by Joey Green
In the 1800s, he built castles so enticing that Walt Disney eventually used them as inspirations for his fairy tales. But was the young king inventive—or insane?
What sort of mind—genius or irrational—would be motivated to build a replica of the extravagant Palace of Versailles on an island in the middle of a lake in Southern Germany? When my wife, Debbie, and I learn that King Ludwig II of Bavaria built such a place, which is known as the Royal Palace of Herrenchiemsee (New Palace), we are fascinated. We also discover that Ludwig is best known for building Neuschwanstein—the iconic castle that Walt Disney used as the archetype for Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland and Cinderella Castle at Disney World—and that he constructed several other outlandish castles. So we drag our two teenage daughters on a weeklong road trip through scenic Bavaria. Our goal? To determine whether Ludwig was the Walt Disney of the 19th century or an eccentric lunatic.
From the Munich airport we drive southwest for two hours through the lush, Bavarian countryside, where men still dress in lederhosen, women wear dirndls, and everyone seems to wash down bratwurst and sauerkraut with a one-liter stein of lager. Traveling on a budget, we room in villages off the beaten path, in clean, comfortable, family-style guesthouses where traditional Bavarian breakfast consists of cheese slices, soft pretzels, thin slices of ham, white sausages and a jar of Nutella.
"Ashley was right," says Julia, 14, our younger daughter and a notoriously fussy eater. "We should have gone to Disney World."
We begin our investigation at Hohenschwangau Castle. Hohenschwangau means "upper land of the swans," and so statues, carvings and paintings of swans fill the castle. Murals depict romanticized scenes from the medieval German legend of Lohengrin, a knight in shining armor who arrives in a boat pulled by a swan to rescue the proverbial damsel in distress. As a child, Ludwig identified with Lohengrin and imagined himself as the swan knight. "Ludwig enjoyed dressing up," his mother once said, and he also "took pleasure in playacting." After seeing the opera Lohengrin by German composer Richard Wagner, whose powerful music intensifies the impact of the legend, 15-year-old Ludwig became obsessed with Wagner. "The same way you girls love Lady Gaga," I feebly explain. Ashley and Julia roll their eyes.
For our girls, the crowning jewel of Ludwig's New Castle is the stunning view from the Marienbruke suspension bridge that spans Pollat Gorge, only a 15-minute walk uphill in Ludwig's backyard. From there, we walk down the gorge trail, admiring the 148-foot-tall Pollat waterfall.
"This is like a real, live fantasyland," says Ashley.
From Neuschwanstein, we drive winding roads an hour east to Linderhof Palace, Ludwig's royal villa, which has a baroque facade that makes it seem puny in the wake of Neuschwanstein. Our girls can't believe the nocturnal king spent most of his nights in the Hall of Mirrors, which, when illuminated with candles, reflects the light incalculable times, creating the illusion of an endless corridor. A 108-candle crystal chandelier hangs in the bedchamber, and the table in the dining room sits on a platform that could be lowered into the kitchen on the floor below, so that Ludwig, who had become self-conscious of his bad teeth, could dine alone without ever seeing the servants. Upon the hill beyond the lavish, terraced gardens is a Moorish kiosk furnished with a bizarre peacock throne, where Ludwig sat smoking a hookah amid servants garbed in Berber costumes.
The astonishing highlight of Linderhof is so well concealed that we nearly miss seeing it. The Venus Grotto, a massive man-made cave reminiscent of Pirates of the Caribbean, contains artificial stalagmites and stalactites draped with garlands of flowers, a heated artificial lake and waterfalls illuminated by colored lights, and a wave machine—all modeled after the Venus Grotto from Wagner's opera Tannhauser. Using the first electricity generated in Germany, Ludwig could light the lake water in red to replicate the Venus Grotto or in turquoise to duplicate the Blue Grotto of Capri. He sat in a plush, gilded, shell-shaped boat in the middle of the lake. The king built this bizarre grotto in the hopes that Wagner would perform Lohengrin on the elaborate stage on the far end of the indoor lake. Both Ashley and Julia find it sadly ironic that Wagner never visited Linderhof.
In the palace museum, our kids learn that in 1886, having rung up a tremendous debt, Ludwig refused to deal rationally with the foreign banks threatening to seize his castles. A psychiatrist running a state commission declared the king insane, arrested him at Neuschwanstein Castle and brought him 55 miles north to Castle Berg on Lake Starnberg. The following night, authorities found Ludwig and the psychiatrist drowned in shallow water in Lake Starnberg. To this day, the mystery remains unsolved.