As far as fairy-tale castles go, Neuschwanstein Castle, in southwest Bavaria, Germany, is the cream of the crop. Walt Disney admitted he had Neuschwanstein Castle in mind when he drafted up Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disneyland. It’s dreamy, fanciful, romantic; you could say it is a little on the froufrou side, but it’s done on such a grand scale that you can’t help but admire it.
Neuschwanstein Castle was built for King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who became known as Mad King Ludwig as he ended being diagnosed as clinically insane.
Whatever else you might say about Ludwig II, he was a man who knew what he wanted in a castle.
And what he wanted was this: it needed to be a structure that embodied the valour and strength of the medieval castles of the German knights (such as the castles found at Sigulda and Trakai perhaps). It should have gothic overtones and capture the spirit of Lohengrin, the Swan Knight of German legend popularised in Wagner’s opera of the same title.
Neuschwanstein, meaning New-swan-on-the-rock, is named after the Swan Knight of Lohengrin (Lugwig was such a fan of Wagner’s he had murals depicting scenes from his operas painted throughout the castle).
But Ludwig also wanted Neuschwanstein Castle to be romantic, with style cues taken from Château de Pierrefonds near Compiègne in France (about 70km northeast of Paris), and the über-romantically titled Wartburg Castle, near Eisnach in central Germany.
Construction of the castle commenced in 1868, and was ongoing for the next two decades. Ludwig had several rooms kitted out for use in 1882, but he barely spent any time there.
As Neuschwanstein Castle was purely a personal residence, with no pretence at governmental use – i.e. no royal court – it was paid for entirely out of Ludwig’s pocket. And in the end it ruined him. After his personal fortune was wiped out by construction costs he borrowed all he could. He burnt through that, borrowed more, spent that, borrowed again, eventually getting himself over his head in debt.
On June the 12th 1886, the Bavarian government declared Ludwig II insane, deposed him as king, and put him under guard. The following evening Ludwig and his doctor were found dead in a nearby lake in extremely suspicious circumstances.
Following his death, the parts of Neuschwanstein Castle that were still incomplete were finished off as quickly and cheaply as possible. Many elements were left unbuilt, including the palace gardens and central keep.
The castle was eventually opened to paying members of the public to begin recouping Ludwig’s debts.
In 2007 Neuschwanstein Castle was selected as one of the 20 finalists in the international competition to name the seven wonders of the modern world (which you can read about in my page: seven wonders of the modern world), and although it didn’t make the final cut, it’s testimony to the genius of Mad King Ludwig.
Practical information and how to reach Neuschwanstein Castle:
Neuschwanstein Castle is located in southern Germany, three kilometres from the town of Füssen. You can walk to the castle from Füssen or catch a local bus. Trains between Munich and Füssen take 2 – 2.5 hours
Neuschwanstein Castle is on the tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage status.