King Ludwig II of Bavaria spent years dreaming about Neuschwanstein Castle, with its ornate decor and views to die for.
Nestled deep in the Alps atop a rolling hill sits Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle, its imposing silhouette looking like something straight out of a fairy tale.
Surrounded by cliffs, a moat, and a picturesque little town, the castle appears untouched by time and stands as an everlasting testament to the fantastic imagination of King Ludwig II.
But Neuschwanstein is also part of a sadder story, one about the unforgiving distance between fantasy and reality — and the price that dreamers who mix the two sometimes pay.
King Ludwig II Builds Castles In The Air
Bavarian King Ludwig II had an eye for the beautiful and a taste for the fantastic.
As a child, he spent as much time as he could at Hohenschwangau Castle, his family’s luxurious update on a medieval fortress in southern Germany. Between tapestries and frescos of Germanic heroes, he did his best to escape the strict royal upbringing dictated by his authoritarian father.
He pursued the fruits of imagination, falling in love with the operas of Richard Wagner (whom he would later single-handedly save from financial ruin with his patronage), playacting, and reciting romances.
When he took the throne in 1864 at the age of 18, he was everything a fairytale prince should be: handsome, poetic, generous to his people, and popular.
What he wasn’t was practical, experienced in statecraft, or remotely interested in the daily business of government.
He avoided Munich like the plague, frequently disappeared from state functions, and disregarded growing international tensions. He had his ministers in an uproar by year’s end.
When war broke out, Bavaria lost its status as an independent nation, though it maintained some of the rights of local government, and Ludwig II remained, nominally, the Bavarian king.
But it was a rulership in name only. Stripped of all real power, Ludwig dreamed of a place where he could still be king, a world apart for him to rule. In 1866, he decided that place would be Neuschwanstein Castle.
Germany’s “Disney” Castle, Neuschwanstein, Is Born
As he broke ground on what would one day become Germany’s Cinderella castle, he described his vision in a letter to Richard Wagner.
He said he wanted to “rebuild the old castle ruin of Hohenschwangau . . . in the authentic style of the old German knights’ castles,” complete with “guest rooms with a splendid view of the noble Säuling, the mountains of Tyrol, and far across the plain.”
There were to be magical, ornate rooms, filled with the finest things he could find, a hall made specifically for music, and a massive courtyard to breathe in the mountain air.
“This castle will be in every way more beautiful and habitable than Hohenschwangau,” he said.
It seems that Ludwig’s vision was achieved.
Built high on a hill, taller than everything around it but the mighty Bavarian Alps, Neuschwanstein Castle was a breathtaking sight, then and now.
The sun bounces brilliantly off the bright white limestone of its facade. The turrets are all a deep blue, mirroring the skies they touch above them. From every angle, it looks like something fit for a fairytale.
And, indeed, the modern king of fairytale agreed. During a trip to Europe with his wife, Walt Disney visited Neuschwanstein castle and was as charmed by the scene as everyone else.
According to The Orange County Register, Disney used Neuschwanstein as the inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty castle.
But like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, Neuschwanstein had a melancholy secret, a hint of sadness beneath its glossy veneer.
Inside Neuschwanstein Castle
The first signs of trouble emerged early in the project.
As with many grand architectural dreams, the costs of construction began to substantially exceed projections. Though his work was employing hundreds of locals and bringing trade and some prosperity to the poor region, it was also landing Ludwig II personally in debt.
Contrary to popular belief, the Bavarian king did not use state funds for the construction of his castles — but he did use just about everything else.
He spent his royal income and his personal wealth, and when that wasn’t enough, he begged loans from his royal relations. He traded favors with German chancellor Otto von Bismarck and threatened to go on a pilgrimage to demand loans from all the royals of Europe.
By 1886, Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle had cost a shocking 6,180,047 marks. Together with his other castles, it had put him 14 million marks in debt.
It was too much for his ministers, who told him in no uncertain terms that the extravagant spending had to stop.
But Neuschwanstein Castle wasn’t finished; Ludwig had only just been able to take up residence there to oversee its final stages. The Bavarian king, unwilling to economize in any way, threatened his ministers with dismissal.
Faced with an intractable king, rising debt, and the loss of their positions, Ludwig’s ministers made a dangerous decision: Ludwig had to go.
A Sad Ending To The Fairytale In Germany’s Cinderella Castle
The Bavarian ministers had Ludwig declared insane.
It was, they felt, a neat solution to a sticky problem. The king, for all his extravagant spending, remained popular, and any unconstitutional challenge to his authority would have sparked controversy and unrest.
But against an accusation of mental incompetence, Ludwig would find it hard to defend himself — especially once Count Maximilian von Holnstein was through bribing the king’s servants to spin tales of rages, bizarre and childish behavior, and constant, vivid daydreaming.
To a modern reader, the litany of Holnstein’s complaints reads less as proof of insanity than as an account of a cripplingly shy, fantastically imaginative man. He was spoiled, perhaps, and a little vain, but most of all determined to build something beautiful, a private world that he could inhabit when everything else came crashing down.
The charges stuck. Four psychiatrists, none of whom had spoken with the king in the last decade, declared him to be suffering, like his younger brother Otto, from mental illness. The madness was clearly hereditary, they said, and Ludwig was unfit to rule.
Given the green light by the Bavarian Diet, Holnstein and company arrived at Neuschwanstein Castle in the early morning. They were met by armed men on the walls — a rare occasion when the fanciful, largely decorative castle served a military function.
Ludwig arrested and then released the commission.
His friends counseled him to flee, but, perhaps unwilling to part with Neuschwanstein and the home he had built himself, he delayed.
In the end, he waited too long. Two days later, a better-prepared force arrived and took the king into custody.
Ludwig was taken to Berg castle, where he was closely monitored by a psychiatrist.
On the evening after his arrest, the pair went for a walk around the nearby lake. When dark fell and neither had returned, a search party was sent after them.
They were found late that night, floating in the dark water — both dead, both bodies showing signs of a struggle. Ludwig reportedly had no water in his lungs, though the king’s autopsy report would list the cause of death as suicide by drowning.
Even in death, Ludwig II remained an enigma.
The Legacy Of Germany’s Cinderella Castle
Though they erected a memorial cross to the famous Bavarian king in the waters where he died, most feel that Neuschwanstein is the true monument to his memory.
Germany’s Cinderella castle, with its fanciful flourishes and impractical beauty, was the best testament to Ludwig’s spirit — even though, in the end, he only slept in it for eleven nights.
After Ludwig’s death, Neuschwanstein Castle was opened to the public. Only 14 rooms were finished at the time, and these are still the only rooms on display for tours.
The rooms are as ornate as Ludwig promised they would be, with ceilings covered in gold, 13-foot chandeliers, floor mosaics, velvet upholstery, and larger-than-life paintings from the greatest artists of the time.
Germany’s “Disney” castle draws millions of visitors every year; tourism long ago repaid Ludwig’s debts.
Ironically, the only thing missing from Neuschwanstein is a throne, the only piece of furniture that never made its way into the palace.
The throne room is ready, adorned in paintings and gold leaf, but the throne itself is missing, perhaps a testament to the absence of the fantastic and imaginative king who perished before he could ever rule over his fairytale castle.
After reading about Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle, check out this thousand-year-old castle you can buy for a cool $17 million. Then, read about the fairy tales that didn’t end exactly the way Disney said they did.