It’s a cold, misty Monday morning when I set out to visit the almost mythical castles which lie close to the Austrian Border.
En route, I stop briefly at the UNESCO-listed pilgrimage church of Wies, where coaches are already disgorging some of the many Asian and American tour groups which plough the Romantic Road every year. Beautiful as the church is, I have already seen many equally stunning baroque frescos and carefully carved confessionals, and the commercialism of the site makes me keen to get back on the road.
A few kilometres from the castles I pause at the small church of St Coloman, named for an Irish pilgrim who passed this way and is now honoured as the local patron saint of farm animals. From this spot, I can see the yellow walls of Hohenschwangau Castle in the distance but the higher Neuschwanstein Castle is still obscured by the mist. So I wait it out with a cup of coffee until the mist lifts enough for a reasonable photo. A Japanese couple spot me standing in the middle of a field and, at first, wonder what I am up to but as soon as they realise (and in true Japanese fashion) they wander out to the same place to take their own photo.
I’d thought that visiting in mid-October would mean fewer tourists, but I am sadly disappointed. The base of operations below the castle is chaos, with coaches manoeuvring around horse-drawn carriages and people standing in the middle of the road taking photos. Somehow I navigate my way to the car park and pay the extortionate rate of €8.50, and then I make my way back to the ticket office to discover the equally extortionate cost of visiting the castles. €12 per castle or €23 for both – not much of a cost saving! It’s all a bit too expensive for me and, as I have read that you get very little time inside the castles and interior photography is prohibited, I decide to save my money and view the castles from the outside.
Starting with Hohenschwangau Castle, I climb some steps behind where Trixie is parked. I’m surprised to discover that I can access the courtyard and gardens where lots of people are milling around, waiting for their allotted time to enter. Hohenschwangau was built by Maximillian II in 1832 on the ruins of a 12th century fortification. It was used as a summer residence for the royal family and was where Richard Wagner first met Prince Ludwig who funded the opera house in Bayreuth to showcase Wagner’s operas.
It’s a much longer walk up to the castle of Neuschwanstein so I choose the easy option and take the bus up to the Marienbrucke. It’s a hair-raising ride as the driver swings the bus around the tight bends at incredible speed. Luckily he’s done it a few times before and the narrow road is operated on a one-way basis so we arrive in one piece. The next drama is standing on the narrow iron bridge, 92m above the rocky Pollat Gorge, crammed with people all wanting to get a fantastic shot of the castle.
There’s a security guard who is presumably there to prevent unsafe overcrowding on the bridge but he seems more interested in his mobile phone than the safety of the tourists. However, the breath-taking view is worth the risk and it’s easy to see why Disney chose it as the model for his animated film Sleeping Beauty.
It also proved to be the perfect location for the castle in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, while the town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, also on the Romantic Road, was also used as a location for the film.
Inspired by German mythology and the artistic works of his friend Wagner, Ludwig II created an impressive romantic medieval castle with a minstrel’s hall inspired by the opera Tannhauser, a bedroom themed on Tristan and Isolde and a throne room with a majestic mosaic floor containing over 2 million stones. However, his expensive projects eventually cost him his throne and possibly his life. He died in 1886 in mysterious circumstances, drowning at the edge of Lake Starnberg where he had been sent for psychiatric treatment. The authorities immediately opened Neuschwanstein Castle to the public in order to help cover the huge debts incurred by Ludwig.
It’s a short walk downhill to the castle entrance where there are a great number of people anxiously waiting in the courtyard and one angry couple at the information desk complaining because they missed their allocated time. Luckily for them, the lady at the desk is in a good mood. Watching people being herded through the turnstiles like cattle being dipped in insecticide reminds me why I usually avoid the more popular tourist destinations. I happily leave them to it and walk back down through the forest, then extract myself from the crowds and drive the few kilometres to the town of Fussen.
Strategically based for visiting the castles and close to the Austrian border, it is not surprising that Fussen is busy. As a base for hiking and mountaineering there are plenty of outdoor equipment shops as well as a Woolworths. Now extinct in the UK, it is rather nice to shop in one of my favourite stores and I come out with a new chopping board and a thick fleece blanket.
Being Monday, the municipal museum, housed in the Benedictine Monastery of St Mang, is closed. Unfortunately, this means that I cannot visit the ancient monastery library or the exhibition about violin making for which the town had an international reputation in the 15th century. Luckily the church is open and I am rewarded with some more fine frescos.