Sunday, 26 August 2012

The Perils of Castle Hunting in Bavaria

So captivated were we about the German countryside and the distant sight of the Bavarian Alps that we decided to join a tour heading out of Munich. We thought that there would be nothing better than capturing the scenic splendour of this part of the world while visiting what is often referred to as the most picturesque castle in the world. Neuschwanstein Castle sits high on a rugged mountain out crop in the Bavarian countryside and was built by the reckless spending, eccentric and some might say slightly insane King Ludwig II in the mid nineteenth century. It is now the most photographed castle in the world and provided the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Cinderella castle, which eventually became the signature building for his popular theme park. It turns out that King Ludwig was probably not as ‘loopy’ as first thought, as his castle is now as popular as Disneyland, becoming a consistent money-spinner since his death in 1886. Today, it attracts millions of visitors and is now Germany’s most popular tourist attraction, contributing very nicely to the nations coffers each year.

In hunting down Neuschwanstein, we were playing our small part in boosting the German economy, along with a busload of other visitors, all hoping to get the most picturesque photograph of their European vacation. Alas, we would all be seriously disappointed, because as we approached the mountain range, with the famous castle perched high on the ridge, it looked distinctively different. As we moved closer we could see that the highly recognizable towers were disguised by the scourge of all camera-snapping tourists … scaffolding!! There was a collective sigh from the bus as it became obvious to all on board that the facade was clearly going through some rather extensive renovations. Amazingly, our tour guide had not mentioned this at any stage and as we approached she continued to rattle off a range of facts about the castle in the belief that if it wasn’t mentioned then we wouldn’t notice. In our travels over the years, we have been caught out by the ‘scaffolding phenomenon’ a few times (the Guggenheim Museum and the Sistine Chapel spring to mind) and we are philosophical when it happens; appreciating that these things need to be done at some stage and somebody has to be affected. So after the initial disappointment, we approached in the hope that the location and the view would more than compensate for the loss of the idealic castle scene we had sought.

Arriving at the base of the castle we weren’t quite prepared for the chaos that such a major tourist attraction (scaffolded or otherwise) can create in the Bavarian Alps in the height of summer. If you can imagine narrow roadways and peak hour traffic, combined with horse drawn carriages, double decker buses and pedestrians walking in between them all, you may come close to the scene that awaited us. It seemed that we had truly underestimated the attraction of this iconic landmark and the scale of its commercialism. It did in fact have all the popularity of Disneyland, but without the organization.

While surrounding restaurants were doing a roaring trade at the base of the mountain, waves of tourists were making the 30-minute trek up to pay homage to King Ludwigs ‘folly’. Not surprisingly, at the castle itself, there was just as much mayhem as down below, with countless tour groups waiting to storm the interior, while the rest were jockeying to find the best vantage point to get that elusive photograph. We found that with a little selective cropping of the scaffolding and the hordes of people, we could just about, but somewhat dishonestly, manufacture the type of idealic image so often seen on the tourist brochures that had led us here in the first place.

So Neuschwanstein Castle wasn’t quite as we had expected, but thankfully our bus made two other stops along the way that were far less chaotic and infinitely more enjoyable. The first was Linderhof Palace, which was another one of King Ludwig’s little projects. As palaces go, this one is quite livable, as it is on a modest scale yet provides all the opulence befitting an eccentric king. Ludwig was apparently obsessed with the works of Richard Wagner with much of the Rococo design looking as if it had come straight from one of his mythical operas. The grounds were quite magnificent, with multi-level gardens and a golden fountain that regularly shoots a stream of water several storeys high. The other interesting stop was at the picturesque town of Oberammergau, which is famous for the ‘Passion Play’, which has been performed here every 10 years since 1634. When the story of Christ is re-enacted, pilgrims from all over the world descend upon this quaint little village, but at most other times it is relatively quiet, generating its income mostly from the sale of woodcarving and cuckoo clocks. While Neuschwanstein brought in the big bucks for Germany, it would be places like these that would bring back the most pleasant memories of our trip to the Bavarian Alps, not to mention the most photogenic images.

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