I was born in Aurora, Colorado and spent the first eight years of my life romping around the Rockies. When it became too tough for my dad to find work, we picked up everything and relocated to Lake Mary, Florida (40 minutes northeast of Orlando) where I spent the next 13 years of my life. Florida can be lovely, but it doesn’t even have hills, let alone any majestic mountain ranges. Moving to New York put me closer to the Catskills but, with all apologies to the East Coast of America, its mountains are generally bullshit (comparatively). I miss my Rocky Mountains. A lot. So, imagine my joy when we encountered …
“ALPS!” I screamed.
“Wow. Holy smokes.”
You wouldn’t think that mountains are able to sneak up on people, but these wily German mountains found a way. Driving south from Rothenburg, the vista was all blue skies (again), rolling pastures, and dramatic hillside vineyards until we crested a large hill and—BAM!—mountains. Have I mentioned how much I love mountains?
The 12th century Knights of Schwangau also loved mountains, which is why they decided to build a fortress right next to one (or because a mountainside is a strategically defensible location, but whatever). Sadly, conflict, time, and the elements can wreak havoc on a medieval fort, so when King Maximilian II of Bavaria came upon it during a hunting trip in the early 19th century, it was little more than a ruin. Maximilian fell in love with the location, however, and decided to built a cozy hunting lodge on the foundations of the ruined fort. Thus, Schloss Hohenschwangau (High Swan Country Palace) was born. King Maximilian made Hohenschwangau his summer home, along with his wife, Marie of Prussia, and their two sons Ludwig and Otto. Ludwig also loved mountains, and had dreams of one day building a castle of his own on a nearby peak. King Maximilian died in 1864, and Ludwig succeeded to the throne to become King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Five years later, he began construction on his dream castle, Schloss Neuschwanstein. Neuschwanstein was a grand Gothic Revival palace, meant to be a retreat for the reclusive King Ludwig and an homage to his favorite composer, Richard Wagner. Unfortunately, Ludwig didn’t live long enough to enjoy the completion of his fairy tale palace. He died just 17 years later “under mysterious circumstances.” Almost immediately after his death, the unfinished castle was opened to the public.
Online ticket reservation print-out in hand, we wound our way through the foothills, set to tour both Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein. In a long line of lessons on how we should trust the TomTom or street signs but not both, we ended up in a parking garage in Füssen, a short bus ride from the castles. Still stinging from our experience with our hotel “in Heidelberg,” we decided to follow our instincts and road signs to a parking lot in closer proximity to the castles (i.e., actually IN Schwangau). Our second parking attempt a success, we picked up our tickets and made the 10-minute trek up to Hohenschwangau, where we learned all about the castle from a clean-cut young man with a lady’s voice, excellent diction (“Hoh-Hen-SCHWAN-Gowwww”), and a penchant for adverbs (“original” features of the castle were always “originally,” e.g. “This is all originally furniture”).
Neuschwanstein was a 40-minute walk up a steep hill, so we chose to take a bus (where Heather delighted in being able to eavesdrop on a man speaking French with some other tourists and then translating it into Dutch for his companion). The bus would take us slightly higher than the castle to Marienbrücke (Mary’s Bridge) from which Rick Steves promised we could enjoy spectacular views of the castle (it did not disappoint). Rick promised even more spectacular views to those daring enough to hike past the bridge to an even higher plateau. Heather—seasoned hiker and former camp counselor that she is—climbed even higher while I steadied my camera and waited for passing clouds to shed just the right amount of light on the castle below. Her boldness paid off as three large elk crossed the path right in front of her and scampered down the mountainside. Wary of nature’s lack of guardrails in extremely high places, upon her return I suggested we make our way back down to the castle.
It is somewhat widely believed that the “madness” of “Mad” King Ludwig II was actually homosexuality. If this is true, then he almost certainly had a huge crush on Richard Wagner. Wagnerian operas inspired frescoes that cover nearly every wall of every room. This ostentatious live-in tribute to Wagner was presented to us by a tour guide who was doing his best impression of Loud Bored German Robot. We marveled at the sculpture work of the music room as our guide wasted its perfect acoustics on his droning, monotonous voice. Did I mention that there was a room designed to look like a cave? Not a stylized, architectural homage to caves, but sculpted with paint and plaster to look like an actual goddamned stalactites-and-stalagmites cave! The guide droned on. “DIED OF MYSTERIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES.” Ludwig II was a young, reclusive, bachelor king who spent countless funds during a financial crisis to build himself numerous dream castles. His ministers considered him mentally ill and conspired with his uncle, Prince Luitpold, to have him deposed. Twenty-two years after his ascension to the throne, Ludwig is dead, his brother Otto has been declared insane, and uncle Luitpold has taken his place. Now, I’m no criminologist or expert in Bavarian political history, but I feel like the Sherlock Holmes story “The Case of Mad King Ludwig and the Mysterious Circumstance” would be a two paragraphs long.
After we’d gotten our fill of castles, we decided to take another bit of Rick Steves’ advice and descend via a trail that wound down Pöllat Gorge, behind Neuschwanstein. As promised, it was lovely. We had an excellent view of Mary’s Bridge from below, along with some excellent waterfalls. Near the end, we were surprised by a beach full of carefully stacked rock cairns. After a quick dinner in a fly-plagued hotel restaurant, we were on the road again, headed for Munich. TomTom took us along some of the Romantic Road on our way to Munich which, while romantic, suffers from the speed-up-no-slow-down-no-speed-up nature of many country roads that pass through small towns.
We arrived at the Hotel Uhland in Munich around 17:30, where we collapsed in our hotel room and took ages deciding what to do for late supper. Eventually, Heather chose a vegetarian restaurant in the so-called Soho of Munich. A key difference between the Soho of New York and the Soho of Munich is that the Soho of New York stays open and lively after 18:00. Much of downtown Munich was deserted and, while we never feared for our safety, the walk to the restaurant was a bit eerie. After some empty-stomach-fueled disagreements over directions, we located the restaurant. The severity of the E. coli outbreak finally became apparent as fresh vegetables were entirely removed from the menu. My mushroom ravioli were delicious, but Heather’s plate of mixed vegetables with horseradish cream sauce was “limp, flavorless, and drowning.”
On our way back to the hotel, we were intercepted by a hobo with a saxophone from whose quick German I could only make out the word “morgen.” Scanning my brain for the few German phrases I know, I only managed to blurt out “Uh, no speaka!” as we shuffled past him. Rocking sleepily on a U-Bahn train back to the hotel, I held Heather’s hand, reflecting on rocky mountains and mysterious circumstances.
Tomorrow: “Bier Macht Frei”