Discovering the Castles of Bavaria
Fairytale castles, royal residences and a busload of international travellers! What more could you ask for? Yes, you may have guessed already! It’s another exciting adventure with Expat Club. This time, I travelled in a beautiful, double-decker coach to Bavaria, in the South of Germany, from Wednesday afternoon 29 May to Sunday evening 2 June.
On the road to Würzburg
Würzburg is known as the entry point to “The Romantic Road.” For us, it was the entry point to a five-day fantasy trip! With a late afternoon departure and a dinner stop en route, we headed southeast. We arrived in Würzburg just before midnight and settled into our comfortable hotel. The next morning, after a nice buffet breakfast, we drove into the charming town centre to discover what makes Würzburg so magical.
We started with a guided walking tour in Unterer Markt where we learned about the city’s history and Baroque and Rococo architecture. Cameras quickly appeared as we captured photos of the red and white Marienkapelle, a Late Gothic Catholic church dating back to 1377. The structure was decimated by Allied bombings in 1945 and rebuilt between 1948 and 1961.
We strolled through the historic old town and headed to the UNESCO-listed Würzburg Residence. It, too, was a victim of Allied bombings, although you’d never know it from the mindful restoration. There is one word for this palace: spectacular! The building’s somewhat plain exterior gave few clues about what we found inside: an opulent palace with the largest fresco in the world!
We entered, standing where guests once alighted from royal coaches for grand parties. We stood just below the elaborate grand staircase, called “one of the most magnificent achievements of secular building.” I wish we were able to take photos inside. This palace is truly remarkable! The breathtaking stairway design by Architect Balthasar Neumann is enhanced by spectacular, 600-square-meter frescoes painted by Venetian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Each of the four walls showcases a continent: Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.
We were impressed at every turn. Baroque and Rococo design throughout the palace showcases the wealth of the royal family. There was precious art, handcrafted furnishings, antiques, gilded surfaces and a Baroque garden befitting a king.
Our taste of royal life continued with a visit to the imposing Marienberg Fortress with its blue-domed Marienkirche. The church dates back to 700 AD. For me, the highlight was the 1300-square-meter garden. Prince-Bishop Johann Philipp von Schönborn transformed former gun platforms on the fortress ramparts into the Fürstengarten, a secret little garden with a commanding view over the River Main and historic Würzburg. We climbed down the stairs to the get a closer look at it — and for some great photo ops.
Off to Munich, we go
Munich, home to 1.5 million people, was next on the itinerary. I’d visited the city before for Oktoberfest, another great Expat Club trip where I saw Nymphenburg Castle from a distance. This time we got a chance to explore the limestone summer palace of the former rulers of Bavaria and wander through its hall and rooms. In 1724, Maria Antonia (Electress of Saxony) was born here, followed by Maria Anna Josephs (Margravine of Baden-Baden) a decade later. Charles Albert lived and died here and Holy Roman Emperor and King Max I Joseph died there in 1825. We even got to see the room where King Ludwig II was born, the Queen’s bedroom with its rich, mahogany furniture, which was handmade in Munich.
Exquisite hand-painted ceilings and Baroque design captured our imagination as we walked through grand rooms and along the long hallways. While many rooms maintained their original Baroque decor, some featured Neoclassical or Rococo design. The most impressive room was the Steinemer Saal, or Marble Hall, a three-story room with gilded columns, crystal chandeliers, spectacular Baroque frescoes by Johann Baptist Zimmermann and F. Zimmermann and Rococo embellishments.
Outside the palace lies Schlosspark Nymphenburg, a 180-hectare park and garden with long, symmetrical pathways, canals with nesting swans and colourful flowers. It started as a French garden but was converted to an English style retreat that maintains many Baroque features. I could have spent hours walking here. Our time was limited in this garden paradise, but still well worth the visit.
After a day of exploring, we got a taste of some authentic German food and beer at Augustines Großgaststätten, an Art Nouveau restaurant specialising in Bavarian cuisine. We dined in the beer hall of the historic brewery before retiring to our hotel for the night.
Our first two days sped by quickly. On Friday, we got a chance for an in-depth exploration of the old city of Munich. Strolling through the city’s Medieval alleyways, we soon found ourselves in front of the imposing red brick Münchner Dom (Munich Cathedral), an iconic structure prominently featured on the city’s website and souvenirs. The two towers of the Late Gothic style church, which soar 98 meters into the sky, were completed in 1488. Like so many other sites in Bavaria, the church was heavily damaged in Allied bombings and later restored. Final restorations were completed in 1994.
No trip to Munich would be complete with a stop at the Munich Residence, the former royal palace of Bavaria’s Wittelsbach monarchs. From the outside, the building looks plain, but inside it’s a different story. Elegance and opulence! The Neuveste, a fortress built in 1385, forms the basis of the Residence. Over the centuries, rulers added structures leading to today’s palace complex.
What will you find here? Mystery and magic! A magnificent Grotto Courtyard, inspired by Italy’s Renaissance gardens, was constructed in 1583. It features stone stalactite and stalagmite shapes with colourful shells and crystals, as well as paintings depicting the gods of Olympus.
In my opinion, the most impressive room in the Residence is the Antiquarium, a grand hall with soaring curved ceilings, stonework and statures. It is breathtaking! The Renaissance-style room was built between 1568 and 1571 so Duke Albrecht V could display his vast collection of antiquities. Later, it became a grand ceremonial hall.
Like the Wurzburg Residence and Nymphenburg Castle, the Munich Residence is remarkable. Throughout the buildings, lavish rooms are adorned with spectacular, oversized chandeliers and high ceilings, many with colourful frescoes. Off the long hallways, we saw sumptuous rooms like the Electress’s Audience Chamber with its canopy, throne and two commodes. Each room seemed more spectacular than the one before!
Of note was the collection of Chinese porcelain, many pieces with gold and silver gilding. Typical Chinese egg-shaped vases converted into drinking goblets and incense holder transformed into candelabras were among pieces on display.
Once most of us had spent a few hours in the Munich Residenz (it is huge), a local tour guide was waiting for us to show us around her city while explaining its history. During the tour, we suddenly bumped into a super famous movie star. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was in neighbouring Austria for a conference and the funeral of Formula One legend Nicky Lauda, walked out Munich’s fanciest 5* hotel. He had the audacity to walk straight through our group on his way to a nice restaurant 🙂
ISLAND MAGIC— From the Munich Residence, we scurried off to Prien am Chiemsee where we caught a boat from Prien-Stock to Herreninsel, the largest island in Chiemsee Lake, which is home to Herrenchiemsee, a complex of royal buildings. Here we found the New Palace, built in the 18th century by King Ludwig II of Bavaria. He purchased the island, the former site of an Augustine monastery, in 1873. After converting the building into Altes Schloss, or Old Palace, he built the Neues Schloss, or New Herrenchiemsee Palace. The building and classical gardens followed the design of Versailles. The building was never completed.
After a day moving in the shadows of Bavarian royalty, we headed back to Munich.
PERFECT PALACES — On Saturday, our castle crusade continued with a trek to Linderhof Palace, the smallest of the three palaces built by King Ludwig II and the only one that he lived to see finished.
Ludwig used to accompany his father on hunting trips in the Linderhof area. When his father died, he inherited Königshäuschen and decided to tear it down and rebuild, modelling it after Versailles. Ludwig’s infatuation with King Louis XIV, the Sun King, is evident throughout – from the sun designs in the entryway to Ludwig’s bedroom. He added a staircase similar to the one at Versailles and added stone facades and a Hall of Mirrors that gives the illusion of a never-ending room through mirror placement.
One of the most interesting rooms is the dining room, which the king also used as a dressing room. The dining room table was set up on a pulley system so staff could set the table with dinner and raise it from the kitchen area below without having any contact with the reclusive king.
Surrounding Lindenhof Palace is Schlosspark Linderhof, the beautiful symmetrical gardens that mix formal elements of Baroque style with a typical English Garden. Climbing the stairs to the top, we got great views of the palace below with the majestic Alps in the background.
After our fill of palatial elegance, we headed toward Schwangau to explore Hohenschwangau Castle or Schloss Hohenschwangau, a 19th-century palace that was the childhood home of King Ludwig II. Set high on the hill above Lake Alpsee, the present-day castle was first mentioned in 1397. Historical records show it changed hands a number of times and was purchased by a wealthy merchant in 1535, who had an Italian architect reconstruct it. In 1549, it was sold to Maximilian I, Elector of Bavaria, and later plundered by Austrian troops. In 1832, Maximilian II, grandson of Maximilian I, bought it back and began reconstruction with a Neolithic exterior design. Young Ludwig II spent years of his adolescence at the castle before starting to build his own castle high above his parents’ castle. That project, Neuschwanstein Castle, was our next destination and the highlight of the trip.
A Fairytale Adventure
It’s said that Walt Disney fell in love Neuschwanstein Castle while on a trip to Germany, and it served as the inspiration for his famous Sleeping Beauty castle. I understand why!
The Romanesque Revival palace sits high above the village of Hohenschwangau and can be seen for miles. Rather than using state funds, Ludwig II used his own money to fund the project, which was commissioned as a retreat honouring composer Richard Wagner. Although Ludwig planned to live out his medieval fantasy in the castle, he only spent 11 nights there. He died in 1886 before the castle was completed. Had it been finished, the 6,000-square-meter floor space would have included 200 rooms. Only 15 were completed. The castle was certainly ahead of its time. There was an electric bell system to summon servants, hot air central heating, hot and cold running water and even indoor, automatic flushing toilets!
It was worth the walk to see this phenomenal structure. It took about 40 minutes to walk from the ticket office in Hohenschwangau to the castle. You can also take a bus or horse carriage, which drops you near Marienbrücke, the impressive suspension footbridge, which is actually older than the castle! Named after Ludwig’s mother, it hovers 300 feet over a roaring waterfall, spanning the gap between two ridges. This is THE place to get the best photos of the castle!
From the bridge, it’s about 15 minutes further uphill. Be ready for more walking when you arrive at the castle. There are some 300 steps to climb —and no lift!
Climb to the third and fourth floors to see the staterooms and apartments. There’s also an opulent, two-story throne room with an intricate mosaic floor, 13-foot chandelier, dome ceiling and majestic columns. But, alas, there is no throne!
Ludwig’s dream to build a romantic, rich and imposing fairytale castle was certainly realised.
“It is my intention to rebuild the old castle ruin of Hohenschwangau near the Pöllat Gorge in the authentic style of the old German knights’ castles, and I must confess to you that I am looking forward very much to living there one day,” he wrote to Richard Wagner. “You know the revered guest I would like to accommodate there; the location is one of the most beautiful to be found, holy and unapproachable, a worthy temple for the divine friend who has brought salvation and a true blessing to the world.”
While the king never intended for the castle to be open to the public, it has become one of Germany’s biggest tourist attractions with as many as 6,000 visitors a day.
Before returning to Brussels, we had two more stops: Nürnberg Imperial Castle and Reichsparteitagsgelände, or the Reich Party Congress Grounds, both in Nurenberg. The visit to the National Socialist party grounds was moving. The grounds encompass about 11 square kilometres in the southeastern portion of the city and were the site for six Nazi party rallies between 1933 and 1938. We read about the rallies as we stood below the Documentation Center, a “glass and steel arrow” overlooking the dilapidated grounds. It is meant to provide a highly visible “architectural counterpoint.” It did.
Nuremberg is a fortified city and the castle is thought to be one of the most intimidating medieval fortresses. The Imperial Castle sits on a sandstone ridge. Dating back to the 1200s, the Sinwell Tower was the major keep of the castle. What is really interesting here is the Tiefer Brunnen, or deep well. Located inside a small, half-timbered house in the centre of the courtyard, the well was the sole source of water. We watched as our guide poured a cup of water into the 50-meter-deep well, watching patiently as we heard it hit the water below after what seemed like an eternity!
We toured the two floors of the Imperial Castle, which were used as the Emperor’s residence and for official functions. Then, we had a quick lunch, hopped on our bus and headed back to Brussels feeling a new connection with and appreciation of Bavarian royalty.