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l u dw i g s b ava r i a

Lessons from the life

and times of mad
King Ludwig of Bavaria

Neuschwanstein appears majestic

as ever from the Marienbrcke
a bridge commissioned by King
Ludwig II of Bavaria from which
to view his fantasy castle

Head to the mountains of southern Germany to enter the kingdom of a most

peculiar monarch, and to hear stories of fairytale castles and treasonous plotting


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January 2014 Lonely Planet Traveller


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Modelled on Byzantine churches, the Throne Hall is the most ornate room in Neuschwanstein. The throne it was intended to house was never built.
Despite the medieval look of most of the castle, it was fitted with running water, central heating and an electric bell system to summon servants

Lesson I

Build a magnificent castle

(Schloss Neuschwanstein)

ne winters day in the 1930s, a middleaged American gentleman with a bushy

moustache and a winning smile set out
on a strange mission in southern Bavaria.
The Nazis had seized power in Germany,
and Europe teetered on the brink of war
but all this had little to do with the
Americans assignment. His car would
have sped through wintry landscapes, past
frosty fields and frozen lakes, before puttering up a
winding road to the foot of the most remarkable
castle on Earth: Neuschwanstein.
The name of this man was Walter Disney. In him
and all others who have seen it, Neuschwanstein is a
building that awakens a childlike wonder like no
other a castle seemingly borrowed from bedtime
stories of brave knights and peril-prone maidens.
Walking up the hill to the castle soon after sunrise,
the silence is total but for the scrunch of snow

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compacting under foot. Hidden among the treetops,

Neuschwanstein reveals its splendour by degrees
on approach: stout battlements, a grand gatehouse
and, finally, soaring towers that seem to outstretch
the mountains rising behind them.
Somewhere near here, Walt Disney would have
sketched the castle in his notebook. This would later
become the emblem of his company and today
Walts copy of Neuschwanstein has been rebuilt at
Disneylands from Paris to Hong Kong. Its design is
still shorthand for singing animals and dancing
teacups; magic spells and dreams come true.
Yet the real king who built this castle has a story
more remarkable than any Disney movie. Mad King
Ludwig II of Bavaria was the 19th centurys Michael
Jackson, a reclusive daydreamer who lived in his
own make-believe world nearly bankrupting
himself by building fairytale castles and play-acting
on the battlements. Partly brilliant, partly bonkers,
Ludwig II flew in the face of Teutonic stereotypes of
practicality, seriousness and fiscal responsibility. But,
for his big heart and his even bigger imagination, he
remains deeply loved today a true German hero in
a country often reminded of the villains from its past.

clockwise from top left The Alpsee where Ludwig learned to swim; the king was fixated with swans Neuschwanstein translates into English as New swan stone;
Ludwig still serves as a mascot for lovers, shown by this padlock on the Marienbrcke; a portrait of the young king

Ludwig built many castles, but Neuschwanstein

was his bachelor pad par excellence a mock
medieval home inspired by myths of the Holy Grail.
It affects visitors in strange and powerful ways.
Guides tell of sets of keys stolen by Ludwig fans
and one man who climbed the scaffolding into the
castle under cover of night, set off the burglar alarm
and, upon being found by security staff, requested
an audience with the king.
Weve not done any surveys, but we do know
from security cameras that this is a very, um,
romantic place, explains one guide who politely
declines to be named.
A long, echoing corridor leads to the Throne Hall
the kings headquarters at the heart of the castle.
Everywhere are grand colonnades and glittering
gold-leaf paint, crystal chandeliers and celestiallooking frescoes. It is a place of almost deranged
lavishness: interior design turned up to 11.
It is spectacular, surreal but also rather silly. One
mosaic depicts Christ in the heavens; another shows
a grinning alligator going for a walk. Here and there
are paintings of prancing knights that belong in
Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Neuschwanstein

may look medieval, but work stopped here in 1892

long after lightbulbs, telephones and Coca-Cola
had all been invented.
Dafter suggestions for Neuschwanstein were never
realised: waterfalls that would cascade down the
stairs of the castle, and (best of all) a steam-driven
flying machine in the shape of a golden peacock that
would see the king soaring above the countryside
nearby. To Ludwigs admirers, Neuschwanstein
was the vision of a singularly powerful imagination.
To his enemies, it was tacky in the extreme.
What is indisputable, however, is the drama
of Neuschwansteins setting. The castle overlooks
the Alpsee the lake where Ludwig first learned to
swim, next to the castle of Hohenschwangau, built
by his father. Along the banks are tall pines, their
branches shaggy with freshly fallen snow, and, up
above, mountains whose dark reflections quiver
in the lakes icy waters. Its curious to imagine the
young Ludwig II standing near this lake, telescope in
hand, dreaming of a building that would one day be
worthy of this magnificent landscape.
More curious still is the place where he found his
inspiration for the castle...
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An ornate box in the

main auditorium of
the Nationaltheater.
below Props in a
corridor backstage

above from left A portrait of the conductor Hans von Blow his wife Cosima was the illegitimate daughter of the Hungarian
composer Franz Liszt and left von Blow for Wagner; guide Andreas Friese in the reception rooms of the Nationaltheater

Lesson II

Indulge your musical side

(Nationaltheater Mnchen)

ong ago, residents of Munich peeking out

of their windows at bedtime would have
witnessed a strange occurrence. Scurrying
through the citys cobbled streets would be
opera singers and stagehands, musicians
carrying tubas and cellos all sworn to
secrecy about what they were up to. Quietly,
they would assemble at Munichs National
Theatre. Instruments would be tuned, scenery
pushed into position and, on the stroke of
midnight, curtains opened for a grand performance
to an empty auditorium.
Empty, that is, but for the solitary figure of King
Ludwig II, sat at the back.
Music is a deeply personal matter in Munich.
Where other German towns prided themselves on
industry and commerce, Munichs rulers instead
modelled their city as a capital of culture a New
Athens where boulevards are still lined with
grandiose galleries and statues of distinguished
thinkers looking pensive.
Munichs pride and joy, however, is its opera house
a grand temple to music at the heart of the city.
Joining a backstage tour of the building, the scale of
the operation becomes apparent. There are endless
corridors cluttered with props, levers and snaking
electrical cables; there are fire escapes where singers
practise arpeggios, and staff canteens where
musicians spill their food on to their scores.
Just as his fellow Bavarians tend to today, the
young Ludwig adored music, but one composer
captured his heart like no other. Like Ludwig,
Richard Wagner was a character larger than life;
a man with a fervent belief in his own great destiny.
The two became friends. The king would be
Wagners sponsor for the latter half of his career,
and the composers music became Ludwigs allconsuming obsession. Bemused farmers would be

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enlisted as extras in recreations of Wagners operas at

royal castles, Ludwig naturally taking the lead role.
Swooning maidens would open letters from the
handsome king only to find him prattling on about
his love of Wagner, and little else. It was an obsession
inherited by other Bavarians.
To me, it is deeply special almost sexual
music, explains Andreas Friese, a guide at the opera
house, sitting flanked by marble goddesses in the
royal box. I know of no other composer whose
music goes from 0 to 100 straight away.
To his greatest admirers, Wagners music has a
strange power that transcends its medium. Andreas
leaves the auditorium for another, quieter corner of
the National Theatre, where portraits of conductors
past hang on the wall. With hushed reverence, he
points to two of these men who died in mysterious
circumstances 50 years apart; both on this very stage,
both conducting the tempestuous second act of
Wagners masterpiece, Tristan and Isolde.
Watching Wagner performed on that same stage
today, one understands the effect this sublime music
had on a ruler sick of petty politics and pointless
ceremonies. Wagners is a language of thundering
chords and steamrollering melodies with stories
of warring immortals, doomed lovers and (of course)
extraordinary castles. It was likely to have been on
this very stage that Ludwig found his inspiration for
Neuschwanstein. The first blueprint for his castle
was sketched not by an architect, but by a man who
painted stage scenery for Wagners operas.
For Ludwig, I think Wagners music was a kind
of release, Andreas contemplates. I think it was
an escape for him to a fantastical land.
Not long after arriving in Munich, Wagner got too
big for his boots. He meddled in politics, went on
spending sprees funded by the kings purse and
caused a scandal by eloping with a conductors wife.
Political pressure from Ludwigs ministers meant
Wagner was eventually forced to leave for
Switzerland. He would never return to Munich.
The king, meanwhile, remained as popular as ever
with his fellow Bavarians

The auditorium ahead of a performance.

below, from left A depiction of Lohengrin,
the hero of Wagners 1850 opera of the
same name; a cellist rehearses

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l u dw i g s b ava r i a
Lesson III

Be loved by your people


rom Munich, hills roll serenely southward,

before rocketing up into the giddy heights of
the Bavarian Alps. It is scenery straight from
The Sound of Music red-roofed villages and
onion-domed churches, lakes to skate on in
winter and swim in come summer, and snowy
mountains marching forth to the far corners of
the country. In the midst of it all is the winter
resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where
families clatter past carrying skis, and where
one rather well-dressed gentleman is taking a stroll.
The first time, I had to take a photo to the
hairdresser and I got some funny looks, explains
Sepp Daser, stopping to wave to passing motorists
honking their horns in deference. Now I just ask for
The Ludwig and they know what to do.
An actor of stage and screen, Sepp works part-time
as a Ludwig II lookalike near Garmisch-Partenkirchen
applying a cans worth of hairspray, slipping under
a billowing blue cloak and making appearances at
wedding receptions and black-tie dinners. Taking
care not to get his cloak trapped in the door, Sepp


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stops for a coffee at a hotel, seating himself with a

theatrical swoop. Its a wonderful feeling playing
Ludwig you always get a good reception, he says,
holding a black coffee in one gloved hand. You have
to play him with real emotion, but you never really
know whats going on inside his head.
Sepps fondness for Ludwig is shared across
Bavaria a place where the king still serves as a
figurehead for a distinct regional identity. Though
now part of Germany, Bavaria was once a kingdom
in its own right: locals consider themselves Bavarians
first and Germans second. The philosophy of life here
is one Ludwig would still recognise pious living
and humble manners; plentiful weissbier and slurred
singalongs; chopped logs and leather trousers.
Just as Bavarians loved their king, Ludwig
loved his people. He had a lodge on a hilltop near
Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and sometimes would
walk alone in these mountains, dropping by
peasants houses unannounced for tea. Other times
he might be spotted whooshing past on a horsedrawn sleigh stacked full of presents for his subjects.
There is, however, a limit to Sepps dedication to
his character. By middle age, Ludwigs teeth were
falling out. He was so fat, few horses would tolerate
his weight. Im 47 now. Sepp laughs grimly. By my
age, King Ludwig was dead

Sepp Daser poses in full

Ludwig costume. opposite
The view from the top of the
Zugspitze the highest point
in Germany, just outside

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l u dw i g s b ava r i a

above from left The cross in Lake Starnberg that marks the spot where Ludwigs corpse was found; a crown sits atop his
sarcophagus, kept in the crypt of Munichs St Michaels Church. opposite Ludwigs French-style bed in Linderhof Castle

Lesson IV

Die a strange and

mysterious death

(Der Starnberger See)

udwigs tale has an unhappy ending.
In the third year of his reign, Bavaria
suffered defeat to Prussia in the AustroPrussian war. After some years of diplomatic
wrangling, Prussia eventually persuaded
Bavaria to become part of the newly formed
German Empire. The ancestor of todays
Germany, this empire soon became
a modern, industrialised state of railways
and factories a place quite unlike Ludwigs
sleepy, pastoral kingdom of old.
With his power waning and the world around him
in flux, Ludwigs way of clinging on to the certainties
of the past was to build more and more castles.
It would prove a dangerous addiction.
First off there was Linderhof a miniature palace
where the king would wake to see cherubs blaring
trumpets above his bed, and frescoes of mythical
warriors riding chariots around the ceiling. At his
leisure, the king would explore the palaces peculiar
outbuildings including an artificial underground
lake, around which he would sail in a boat shaped
like a golden swan.
The most expensive of Ludwigs palaces was
Herrenchiemsee a lavish replica of Versailles,
where he could saunter along a hall of mirrors and
pretend to be his hero: King Louis XIV of France.
The strangest contraption there was a Wallace-andGromit-style dining table that, with a yank of a lever,
would pop out of a trapdoor in the floor, freshly laid
with the kings supper.
Predictably, the money soon ran out. Ambitious
plans for a bizarre Chinese temple and Byzantine
fortress never made it past the drawing board.
Herrenchiemsee and Neuschwanstein are still
technically unfinished today. In both palaces,

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you can step from magnificently ornate chambers

straight into bare brick, musty-smelling rooms full
of cobwebs; rooms that look as if the builders might
have just popped out on their morning tea break.
Ludwigs behaviour, like his castles, became ever
more eccentric. He lived nocturnally, seen only as
a silhouette in his castle windows. People began to
gossip that he had gone mad. Stories circulated of
him hosting dinner parties for his favourite horse
(who proceeded to smash all the crockery) and
holding conversations with historical figures in
empty rooms (often in French).
Ludwigs life ended tragically at Lake Starnberg,
a large, reedy stretch of water a few miles south of
Munich. From the village of Berg, a trail leads through
a wood to the shore. In the vanishing afternoon light,
the lake is a scene of perfect calm. Little waves lap
gently against a pebbly beach, and a chill wind sways
the trees knocking chunks of snow off the boughs
and sending them fluttering to the forest floor.
In 1886, Bavarian politicians decided that Ludwig
was unfit to rule he and his fairytale castles had
become a national embarrassment. In the politicians
eyes, it didnt help that Ludwig was almost certainly
gay. They hatched a plan to depose Ludwig by
declaring him clinically insane and captured him
at Neuschwanstein just as he threatened to throw
himself from its tallest tower. Ludwig was brought
to a royal residence on the shore of Lake Starnberg,
where the following day he took a lakeside stroll
with his new psychiatrist.
Today, a simple wooden cross marks the spot
where the bodies of Ludwig and his psychiatrist
were found floating in the water, next to a sign that
reads, No swimming. Every so often, dog walkers
pause beside it perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps
in quiet respect. The sun sets on the far side of the
lake, meeting its reflection in the water in a blaze
of golden light, before sinking over the horizon.
The landscape turns grey, and the shivering walkers
potter their way homeward to warm hearths.
Ludwig was dead. The official verdict was suicide.
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l u dw i g s b ava r i a
The original Falkenstein castle
in medieval times it was
entirely cut off from the
outside world during winter.
opposite Dr Joachim Zeune,
by the castle at Falkenstein

Lesson V

Make sure your legend never

dies (and build another castle)
(Schloss Falkenstein)

ut there might have been a different ending.

A few miles west of Neuschwanstein,
a nondescript road zigzags its way to the
top of a small, steep mountain. Following
the road in a car, a blizzard blows outside
a raging wind that sends snowflakes
lurching one way and then another, flitting
back and forth like shoals of fish. The view
is blanked out in the blizzard; trees lurch
of out the whiteness ahead, before
vanishing again in the rear-view mirror.
Ludwig built this road as a driveway to his last
and greatest castle. Falkenstein would be the
highest fortress in all Germany: a cluster of dark,
pointy towers set atop an almost vertical pulpit of
rock. Built on the site of a real 13th-century castle,
it would be a miracle of construction to surpass all
others even Neuschwanstein.
There is one small problem. It doesnt exist.
Ludwig died before work on Falkenstein could begin.
Ludwigs death is Germanys equivalent of the JFK
assassination a puzzle that still turns academics
grey, and which sometimes sees conspiracy theories
debated in parliament. Authorities claimed the king
had drowned but no water was found in his lungs.
Some speculate Ludwig and his psychiatrist
suffered simultaneous heart attacks. But to his
followers, something doesnt quite add up. Ludwig
was eccentric, though never insane. He had become
too popular among his people and too disliked by
politicians. His death meant only one thing: murder.
Ludwig wasnt an easy person but he was certainly
not suicidal, says Dr Joachim Zeune, a softly spoken
historian with a snowy white beard, who has been
studying castles ever since playing with plastic
knights as a child. At a restaurant at the top of the
mountain, he leafs through Ludwigs designs for
Falkenstein, stopping to sip on piping-hot soup as
the snow settles on the window sill. Strangely, there
were to be no bedrooms in Falkenstein castle only


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one gloomy hall where the old king would sleep on

a bed with the dimensions of a double decker bus,
set beneath a ceiling painted with twinkling stars.
I think Ludwig intended Falkenstein as his
mausoleum, Dr Zeune says quietly. This castle
was his last resort a remote place where he could
be above the world and all his problems would be
far below him.
A flight of stone steps leads up to the pinnacle of
the rock and to the ruined 13th-century castle that
Ludwig had planned to demolish, still standing
today. After a while the blizzard relents at the
summit, and the clouds scatter to reveal what was
once Ludwigs kingdom: little villages far below,
and pastures smothered in smooth, downy snow.
Only just visible to the east is the outline of
Neuschwanstein rising above the trees one mans
daydream, preserved forever in stone and mortar.
Ludwig may be gone, but his legacy shines as
brightly as ever in his homeland. He has been
immortalised in films, musicals and computer
games. The music he supported is now loved
around the world. The castles that gave his
accountants panic attacks have paid for themselves
several times over in entrance tickets.
To millions today, Neuschwanstein appears just as
it did to Ludwig himself a relic from another, nobler
world; a kind of never-land where every man could
be a hero, and every story ended happily ever after.

January 2014 Lonely Planet Traveller