Only in fairy tales, I guess.

A photochrome print of Neuschwanstein from the 1890s.

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