Some seventy years ago Mr. Walt Disney traveled to Europe in search of inspiration for what would become the iconic centerpiece of his newly designed theme park – Sleeping Beauty Castle. Disneyland opened in 1955 in Anaheim, California, and only a year later I experienced my first of five visits. I still remember the magic, the joy, the pure happiness of being there. Mr. Disney’s dream was to transport guests into a fantasy world, completely removed from real life. Obviously, he achieved his goal with unprecedented success.
The sad part of this tale is that the original inspiration for Disney’s dream, Neuschwanstein Castle (New Swan Rock Castle), located in the beautiful Bavarian Alps of Germany, was also built as an escape from reality by King Ludwig II. He, too, lived in a fantasy world and wanted nothing more than to escape the harsh reality of life; a life that was less than idyllic.
Ludwig, and his brother Otto spent their childhood at Hohen Schwangau, a nearby castle built by his father King Maximilian II of Bavaria and his wife Marie of Prussia. It was considered their official summer and hunting residence. Ludwig’s parents were strict and oppressive at times, especially with their finances. Ludwig gradually isolated himself and found consolation in a world of fantasy which included his books, poetry, art, and music.
When Ludwig’s father died, he ascended the throne at the age of 18, without any experience of life or politics. He later shared in a letter, “I became king much too early. I had not learned enough. I had made such a good beginning…with the learning of state laws. Suddenly, I was snatched away from my books and set on the throne. Well, I am still trying to learn…” Ludwig had a short reign, from March of 1884 to June of 1886.
Perhaps because of his tightly controlled upbringing, Ludwig began to build a lavish dreamworld for himself, sparing no expense. He built two other castles, besides Neuschwanstein – Linderhof and Herrenchiensee. He is sometimes referred to as the “Swan King” in England and “The Fairy Tale King” in Germany, because of his expensive, fancy castles. Neuschwanstein was built two years after Austria and Bavaria were conquered by Prussia during the Austro-Prussian War, virtually stripping Ludwig of his powers. He quickly retreated into a private fantasy world, far removed from reality, surrounding himself with opulent castles where he could live out his dreams of being a true, sovereign king.
Sadly, King Ludwig lived alone in his castles, never having married, or had a family. He would eat his meals alone in his elaborate dining room, surrounded by beautiful silk and gold tapestries depicting favorite scenes from poetry, art, or opera. He entertained himself at night, and slept all day, basically living as a recluse. He maintained his fantasy world by bringing in entire opera performances and plays, where he alone was in the audience. At Linderhof you can visit his grotto cave which he had designed for his private operas. The vast cavernous chamber also has a small lake where he was known to float around in a small raft as he was enjoying his favorite plays.
The new settings he was constantly designing and building for himself proved to be beyond the private means of a king. From 1885 on, foreign banks threatened to seize his property. He was unable to sustain his lavish spending habits. Due to his irrational behavior, the government was led to declare him insane and deposed him in 1886. One day after his imprisonment, Ludwig was found dead in a nearby lake. He disappeared while he was out for a walk with his physician, and his corpse was discovered a few hours later, along with that of the physician. His death was officially declared to be suicide by drowning, but the circumstances surrounding his death remain a mystery.
Neuschwanstein Castle is one of the most iconic and beloved castles, but one with a very tragic history. There lived “The Swan King,” trapped, alone, in his own dream world, never realizing his full potential in life, but leaving a legacy of beauty and fantasy that would inspire and touch the world.