Creative Madness Lives on in Bavaria
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
OBERAMMERGAU, Germany, Feb. 19, 1998 They said he was mad, but since his death more than 110 years ago, 1.5 million people have come to southern Germany to see the fruits of Bavarian King Ludwig II's madness.
Tourists flock to Neuschwanstein Castle, one of three palaces Ludwig II built in the mid-to-late 1800s in the Bavarian Alps south of Munich. Linderhof Palace and Herrenchiemsee Palace draw their share of tourists, but Neuschwanstein is the main attraction, especially for Americans.
For countless moviegoers, Neuschwanstein will always be the place where "fairy tales come true." The Walt Disney Co. used the castle as the basis for fairy-tale replicas at theme parks in California, Florida, France and Japan.
Disney also featured Neuschwanstein's likeness in his classic children's films. As the young at heart know: Cinderella lost her glass slipper at midnight on the castle steps; Prince Charming braved the enchanted castle to find a Sleeping Beauty; and Snow White escaped the castle, fleeing a wickedly jealous stepmother.
Disney's characters traditionally lived happily ever after. This was not the case for King Ludwig. After spending a fortune building elaborate palaces, he was found dead at the age of 40. His death remains a mystery; it may have been the result of a plot to end his costly, palace-building frenzy.
King Ludwig's story is centered around his penchant for fantasy and his admiration for a musical genius, composer Richard Wagner. Born in 1845, Ludwig became Bavaria's king at age 18. At that time, Germany was a collection of separate states. Although considered unprepared for the royal role, the young king took his duties seriously, according to Julius Delig in his booklet "King Ludwig II His Life - His End."
Early in his reign, Ludwig was drawn to the arts and culture. He built schools and colleges and set up a foundation to support Bavarian arts and crafts. His passion for music was made evident when he became Wagner's patron.
After first meeting Ludwig at his court in Munich, the composer wrote about the young king: "He is unfortunately so noble and brilliant, so magnificent and soulful, that I fear his life must vanish like a fleeting stream in this coarse world. ... My luck is so great that I am crushed by it; if he can only live; he is such an unheard of wonder!"
The Bavarian aristocracy and clergy did not share Ludwig's admiration of Wagner, however. They saw the composer as a revolutionary intent on isolating and exploiting the young king. Eighteen months after Ludwig first welcomed Wagner to Munich, the king was forced to ban the composer from Bavaria. As a result, a long-lasting rift developed between the king and the Bavarian authorities.
Guidebooks describe Ludwig II as a dreamer prone to fantasies from historical German epics and to exotic lifestyles. Dismayed by the exile of his friend Wagner, and disillusioned because he was not an absolute monarch, Ludwig withdrew more and more from public life. Less than two years after assuming the throne, he wrote to Wagner: "Oh, how futile is this world! How miserable, how cruel so many men! Their lives are centered in the close circle of shallow triviality. Oh, if only this world lay behind me!"
In 1867, Ludwig terminated a brief marital engagement, never again to consider marriage. Throughout the land, he became known as the lonely "fairy tale" king. Returning to his mountain homeland in the Alps near Oberammergau, he shifted his focus from being a monarch to becoming a master builder.
In 1869, Ludwig began construction of a palace close to his parents' castle in the town of Hohenschwangau. Writing to Wagner, Ludwig called the mountain site "that paradise on earth that is alive with my ideals and makes me happy."
The king built the castle in Wagner's honor and named it Neuschwanstein. He decorated its walls and ceilings throughout with murals depicting scenes from the myths and legends upon which Wagner based his operas. Ludwig wrote: "The location is one of the most beautiful to be found: holy and unapproachable, a worthy temple for our worthy friend, who has bestowed upon mankind unique salvation and true blessing."
For the next 17 years, 200 craftsmen and 100 laborers toiled among the rugged cliffs and mountain peaks to build an 82-room medieval castle. Their efforts would make Neuschwanstein a monument to the artists and craftsmen of the 19th century.
For four years, 14 woodcarvers worked solely on the king's oak-bedecked bed chamber. Unnamed art students from Munich painted elaborate wall and ceiling murals. Stonemasons laid more than a million colored stones in the mosaic floor of the throne room, where a 1,000-pound brass chandelier hangs from a star-studded royal blue ceiling highlighted with golden sun rays.
As the artists plied their trade, saints and apostles, knights and ladies, kings and queens, adorned the castle walls and ceilings. Paint, plaster and mesh turned one room into a grotto, complete with stalactites, stalagmites and a bubbling spring. Arched windows on each of the castle's five floors framed far-reaching views of the valley and lakes hundreds of feet below as well as the peaks towering above.
While work was under way on Neuschwanstein, Ludwig began construction on two smaller palaces and planned building several more. In 1874, he began building the royal villa he named Linderhof, fashioned after the French palace of Versailles. It is about four miles west of Oberammergau. Four years later, he began building the Versailles-inspired Herrenchiemsee Palace at Lake Chiemsee, about 60 miles southeast of Munich.
Ludwig elaborately furnished both with intricate, gilded woodcarvings, exquisite porcelains, massive mirrors, rich tapestries and furniture. Although he primarily used his own family fortune to build his palaces, Ludwig became indebted to the Bavarian government to the tune of about 13 million deutsche marks. Family members and government officials feared the king would exhaust in one generation the family fortune accumulated over 800 years. They conspired to depose the king on grounds of insanity.
Aware of the animosity he caused, Ludwig wrote: "I must bear being laughed at, scorned at, and slandered. I am called a fool. Will God call me a fool when I am summoned before him?"
Ludwig lived to see Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee finished, but not Neuschwanstein. The king lived in the 15 finished rooms of the mountaintop aerie only 172 days. In 1886, a government commission declared Ludwig II incurably mentally deranged.
Officials seized the king and took him to Munich. Five days later, authorities found the bodies of two men floating in a lake. One was the 40-year-old monarch and the other was the state doctor who, without ever having examined Ludwig, had declared the king insane.
Immediately after Ludwig's death, government officials halted work on Neuschwanstein and turned it into a museum to recoup its cost. After 1.5 million visitors, the castle has more than paid for itself, a resident tour guide noted.
Today, visitors pay 11 deutsche marks, about $9, each to visit Neuschwanstein. Children under 12 are free. Approaching from Oberammergau to the southeast, visitors pass through immaculate Bavarian villages and well-tended farmlands. Weathered hay barns dot the valley's gentle slopes beneath snow-capped peaks. Lacelike woodwork and colorful murals decorate homes and businesses.
When first seen in the distance, Neuschwanstein seems an improbable apparition, a white fairy tale vision against the mountainside's dark forest green.
Final ascent to the castle is made on foot, by horse-drawn carriage or bus. Carriages haul those unwilling or unable to make the half-mile climb up the winding, wooded drive to the castle gate. Buses carry visitors to a spot near a bridge across the grotto overlooking Neuschwanstein. A fairly steep descent from there leads to a ticket booth and souvenir stands.
Approaching the massive wooden gates, looking up at its limestone walls and so-familiar towers, there's no doubt this is the place where Cinderella met her fella and a poison apple sent a beautiful maiden into an enchanted sleep. The combination of gothic and romanesque architecture exudes romance and fantasy. An hour-long tour takes visitors into the realm of German knights questing for the holy grail, tales of chivalry and odes of heroism.
The gold-embroidered velvet draperies, ornately carved chairs and even the iron door handles bear a swan motif. Circular stone stairways and vaulted corridors with marble floors lead to rooms where time has stood still since Ludwig's death more than 100 years ago. The tour ends in the castle kitchen which fed the hundreds of laborers and craftsmen who brought Ludwig's dreams to life for generations to come.