In the footsteps of the

Fairytale King

A road-trip through southern Germany offers visitors an outrageous confection of myth-chasing palaces created by Bavaria’s most mysterious monarch

Once upon a time there was a handsome king. To his subjects he appeared tall and dignified, but at heart he was a shy person who preferred to hide away in the fantasy palaces of his creation. There he would read his favourite poetry and listen to his favourite music, deep into the night. Often-times he required his servants to cover their faces in his presence, and usually he liked to eat alone, occasionally sharing his meals with his favourite horse.

Storybooks do love a dotty king, and this monarch was certainly that. Storybooks also love a happily-ever-after ending, which this story doesn’t have. For one day this king, having been declared insane by his government and put under house arrest, was found floating face down in shallow waters, in a baffling – and not particularly storybook – ending.

Old drawing of Ludwig II

Der Märchenkönis (The Fairytale King) Ludwig II himself, circa 1864, around four years before work on Neuschwanstein began (Alamy)

Der Märchenkönis (The Fairytale King) Ludwig II himself, circa 1864, around four years before work on Neuschwanstein began (Alamy)

Yes, the story of Bavaria’s King Ludwig II is an odd one, particularly as his short life – he was just 41 when he met his end in 1886 – left a legacy of spectacular castles and palaces, one of which regularly marches onto the front covers of magazines all over the world. That castle is Neuschwanstein, a salvo of turrets and towers perched atop a rock in the foothills of the Alps, and the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty Castle of Walt Disney fame. Even if you don’t know its name, you have probably seen it in photographs.

‘The Fairytale King’s’ personal Narnia was southern Bavaria, a rich, fertile land of milk and honey south of Munich, where the air is lightly fragranced with cow dung, the field huts seem to be competing for Shed of the Year and all the cows are auditioning for Bavaria’s Next Top Heifer. There’s a lot more than just palaces to see in this groomed and glossy landscape. It is dotted with frescoed villages, with monasteries that brew aromatic beer, and with all manner of lakes to swim in, hills to hike over and cycle routes to ride along. In short, it is a fine setting for a quest to see if a king was truly mad, or just harmlessly eccentric.

Castle surrounded by trees with mountain in background

“The King’s House at Schachen was meant to be for Ludwig, and only Ludwig, a place he could enjoy ‘the sublime loneliness of the mountains"

On Ludwig’s trail

I first came across Ludwig’s palace building a few years ago on a hike of my own, some 2,000 metres up into Bavaria’s Ammergau Alps. I intended to overnight at the Schachenhaus mountain hut, partly because of its convenience – these alpine ‘huts’ have beds, food and beer – and partly because I’d heard it had an interesting neighbour.

The day was brightening as I arrived. The Alps were divesting themselves of the last lingering feather boas of retreating cloud, revealing a series of peaks repeating off into the distance in silent drumrolls. And standing just uphill of the hut, they also revealed a wooden villa that seemed far too flimsy to have survived on a mountainside for the last 130 years.

This was the King’s House at Schachen, a place that Ludwig built as a retreat from all the hateful business of court. It was meant to be for him, and only him, a place he could enjoy ‘the sublime loneliness of the mountains’. But that wasn’t, it seems, all about enjoying nature, for the villa’s first floor is a recreation of a fantasy Turkish hall, in a miasma of colours, tiles and arches where the king used to dress like a sultan and made his servants dress as Turkish courtiers. Fancy dress, alone, in the mountains? What sort of a king would do that?

Ludwig Wittelsbach was only 18 when he acceded to the throne of independent Bavaria in 1864. As a child he had been a bit under-supplied with parental love. His mother believed that keeping him hungry was a way to make him grow strong, and he responded predecessor’s consort”.

As an adult, he struggled to reconcile his intense Catholic faith with his increasing attraction to men. His father’s sudden death pitched him into politics, and he lost a lot of his power when Bavaria was absorbed into the German Empire after an ill-advised war with Prussia. His solution to all this was to withdraw from society and immerse himself in legends, poetry and music. The composer Wagner became a personal friend. In short, Ludwig was a complicated character. Of all his creations, the palace at Linderhof – an hour-and-a-half south-west of Munich – was his favourite, so it was here I resumed my quest, this time on a road trip, on a sunny late-summer’s day.

Linderhof turned out to be a little jewel box of a Rococo palace, set in a remote valley and dedicated to French king Louis XIV (‘The Sun King’).Outside, it is cupped in landscaped grounds that include an artificial lake constructed inside a fake cave, complete with a wave machine and an orchestra, so that Ludwig could be rocked in his boat while listening to music. Inside, I followed a guided tour through a riot of porcelain and gold leaf, where the most telling detail of Ludwig’s state of mind was the dining room: its table was designed for just one person, and ingeniously contrived so that it could be cranked up through the floor, fully laden, thus avoiding the need for any servants to be in the room with him.

It was here that Ludwig went to ground for much of the last eight years of his life, getting deeper in debt with his other palace-building projects, particularly Neuschwanstein. He was borrowing money from the state, avoiding public duties and ignoring his ministers. He remained, however, popular with the locals down the road in Oberammergau, where I had taken a room for the night. Linderhof is walking distance from this wood-carver’s village, where there are still carvers’ workshops, if you happen to want a lifesize Jesus for the garden.

These days, however, Oberammergau is best known for its once-in-a-decade Passion Play . The play had its origins in the 17th-century plague, when a group of villagers made a vow that if God spared them, they would stage a performance every ten years. Since then the production has expanded (now with a cast of 2,000 locals) and attracts huge audiences from all over the world, no matter that the seats are hard and the total running time is over five hours.

In the shops and restaurants it was easy to pick out the male members of the cast, thanks to their long hair and beards. Their star, Frederik Mayet, playing Jesus for the second time in the 2022 production, showed me around the cavernous 4,600-seat theatre. He told me that when Ludwig attended – a special performance for him alone, of course – he was so impressed that he gifted the community a giant stone crucifixion scene sited on a hill overlooking Oberammergau.

That monument isn’t the only piece of religious architecture in the valley. Within walking distance from Linderhof is the Benedictine monastery at Ettal, a giant baroque settlement squeezed into the cleft in the hills, where the monks could control passing trade. These days it contains a school, a hotel, a brewery and a distillery, all controlled by its dwindling community.

Before I left the Ammergau region I dropped in for a brewery tour, to savour the light, aromatic Helles beer and to nose around the copper stills to see if the monks had devised an apothecary’s cure for COVID-19. They hadn’t.

King’s House at Schachen (Shutterstock)

King’s House at Schachen (Shutterstock)

Linderhof (Shutterstock)

Linderhof (Shutterstock)

Oberammergau (Shutterstock)

Oberammergau (Shutterstock)

A scene from the famous Passion Play (Shutterstock)

A scene from the famous Passion Play (Shutterstock)

Jesus Christ cross in Oberammergau (Shutterstock)

Jesus Christ cross in Oberammergau (Shutterstock)

The artificial dripstone cave was modelled on the Hörselberg from the opera Tannhäuser (Shutterstock)

The artificial dripstone cave was modelled on the Hörselberg from the opera Tannhäuser (Shutterstock)

Ettal Abbey remains one of the largest Benedictine monasteries in Europe (Shutterstock)

Ettal Abbey remains one of the largest Benedictine monasteries in Europe (Shutterstock)

Linderhof palace (Shutterstock)

Linderhof palace (Shutterstock)

The Rococo Wieskirche Church was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1983 (Shutterstock)

The Rococo Wieskirche Church was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1983 (Shutterstock)

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Jesus Christ cross in Oberammergau (Shutterstock)

Jesus Christ cross in Oberammergau (Shutterstock)

The artificial dripstone cave was modelled on the Hörselberg from the opera Tannhäuser (Shutterstock)

The artificial dripstone cave was modelled on the Hörselberg from the opera Tannhäuser (Shutterstock)

Ettal Abbey remains one of the largest Benedictine monasteries in Europe (Shutterstock)

Ettal Abbey remains one of the largest Benedictine monasteries in Europe (Shutterstock)

Linderhof palace (Shutterstock)

Linderhof palace (Shutterstock)

The Rococo Wieskirche Church was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1983 (Shutterstock)

The Rococo Wieskirche Church was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1983 (Shutterstock)

Fairytale Castles

The drive from Oberammergau to Füssen, the honeypot destination for Ludwig pilgrims, must be one of the prettiest in Europe. The road lollops around the Alpine foothills, stitching together villages and onion-domed churches, against a tapestry of mountains. One of those churches is the famous Wieskirche, standing solitary in the meadows, built around an old woodcarving of Christ on the cross whose eyes had miraculously started to weep. The Wieskirche’s interior is such a creamcake confection of marble and frescoes, of cherubim and seraphim, that I found it hard to pick out the original carving amongst all the gorgeousness.

UNESCO-listed Wieskirche (Shutterstock)

UNESCO-listed Wieskirche (Shutterstock)

The church has become a place of pilgrimage, but for most visitors to these parts it is Füssen that is the main attraction. The handsome town has clearly prospered from its position on a former Roman road through the Alps, the Via Claudia Augusta. It has its own castle, too, which would be a destination in its own right, were it not for Ludwig.

Although neither his Neuschwanstein or Hohenschwangau castles are visible from Füssen, they are reachable on a walking trail that climbs over a gentle ridge and then descends into a wooded enclave wrapped around a mirror-calm lake. Descending to the water’s edge, I could see why the king, living in his fantasy world, would want to build in such a place.

Hohenschwangau Castle (Shutterstock)

Hohenschwangau Castle (Shutterstock)

I could also see, in Hohenschwangau, where his ideas originated. It was his father, Maximilian, who originally created this neo-Gothic castle, and he covered its walls with paintings of legends and sagas. The ceiling of Ludwig’s boyhood bedroom is adorned with stars, little lamps filled with petrol and lit every night by his servants. A telescope in one of the windows indicates where the adult Ludwig used to sit, watching the progress that his builders were making on his Neuschwanstein, higher up the hill. The latter is the Ludwig meisterwerk that has launched a billion postcards. It is essentially a fabulous piece of scenery perched atop a rock, although in Ludwig’s mind it was the very epitome of a medieval knight’s castle, despite the fact that he installed electricity and flushing loos.

Neuschwanstein Castle (Shutterstock)

Neuschwanstein Castle (Shutterstock)

Once I had wound my way up the hill and joined the multitude of visitors on allocated tours, I discovered there’s little that is conventional in Neuschwanstein’s interiors. No portraits adorn the walls, no beautifully crafted heirlooms sit on the tables, as they do in Hohenschwangau. Instead, Ludwig had it decorated with Wagnerian scenes, and the giant Singer’s Hall was designed for opera performances, usually for an audience of one. His throne room, with its huge brass chandelier, looks like the interior of an ornate

Byzantine church, and the four-poster in his bedchamber is also roofed with carvings of the world’s cathedrals, a reminder that by this time in his life the king identified himself with Parsifal, a Grail knight known for his purity.

(Shutterstock)

(Shutterstock)


Ludwig’s last castle

Although Neuschwanstein is Ludwig’s best known creation, only 16 of the 110 interior rooms were actually completed, and the king only spent 172 nights within its walls, a fraction of the time he spent at Linderhof. It was during one of those nights that he was arrested by a state delegation led by a psychiatrist, who pronounced him incapable to govern. He was taken away to Berg Castle, on the shores of Lake Starnberg, which is where he met his end – and which conveniently lay on my route back to Munich airport.

As I drove, I found myself contemplating Ludwig’s state of mind on his detention. He would have been indignant, undoubtedly, because he believed in the divine right of kings. He would have been even more outraged if he could have foreseen how the buildings, whose extravagance had brought about his downfall, would become some of the biggest attractions in Germany, producing huge revenues for the state.

Berg Castle, where he ended up under house arrest, remains private, still owned by the Wittelsbach family. I was able to walk around the back on a specially designated Ludwig Trail to the place where his body was found floating in the lake’s shallows along with that of the psychiatrist who had agreed to accompany him on his evening walk. To commemorate his death, a chapel was built on the hillside here, and there’s a cross in the water to mark the exact spot.

At the time it was suggested that he’d strangled the psychiatrist and then committed suicide. Apparently, the Wittelsbachs have documentation revealing what actually happened, but they’re not telling. And after so many years of speculation, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

Castle on a hill

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