Driving around this German State on a winter morning, Rishad Saam Mehta visits two castles cloaked in snow and history
It’s when the automatic doors of Munich’s Franz-Josef Strauss Airport slide open and I step out into the nippy minus-seven-degree outdoors that I wonder if I’m a little mad to come to Germany in February. I run, teeth chattering, across the airport plaza and rush into the warmth of the underground train station and hop on the S8 to Marienplatz, the city centre. Once there, I transfer to the U6 metro train, which takes me to Garching-Hochbruck, where I must pick up the BMW 640d — mine for the next seven days.
An hour later I am beaming from ear to ear. The cabin of my car is warm, as is the seat. The car itself is brilliant, but more than this wondrous piece of engineering it is the scenery I am driving through that brings me elation.
After blasting down the autobahn from Munich at 200kph, I had turned it off at Landsberg, an attractive old town on the banks of River Lech, and joined German Road number 17, part of Germany’s famed Romantic Road. I feel as if I am driving through a fairy tale. The country side is a whitewashed winter wonderland with the road’s black strip of tar adding a wonderful contrast. It is the kind of scenery that could easily dwell in the imagination of the Brothers Grimm.
I have the lovely road almost to myself. I drive past Schongau, another attractive old town strategically situated above the Lech. A little later, I drive through Pfaffenwinkel, which is full of churches and monasteries, including the famous oval rococo Wieskirche Church. At places, the road is so deserted there is a thin layer of snow on it. I often stop and get out of my car. The silence is ethereal and is broken only by the crack of a branch collapsing under the weight of the snow.
When I reach the outskirts of Fussen, the last stop on the Romantic Road, the yellow ramparts of the Hohenschwangau Castle seem to rise like an apparition above the snow-laden conifers and pines. It is my introduction to the wondrous world of Ludwig Otto Friedrich Wilhelm, often referred to as the ‘mad King Ludwig’ II of Bavaria. It is in schloss (castle) Hohenschwangau that Ludwig spent most of his childhood. This castle, built by his father Maximilian II, is rendered in Gothic style and packed with frescoes depicting legendary German sagas. Ludwig was 15 when he first got to know of composer Wagner (through the opera Lohengrin). What started off as a love for his music soon developed into love for the composer himself. Neuschwanstein Castle — Bavaria’s pride and joy — was built by Ludwig as a tribute to his friend Richard Wagner.
The castle bursts into view as I drive closer, and when I step out of the car into the cold once again, I seek warmth inside the only cafe that is open before 10 in the morning. A cherubic local is also seeking solace from a warm cuppa, and he tells me he is one of the drivers who takes tourists up to the castle in a carriage pulled by huge cart horses. He is almost offended when I refer to Ludwig as ‘mad’. While most of the world thinks of him as a king who squandered money on fairy tale castles, Bavarians like to remember him as Unser Kini, “our cherished king”. The carriage man is quick to tell me that Ludwig built Neuschwanstein from his personal fortune. Since the castle was built around the 1880s, many senior citizens from the region remember stories their grandparents told them about the king and the construction of the castle. I walk up to the castle, and get closer. One of Wagner’s most stormy pieces ‘The Ride Of The Valkyries’ is about mythical creatures from Norse mythology. That winter day with cloud hanging low, I almost expect Wagner’s Valkyries to launch themselves from the tall turrets of Neuschwanstein.
Because of the sheer number of tourists visiting the castle every day, it’s a whirlwind tour, but it does give me an idea of how extravagant Ludwig’s plans and ambitions were. I find myself alone in the richly decorated Hall of the Singers and feel a gentle breeze go past me. All the windows are shut tight, so are the huge doors. The hair on the nape of my neck stands and I wonder if there is some truth to the belief that King Ludwig II still inhabits his cherished castle.
(For more on Bavaria, visit www.germany.travel)