King Ludwig II's castles are world-famous with Neuschwanstein Castle leading the way, but DW's Caroline Schmitt visited Herrenchiemsee instead. Is the solitude that Bavaria's fairy-tale king longed for still here?
Ludwig II reigned for just 22 years, from 1864 to 1886. But rather than getting too involved in the practicalities of government, he prefered to build castles, four of them. Up until now I had only ever visited Neuschwanstein, which is what most people do. As a matter of fact about 1.5 million visitors admire that fairy-tale castle every year. In contrast a mere 400,000 people visit Herrenchiemsee, which is located on an island on Lake Chiemsee in Bavaria. Is there a way of getting closer to the mysterious monarch here? I'm headed towards Germany's south to find out.
I’m walking towards the wide, foggy lake that is graced with an alpine backdrop. An elderly man stops me on my way towards the ferry harbor in Prien and asks where I am headed. I tell him. His eyes sparkle: "Oh, that's beautiful! And do you know what? Some of Andy Warhol's pieces are being exhibited at the castle at the moment! It turned out really great!"
The ferry leaves. It's raining. Very few tourists join me on the deck. Then slowly Herreninsel island emerges out of the fog: trees, scattered buildings; but I can't seem to spot the castle anywhere.
After a 15-minute stroll through the woods, a wide space opens up in front of me. A lavish garden with flowerbeds and fountains, behind them the elongated castle: a modest block just three floors high. It's a hundred meters (328 feet) long and doesn't have a single little tower.
Flirting with Versailles Palace
I join a tour of the castle and find myself awestruck right from the start: the state staircase is among the most magnificent I have ever seen. Its paintings, the marble floor and color arrangements make for an extremely majestic welcome.
The Great Hall of Mirrors isn’t any less spectacular. It's 75 meters long, and there's an almost infinite number of candles that a sparkle and reflect in every mirror. This hall is a lot more impressive than its equivalent in Versailles. That had been Ludwig II's plan for Herrenchiemsee all along. He wanted to create an homage and imitation of what was at the time the most beautiful palace in Europe - Versailles.
Ludwig II admired the unconditional and supreme rule of the French monarchy a power which had eluded Bavarian kings for 200 years. His adoration for the Sun King, Louis XIV is evident in almost every room. That made Ludwig II unpopular among his fellow countrymen. Herrenchiemsee Castle was more expensive than both Neuschwanstein and Linderhof put together, so at the end of his reign, the coffers in the treasury were empty - mainly because of his rather costly passion for building castles.
A pipe-dream with invisible staff
I can't get enough of the state bedroom, the ceiling paintings and the extravagantly carved furniture. Somehow Ludwig II managed to display pomp in a way that doesn't feel overwhelming. But unlike Versailles, no glittering parties, flamboyant dinners or glamorous receptions were ever held on the island. Ludwig II was a dreamer who preferred his own company and shied away from socializing. His castles were architectural illusions displaying a perfect world that only consisted of art, poetry and solitude. No stranger was allowed to encroach on that. He even avoided having his staff around him, which is why he insisted on having a disappearing table designed: A "Tischlein deck dich" (table serve dinner) was set and the food laid out on it on the ground floor and then pulled up into his chamber with a cable winch. The whole process took half an hour, during which the food had cooled down. Still, Ludwig II's uninterrupted privacy was worth it.
Visiting the building site that is Ludwig’s attic
Tragically the king only got to enjoy this orchestrated solitude for ten days. He ran out of money, building work ceased and he died a mysterious death in 1886 at Starnberger Lake. Two-thirds of the island facilities have therefore remained unfinished. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the tour's second part has a completely different feel to it: We're viewing the bare brickwork and are being allowed to see what's usually hidden behind precious marble walls and wallpapers in Ludwig II's other castles.
Although the second staircase is pretty much a copy of the first, it seems more modest thanks to bare brick walls. In recent years, a some of these rooms have been used to showcase modern art. So now, a few rooms further on, I'm standing in front of works by Andy Warhol, Dan Flavin and many more - just like the old man in Prien had raved about. A touch of Brooklyn warehouse in the midst of Ludwig II's dream world. "Sometimes we joke that it'd be very cool to turn this into an actual loft and move in," the tour guide says.
Dusk is falling as I step outside. I'm walking through the green woods towards the Augustiner Chorherrenstift which is located inside an old monastery. The Armida String Quartet from Berlin provide an excellent soundtrack for my journey back in time. While they perform Haydn and Schubert I feel transported back 150 years and can vividly picture how the lonely king walked through his splendid chambers, sitting at his "Tischlein deck dich" or striding through the forest. And the gloomy mist of today's sky would have suited his melancholic disposition perfectly.