When I was 10, TLC (back when it was about learning, not awful, cringe-worthy reality dramas) aired a program called Great Castles of Europe. I was already a big fan of knights and chivalry and King Arthur and castles. I enjoyed their brief documentaries about these historic buildings and the people who lived in them – the castles of Macbeth and of Vlad ‘Dracula’ the Impaler, the castles in the Rhine valley, Leeds Castle, Warwick Castle, Chenonceau, Chambour (sp?), and … Neuschwanstein.
Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps. The most famous historicist – or shall we say purposefully anachronistic? – building in the world. Built by King Ludwig II in the years 1869-1886, only its exterior was ‘complete’ – and even the exterior of this remarkable building is not all that Ludwig planned before his mysterious death in 1886. Of the interior, only one third is complete and decorated.
For years I dreamt of seeing this castle. I did puzzles of it. I had a calendar with it as one of the castles. My dad clipped images of it out of magazines for me. In Grade 11 French class, when asked what our rêves were, I said, ‘Neuschwanstein.’ Madame Maki was impressed that I could spell. However, though I dreamed of visiting this place, I never really thought I would get to see it. Germany is so far away; intercontinental flights are so expensive. If I were to ever actually be able to go abroad, I imagined, I would just stick to Britain. Money would fail me before the Alps.
That, of course, was before I lived in Britain. And before the days of jet-setting with such ease. And before I came to Tübingen. But now I’m living in Germany for three months, and today my research brought me to Munich. So I came a bit early, and yesterday I went to see my childhood dream castle.
Yesterday was cold and overcast. And overcast with clouds means that once you hit the mountains, there is a bit of mist and fog. The Alps were themselves largely lost to view. The tops of what we could see disappeared into the mist. Although not ideal, still not bad. When I got off the bus in Schwangau, the village situated between Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau palace which was Ludwig II’s summer home as a boy, rising from the mist in a very atmospheric landscape was Neuschwanstein.
Ludwig wanted his palaces to ‘fit’ in their natural surroundings, not to be a jarring clash with nature the way many modern buildings are. You’d think that a giant fortress perched atop a mountain would not look exactly ‘natural’ – but that all depends on your feeling of ‘natural’ Neuschwanstein looks as at home in yesterday’s mist and cloud as it does in all of the sunny, blue-skied postcard images, or surrounded by snow-clad trees and Alps.
So there I saw it, a glimpse from afar, rising from the trees in a world of heavy clouds.
The tour I was on then hiked the steep way – rather than the slow, easy way – to Marienbrücke, a bridge constructed by Max II, Ludwig’s father, in honour of Marie, his wife and Ludwig’s mother. From Marienbrücke you get a fantastic side view of Neuschwanstein, its many rows of windows looking at you, its many peaks contrasted against the roof, each other, the sky.
I got the obligatory photo of myself with the castle. This blog won’t load photos properly, so you’ll have to wait until it’s up on Flickr.
Then down and around to the front, frantically snapping photos, hoping to catch the grotesques and sculptures along the way. Through the red gatehouse into the first courtyard we went. I snapped photos of the romantic paintings of St George and the Blessed Virgin on the exterior of the building above the next courtyard up. And of various other things, including some cloud-laden Alps.
Neuschwanstein gets so many visitors it is by guided tour only, and these last but 35 minutes. This is not as bad as one might fear – you see almost every finished room in the 35 minutes, although we hurried through a couple. Everyone’s ticket has a time on it, so you go through the turnstile at your appointed hour. While you wait, you can admire the view, climb up to the second courtyard, take photos of everything, and generally have a good time. You must get your photos then, for none are allowed within. This is, no doubt, to promote guide book sales.
Once within, we walked past some very mediaeval-esque servants’ quarters, then up the staircase King Ludwig himself would have used to the fourth floor. As I climbed this staircase I could not help think that the decoration was very similar to that of William Morris. And, of course, he and Ludwig were contemporaries and shared some of the same views regarding the modern, technologised world, and of older, chivalric values – although I sincerely have no idea about Morris’s view on the Divine Right of Kings and absolute monarchy, things Ludwig thought quite clever.
The first room we went through, about which our guide said nothing, had an image of a man jumping a flame on a horse. And of a woman beyond said flame. ‘Siegfried!’ I said to myself (or Sigurd, depending on your mood). And there he was with Regin (Alberich in Wagner), forging Gram/Nothung. I began singing ‘Hoho! hoho! hohei! schmiede mein Hammer, mein Hammer schmied,’ in my head. Not out loud. I’m not that crazy. Yet. I confirmed my guesses by spotting the slaying of Fafnir. Of course, based on the other decorations of the room, this is the Norse version from Volsunga Saga and The Prose Edda, not Wagner, not the Nibelungenlied – although all of them swirl around each other in the tellings.
The throne room is designed like a Byzantine chapel, with the throne up stairs where the altar should be, beneath a painting of Christ in the half-dome of the apse. On the apsidal wall are painted six sainted kings. When I described this to Jennifer yesterday, she remarked, ‘Well, that sends a message about the king being appointed by God.’ Which is precisely the point – Ludwig wasn’t just into old buildings and chivalric literature, he also believed in the Divine Right of Kings. One of heroes was Louis XIV, after all.
From the throne room, which is adorned with many murals like the rest of the castle, we went through the rest of the king’s apartments. A room adorned with Tristan and Isolde, another with Lohengrin, another with Parsifal, another with mediaeval German poets, a grotto from Tannhäuser, and so forth. A monument to mediaeval German literature, to the romanticised native spirit and world of chivalry, and thus to Wagner who brought that literature to the stage and the world through his operas.
The great German mediaeval poems have names strikingly familiar to fans of Wagnerian opera – Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg, Parsifal by Wolfram von Eschenbach, The Nibelungenlied by – according to tradition – a blind poet.
The Romantic world of Neuschwanstein, the world of Wagner, of the Pre-Raphaelites, of Morris & Co, of Edinburgh Castle’s Great Hall, of Gothic Revival architecture is usually characterised today as a gross misunderstanding and misappropriation of the ‘real’ Middle Ages. Neuschwanstein challenges that. As you are immersed in the art of that world and learn about the ideals of the man who built the place and the stories with which he decorated it, you realise that it is a conscious construction, with some modern underpinnings helping the mediaeval hold its shape, like the brick structure that lies beneath Neuschwanstein’s white stone.
These men and women were not interested in actually recreating the real Middle Ages. They were interested in bringing to a modern world what they felt were the best ideals and values of that era and embodying them in poetry, in art, in opera, in philosophy, in design, in stained glass – in fantasy palaces. Ludwig created a place far from the railway (little knowing motorcars would spoil his fantasy of a pre-modern world) that exploits certain modern conventions while upholding his vision of the romanticised German Middle Ages.
Neuschwanstein is a beautiful construction, rising majestically from its mountaintop, almost growing from the stone as naturally as the trees that surround it. Its image has inspired millions, and its interior tells the story of bravery and poetry, of idealism and hard work that Ludwig wished to see come to life in his world. And that’s not such a bad thing, is it?