Things We Are Not Taller Than: Bavaria, Germany

This post is part of a series. You can read about the origins of our travel tradition here.

We all have places that have captured our imaginations. For me, it was Stonehenge, the Pyramids, and Neuschwanstein, the epic castle hunkered in the mountains of Bavaria. I’m not the only one this white stone confection has moved either— Neuschwanstein is famously the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. When you first see it, nestled on the hillside amidst towering pines and boulders, it looks like something out of a fairytale fantasy. And that makes sense once you learn a little bit about its history.

The castle was built by King Ludwig II, by all accounts a shy king who cultivated a sense of mystery. His own mother said that as a boy, “Ludwig enjoyed dressing up … took pleasure in play acting, loved pictures and the like.He was apparently fascinated by the legends of old—the holy grail was a big influence—though by the time of his rule the monarchy was largely symbolic, with little actual power. In his mind, however, he ruled like “a real king”, (sometimes even dressing in historic costume for effect), and in 1867 he began planning his own kingdom in the form of his castles and palaces.

So, you can probably understand why people call him the Mad King, or der Märchenkönig (“the Fairy Tale King”). Eventually, his madness and his desire for solitude led him to be declared insane. He slept only 11 nights in the castle before he was formally deposed and sent to an asylum. Mysteriously, he died shortly after.
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Though Neuschwanstein looks huge and imposing, in fact, it’s largely unfinished. The interior hosts one bedroom, for Ludwig himself, and servants quarters. Halls, courtyards, baths, and other details inspired by the nobility of the grail are either grossly simplified from Ludwig’s original plans or were scaled back entirely. The architecture is highly stylized—many assume that the castle was built far earlier than the late 1800’s due to the medieval look and feel.

Though Germany is teeming with real medieval and gothic castles, Neuschwanstein is the most popular, with summer marking sometimes 6000 visitors per day. Tim and I visited the castle in early October, about a week before the leaves fully turned. It was actually the perfect time to go—the summer crowds had dwindled, the air was crisp but not cold, and the first autumn foliage was appearing up and down the mountain—the orange and gold a perfect offset to the castle’s white and blue trimmings. The effect sent a little tingle down the spine—a sputter of magic in an otherwise very real world.

Explore more photos of Neuschwanstein here!