Daily Dose of Europe: Neuschwanstein

A fairy-tale castle in a stunning alpine setting, with a lush interior and all the latest conveniences…and they call the man who built it “mad”!

Even though we’re not visiting Europe right now, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine.

And today, we visit a turreted fantasy castle, tucked in the hinterlands of Bavaria’s far south.

Neuschwanstein Castle looks like it dates from the Middle Ages, but it’s barely older than the Eiffel Tower. It was the dream of “Mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria. As a boy, climbing the hills above his summer home, Ludwig fantasized about building a castle there “in the authentic style of the old German knights.” When he gained power at age 18, he began to turn his dreams into stone, creating a private getaway from the politics in Munich that Ludwig hated — a place to dream.

The location was unmatched — perched high on a rocky ledge, with a backdrop of snow-tipped mountains and glassy alpine lakes.

Ludwig’s “architect” was a theater set-designer specializing in medieval fables. The actual construction (1869–1886) was executed by high-tech engineers using the latest techniques. Hundreds of tons of stone were hefted up with Industrial Age steam power. The castle core was a skeleton of modern iron and brick faced with medieval-looking white limestone, trimmed with gray sandstone. The result was a mash-up of a thousand years of medieval architecture…neo-medieval: Romanesque arched windows, castle-like crenellations, and prickly Gothic towers. It captured the spirit of 19th-century Romantics nostalgic for a pre-Industrial past.

Inside, it was lavish. Ludwig’s extravagant throne room emphasized his royal status, with golden mosaics of the Christian kings Ludwig emulated. The floor, with its two-million-stone mosaic, features an encyclopedia of animals and plants. Overhead hangs a huge chandelier shaped like an emperor’s crown.

The king’s personal rooms, though incredibly ornate, are actually small and cozy. Ludwig’s canopied bed is elaborately carved with a forest of Gothic spires. Ludwig enjoyed his own chapel, water piped in from the Alps, and views of steep mountains and plunging waterfalls — fueling his Romantic soul with the wonders of nature. Ludwig even built an artificial grotto, dripping with stucco stalactites and a bubbling waterfall. The castle’s grand finale is the Singers’ Hall, a fancy ballroom. The entire castle came with state-of-the-art technology: electricity, running water, flush toilets, and even telephones.

Meanwhile, all of the rooms were decorated with paintings of valiant knights and lovely damsels, inspired by the Romantic operas of Ludwig’s idol, Richard Wagner. There are Wagner’s legendary lovers, troubadours, Holy Grails, and especially Ludwig’s favorite animal — swans. Ludwig’s swan-like castle came to be called neu-Schwan-Stein — “new swan stone.”

Ludwig lived in his castle for a mere 172 days before the fantasy of Neuschwanstein came to an abrupt end. Fed up with Ludwig’s expensive Romantic excesses, his political rivals burst into his bedroom and arrested him. Two days later, Ludwig — only 40 years old — drowned mysteriously in a Bavarian lake (murder? suicide?).

Within six weeks of his death, tourists were lining up to see the “mad” king’s “folly.” Today, Ludwig’s cost has been recouped a hundredfold, and huge crowds from all over flock to see Europe’s most popular castle.

This little moment from Europe — a sampling of how we share our love of art and history in our tours — is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it in my online Travel Store.

P.S. Be sure to check out Rick Steves Classroom Europe — my free collection of 500+ teachable video clips. Search “Neuschwanstein” for a closer look at Mad King Ludwig’s fairytale castle.