Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Madly Romantic

Two hours outside Munich near the eastern border of Germany nestle the little Bavarian towns of Füssen and Schwangau. Back during the Middle Ages, the area surrounding the town featured a series of impressive castles; homes to knights, lords, and ladies, including the Knights of Schwangau who sported a swan (Schwan = swan) on their coat of arms.

In the 19th century, Maximillian II of Baveria, one of the last kings of independent Baveria, decided to build an elaborate hunting lodge on the site of a ruined medieval castle. Building a mix of Romantic and Medieval styles, he constructed a massive yellow fortress for the royal family on the shores of the Alpsee (Alp Lake).

The king had a son named Ludwig II. Ludwig was an imaginative kid who preferred the quiet of dad’s country castle to the noise of the city. Running around the forests, he discovered another castle ruin overlooking the lake and Max’s hunting residence. He dreamed of building an elaborate castle on that spot, a tribute to his divine right to rule. The site also offered a convenient spring to feed the future castle’s flushing toilets.

Ludwig became king when he was 18, but never really showed interest in ruling or getting married. He did show an incredible interest in Richard Wagner (raising eyebrows) and building projects (raising hackles).

Ludwig's dedicated pen-pal was his half-cousin once removed, Elisabeth the Emo Empress of Austria. The two would exchange moody poetry and angsty letters. He filled his correspondence with Romantic ideals and vented his frustration with the Prussians' moves to unite Germany. In 1870 Otto von Bismarck created the German Empire. Bavaria lost her independence and became a state of Germany. If the king ever had an interest in the world outside his imagination, he lost it completely when the first Kaiser was proclaimed. The neutered king turned to his personal affairs, namely, blowing all his cash on the castle of his dreams.

In 1886 the king was declared insane by a psychiatrist who was under pressure from the rest of the royal family. They had watched the family fortune liquidate to fund Ludwig’s construction projects. The king was outraged, accusing the deposition commission of high treason. After a brief struggle against the commission’s agents, the king gave up and was escorted to Castle Berg in southern Munich on July 12. His brother Otto, who was actually mentally ill, was crowned king and his uncle Luitpold was made regent. The next day, July 13th, the deposed king and his psychiatrist were found floating in Lake Starnberg, a lake near Castle Berg. The circumstances of “Mad King” Ludwig’s death remain a mystery.

Isn’t that a crazy story? Ludwig seems more like a work of elaborate Romantic fiction than an actual human being, but he lived, and his legacy lives on in the form of his castle, the model for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty’s castle and every fairy tale castle you’ve ever seen illustrated. It is also one of Bavaria’s - maybe even Germany’s – biggest tourist attractions.

Carolyn and I weren’t sure if we should go. The castle seemed more like a little girl’s fantasy than an important historic site, but multiple guide books urged us on, saying this monument to Romanticism was not to be missed. Thus we found ourselves on the train to Füssen surrounded by tourists from around the globe, though most hailed from Italy and Japan. The fields and forests were frosted with a fluffy blanket of snow, and the sky was clear and blue. The perfect day to walk into a fairy tale.

Once we got to town, we piled out with our fellow tourists and aimlessly milled around by the station, searching for the bus that would take us the 5 km out of Füssen to Schwangau and Ludwig’s baby. A bus finally pulled into the lot, but Carolyn and I found ourselves at the back of the line. We weren’t sure if there would be room to climb aboard and we didn’t want to be held up in the ticket line, so we caved and leaped into a cab. We managed to beat the crowds and get our tickets to the castles. Your entry is timed and you are escorted through Hohenschwangau Castle (Max’s) and Neuschwanstein (Ludwig’s) by guides who keep everything moving while preventing you from taking pictures of the castle’s interior. They also provide scripted jokes about the gaudy royal gifts on display and imply more than mutual friendship every time they mention everyone's favorite controversial composer: Richar Wagner.

As we waited for our time slot we took a walk through town, heading toward the lake. Once we stepped past the brush and trees, this view opened before us:

Even if the castles turned out to be a complete waste of time, this moment was worth the trip. The still lake, the happy ducks, the mountains and forests rising to nip the horizon…these pictures are illustrative, but cannot communicate the tranquil beauty of the lake. I had an inkling why Ludwig wanted his castle here.
Notice how the wake of the ducks reflects the profile of the mountains. This is a place to spend some time doing some good thinking.

After admiring the Schwangau swans with a Japanese family and a German woman who was trying to feed them, we started our walk up the path to Hoheschwangau. The hunting lodge is still owned by the royal family of Baveria, providing their main source of income. The interior is decorated with murals depicting Romanticized medieval scenes. All have a soft focus and pastel palate and none of the battles show any blood, creating the slightly goofy image of men keeling over for no particular reason. The ornate lighting fixtures and woodwork aren’t very appealing to modern Crate and Barrel tastes, but little Prince Ludwig ate this stuff up.

After our whirlwind tour through the first castle, we began our slow ascent of the mountain to Neuschwanstein. We walked on the muddy road with other tourists, snapping pictures while horse-drawn wagons of still more tourists rolled by. The snow, gravel, and dirt were churned into a sloppy mess, but the view was breathtaking. At the summit we stood on a rocky pinnacle with valleys dropping off on both sides. Again, Ludwig knew what he was doing when he constructed the world’s most expensive piece of Romantic art.

Note: I should probably clarify Romanticism, real quick. We tend to think of romantics as people that have a particularly doey-eyed view of the world. The phrase “hopeless Romantic” comes to mind. These romantics have unrealistic expectations of love and life in general. I’ve been accused of being such a romantic. Romanticism as an artistic movement was about a kind of rebellion against the order of the Industrial Revolution. People in the late 19th century wanted to go back to the good ol’ days before soot covered every city and factories made automatons of its workers. They also wanted to give in to their emotions with lusty abandon. Enter the Brother’s Grimm, who were Romantics hoping to capture the stories of the Rheinland before they were forgotten. Enter Wagner, who adapted epic German legends into his epic German operas. Enter Mark Twain, an American Romantic who described an America before the Civil War made things awkward. Enter a slew of musicians, writers, painters, and architects. Enter Ludwig.

As we looked up at the castle with its soaring Neo-Romanesque arches and towers, a rainbow glimmered into view. Even the sky was getting in to the fairy tale vibe. We snapped pictures and helped other people get their family portraits in front of the castle’s gates. Our number finally popped up and we entered the partially completed castle with our tour group.
The entrance to Neuschwanstein. So far I've managed to present pictures that seem devoid of tourists. Of course this is far from an accurate reflection of the our surroundings. You can see a small fraction of our traveling companions below the portcullis.

The castle wasn’t actually finished before Ludwig’s death. He had visions of gold, jewels, frescos, and mosaics, but he didn’t have a vision of his budget. The rooms he did manage to complete are beautifully ornate. The murals are more skillfully executed than the pictures in Hohenschwangau. Each room illustrates a different German legend that had been adapted by Wagner. In fact the whole castle was dedicated to the composer. The only room missing Wagner is the throne room, which is decorated with massive images of Biblical kings and stoic saints, the source of the king’s right to rule. In perfect historical irony, the throne was never completed, so the throne room eternally stands incomplete, missing the seat of the deposed king’s power.

A road sign I wish I saw more often. Füssen thatta way. Gorgeous castle thatta way.

On a steel bridge overlooking the castle. We had to delicately climb over a snow covered rock wall to get to the trail which was blocked due to ice and snow. There was a well worn path made by other tenacious tourists who wanted the classic view of the castle.

The castle was actually designed by a theatrical set designer (one of Wagner's) instead of an architect. The designer started with a canvas, drafting the castle as it would appear surrounded by the mountains and forest. Ludwig would offer his input. He wanted the castle to be in harmony with the landscape, the walls organically rising from the rock and the spires echoing the trees. I think it played out pretty well.

After our tour and lunch at a café that once served the massive construction crews that worked on the castle – and now serves harried American families on vacation with too many kids and not enough patience – we headed for the bus. While the snow was lovely, it also meant things were pretty cold and our toes needed to recover somewhere. Unfortunately, about a hundred other people took our idea. We crammed onto the bus with people standing on the steps and between the seats, but we all made the train in time to arrive in Munich for dinner.

Parting views of the valley as the sun began to set and the moon rose over the leafless treetops.

Carolyn and I ate at Riva Bar Pizzaria, just off the Marienplatz. It was very trendy with low lighting and a host with a faux-hawk who was able to seat us without a reservation. The brick oven pizza was fantastic and the waiter was amused at our attempts at German, but never reverted to English. As I’ve said before, I love when German’s let me skewer their language.

The night was complete after we climbed to the Glockenspeil Café overlooking City Hall and the Marienplatz. I should qualify that statement. The restaurant overlooks the plaza. We sat in a dark bar without windows, shamelessly people-watching as awkward first dates tried to get the conversation rolling and lonely people found each other at the bar. We had each other for one more full day, so we went back to the hotel to get a full night’s sleep before Carolyn exited Germany…


Carolyn said...

Fifth paragraph from the top, it should say "leaving" instead of "writing." Or you could day "Leaving the writing of..." I think either would be grammatically correct.

And I think you should have mentioned our twenty-something tour guides with plenty of scripted jokes and implications about Ludwig and Wagner.

Matt said...

No, I mean that he wrote moody poetry and letters to Elisabeth. In those letters he reveled in Romanticism and vented his frustration.

Remember they were pen pals. He called her "Dove" and she called him "Eagle." Both needed to get over themselves.

And you're right, I need to throw in something about the bored guides and their exasperation with the words "Richard Wagner." Do you remember any of their jokes?

Matt said...

I changed that paragraph though to make things clearer. I also added the guides. Despite the length of these things, its amazing how much gets left on the cutting room floor.

Mama B said...

With the scripted joke and tour guide background, this sounds more like the Jungle Cruise at Disney World now.

Matt said...

But they forgot to install an audio audioanamatronic dragon. Or maybe it would be like the hall of Presidents with a robotic Ludwig skulking around his in-castle cave, humming "Ride of the Valkyries" while Wagner hit on all the female tourists.