It’s one of my favorite words, and there’s so seldom a chance to use it in conversation.
Hiraeth (It’s Welsh, and it’s pronounced “heer-eyeth”), noun: a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for long lost places.
That pretty much sums up how I feel about most of these places, which may sound odd, seeing as I haven’t been to most of them, and was certainly never alive when they were at their heyday. But maybe you can relate? Aren’t there any times or places you feel like you belong, but never personally experienced? Maybe you miss the 50s, or the roaring 20s, or think you might’ve been more at home in Victorian London. If not, well, you’re missing out. There’s nothing quite like the sting of longing for a place and time you’ve never been, but your heart remembers full well.
That’s the case for this castle in particular. And if you’ve missed the previous posts in this series, I explore the histories and mysteries of my favorite castles in the world, a subject sorely neglected these days.
You can find the introduction, as well as castles 10 and 9 here;
This will take you to the second post, featuring castles 8 through 5;
This link will take you to a video featuring true facts about the little-known aye aye. It’s totally unrelated, but you should still watch it. They’re hideously adorable.
Click here to read about castles 4 and 3;
And finally, this link will take you to the last post in this series, covering the penultimate castle on the list. No spoilers! (It’s in France). Or is it?
And now, without further ado, and to the relief of everyone who’s fed up with castles (horrible people that they are), here’s the last castle on the list…
Neuschwanstein Castle, in Bavaria, Germany. It might be cliché to choose the most famous and visited castle in the world as my favorite, but I don’t care. I like to think my decision is based on a cultivated, connoisseur’s appreciation of castles, and not merely a slovenly touristic infatuation.
I’m absolutely enthralled, mesmerized, by this otherworldly castle. It’s absolutely perfect, in every way. It’s not just a building, it’s not even just art, it’s transcendent. This castle is the embodiment of what we, as human beings, should aspire to achieve. Perfect harmony in form and function, it elevates, inspires, uplifts the soul, simply by looking at its marvelous structure. There is a reason this is the most famous castle in the world. People argue that art is subjective. I submit Neuschwanstein as concrete proof that it is, in fact, objective, and that Neuschwanstein is objectively better than any other castle. Even if it is more of a palace. Shhh.
This fastness in the Bavarian alps captured my heart many years ago, and the bizarre story of its creation is no less enchanting. Neuschwanstein means “New swan rock”, and it’s the fabulous creation of Ludwig Otto Friedrich Wilhelm II, the “Mad” King of Bavaria. The castle, and its king, have a somewhat tragic history, and sadly Neuschwanstein was never completed. In fact, just 15 of its 200 some odd rooms were ever finished. The greatest tragedy is that, had the king lived a little longer, the castle could have been completed: as it stands, many features, including a garden terrace, additional towers, a massive keep, and a banqueting hall were all abandoned after his death. We can now only imagine how splendid they would have looked.
Ludwig assumed the throne in 1864 when he was just 18 years old, just before Bavaria and Austria were launched into a war against Prussia, before they were defeated after only a few weeks. Several years later, Bavaria became part of the new German Empire, but held onto a great deal of autonomy. Ludwig was in the running for the title of Emperor of all Germany, along with his cousin, Wilhelm. Ludwig wasn’t cut out for leadership, however. He was a shy and reclusive man at heart, and over time began to withdraw from the daily affairs of his empire.
He may not have been a leader, but he was an artistic visionary. Ludwig was more interested in engaging intellectual pursuits than managing his nation, and became fascinated with the German composer Richard Wagner, with whom he eventually became close friends. Ludwig began devoting more time and resources into “extravagant” architectural projects, including what would later become Neuschwanstein. He came by his passion honestly though. His father, King Maximillian, had built another fantasy castle called Hohenschwangau, which is just across the way from Neuschwanstein. In some pictures, like the one below, you can see it in the background, and although it’s also beautiful, it’s much smaller and less impressive.
Ludwig dreamed of living in his own version of the Middle Ages, and when his grandfather died, he inherited just a ton of money, giving him the ability to literally make his dreams a come true. Neuschwanstein was built on a rock over the ruins of a much older castle, and construction was begun shortly after Ludwig came to power. It was designed to be as romantic as possible, and I’d say they succeeded grandly. When coming up with the plans, Ludwig was inspired by Wagner’s operas, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, and wanted to live in his very own castle from Germany’s medieval myths and legends. A noble ambition, in my opinion. If you have the means to make myths reality, why wouldn’t you?
Paintings in the castle reflect medieval tales, as well as Germanic mythology and Christian legends. Workers were kept busy day and night for over ten years making it habitable for the king, so that he could retreat even further from his royal duties at court in Munich. And despite its enormous size, the castle was built for just one person to live there: King Ludwig. I like this guy’s style.
In a letter to Wagner, Ludwig described Neuschwanstein by saying, “The location is one of the most beautiful to be found, holy and unapproachable, a worthy temple …” But funding, even for a king, was difficult to manage for such an enormous project. He never dipped into public funds to pay for the castle, but his creditors started knocking, and even threatened to seize the castle when he had trouble paying. In 1885, Ludwig was over 14 million marks in debt, relying on borrowing money from his family. Despite being advised to slow down, he kept going full steam ahead on Neuschwanstein, demanding that his advisors obtain even more loans from royal families all over Europe. When they kept warning him of the consequences, he tried to fire them and have them replaced. All the while, he withdrew even further from the public eye, and almost entirely ignored his own royal duties to the throne.
His ministers had finally had enough, and decided to remove him from power, asking Ludwig’s uncle, Luitpold, to help them. They wanted to declare Ludwig “mentally insane”, and Luitpold agreed to consider their request, but asked the ministers to provide proof. Hatching a conspiracy against Ludwig, they created a fake medical report with the help of other members of the royal family who were sick of Ludwig’s behavior and were happy to help in his downfall. In the end, they fell back on bribery and their royal authority to produce a list of accusations against Ludwig, including his shyness, aversion to royal duties, and his preposterously expensive hobbies.
The conspirators then approached Otto von Bismarck, the Chancellor of the German Empire, for help removing Ludwig. Bismarck was the one who had urged Ludwig to sign the treaty declaring Bavaria part of Prussia back in 1870, but even Bismarck could see that the accusations against Ludwig were utter rot. After reading the report, he exclaimed, “the Ministers wish to sacrifice the King, otherwise they have no chance of saving themselves.” He told them they’d have to take the matter up with the government of Bavaria, which they did.
The report was finally approved by no less than four psychiatrists, who claimed the king suffered from paranoia. They insisted Ludwig be deposed, saying he was incapable of ruling. Which, I mean, might have been true. At least he certainly wasn’t interested in it. But, there are worse rulers to have, honestly, than those who aren’t interested in ruling. If we could all be so fortunate. Regardless, the men who deposed Ludwig had never even met or examined him. Not once! Although, his younger brother actually was insane, so… I guess it’s possible. If he were really mad, then he was a mad genius, and he has my eternal gratitude for gifting the world with Neuschwanstein.
Ludwig was finally removed from power in June of 1886, and was taken into custody. It’s worth mentioning while the royalty were frustrated with Ludwig, the people of Bavaria loved him. He often stopped in little towns and villages or along the roads as he was travelling to speak with the commoners, and even gave them lavish gifts. When the government commission came to collect the king, his servant ordered the local police to defend him, and they turned the commission away from the castle gate at gunpoint. Even a 47-year-old baroness, who was devoted to Ludwig, attacked the commissioners with her umbrella. Ludwig arrested the commissioners and held them prisoner briefly, before letting them go.
Desperate for help, Ludwig tried to warn his people about what was being done to him by issuing an official statement, to be circulated in the papers. But the ministers seized the copies and kept them from ever being printed. Finally the loyal police were replaced, and when the king tried to escape late one night, he was captured. He argued that they couldn’t declare him insane, since they’d never even examined him!
They said it didn’t matter.
This is where the plot thickens. After being taken to Berg Castle in Munich, while they waited to figure out what to do with Ludwig next, a lot of people believe he was murdered. On June 13th, 1886, Ludwig went for a stroll around the castle with Dr. Bernhard von Gudden, one of the four psychiatrists who helped get him deposed. They went for a walk in the evening, and the Dr. reportedly told his aides that no one was to come with them. They were supposed to be back by 8, but they never returned. A storm blew in, and the palace staff started searching for them on the shore in the pounding rain. Finally, around 10:30 that night, Dr. Gudden was found floating in the shallows. The body of Ludwig was found nearby. The king’s watch had stopped at 6:54. Coroners claimed it was a suicide, but there was no water found in his lungs, and he hadn’t mentioned any feelings of suicide up to that point. Apparently Gudden’s body was battered, with reported signs of his head being bashed in and signs of strangulation.
One eyewitness, the king’s personal fisherman, says he saw Ludwig shot as he was getting into a boat, and years later a countess offered up a coat pierced by two bullet holes, which she claimed was worn by Ludwig that night. But there’s nothing to prove either of those stories. We’ll never know for sure, but an awfully convenient way to get Ludwig out of the picture for good would be first to depose him, and then to finish the job on a dark and stormy night when no one was looking. Almost no one, anyway. All because Ludwig wanted to build a castle, and wasn’t interested in being a king. I can think of greater crimes.
And while building Neuschwanstein might have been horrendously expensive and controversial, I would argue that really, building it was absolutely essential. Humans must create monuments like Neuschwansteins, testaments to our ingenuity, brilliance, and joie de vivre. For without such grandiose reminders of what we can achieve–tangible reminders that the impossible is possible–we are left with monotonous, dreary, utilitarian, corporate, lifeless structures devoid of any heart or soul. Neuschwansteins lift us up out of the common, ordinary, hum-drum existence of daily drudgery, thrusting us into a realm of what must be close to divinity. To think! If man can make such a thing as Neuschwanstein, then there’s nothing that’s beyond our reach.
Nature is beautiful, of course: but how much is the scene above improved by Neuschwanstein Castle? Imagine it without the castle: this would be just another lovely picture of mountains and a lake. For sheer grandeur, man cannot compete with nature. But nature is wild and unruly. Just look at how the precise application of artistic daring can elevate the portrait of nature. We, as thinking, feeling humans, have the ability to make Neuschwansteins everywhere we go. Instead, we build abominations like the “Shard.”
As I said at the start of this series: Castles aren’t just for defense or fortification. Castles should make you dream. They should make you imagine that you could step inside a medieval story book, and live your very own fairy tale. And look at Neuschwanstein. Doesn’t it make you dream?