Wednesday, July 13, 2016

CastleTalk: The Swan King, His Fairytale Castles and Mass Tourism

Ludwig II
Schloss Neuschwanstein is arguably the most famous castle in the world. Along with Schloss Linderhof and Schloss Herrenchiemsee, it forms a trio of fantasy turned reality that are the castles of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. While Neuschwanstein is a testiment of the Swan King's love for Richard Wagner, the famous German composer, Linderhof is in comparison a small weekend getaway with a very special grotto, and Herrenchiemsee is his attempt at topping Versailles.

I have visited all three places in my life, albeit at very different stages. Schloss Linderhof was one of the very first castles I remember visiting when I wasn't even yet in primary school, Schloss Neuschwanstein I visited as a teenager, and Schloss Herrenchiemsee as an adult just a handful of years ago. All three of them made lasting impressions on me - I partly blame my visit to Linderhof at the tender age of five for my love of castles and palaces - but one thing that also stuck with me was how crowded these places were.

The other day though, I watched a German documentary about Schloss Herrenchiemsee in which the chatelain mentioned that people did not take the necessary time anymore to be mesmerised by the palace but instead would only take pictures. Apart from the fact that I'm fairly certain that you aren't actually allowed to take pictures inside any of Ludwig's castles, his statement surprised me a bit considering that I personally felt shoved through rooms in as little time as possible during the guided tours of both Schloss Neuschwanstein and Schloss Herrenchiemsee.

At Herrenchiemsee palace, there was a scheduled tour every five minutes. And no, that's not a joke. There was tour at 12pm, at 12.05pm, 12.10pm and so forth. So basically whenever you left a room, there was group who followed you into the room. I understand that I'm probably not your regular castle visitor and that I do take a greater interest in the history and architecture, but to say that people aren't interested enough when they are basically discouraged to ask any questions or only while on the walk into the next room because it could mess up the schedule does seem a bit odd.

When you go to the village of Schwangau, which is nearly two hours by car from Munich, you would be astonished by the amount of people who would go to this Bavarian backdrop to visit a castle. For many it is probably one of the must-see things when they visit Germany. I visited in September, so it wasn't even the high season, but I still I found myself fighting for space with hundreds, if not thousands of tourists from around the world.

Schloss Neuschwanstein is visited by about 1.4 million people a year, which amounts to about 4000 people a day - considering that there are less in the off-season, it easily means 6000 or more a day in the summer. Those are crazy numbers, especially as King Ludwig II intended for no one to ever see his castles. He had ordered for them to be destroyed upon his death, after all he wanted "to remain an eternal mystery to myself and others". Instead, they were opened to the public within seven weeks of his death. And the irony of things: While their construction nearly bankrupted the Swan King, they have paid their bills many times over in the following decades and are some of the world's only castles who can provide for their upkeep themselves.

But what is it that keeps people flocking to this rural Alpine village, which by the way is also home to Ludwig's childhood home Schloss Hohenschwangau? King Ludwig II was born in 1845 and died under mysterious circumstances in 1886, so his castles weren't actually medieval fortresses or expressions of the baroque era but instead 19th century fake, so to speak, born out of Ludwig's vivid imagination and romantic attachment to the past. The 'moon king' as he liked to call himself or their Kini as the Bavarian call him to this day is an interesting historical figure with a colourful life but it's doubtful that that's the reason why about 50 million people have visited Neuschwanstein since his death with more each year. Instead I believe, it is the castle's connection to Disney.

Walt Disney took Schloss Neuschwanstein as the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty’s castle. It was also the model for Cinderella’s castle in the Magic Kingdom theme parks. The castle is practically on everything Disney. While there are many castles in Germany and all over the world who would merit the name 'fairytale castle', Schloss Neuschwanstein remains the ultimate one as it is instilled in generations of children all over the world by a production company. Whether it is to the advantage of the enjoyment of a castle, I very much doubt.

Don't get me wrong, Schloss Neuschwanstein, Schloss Herrenchiemsee and Schloss Linderhof should still be pretty high up on the list of every Castleholic to visit, they definetely are something special and I do want to visit again sometime. But the trouble with mass tourism is that it is always in danger of killing the hen that laid the golden egg. Personally, I prefer the quieter castles that give room to breath.

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