Palaces Of A German Dreamer
What is your idea of a fairytale castle? It’s a fair bet many people will pick the Disneyland castle—a Gothic Cinderella confection with a forest of tall turrets. Of course, Disney’s stylised version is based on an actual Bavarian castle in southern Germany called Schloss Neuschwanstein, which itself isn’t a medieval creation but a 19th century fantasy realised by King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Known as Mad King Ludwig, this dreamy-minded monarch was more of an eccentric artist than a serious ruler, spending his time and wealth on creative projects rather than power plays.
Ludwig’s construction mania extended to two more palaces, Herrenchiemsee and Linderhof. With these three residences he created alternative worlds in which he could immerse himself in faraway places and past eras, thereby removing his person from the constraints of kingly duties. Though bankrupting himself in the process, he left Bavaria with an extraordinary legacy that is a pillar of German tourism—although visitor numbers are currently severely limited by the Covid-19 pandemic—alongside the earlier lavish palaces of his ancestors, the Wittelsbach dynasty, in their capital Munich.
1/6 Neuschwanstein Castle
Ludwig II designed his first palace in 1868 at the age of 23. Today Neuschwanstein is quite possibly the world’s most famous (real) castle and certainly a tourist magnet, towering above the town of Schwangau 120km southwest of Munich. Built between 1869 and 1886 on a rugged cliff against a scenic mountain backdrop, Neuschwanstein was intended to “embody the true spirit of the medieval German castle,” Ludwig wrote, “in the authentic style of the old German knights.” But far from being a copy of any medieval fortress, it was built based on idealised sketches by a Munich stage set painter.
Fantastical Neuschwanstein may appear on the outside, but in fact its interiors are totally 19th century in style, many adorned with mural scenes from the operatic myths of Richard Wagner that Ludwig so adored. The wood-vaulted Singers’ Hall, for example, sports scenes from Wagner’s Parsifal saga. The vast church-like Throne Hall by contrast, with its Byzantine domed architecture, symbolises Ludwig’s idea of a monarchy by God’s grace.
An immense project on a difficult site, the castle took much longer than the king expected. His gigantic fantasy was still incomplete when he finally moved in after 15 years of work, and he died only two years later. Today, if truth be told, it’s the distant view that is the best thing about Neuschwanstein, as it rises unbelievably amid the natural alpine landscape.
When you’ve marvelled enough at this incomparable sight move on to Ludwig’s most modest creation, the Linderhof Palace, whose charming beauty lies just 45km away.
2/6 Linderhof Palace
Schloss Linderhof is a Baroque jewel set in woods about 100km southwest of Munich, again with a mountain backdrop. The smallest of the three palaces built by Ludwig II—and the only one he lived to see completed—Linderhof gleams and glitters with ornate decoration, its furnishings lavishly gilded and its ceilings beautifully frescoed, but still manages a relatively intimate atmosphere.
The Hall of Mirrors was used by the king as a kind of living room. Because he used to sleep in the day and be awake at night, the mirrors and the light from multiple candelabras created a dazzling effect for him with hundreds of reflections. In the Dining Room Ludwig ate alone, yet the table was always laid for at least four people because the king used to talk to imaginary guests like Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour and Marie Antoinette. He greatly admired these figures of French royal history and you can see portraits of them and scenes of their lives everywhere in the palace’s rooms.
Around 50 hectares of gardens are perfectly integrated into the alpine setting, fashioned in the Renaissance and Baroque formal styles and surrounded by English-style landscaping. Ludwig II was fascinated by trees and so a tall 300-year-old linden was allowed to remain in the formal gardens despite disturbing their symmetry. The king put a seat in it and—as a nocturnal person—would take his ‘breakfast’ there at sunset, hidden from view amongst the branches.
In the park you see Ludwig’s fantastical imagination at play. In the Hunding’s Hut, inspired by Wagner’s Die Walküre, he used to celebrate Germanic feasts. In the Moorish Kiosk he would enjoy entering the Oriental world, seated on its peacock throne while bare-chested young men showered in pink, yellow and turquoise light from the stained-glass windows would fan him. Most theatrically, and again inspired by Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Ludwig liked to be rowed in a gilt shell-shaped gondola across the pool in the Venus Grotto, an artificial dripstone cave equipped with pioneering lighting technology that created a magical colour-changing rainbow effect.
Unfortunately the Venus Room is closed for restoration until 2024 but you’re welcome to enjoy everything else at Linderhof Palace. There will be no bare-chested youths to fan you but if you feel inclined to have a chat with an imaginary Madame de Pompadour or some other character from the ancien regime, do go ahead. The guides will understand. And when you’re done communing with those in the hereafter, head eastward for 142km to the far southeast corner of Bavaria where you’ll find Lake Chiemsee with Herrenchiemsee Palace occupying its own island.
3/6 Herrenchiemsee Palace
Schloss Herrenchiemsee sits in isolated splendour amongst woods, presenting a vast facade fully 100 metres long. Modelled on the Versailles of Louis XIV, the palace was secluded from the outside world so that Ludwig could retreat undisturbed into the realm of the Bourbon kings whom he idolised. Nevertheless, Herrenchiemsee was far smaller than the monarch had originally planned, which was a complete copy of Versailles in honour of the Sun King. In one sense though, the Swan King—as Ludwig II was known—outdid the Sun King by installing a Hall of Mirrors along the front of the building. A full 98 metres in length, it was 25 metres longer than that at Versailles.
If not the replica the king had planned, Herrenchiemsee’s main rooms are superb examples of 19th century interior design and more splendidly furnished than those at Versailles. The park was intended to cover a large part of the island but by the time Ludwig II died in 1886 (in mysterious circumstances) only the central axis with its splendid fountains had been built. The rest remained unfinished. Just a few weeks after his death it was opened to the public and so Ludwig’s private retreat became an escape for everybody. Today you reach the palace by ferry boat from several points around the Chiemsee—known fondly as the Bavarian Sea.
4/6 A Palatial Life
A monarch with three palaces was not at all a rare thing in Europe, or elsewhere, but what sets Ludwig II apart is the fact that he already had three palaces in and around his capital city of Munich. Why build three more? Therein lies the madness in the eyes of many observers, for the older palaces were masterpieces of the genre, absolutely adequate for your average monarch. Today, despite all the vagaries of history since Ludwig II’s time—to wit: the incorporation of Bavaria into the new German Empire, the abolition of the Bavarian monarchy in 1918, the heavy bombing of Munich in World War II—the three palaces still stand in superb condition.
But not quite as before. You first realise this walking around The Residenz, the monumental palace set in the heart of the city. You stroll a sequence of ornately decorated salons wallpapered in lime green, royal blue or crimson, with rows of gold-framed portraits of aristocrats hanging on the walls and tapestry-bound chairs to sit in, seemingly the same as they ever were. You open your guidebook or look at your app to get the details and there you discover that The Residenz was shattered in World War II as Allied bombers targeted Hitler’s favourite city, the founding place of the Nazi party.
It gives you a real jolt to realise that this elaborate edifice with its Baroque atmosphere was largely rebuilt in facsimile in the 1950s as Germany sought to reclaim the historical fabric that had been destroyed in the war. A massive presence in the centre of Munich, The Residenz served as the seat of government and home of the Bavarian rulers. Beginning as a medieval castle at the city’s northeast corner, it morphed over the centuries into a magnificent palace extending ever further into the city. Since the 19th century it has stood at the start of the Munich’s ceremonial avenue, the Maximilianstrasse, which is now a mecca for luxury shopping.
In the post-war reclamation of the palace, particularly ornate parts were rebuilt in a simplified manner so that The Residenz has become a relatively modest example of European aristocratic opulence. A standout is a long white gallery trimmed with gold containing portraits of 121 members of the Wittelsbach dynasty who first took power in Bavaria in 1180, wielded it as dukes, electors and kings for seven centuries, and only lost it in 1918 in the wake of World War I defeat.
But one part is truly astonishing. Surviving in all its original glory is the Antiquarium, a long barrel-vaulted hall whose ceiling and walls dance with complex fresco paintings. Built in 1568-71 to house the royal antique collection, then converted to a royal banqueting hall, the Antiquarium is the largest Renaissance hall outside Italy. The perspective from each end is a mesmerising delight to the eye with intricately painted arches narrowing away into the distance.
However, for the most sumptuous legacy of an amazingly long-lasting dynasty you have to visit two vast palaces set in enormous parks on the edge of Munich—namely Nymphenburg and Schleissheim. These royal residences truly reflect the city’s former status as capital of the kingdom of Bavaria and the earlier duchy, one of the richest independent states that once made up Germany.
In these two places you find light and colour, dazzling beauty and exquisite style, and moments when you feel elated by the sheer panache of the architects’ creation. You are elevated to joy by experiencing the glories that were once the private preserve of Bavaria’s rulers, rococo palaces painstakingly restored to the brilliant state they enjoyed when built.
5/6 Nymphenburg Palace
In the 1660s Elector Ferdinand Maria decided to make a summer palace for his wife and built her this grand estate, which their 18th century heirs developed into what we see today. Getting off the tram from the city centre in Munich’s western suburbs, you first spy the palace reflected in a large pond on which swans and ducks cruise. Entering the central building and rising to the upper floor, you step into a marvel, a high rococo hall of dazzling beauty, white with lavish gilding, its ceiling adorned with fresco painting naturally lit via high windows at each end.
Touring an endless sequence of ornate salons, you chance upon Queen Caroline’s bedchamber bathed in forest green with its original furnishings from 1815. Here on August 25, 1845 Crown Princess Marie gave birth to the future King Ludwig II. Marie’s portrait hangs in the Gallery of Beauties, which features 36 portraits of beautiful women of Munich gathered by King Ludwig I and including his infamous mistress, the dancer Lola Montez, whom he made Countess of Landsfeld.
Outside, the Grand Parterre presents geometric formality and a watercourse which heads straight into the far distance, flanked by thick woods. Walk to the left and in a forest clearing you come upon a treasure—the Amalienburg hunting lodge, a jewel of rococo design. Its beauty reaches an icy peak in the pale blue Hall of Mirrors, a circular room whose many ornately framed mirrors create multiple criss-crossing reflections, so that visitors seem to ricochet round the room.
You can get giddy here from the aesthetic overload, as each small salon presents another kind of extravagantly rich ornamentation in a kind of 18th century psychedelia. The walls in the yellow Repose Room shimmer with filigree silver carving; the Pheasant Room is lined with linen painted and waxed in the manner of Chinese wallpaper; even the kitchen is a riot, totally faced with multi-coloured Dutch tiles. It was all done for Maria Amalia of Austria, the wife of Prince-Elector Charles VII Albert.
And of course Ludwig II—who spent much of his youth here— adored the Amalienburg. He was also enchanted by another ornate pavilion on the other side of the water course, the Pagodenburg, a miniature maison de plaisance. The ground floor is decorated entirely in blue and white, its walls covered with Delft tiles. Upstairs is the Chinese Salon, its walls clad with black lacquered wood panelling that frames Chinese scroll paintings featuring plant and bird motifs.
6/6 Schleissheim Palace
For grand halls and stairways, acres of white marble and stucco, incredibly long corridors and another geometric park, take the airport line train to Schleissheim Palace 13km north of central Munich. Originally a hunting estate of the Wittelsbachs, a 1687 gazetteer described it thus: “The electoral palace, raised from nature for the delight of princely souls, is well endowed with pleasing forests, magnificent buildings... and other features designed to inspire graceful and regenerative thoughts.” That pretty much applies now, for all kinds of souls.
In 1704 a bigger palace was added, its immense 150-metre façade facing the French-inspired park whose central watercourse has elegant curved cascades like miniature Niagaras and extends for 1,200 metres towards the modest Lustheim Palace. Behind that facade the Great Gallery takes up one third of the palace’s length. Its combination of black-and-white diamond paved floor, crimson damask wallpaper, dramatic oil paintings by Flemish and Italian masters, white and gold stucco friezes and fresco-painted ceiling, all running for 57 metres, is devastatingly beautiful. Just as impressive are the high, white Baroque halls that receive light from two sides. The Great Hall is exhilarating, as light floods onto its elaborately carved stucco walls and dramatically frescoed ceiling. Such ceilings seem like the cinema of their day, brilliantly coloured, peopled with outrageous characters and full of movement. From the Great Hall a stately marble staircase leads down to a multi-pillared hall in yellow, beige and pink marble. Here is the exit and a fitting place to end a fabulous journey.
At the time of writing Germany is open to visitors from Thailand without the need to quarantine, and all the Bavarian palaces are also open.
For detailed information on the palaces, including visitor information, got to schloesser.bayern.de, the Bavarian Palaces Department website.
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