MUNICH, June 25 — When in Munich, capital of the south-eastern state of Bavaria in Germany, you are told not to miss many things.
If it’s late summer, then you have to go to the Oktoberfest, naturally. Or a hike in the Bavarian Alps. Or sunbathe in the Englischer Garten. Or sip hot Glühwein (mulled wine) at the Christkindlmarkt (Christmas Market) at Marienplatz.
Yet perhaps the most famous activity for tourists in Munich is to head out of the city itself — and into the countryside. For you can’t visit Munich without visiting the world-famous fairytale castle of Bavaria, Schloss Neuschwanstein, a mere two-hour drive away.
Schloss Neuschwanstein is located near the town of Füssen (its full name is Füssen im Allgäu). If you’re not driving (and the Autobahn highway, with many stretches free from a general speed limit, may be scary for some motorists), then first you have to take the train from Munich to Füssen. We happily opt for the train.
Once at Füssen, you may want to explore this enchanting Bavarian town. It’s quite scenic in its own right, situated as it is at the foothills with the river Lech running through it. But most travellers use it only as the starting point of their journey to the castle proper.
We are, I must confess, no different and so we continue our way by taking the bus to the village of Hohenschwangau below the castle.
From Hohenschwangau (where most tourists purchase their entrance tickets to the castle at the Ticketcenter Hohenschwangau), we take a leisurely half an hour stroll up the hill. I say leisurely but it can be quite a climb for those who are out of shape as the road uphill is quite steep.
Rather than go all the way directly to the castle, make a detour along the route — there will be clear gnposts — to the Marienbrücke bridge. The reason is simple: the best view you’re ever going to get of Schloss Neuschwanstein will be from Marienbrücke and not the castle grounds itself.
Here, against the backdrop of the Bavarian Alps, the verdant landscape and the placid lakes (Alpsee and Schwansee), is the fairytale castle itself: Schloss Neuschwanstein.
Legend has it that Walt Disney was inspired by this dreamlike castle to create the Magic Kingdom, indelibly captured at the beginning of each Disney film. We can certainly believe this; the castle is a dream, truly.
This is a place for lingering and taking in the view; the history of the wondrous monument can come later, when we’ve reached the castle itself. Now is the rare opportunity to witness something man-made so utterly aligned with its natural surroundings.
From the Marienbrücke, we can also see the water falling from the Pöllat Gorge; a reminder that this picture-perfect landscape is dynamic and ever changing.
Once we’ve left the bridge, we continue our way to the castle. Seeing it up close and personal is quite a different experience. Surprisingly, Schloss Neuschwanstein feels lesser once the distance is breached. Perhaps because it’s unfinished — more on that later — or because there are swarms of tourists all waiting for their turn to enter the castle.
The sky-high turrets aren’t as surreal when you realise they are brick and mortar, done in what is known as the “castle romanticism” style of architecture. Romanticism or the pursuit of it was what drove King Ludwig II to commission the castle in the first place.
The young Ludwig had grown up in the nearby, older castle Schloss Hohenschwangau and its surrounding mountain vistas had nurtured the romantic in him.
The Mad King Ludwig — as he was later known, given his eccentricities — dreamt of a new castle that would become his private refuge away from the masses. Work on Schloss Neuschwanstein began in 1868 — tons of stones were removed to lay the castle foundations; a new access road was built; walls were made from brick, a new building material at the time, and light-hued limestone was added for its façades.
However, Ludwig II never lived to see his castle completed. He died in 1886 while Schloss Neuschwanstein was still a building site. The existing buildings of the castle — the Bower and the Square Tower — wouldn’t be completed for another six years.
We look upon this great castle, this fairytale castle, and know that behind its beauty is a sad story. A very sad but human tale; there are no fairytales here.
As we head downhill again, we spot the aforementioned Schloss Hohenschwangau in the distance. Ludwig II’s childhood residence was actually built in 1832 by his father, King Maximilian II, from the ruins of the Schwanstein castle. Sitting on a hill above the Alpsee, Schloss Hohenschwangau has a more Gothic style of architecture.
We wonder if its designs influenced the young Ludwig’s mind towards the maudlin, and later madness. No one will truly know; some answers are meant to be lost in the sands of time.
When we reach the town of Füssen again, we are knackered and a tad famished. Time enough for a bite before we return to Munich. The best spot for some authentic Bavarian fare is Himmelstube, located inside the Hotel Schlosskrone.
There’s an ambience of days-gone-by grandeur here. The restaurant glows with opulent yellows from the wallpaper and lamplight; a stone cherub in the middle of the dining room offers a hint of the romanticism borrowed from Schloss Neuschwanstein.
The kitchen crew at Himmelstube, led by Chef Markus Riedmiller, churns out dishes that feature a lot of dairy as Allgäu is a traditional milk-farming region. Kaiserschmarrn or Bavarian cheese noodles, for example, is typical of Allgäuer cuisine.
Depending on the time of year, seasonal ingredients such as venison, spring herbs and asparagus may make an appearance. Given the cold weather, we begin our meal with a bowl of Groẞer Allgäuer Suppentopf. Stuffed to the brim as it is with Bratknödel (beef bread dumplings), Flädle (coils of savoury crêpes), Maultaschen (meat-filled pasta) and Backerbsen (soup pearls), this soup is easily a meal in itself!
For our main, we order some Gebratener Leberkäse mit Spiegelei und Kartoffelsalat. This dish of sliced liver meatloaf with a fried egg and copious amounts of potato salad is both tavern food and a picnic staple here in Munich (and Bavaria as a whole).
It’s really just assembly but that doesn’t detract from how delicious it is.
A hearty Bavarian meal to complete a true Bavarian experience, and a much needed bout of belly-stuffing after a day of hard walking and trekking — what more could we ask for?
Neuschwansteinstraße 20, Schwangau, Germany
Schloss Neuschwanstein opening hours:
April to 15 October - daily, 9am-6pm; 16 October to March - daily, 10am-4pm
Ticketcenter Hohenschwangau opening hours:
April to 15 October - daily, 8am-5pm; 16 October to March - daily, 9am-3pm
Tickets: Adults EUR13 (RM62.50); children under 18 free
Tel: +49 8362 93083-0
Hotel Schlosskrone, Prinzregentenplatz 4, Füssen im Allgäu, Germany
Open daily 11:30am-2:30pm & 6pm-9:30pm
Tel: +49-83 62-93 01 80