04 July 2007

Day 7: Starnberg–Füssen (Schloß Neuschwanstein)

The rain continued through the night, so we didn't go to take the boat tour around the lake. We instead ate at a traditional Bavarian restaurant, favored by many of the older locals, where Colleen and Armin have their stammtisch every other Thursday. A stammtisch is a table reserved for a group gathering few times a month, and Colleen and Armin have a stammtisch with other teachers at their school at this restaurant. I had the Nürnberg-style sausages in sauerkraut; excellent. The sauerkraut in Bavarian is sweet with peppers, quite different from the usual American sauerkraut.

Enough about yesterday. It's today that you'll really want to hear about. 'Cause it's sights like this that drag people from the other side of the globe and lure them to remote locations with digital cameras and wallets leaking Euros…

You don't get to spend every Independence Day at a massive Bavarian Castle built by an eccentric fairy-tale fanatic who hired Richard Wagner to be a his personal composer.

So, yes, I did get to Schloß Neuschwanstein ("Castle New Swan Stone") today. And yes, it's an astounding, unreal sight. Perhaps because the man who created it, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, meant it to look unreal: a dream of a fantastic era of monarchy that existed only in legends, myths, and the operas of Richard Wagner, whom Ludwig patronized when nobody else would touch the rabble-rousing composer.

Even though the transit strike was resolved, my family decided to go for the rental car (complete with a smooth female-voiced onboard navigating computer) to make the trip to Füssen, the village in the gorge below Neuschwanstein. This ultimately ended up working excellently, since we got to see the area on our own time—although while driving back our female HAL-9000 computer decided to take us on a 'scenic' route. Well, everything around here is scenic, but this scenic route involved a road approximately the width of two caterpillars.

Anyway, onward to Neuschwanstein. We purchased our tickets for the 12:40 English language tour at the village kiosk, had a quick lunch (wiener schnitzel for me), then crammed onto the bus that wended its way through the tight forest road that ascends to the castle. The closer we got as we walked toward the edifice, the more the vision of it astounded us. The thing just couldn't be real. It looks, in my brother's term, "ridiculous." I was wondering when a Cast Member in a Mickey Mouse outfit was going to come out and greet me. "And have a happy day here at the Magic Kingdom. Permanace sentado, por favor." (Neuschwanstein inspired Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland.)

My brother Reed took this photo of me standing on the Marienbrücke Bridge. This gorge-leaping and vertiginous span (I wasn't fond of being on it for long, and when kids started jumping up on down on it, I left quickly) runs beside the castle and provides the best view of it. Just behold this towering architectural monster:
The weather during this time constantly shifted on us, from bright sun to sudden rain. Equipped with umbrellas and our embarrassed American sense of awe in the face of Über-Bavarianess, we managed to get through these shifts in the weather.

German precision lined us up in the courtyard of the castle for the English tour. An approximation of English, at least. Our guide could be a touch tricky to comprehend. I already new much of the castle's history, so I was able to soak in the baroque madness of the interiors even with the shaky English. Construction of Neuschwanstein commenced in 1864, one of three castles that Ludwig II built during his reign (only Linderhof was completed). The castle remained unfinished at his death in 1886, when he was deposed on charges of insanity and then mysteriously found drowned in Lake Starnberg. The tour took us through all the completed rooms, including the stunning "Singing Room," where Ludwig would hear performances of Wagner, the banquet room, the cavernous audience chamber (throne never finished), and an artificial cave Ludwig made for him to retire to for solitude. Yep, he built a cave next to his living room. Sadly, Ludwig only spent 170 days in residence at Neuschwanstein, but he watched via telescope its construction from the castle below, Hohenschwangau. More on that place later.

Photography isn't allowed inside Neuschwanstein, so I purchased a CD-ROM with professional photos I can use for my slide shows. The tour ended in a massive gift shop and media center that takes up the incomplete third floor of the castle. We packed into the bus to get back down to town (free to ride up if you take the tour, but you have to spend 1 Euro to get back down), and then it was time to tour the other castle of the Wittelsbach Dynasty in the area, Schloß Hohenschwangau:
Schloß Hohenschwangau ("Plain of the Swan") was built on the ruins of a medieval castle that Napoleon destroyed in 1806. King Maximilian II of Bavaria, Ludwig's father, completed the new castle in 1837 as a summer residence for his family when they were away from the Residenz in Munich. This is why the castle has no audience chamber or throne room—but does have an English billiard table! The tour was arranged the same way as the tour of Neuschwanstein—only with a less English-challenged guide—and again, no interior photos allowed. Schloß Hohenschwangau is a more traditional Bavarian castle, and seems more livable than the lunatic Neuschwanstein, with a logical floor plan and rooms that don't completely engulf you in walls of fairy-tale illustrations. Each room does, however, contain frescoes from legends of the history of the Wittelsbach Dynasty. There are a number of portraits of Maximilian, his wife Marie of Prussia, and their sons Ludwig and Otto, throughout the castle. We were shown the room where Wagner did much of his composition and the guest room where he stayed. I still have a hard time believing I've seen such a place: Wagner wrote most of "The Ring Cycle" in this very room. Every object in the room is a priceless piece of Bavarian art, with décor of silver, gold, and ivory.

We finally left the town of Hohenschwangau to return to Starnberg, where we had dinner at the restaurant Undosa on the lake. A rainbow came out over the lake, one of the few perfect arch rainbows I've seen. It seemed to strike the opposite side of the lake, where Ludwig II drowned. The other highlight of the dinner was a discussion of an Austrian town with an accidentally obscene name in English. Here's a hint, it rhymes with "trucking." Sure, the 'u' has an umlaut over it, but there are just too many jokes you can make about a place like that. And I think we ran through them all.

We're back at Colleen and Armin's apartment now, and I'm pounding away at this very long blog entry for your edification, while everyone else is in the living room discussing genetics (I think; I'm not really paying attention). I don't know what tomorrow holds, but today was certainly one of the highlights of the trip.

(I’ve included some details about an earlier trip I made to castle that is the utter opposite of Neuschwanstein’s aesthetic, the practical fortress of Conwy Castle in Wales. That was an entirely different experience.)