Most Americans probably do not realize that the famous Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland was modeled after real European castles (see note). But indeed it was, and among them was Neuschwanstein, an unfinished castle sitting high above the Alpsee just outside Füssen. It was undoubtedly Germany's best-known and most-visited castle, and the one that most often appeared on souvenir trinkets and postcards. Its setting was perfect for both summer and winter-oriented photos, the latter due to the way its white structure was enhanced against a lit snowy backdrop. This castle was supposed to have fulfilled King Ludwig II's dreams of self-importance and greatness, but when he died in 1886 all construction stopped with 60% of the rooms unfinished. Still, the remaining 40% were pretty awesome. Known by several names -- 'Cinderella's Castle', the 'Fairy Tale Castle', etc. -- Neuschwanstein was a breathtakingly beautiful castle amidst a beautiful mountain and lake setting. This was a castle not to miss.
With it and nearby Hohenschwangau in their midst, the small towns of Schwangau and Füssen built a cottage tourist industry built to handle the many thousands of visitors coming by the busload daily. The district was set away from the towns so that the downtowns themselves didn't get overrun, allowing there to be a whole village built complete with huge restaurants and fastfood imbisses, souvenir stands out the yin-yang, and a massive ticketing center for the visits. The approach was via a wide boulevard that stared straight at the white castle, perched on its own hilltop set against a mountainside. We found it truly inviting.
The way the tickets worked was noteworthy, because anyone visiting for a quick dash up to the castles will be disappointed. Both castles require guided tours, and the tours are assigned (one could not pick and choose the time). Tours began every five minutes with certain tours being conducted in English and special tours available in certain other languages. Tom's experience, having been there about four times, was that on average the assigned tour for Neuschwanstein would begin about one to two hours after the time of the ticket purchase. While that sounded like a lot of time, in fact it wasn't. Getting to the castle could take the whole time.
There were three different ways to get to the top, and between us we have tried them all. The cheapest but slowest way was to walk, but that was quite a climb. The distance from the ticket counter to the castle was a little over a mile, we reckoned, at a fairly moderate angle. Those in good physical condition would have little difficulty. There were two means of transportation available for those not willing or without sufficient time to do the walk. The second photograph showed one popular way, horse carriage. Horse carriages were available all along the road for hire, and they typically took thirty to forty-five minutes to reach the base of the castle. The other means was by a bus, which made runs up and down every ten minutes. However, the bus stop did not go to the castle itself, it went to the Marienbrucke (more below) instead, and there was still a fair ways to go to reach the castle.
It was with this shuttle that we used on our most recent trip to the castle in the fall of 2004. The bus station was only a couple hundred meters from the Marienbrucke (third photograph), a bridge spanning a chasm over a river valley. This bridge was constructed precisely to offer the perfect side views of Neuschwanstein, such as seen in the first photograph. In the backdrop, one can make out the Schwangau Lake in the background, which in the summertime was a prime destination for sailors. Following the path beyond the bridge, at a distance of over two miles, brought one to a summit that permitted a great frontal view of the castle. This summit was a popular destination for hang gliders, and we saw quite a number of them circling in the air over the castle. That summit was also accessible via a gondola ride from the town of Schwangau.
We made it back from the Marienbrucke to the castle itself (passing by the view of the castle rear that is shown in the fourth photo) to wait in the inner courtyard for our turn for the tour. Admittedly, the inner courtyard is not all that interesting because the castle decor is not that ornate. But, we were not there long before our tour number (printed on the ticket with the time) came up on the indicators and we went inside.
Overall, the interior decor is astonishingly ornate. The highlights of the tour included the following. There was a massive guilded brass throne room with a beautiful tiled floor of 18 million individually chiseled tiles and brilliant gold painting which is reminiscent of an Eastern Orthodox style vice the region's more prominent Roman Catholicism. King Ludwig's chamber was a major highlight with its bedroom arrayed with all sorts of elaborate wooden furniture with a hunting theme. The bedroom also had a hidden locked door to a private toilet, one of the first in Europe that featured running water. There was an artificial grotto that made up one of the hallways, complete with fake rock and waterfall. The ballroom on the fifth floor was also a highlight, with its incredible display of artwork. As King Ludwig was a big fan of Wagner's operas, scenes from the operas were posted on murals throughout the building, especially in the bedroom. The tour concluded with a walk past the kitchen facilities, which would have made any restauranteur proud. By the way, photography was not permitted inside the structure, and this was very strictly enforced. I was only able to take photos of the outside.
We walked back down to the tourist village to do some shopping and get a snack before moving on. The fifth photograph showed an example of the colorful murals painted on some of the restaurants there, most of whom offer standard German foods and generally operate pretty fast to move people through. The souvenir stands were not extraordinary and seemed overpriced, which should not be surprising. However, one would not find better arrangements of King Ludwig items anywhere else (except in the others of his castles).
What can one say? Neuschwanstein fulfilled its bill as a great castle and tourist attraction, one that we routinely took visitors to. It was one of a kind.
Trips taken 18 August 2000, 19 August 2001, and 10 October 2004 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2002 Tom Galvin
Note: The Walt Disney official website -- http://psc.disney.go.com/guestservices/8742.html, accessed 25 March 2006 -- acknowledged that the Sleeping Beauty Castle and Neuschwanstein had similarities but downplayed that the latter was the main inspiration. The tour guides at Neuschwanstein included in their shtick that their castle was the sole or prime inspiration.