It symbolizes Germany like the Eiffel Tower stands for France and the pyramids for Egypt: Neuschwanstein Castle. What draws tourists from all over the world to this place? A visit during peak season.
Through the rolling green hills of the Allgäu, the road rises and falls, lined with dour old trees and flashing glimpses of a far-off, mysteriously shimmering lake. In the distance tower the dusky Alps.
Then it happens: like a jagged crystal, ramparts jut upward from the crags, and the next moment, a barbed silhouette traces its steep rooftops and towers against the mountain slopes. It seems unreal, almost like a setting for an opera, lithe and lissom, bold and brash, white as powdered sugar, it perches above the abyss: Castle Neuschwanstein. What a performance!
If one site in Germany could be described as a fantasy in stone, this is it. Every year, 1.5 million tourists, at least half of them from abroad, come to live the fantasy.
Symbol of Europe
By 8:30 a.m., the courtyard is packed with tourists. A bridal couple from Thailand poses in front of the castle panorama. Several groups of Americans have already got their tickets. Faryn Tate’s from Los Angeles. "I’m here, because I’m a Disney fan," she says. "I know the castles at the amusement parks; now I want to see the one that inspired him." By "him" she means the American animator, movie producer and amusement park mogul Walt Disney.
Castle administrator Katharina Schmidt (44) has discovered that many Americans have trouble telling the original from the copy. "They come here and say, ‘Oh, they took that from Disney.’ And then we say, ‘No, the other way round. Walt Disney was here and took Neuschwanstein as his inspiration.’"
The largest tourist faction is not the Americans but the Chinese. Just last year, they took 1st place from the Japanese. "I only came for the castle," says Jiangchuan He (16) from the Shanghai area. "This is world-famous. I think most Chinese know about it. To us, it’s a symbol of Europe."
A castle tour every few minutes
At 9:00 a.m., the gates open and the first group, this one of Americans, is called in by a number appearing on an electronic display. During peak season, the guides run up to 7000 people through the castle per day. And they can only do it if it’s all organized with military precision. Neuschwanstein was never really designed with visitors in mind. "Preserve these rooms as a shrine for my sake. Don’t let them be desecrated by gawkers!" the reclusive Ludwig impressed upon his confidants. He wanted his creation for himself as a refuge - as a world apart from the unromantic forces of the modern age.
But only six weeks after his mysterious death in 1886, ostensibly by drowning in Lake Starnberg, the first paying visitors passed through its gates. After the Second World War, the castle completed its transformation to a tourist destination. "Now we have more visitors than ever before," says Ines Holzmüller of the Bavarian Palace Department. The property belongs to the Bavarian state, which has had "Neuschwanstein" registered as a trademark.
"Hello, my name is Christian", the young castle guide introduces himself to his tour group by his first name. Then he launches into a short biography of King Ludwig II. "He died under mysterious circumstances at just forty years of age." This evokes a drawn out "Ooooooh…" There are not all that many rooms to see inside the castle.
Long before the king got close to completing it, several of his ministers had him declared insane. On one hand, we are left with a sense of loss, on the other with a blessing, since the guides can give a thorough tour in barely half an hour. And the few rooms and halls that were completed are magnificent.
The great debauchery
Ludwig’s aspirations flew to even loftier heights: the castle was to become a shrine to Richard Wagner's (1813-1883) operas and the world of ancient Germanic sagas that they brought to life. The murals illustrate the tales of Lohengrin and Tannhäuser; they abound with swans and towering knights of yore, all shining in luminous colors and copious gold trim. Ludwig adored unbridled splendor and rampant grandeur.
The American tourists are so impressed that they speak in whispers, and nobody would think of violating the rule against taking pictures. Occasionally a hushed "wow" can be heard. Upon entering the royal bed chamber, one women lets slip, "Just look at this! That's what I call a room for a princess!" Another sighs, "Who wouldn't want to live here?"
A somewhat bizarre touch is the artificial grotto that, as early as the 1880s, the king had illuminated with colored electric lightbulbs. "I want a grotto, too, when we come back home," moans the same woman who had so admired the bed chamber fit for a "princess". Her husband wisely chooses to remain silent. Shortly afterward, the tour ends. All but a very few tourists resist the stuffed swans and 1000-piece puzzles available in the souvenir shop. But most feel they've earned a cappuccino.
Excessive, yes, but kitschy, no
Tour guide Gilles Chavet (54) comes from Paris. Doesn't he think Neuschwanstein is kitschy? "Kitschy, no! It's exotic, extravagant, excessive. We don't have anything like this in France. There, everything’s classically austere. But this is a wild fantasy." High School student Joseph Weaver (16) from Ontario, Canada, is here on his graduation trip. Does it bother him that Neuschwanstein is a fake that only pretends to be a medieval knight's castle but in fact is barely 130 years old? Joseph makes a dismissive gesture. "Canada is only about 150 years old. To us, this castle is old."
Bobbie Zemanek (51) from New Mexico, USA, is here with her husband Kelly White (51) tracing her German ancestors. Isn't there any other place that could tell her more about the country? "I think, in many respects, this castle stands for Germany," she gives a well-considered answer. "It stands for the magic and the mysterious. I'm thinking of Grimm's fairy tales."
German Tourists seem a bit more objective
The only ones who don't go into rhapsodies over it are the Germans. "Everybody wants to come here; you have to have seen it once," says Indra Grönke (45). She travelled here across the country with her husband and two daughters (13 and 11) from Oyten near Bremen. The most spectular sights to see are almost by definition not to be found in one's own back yard - being faraway is part of the attraction. To Germans, it might be the Empire State Building in New York City or the Taj Mahal in India, but hardly a castle in Bavaria.
Administrator Katharina Schmidt has her office in the bower - "The most beautiful workplace in Germany," as she describes it. "The key to understanding the worldwide fascination is the part about the fairy-tale castle," she explains. "Every child grows up with a certain image of the king's castle - and this is it."
Long after dark, toward midnight. The tourists are all gone. It's quiet and Alpine dark - except for the floodlights that bathe Neuschwanstein in a silvery glow. At this witching hour, the castle may look somewhat like King Ludwig himself imagined it: far away from the masses' prying eyes, deserted and unapproachable. Even the skeptics would have to admit: it's an image from a dream.