New Swan Stone

My family is very efficient with birthdays, holding three of our five children’s birthdays all within a three week span at the end of summer (and another one just a month later). (My 9yo is the only outlier, with a birthday in the Spring, and it drives him nuts to watch every kid but him get presents all at once.) Because two of those end-of-summer birthdays are girls, and because we live within a three-hour driving distance of approximately 5 million castles, we decided to celebrate with a trip to arguably the most famous castle in Europe: Neuschwanstein.

This photo is taken from the Marien Bridge, behind the castle, looking north.

The Disneyland-ness is easier to see from the front. I didn't take this photo.

The odds are good you’ve seen this castle before, at least in pictures. If you haven’t it might still look familiar because the Disneyland castles are overtly based on it, and with good reason: it was specifically designed to look like an amped up, epic version of a “real” medieval castle. Neuschwanstein (which literally means “New Swan Stone” in German, but really means something like “the new castle built in the Swan region”) was built by King Ludwig II, often called Mad King Ludwig because he was forcibly deposed under accusation of insanity. The history of the castle is kind of wacky, but I’ll distill it down for you: this ridiculously picturesque part of southern Germany, right in the foothills of the Alps, was the home of the Swan Knights, and called the region Schwangau (literally: Swan Region. Not a very imaginative name, but there you go). The foothills of the Alps are pretty steep, really just a few hills and then bam, gigantic Alp mountains, and on one of the tallest hills they built a castle, called Hohenschwangau (High Swan Region) because it was way up on a hill.

This used to be called Schwanstein but isn't anymore. I'm getting to that.

That castle eventually fell into disuse, probably because of the sheer difficulty of getting up and down the stupid hill, which had a great view and was amazingly defensible but was kind of far away from water and food and the people they were ostensibly supposed to protect. On a smaller hill below it, near two of the three lakes in the region, they built another castle called Schwanstein (Swan Stone).

Fast forward about 600 years, in the mid 1800s, when the various little kingdoms in the region have coalesced into a handful of larger ones, and Schwangau is now a part of Bavaria. King Maximilian II is supposed to live in Munich, the Bavarian seat of power, but he lives in Schwangau because come on, look at it, and his eldest son Ludwig had a perfect view out his window of the old Hohenschwangau ruins–except that somehow, in the intervening 600 years, the castles had switched names, so the “high” castle was now the low one, where Ludwig lived, and the ruins he became obsessed with were now called Schwanstein. When Maximilian died and Ludwig became King Ludwig II, one of his first orders of business was to tear down the Schwanstein ruins and build what he called “a real medieval castle,” which is a weird way of putting it because the castle he tore down already was medieval, and the one he built had running water and electricity. (This is, in its own way, another point of influence for Disney: a sanitization of the past to create a more easily-digestible version for modern audiences.) Ludwig was a wildly romantic person, obsessed with fairy tales and legends and larger-than-life drama (one of his best friends was Richard Wagner), and the castles he built were specifically designed to be fairy tales. For example: when the old Schwanstein was replaced with the New-Schwanstein (see where they got the name?), it contained an artificial cave accessed through a secret door off the king’s private chambers.

Except it was a king's private cave, so it was wired with electrical mood lighting.

And then, of course, Ludwig was declared insane. And the thing is, he may or may not have actually been insane; eccentric, certainly, but nothing pathological. What really happened is that he was deposed by the kingdom’s other leaders, who were sick of him and wanted him out of the way. Why? The first impulse is to assume that he was wildly building castles and opera houses and goodness knows what else–which is true–and in doing so bankrupted the country–which is not. Everything he built, and there was a TON of it, he paid for out of pocket, without once touching the kingdom’s coffers. More likely he was demonized for suspicions of homosexuality, and this theory makes a little more sense because his journals, revealed after his death, show that he actually was a homosexual, so: suspicions confirmed. In life he was super bestest friends with Richard Wagner, who was openly and ecstatically bisexual, so of course that didn’t help Ludwig’s reputation, and then there was his suspicious refusal to get married, which set a lot of tongues a-wagging. What angered his advisors more than anything, however, was not his orientation or or his spending but his single-minded obsession with building more stuff; not because he couldn’t afford it, but because he ignored everything else during a pretty amazingly tumultuous period of German and European history (including, but not limited to, the dissolution of his kingdom as a sovereign nation–that’s kind of a big deal). He designed so many buildings that eventually his architects just gave up making them feasible because they knew he would never have the time or support to actually build them. Bavaria needed a leader, and instead they had a fanatical fairy-tale fanboy obsessed with dressing entire mountain ranges in medieval cosplay. He only lived in Neuschwanstein 170 days (the interior wasn’t even completed) before he was dragged away, incarcerated, and died under incredibly mysterious circumstances: maybe an assassination, or an escape attempt, or a psychotic break, or some combination of all three.

In the end, Neuschwanstein is a whole bunch of paradoxes all jumbled together: it’s a newer version of a castle that it isn’t actually named after. It’s a “real” medieval castle that isn’t remotely medieval, and which destroyed a real medieval one as part of its creation. It’s the proto-typical princess castle and yet never housed a princess. It’s a the dream home of a man who only barely lived in it. It was considered a money pit for decades, yet today it’s one of the most lucrative tourist attractions in the country. It stands now as an emblem of an age it never came from, an ideal so empty they didn’t even have to move anything when they built a giant gift shop inside of it.

One last thing I want to mention: in the photo at the top you can kind of see some weird stuff around the edges of the castle. That’s scaffolding, as the whole thing is currently being restored, piece by piece. This final photo is a view of the back side of the castle, looking up from the trail:

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