Thursday, 2 April 2015

Castle in the air – an eccentric's Wagnerian legacy

Monday dawned, but not particularly bright or fair. The cloud, although showing the vaguest signs of an inclination to shift, was nonetheless clinging to the tops of the ridges that stand between Füssen, the mountains and the castles.

But we had made our plans and, after breakfast, headed to catch a bus that would take us the short distance to Schloss Hohenschwangau.

This castle – the name translates as High Swan County Palace – was built between 1833 and 1837, although additions were made until 1855 on the orders of Maximillian II of Bavaria.

He had come across the site while walking. It bore the ruins of a fort that was first mentioned in 12th-century records, and had been built by a family of knights.

Indeed, the king’s family traced it’s own roots back seven centuries in the area, so the appeal was obvious.

The Other Half at Hohenschwangau
And there it was that Maximillian and his Prussian wife, Marie, spent summers with their two sons, Ludwig and Otto.

Marie, in trend-setting mode, used to enjoy mountaineering: when I asked, our guide explained that, while she’d wear a long skirt as normal on top, she’d have “a man’s pantaloons underneath”.

But as our guide – a large man with a bullet head and garbed in a long, loden overcoat – acknowledged with a wry comment, this was not a case of happy families.

Many tour guides are not scintillating, but good ones are a joy. This one was in the latter category.

When the group we were included in was assembled in the first room, he informed us, in excellent English but with a German accent, that “all the contents of the rooms are genuine antiques. So please do not touch – everything is poisoned”.

Hohenschwangau to Neuschwanstein
It was glorious looking around at other visitors to see how much they ‘got’ this very dry German humour. Some confusion was evident.

But if you want further evidence of the dysfunctionality in the royal family, then it’s worth noting that, in later years, Ludwig referred to his mother as “my predecessor’s consort”. Which doesn’t say much for his attitude toward his father either.

Maximillian died in 1864, leaving Ludwig the Bavarian throne. Four years later, his grandfather Ludwig I died, leaving him the sort of money that made his castle-building aspirations possible.

Like Hohenschwangau, Neuschwanstein stands on the site of old remains – in this case, of twin medieval forts.

Begun in 1869, it was never completed, although Ludwig was able to move into it for a short time.

The Alpensee
But in 1886, in response to the concerns of ministers – not least at his almost total lack of interest in matters of state – he was classed as insane by doctors, and confined.

Within days, Ludwig was dead in mysterious circumstances, found in the shallow waters at the edge of a nearby lake, but with no water in his lungs according to the autopsy, and with rumours abounding of his having been shot trying to escape.

With his younger brother Otto also declared insane and, from 1883, confined under medical supervision until his death in 1916, Bavaria was ruled by their uncle Luitpold as prince regent from 1886-1912.

Our guide suggested that Ludwig was not really “mad”, but that “today he would have been called eccentric.”

Later, he observed: “he was born either 200 years too late or 100 years too early”, which might have been a reference to Ludwig’s sexuality.

The kings diaries make it clear that he struggled with his homosexuality, trying to abide by the teachings of the church. He broke of an engagement and “spent his time building castles instead”.

Inner courtyard, Neuschwanstein
Whatever the reality, the rumours, mysteries and myths surrounding the castles – and Neuschwanstein in particular – only add to their allure.

The new castle was originally called New Hohenschwangau Castle by Ludwig – only after his death was it renamed Neuschwanstein.

Seeing Hohenschwangau, with its murals of German mythological tales, it’s not difficult to get a sense of the background to Ludwig’s obsession with that mythological past.

But it’s also impossible, standing at Hohenschwangau and looking up at Neuschwanstein, towering above; bigger – much bigger – and higher than his father’s castle, not to see it as a statement of a son to his dead father, and very obviously a statement of dysfunctionality.

The phallic nature of the towers take on even greater meaning when viewed from such a perspective.

Starting back to Füssen
Of course it’s more complex than that: in part, Neuschwanstein was a homage to Wagner, whose operas Ludwig adored.

At one of his others castles, Linderhof, he had a ‘Venus Grotto’ built in the park so that he could be rowed about in a golden swan boat as though in the composer’s Tannhäuser, while there was a ‘Hundling’s Hut’ in the grounds too, inspired by the first act of Die Walküre.

Wagner visited the king at Hohenschwangau – I wonder if that piano that he had played really was poisoned? Oh, how to reach out and just touch it – but as our guide explained, he never stayed in the bedroom next to that of the king, because Ludwig never liked anyone staying that close to his own quarters.

However, one notable guest at the castle who did sleep in the bed we were looking at was Hans Christian Anderson, who was a guest during Maximilian’s life and who was probably, our guide mused, inspired to write the Princess and the Pea by the rather lumpy-looking mattress.

Castles, mountains, trees and a lake
Yes, there really are fairytale connections to these castles.

The nature of the ticketing at the castles means that you have a set time in Hohenschwangau and then, a 50-minute gap in which to walk up the hill to Neuschwanstein.

That sounds plenty – but only if you don’t leave the first castle, amble down to the Alpensee behind it, stopping to get excited about seeing a red squirrel, tufty ears and all, in it’s black winter coat, then sit by the lake for a while musing on the beauty of it, only to find that the hill to Neuschwanstein is very steep and you aren’t going to make it in time.

Not swimming weather
That said, the outside is really what I wanted to see – and it is awesome. You might be used to seeing pictures of it or remember it from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but nothing can prepare you for standing next to it.

With Tegelberg soaring up behind, and the Pöllat river tumbling down a waterfall and into the gorge between, it could scarcely be a more dramatic setting.

Somehow – perhaps because I had no expectations of finding it peaceful – even the crowds of tour groups, decanted from coaches below, couldn’t dampen the awe I felt. In the height of summer, the castle can see 6,000 visitors pass through each day.

I was impressed when a young girl nearby suddenly said to her parents: “It’s Cinderella’s castle!” Good visual recognition, that – and also a good indicator of how much Disney has been inspired by Neuschwanstein.

Into the woods
After spending some time outside the castle and in the inner courtyard, we took the easy option of sitting in a horse-drawn trap to make the descent.

A quick, late lunch of bratwurst in a roll, eaten standing, followed, and a visit to one of the souvenir shops that now sit next to the carparks and eateries below Hohenschwangau, and then we set off back toward Füssen.

Moving off, the sun finally started to break through and the clouds dissolved into delicate ribbons across the revealed mountains. The views were simply breathtaking.

The plan was to walk – Google maps seemed to suggest that there was an easy path around the base of one of the wooded ridges, which would bring us out alongside the Lech on the opposite side to the town.

Lesson number one: don’t trust Google maps when planning a walk.

Sunset looking toward Austria
To start with, they have no contour lines so give no indication of whether or not you’re climbing, and it’s almost impossible to judge distance while looking at a map on a phone.

In future, we’ll get the old-fashioned folded paper sort for planning any such walk.

In the event, the first part of the walk was occupied with turning around regularly to soak up the views.

But then we headed into the woods and started climbing. And went on climbing. And then climbed some more. And, just as we thought we must be as high as we’d be going, we’d find that the path was continuing in an upwardly direction.

At long last we rounded the hill and emerged pretty high above the Lech, getting down to road level in time to see a glorious sunset as we looked back up the river toward Austria. It was some compensation for screaming feet.

A sauna and schnitzel followed. But I don’t think that anything will make me forget that landscape of castles, forest, mountains and lakes revealing itself as the day passed.

Awe-inspiring would be a gross understatement.


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