Daily Dose of Europe: The Castles of Boyhood Dreams

The magic of Europe can make any traveler feel like a kid again. And one of my favorite places for that “king-of-the-castle” feeling is in the Bavarian and Tirolean Alps.

Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. I just published a collection of my favorite stories from a lifetime of European travels. My new book is called “For the Love of Europe” — and this story is just one of its 100 travel tales.

South of Munich in the foothills of the Alps is Hohenschwangau Castle. It was “Mad” King Ludwig’s father’s castle — and Ludwig’s boyhood summer home. When his father died, Ludwig became king. He was just a boy, 19 years old. And rather than live with the frustrations of a modern constitution and a feisty parliament in Munich reining him in, King Ludwig II spent his next years lost in Romantic literature and operas…hanging out here with composer Richard Wagner as only a gay young king could.

The king’s bedroom was decked out like a fairy tale. The walls were painted in 1835 by a single artist, who gave the place a romantic, Tolkien fantasy feel. Lounging nymphs still flank the window and stars twinkle from the ceiling. A telescope stands as it did for the king, trained on a pinnacle on a distant ridge where Ludwig dreamed of building his ultimate castle fantasy: Neuschwanstein. On my first visit here, squinting through that telescope at Neuschwanstein (which had also inspired a boy named Walt Disney), I could relate to the busy young king. Bound by schoolwork and house rules rather than a constitution and parliament, with a stretched-out turtleneck and zits rather than crowns and composer friends, I too built a castle.

What I had that Ludwig lacked was a father who imported pianos. Shipped from Germany, they came encased in tongue-in-groove pine, sealed in a thick envelope of zinc sheeting. My wooden tree house was my castle: walls decorated with romantic 1968 magazines, the nails shining through the ceiling just long enough to bloody intruding bullies taller than me. Taking full advantage of those sliding pine boards, I could see who was coming. With a shiny zinc roof, my palace was the envy of other little kings. There was no tree house like it. Then, someone purchased the vacant lot next to our house, and I had to tear my tree castle down. At the time, I considered it the worst day of my life. Not long after, I embarked on my first no-parents trip to Europe. Touring Neuschwanstein, I relived my loss.

On that same trip, just over the border in Austria near the town of Reutte, I found another castle: the brooding ruins of the largest fort in Tirol — Ehrenberg. This impressive complex was built to defend against the Bavarians and to bottle up the strategic “Via Claudia” trade route that cut through the Alps here, connecting Italy and Germany. One castle crowned its bluff while another was high above on the next peak. Exploring the ruins, I climbed deep into a misty forest littered with meaningless chunks of castle wall — each pinned down by pixy-stix trees and mossy with sword ferns. This once strategic and powerful fortress had somehow fallen apart and was slowly being eaten by the forest.

My friend Armin Walch, an archaeologist who lives in Reutte, had a vision to bring these ruins to life. He was born the same year as me and pursued his project like the Indiana Jones of castle scholars. Today, with European Union funding, he’s cut away the hungry forest to reveal and renovate what he calls the castle ensemble. And it’s open for business, enabling countless children to live out their medieval fantasies, leaping from rampart to rampart with sword ferns swinging.

On my last visit, I was honored for bringing so many visitors to this remote corner of Austria over the years. With Armin as the jovial master of ceremonies, the town’s hoteliers and tourism folks gathered in the castle like a council of medieval lords. Together we ate smoked game and rustic cheese with coarse bread. We swilled wine and clinked pewter mugs. I gave an impromptu speech about the wonders of Americans climbing through history far from home. Then I knelt before a man in armor who drew a shiny sword with my name etched upon it, and was knighted — Sir Rick, first knight of Ehrenberg.

The sword was my gift. It was solid and sparkled with sentiment. I loved how it felt in my hand as I swung it back and forth, cutting through the air — and how it symbolically wove together my tree-house childhood, my love of history, my longtime connection with Reutte, and Armin’s vision. But the last thing I needed was to be packing a big sword through the rest of my trip. So I requested that my sword stay in the museum as a special exhibit on the castle-loving boy from Seattle who fell in love with the Ehrenberg ruins and then grew up to bring decades of American travelers to Reutte with his guidebooks.

On the way back to my hotel, Armin took me to his house for a drink. As a talented architect, he had cleverly hidden his sleek, futuristic, and creative pad behind a humble old-town facade. It was a royal domain for his family — two kids cozy on the carpet and a beautiful wife. Armin had bedazzled her at the university in Vienna and brought her here to remote Reutte with promises of a queenly life and a bitchin’ castle.

Armin and I climbed boyishly to his rooftop — a perch he designed to view Ehrenberg. Together we shared a glass of schnapps flavored with local herbs and peered through his telescope at our favorite castle complex — now illuminated by powerful floodlighting. In his youth — before he excavated it — almost no one knew about the fortress that hid beneath the trees on the mountain. Nudging me aside, Armin took his turn squinting through his telescope. Happy as two boys in a tree house, like two Romantic Age princes, we marveled at this castle of his dreams.

This story appears in my newest book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can purchase it at my online Travel Store. You can also find a clip related to this story at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Neuschwanstein and Ehrenberg.