Lessons from the Life and Times of Ludwig II of Bavaria

THIS STORY WON 1ST PRIZE AT THE GNTO TRAVEL WRITING AWARDS 2014. IT ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE JANUARY 2014 EDITION OF LONELY PLANET TRAVELLER MAGAZINE (lonelyplanet.com/magazine)

Head to the mountains of southern Germany to enter the kingdom of a most peculiar monarch, and to hear stories of fairytale castles and treasonous plotting

Lesson I: Build a magnificent castle (Schloss Neuschwanstein)

One winter’s day in the 1930s, a middle-aged American gentleman with a bushy moustache and a winning smile set out on a strange mission in southern Bavaria. The Nazis had seized power in Germany, and Europe teetered on the brink of war – but all this had little to do with the American’s assignment. His car would have sped through wintry landscapes, past frosty fields and frozen lakes, before puttering up a winding road to the foot of the most remarkable castle on Earth: Neuschwanstein.

The name of this man was Walter ‘Walt’ Disney. In him and all others who have seen it, Neuschwanstein is a building that awakens a childlike wonder like no other – a castle seemingly borrowed from bedtime stories of brave knights and peril-prone maidens.

Neuschwanstein Castle

Neuschwanstein Castle

Walking up the hill to the castle soon after sunrise, the silence is total but for the scrunch of snow compacting under foot. Hidden among the treetops, Neuschwanstein reveals her splendour by degrees on approach: stout battlements, a grand gatehouse and, finally, soaring towers that seem to outstretch the mountains rising behind them.

Somewhere near here, Walt Disney would have sketched the castle in his notebook. This would later become the emblem of his company – and today Walt’s copy of Neuschwanstein has been rebuilt at Disneylands everywhere from Paris to Hong Kong. Its design is still shorthand for singing animals and dancing teacups; magic spells and dreams come true.

Yet the real king who built this castle has a story more remarkable than any Disney movie. ‘Mad’ King Ludwig II of Bavaria was the 19th century’s Michael Jackson; a reclusive daydreamer who lived in his own make-believe world – nearly bankrupting himself by building fairytale castles and play-acting on the battlements. Partly brilliant, partly bonkers, Ludwig II flew in the face of Teutonic stereotypes of practicality, seriousness and fiscal responsibility. But, for his big heart and his even bigger imagination, he remains deeply loved today – a true German hero in a country often reminded of the villains from its past.

A portrait of King Ludwig

A portrait of King Ludwig

Ludwig built many castles, but Neuschwanstein was his bachelor pad par excellence – a mock medieval home inspired by myths of the Holy Grail. It affects visitors in strange and powerful ways. Guides tell of sets of keys stolen by Ludwig fans – and one man who climbed the scaffolding into the castle under cover of night, set off the burglar alarm and, upon being found by security staff, requested an audience with the king.

‘We’ve not done any surveys. But we do know from security cameras that this is a very, err, romantic place,’ explains one guide who politely declined to be named.

The Throne Hall at Neuschwanstein

The Throne Hall at Neuschwanstein

A long, echoing corridor leads to the Throne Hall – the king’s headquarters at the heart of the castle. Everywhere are grand colonnades and glittering gold-leaf paint, crystal chandeliers and celestial- looking frescoes. It is a place of almost deranged lavishness: interior design turned up to eleven.

It is spectacular, surreal… but also rather silly. One mosaic depicts Christ in the heavens; another shows a grinning alligator going for a walk. Here and there are paintings of prancing knights that belong in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Neuschwanstein may look medieval but work stopped here in 1892 – long after lightbulbs, telephones and Coca-Cola had all been invented.

Dafter suggestions for Neuschwanstein were never realised: waterfalls that would cascade down the stairs of the castle, and (best of all) a steam-driven flying machine in the shape of a golden peacock that would see the king soaring above the countryside nearby. To Ludwig’s admirers, Neuschwanstein was the vision of a singularly powerful imagination. To his enemies, it was tacky in the extreme.

The Alpsee by Neuschwanstein

The Alpsee by Neuschwanstein

What is indisputable, however, is the drama of Neuschwanstein’s setting. The castle overlooks the Alpsee – the lake where Ludwig first learned to swim, next to the castle of Hohenschwangau that his father had built. Along the banks are tall pines, their branches shaggy with freshly fallen snow, and, up above, mountains whose dark reflections quiver in the lake’s icy waters. It’s curious to imagine the young Ludwig II standing near this lake, telescope in hand, dreaming of a building that would one day be worthy of this magnificent landscape.

More curious still is the place where he found his inspiration for the castle…


Lesson II: Indulge your musical side (Nationaltheater München)

Long ago, residents of Munich peeking out of their windows at bedtime would have witnessed a strange occurrence. Scurrying through the city’s cobbled streets would be opera singers and stagehands, musicians carrying tubas and cellos – all sworn to secrecy about what they were up to. Quietly, they would assemble at Munich’s National Theatre. Instruments would be tuned, scenery pushed into position – and, on the stroke of midnight, curtains opened for a grand performance… to an empty auditorium.

Empty, that is, but for the solitary figure of King Ludwig II, sat at the back.

Inside Munich Opera House

Inside Munich Opera House

Music is a deeply personal matter in Munich. Where other German towns prided themselves on industry and commerce, Munich’s rulers instead modelled their city as a capital of culture – a ‘New Athens’ where boulevards are still lined with grandiose galleries and statues of distinguished thinkers looking pensive.

Munich’s pride and joy, however, is its opera house – a grand temple to music at the heart of the city. Joining a backstage tour of the building, the scale of the operation becomes apparent. There are endless corridors cluttered with props, levers and snaking electrical cables; there are fire escapes where singers practise arpeggios, and staff canteens where musicians spill their food onto their scores.

Just as his fellow Bavarians tend to today, the young Ludwig adored music, but one composer captured his heart like no other. Like Ludwig, Richard Wagner was a character larger than life; a man with a fervent belief in his own great destiny. The two became friends. The king would be Wagner’s sponsor for the latter half of his career, and the composer’s music became Ludwig’s all- consuming obsession. Bemused farmers would be enlisted as extras in recreations of Wagner’s operas at royal castles, Ludwig naturally taking the lead role. Swooning maidens would open letters from the handsome king – only to find him prattling on about his love of Wagner, and little else. It was an obsession inherited by other Bavarians.

Andreas Friese in the Munich Opera House

Andreas Friese in Munich’s opera house

‘To me, it is deeply special – almost sexual – music,’ explains Andreas Friese, a guide at the opera house, sitting flanked by marble goddesses in the royal box. ‘I know of no other composer whose music goes from 0 to 100 straight away.’

To his greatest admirers, Wagner’s music has a strange power that transcends its medium. Andreas leaves the auditorium for another, quieter corner of the National Theatre where portraits of conductors past hang on the wall. With hushed reverence, he points to two of these men who died in mysterious circumstances fifty years apart; both on this very stage, both conducting the tempestuous second act of Wagner’s masterpiece, Tristan and Isolde.

A cellist warming up for a performance at Munich Opera House

A cellist warming up for a performance at Munich Opera House

Watching Wagner performed on that same stage today, one understands the effect this sublime music had on a ruler sick of petty politics and pointless ceremonies. Wagner’s is a language of thundering chords and steamrollering melodies – with stories of warring immortals, doomed lovers and (of course) extraordinary castles. It was likely to have been on this very stage that Ludwig found his inspiration for Neuschwanstein. The first blueprint for his castle was sketched not by an architect, but by a man who painted stage scenery for Wagner’s operas.

‘For Ludwig, I think Wagner’s music was a kind of release,’ Andreas contemplates. ‘I think it was an escape for him to a fantastical land.’

Not long after arriving in Munich, Wagner got too big for his boots. He meddled in politics, went on spending sprees funded by the king’s purse and caused a scandal by eloping with a conductor’s wife. Political pressure from Ludwig’s ministers meant Wagner was eventually forced to leave for Switzerland. He would never return to Munich.

The king, meanwhile, remained as popular as ever with his fellow Bavarians…


Lesson III: Be loved by your people (Garmisch-Partenkirchen)

From Munich, hills roll serenely southward, before rocketing up into the giddy heights of the Bavarian Alps. It is scenery straight from The Sound of Music – red-roofed villages and onion-domed churches, lakes to skate on in winter and swim in come summer, and snowy mountains marching forth to the far corners of the country. In the midst of it all is the winter resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where families clatter past carrying skis, and where one rather well-dressed gentleman is taking a stroll.

Sepp Daser as Ludwig

Sepp Daser as Ludwig

‘The first time, I had to take a photo to the hairdressers and I got some funny looks,’ explains Sepp Daser, stopping to wave to passing motorists honking their horns in deference. ‘Now I just ask for The Ludwig and they know what to do.’

An actor of stage and screen, Sepp works part-time as a Ludwig II lookalike near Garmisch-Partenkirchen – applying a can’s worth of hairspray, slipping under a billowing blue cloak and making appearances at wedding receptions and black-tie dinners. Taking care not to get his cloak trapped in the door, Sepp stops for a coffee at a hotel, seating himself with a theatrical swoop. ‘It’s a wonderful feeling playing Ludwig – you always get a good reception,’ he says, holding a black coffee in one gloved hand. ‘You have to play him with real emotion, but you never really know what’s going on inside his head.’

Sepp’s fondness for Ludwig is shared across Bavaria – a place where the king still serves as a figurehead for a distinct regional identity. Though now part of Germany, Bavaria was once a kingdom in its own right: locals consider themselves Bavarians first and Germans second. The philosophy of life here is one Ludwig would still recognise – pious living and humble manners; plentiful weissbier and slurred singalongs; chopped logs and leather trousers.

The view from Zugspitze - the highest point in Germany, near Garmisch-Partenkirchen

The view from Zugspitze – the highest point in Germany, near Garmisch-Partenkirchen

Just as Bavarians loved their king, Ludwig loved his people. He had a lodge on a hilltop near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and sometimes would walk alone in these mountains, dropping by peasants’ houses unannounced for tea. Other times he might be spotted whooshing past on a horse- drawn sleigh stacked full of presents for his subjects.

There is, however, a limit to Sepp’s dedication to his character. By middle age, Ludwig’s teeth were falling out. He was so fat, few horses would tolerate his weight. ‘I’m 47 now.’ Sepp laughs grimly. ‘By my age, King Ludwig was dead…’


Lesson IV: Die a strange and mysterious death (Der Starnberger See)

Ludwig’s tale has an unhappy ending. In the third year of his reign, Bavaria suffered defeat to Prussia in the Austro-Prussian war. After some years of diplomatic wrangling, Prussia eventually persuaded Bavaria to become part of the newly formed German Empire. The ancestor of today’s Germany, this empire soon became a modern, industrialised state of railways and factories – a place quite unlike Ludwig’s sleepy, pastoral kingdom of old.

With his power waning and the world around him in flux, Ludwig’s way of clinging on to the certainties of the past was to build more and more castles. It would prove a dangerous addiction.

Ludwig's bed in Linderhof Castle

Ludwig’s bed in Linderhof Castle

First off there was Linderhof – a miniature palace where the king would wake to see cherubs blaring trumpets above his bed, and frescoes of mythical warriors riding chariots around the ceiling. At his leisure, the king would explore the palace’s peculiar outbuildings – including an artificial underground lake, around which he would sail in a boat shaped like a golden swan.

The most expensive of Ludwig’s palaces was Herrenchiemsee – a lavish replica of Versailles, where he could saunter along a hall of mirrors and pretend to be his hero: King Louis XIV of France. The strangest contraption there was a Wallace and Gromit-style dining table that, with a yank of a lever, would pop out of a trapdoor in the floor, freshly laid with the king’s supper.

Predictably, the money soon ran out. Ambitious plans for a bizarre Chinese temple and Byzantine fortress never made it past the drawing board. Herrenchiemsee and Neuschwanstein are still technically unfinished today. In both palaces, you can step from magnificently ornate chambers straight into bare brick, musty-smelling rooms full of cobwebs; rooms that look as if the builders might have just popped out on their morning tea break.

Ludwig’s behaviour, like his castles, became ever more eccentric. He lived nocturnally, seen only as a silhouette in his castle windows. People began to gossip that he had gone mad. Stories circulated of him hosting dinner parties for his favourite horse (who proceeded to smash all the crockery) and holding conversations (often in French) with historical figures in empty rooms.

The memorial to King Ludvig on Lake Starnberg

The memorial to King Ludwig on Lake Starnberg

Ludwig’s life ended tragically at Lake Starnberg, a large, reedy stretch of water a few miles south of Munich. From the village of Berg, a trail leads through a wood to the shore. In the vanishing afternoon light, the lake is a scene of perfect calm. Little waves lap gently against a pebbly beach, and a chill wind sways the trees – knocking chunks of snow off the boughs and sending them fluttering to the forest floor.

In 1886, Bavarian politicians decided that Ludwig was unfit to rule – he and his fairytale castles had become a national embarassment. In the politicians’ eyes, it didn’t help that Ludwig was almost certainly gay. They hatched a plan to depose Ludwig by declaring him clinically insane – and captured him at Neuschwanstein just as he threatened to throw himself from its tallest tower. Ludwig was brought to a royal residence on the shore of Lake Starnberg, where the following day he took a lakeside stroll with his new psychiatrist.

Today, a simple wooden cross marks the spot where the bodies of Ludwig and his psychiatrist were found floating in the water, next to a sign that reads ‘No swimming’. Every so often, dog walkers pause beside it – perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps in quiet respect. The sun sets on the far side of the lake, meeting its reflection in the water in a blaze of golden light, before sinking over the horizon. The landscape turns grey, and the shivering walkers potter their way homeward to warm hearths.

Ludwig was dead. The official verdict was suicide.


Lesson V: Make sure your legend never dies (and build another castle) (Schloss Falkenstein)

But there might have been a different ending. A few miles west of Neuschwanstein, a nondescript road zigzags its way to the top of a small, steep mountain. Following the road in a car, a blizzard blows outside – a raging wind that sends snowflakes lurching one way and then another, flitting back and forth like shoals of fish. The view is virtually blank in the blizzard; trees lurch of out the whiteness ahead, before vanishing again in the rear view mirror.

Ludwig built this road as a driveway to his last and greatest castle. Falkenstein would be the highest fortress in all Germany: a cluster of dark, pointy towers set atop an almost vertical pulpit of rock. Built on the site of a real 13th-century castle, it would be a miracle of construction to surpass all others – even Neuschwanstein…

The 13th century Falkenstein Castle

The 13th century Falkenstein Castle

There is one small problem. It doesn’t exist. Ludwig died before work on Falkenstein could begin. Ludwig’s death is Germany’s equivalent of the JFK assassination – a puzzle that still turns academics grey, and which sometimes sees conspiracy theories debated in parliament. Authorities claimed the king had drowned – but no water was found in his lungs. Some speculate Ludwig and his psychiatrist suffered simultaneous heart attacks. But to his followers, something doesn’t quite add up. Ludwig was eccentric, though never insane. He had become too popular among his people and too disliked by politicians. His death meant only one thing: murder.

‘Ludwig wasn’t an easy person but he was certainly not suicidal,’ says Dr Joachim Zeune, a softly spoken historian with a snowy white beard, who has been studying castles ever since playing with plastic knights as a child. At a restaurant at the top of the mountain, he leafs through Ludwig’s designs for Falkenstein, stopping to sip on piping hot soup as the snow settles on the window sill. Strangely, there were to be no bedrooms in Falkenstein castle – only one gloomy hall where the old king would sleep on a bed with the dimensions of a double decker bus, set beneath a ceiling painted with twinkling stars.

Dr Zeune

Dr Zeune

‘I think Ludwig intended Falkenstein as his mausoleum,’ Dr Zeune says quietly. ‘This castle was his last resort – a remote place where he could be above the world and all his problems would be far below him.’

A flight of stone steps leads up to the pinnacle of the rock and to the ruined 13th-century castle that Ludwig had planned to demolish, that still stands. After a while the blizzard relents at the summit, and the clouds scatter to reveal what was once Ludwig’s kingdom: little villages far below, and pastures smothered in smooth, downy snow. Only just visible to the east is the outline of Neuschwanstein rising above the trees – one man’s daydream, preserved forever in stone and mortar.

Ludwig may be gone, but his legacy shines as brightly as ever in his homeland. He has been immortalised in films, musicals and computer games. The music he supported is now loved around the world. The castles that gave his accountants panic-attacks have paid for themselves several times over in entrance tickets.

To millions today, Neuschwanstein appears just as it did to Ludwig himself – a relic from another, nobler world; a kind of never-land where every man could be a hero, and every story ended happily ever after.

Neuschwanstein Castle

Neuschwanstein Castle

PHOTOGRAPHY: ANDREW MONTGOMERY (andrewmontgomery.co.uk)