Castles and an Unfortunate History

We left the quiet city of Baden-Baden for the busy little Füssen.  The town itself wasn’t busy when we arrived in the middle of the afternoon, but it gets busy as it is the town that services perhaps the most famous castle in Europe: Neuschwanstein.  You might not be able to say it, but you’ve seen a picture of it before.  It’s said to be the castle that inspired Walt Disney when he was designing the Sleeping Beauty castle for Disneyland.

From Füssen you take a public bus to the town of Hohenschwangau where there is a castle of the same name–the childhood summer palace of King Ludwig II, as well as the famous Neuschwanstein.  The ticket center is a short walk away to either purchase or pick up your tickets.  The only way you can visit the inside of either castle is to have a timed ticket for a guided tour.  This means you can only enter the queue at the exact moment that is stamped on your ticket.  This seemed odd to me at first—very exact and Germanish.  But it made total sense once there as there are SO MANY TOURISTS.  I cannot even fathom what it is like in summertime.

We bought tickets in advance which is the best way to do it if you go.  We got to go in the “advanced tickets” line up and even got to join a tour about an hour earlier than we had originally booked.  It always pays to check.  Our first stop was to see Schloss Hohenschwangau and so we hiked up the hill to it which took us about 15 minutes.  It snowed while we were there which made everything extra magical and difficult in equal measures.  We scanned our tickets at the entrance at exactly 11:20am and walked up to the queue and waited for our tour to begin.  The tour, like many timed tours was a bit rushed.  However, our guide was friendly in addition to being informative and she was willing to slow down to answer questions and didn’t seem to be annoyed.  I count this as a win!  We weren’t allowed to take pictures while in the castle which was such a shame.  My favourite parts were the amazing murals on the walls and the ceramic stoves in every room.  The tid-bit of information which was most interesting to us was that Hohenschwangau was only considered a summertime or hunting palace rather than an all-year residence.  It was kind of smaller than what I expected a castle to be, but it was certainly very opulent.

After our tour of Hohenschwangau we had about 30 minutes to spare to eat a quick sandwich before climbing the next hill up to Neuschwanstein.  This took a bit longer because of the hordes of people, the horse-drawn carriages (one expensive option to the castle) and the slushy slippery snow which was on the road.  I took a couple of strategic photo breaks and even had to undo my coat and take off my hat, gloves and mittens at one point because the walk up got me hot and sweaty.  The tour/ticket procedure is the same at Neuschwanstein so we had to wait until our exact tour time.  Again, the tour felt rushed and we couldn’t take any photos but the castle was amazing and we were so impressed with all the artistry everywhere.

Interestingly, the building of Neuschwanstein was the baby project of the Bavarian King Ludwig II (his reign was 1864-1886) who was not a great king in terms of politics but very supportive of the arts and was more interested in building beautiful palaces and castles rather than ruling his country.  He was eventually termed mentally ill by his cabinet and forced to leave his position as King, his uncle taking over as Prince Regent.  Two days later he was mysteriously found dead in a lake with no satisfactory explanation of his death.  The building of Neuschwanstein was never completed though work on it had been going on for 17 years.  The day of Ludwig’s death was the day they halted work on it most likely because of the immense expense.  Today, it is visited by 1.3 million tourists a year, with as many as 6,000 per day in the summer (as according to Wikipedia).  Wow!

We didn’t do much else while in Füssen but the town is very charming and it was definitely worth staying a couple of nights there in order to not be rushed looking at the castles.  A lot of tourists just do a day trip from Munich but that would be a very long day as Munich is about 1.5 hours away and you need a good whole day to properly see the castles, walk around, eat a meal or two and have rest breaks.  You could get away with arriving in Füssen in the late afternoon/evening, doing the castles the next day, and leaving early the third day.  We had two nights there and it was the perfect amount of time.

After the tiny town of Füssen we went to Munich.  It was a brief train ride away and we arrived too early to check into our hostel.  We stored our bags and went in search of a lunch that didn’t cost a million euros.  We have not had the best of luck with food in Germany.  I just can’t get over how hard it is to 1) find a place that serves vegetables as a side 2) get our hands on some free tap water and 3) find cheap food that isn’t ridiculously unhealthy.  I wish I could come back to Germany one day with a local or stay at a family’s house so that we can have a better experience with food.

Once we ate we slowly made our way to the enormous Nymphenburg Palace.  We got there a bit too late in the day to see more than one thing though.  Our tram got stuck and we waited a long time to get to our destination.  By the time we figured out where to go and walked the long stretch of road to the palace doors, it was 3pm and the castle closes at 4pm.  We bought the tickets (I always think the price should drop if you are coming in the last two hours of the day) and saw the Great Hall which was indeed gorgeous as well as several other ornate rooms.  My favourite was the “gallery of beauties”, a room with 36 painted portraits of young women.  It was the fashion of the time to have painted portraits of beautiful young women from all classes painted.  The portraits are of women from nobility, the middle class and the lower working class.  It was like walking into a 19th century “hot or not” competition.  I hated the sexism of it, but I have to admit I liked looking at the pretty girls just as much as the next person.  Callum and I even played a game where we had to guess which girl the other person thought was the prettiest.  He liked Katharina Botsaris and I liked Amalie von Schintling.  Whoever they were, I hope they were happy and appreciated how good-looking they were.  Life is generally easier for hot people.


The next day we took a very large side-step away from luxury, beauty, and opulence.  We did a complete 180, to be fair.  We visited the very significant historical site in Dachau and the concentration camp memorial they have there.  I feel that no visit to Germany would be complete without visiting at least one concentration camp, especially if you don’t know much about Germany’s dark past beyond that “Hitler was bad”.  I highly recommend booking a tour, though it takes a very lengthy 2.5 hours to do the tour and we ended up bailing on our group after only 30 minutes.  This was because it was very cold outside and I have a hard time standing for long periods of time because of an issue I have with my feet.  Also, our group was so large that I couldn’t hear our guide speak.  I wish we had instead bought an audio-guide and gone at our own pace from the moment we arrived.  I will say that the introduction and the few things I did hear from the guide herself were very interesting.  I liked that she started out by saying that Dachau was a place that has its own long history before it became the dark symbol it is today, unfortunately.  She was a humble person who was passionate about sharing her knowledge of the biggest shame of her country.

The camp at Dachau is to me, immense.  I have not seen one in person before.  We were there on a day that was bitterly cold—I was wearing two layers of pants, 3 layers on top, hat, hood, scarf, mittens, and I was still cold.  When we walked the long way from the roll-call area to the very last spot where the barracks would have stood, I was shivering and my teeth were chattering.  It did not escape us that we were by leaps and bounds better dressed and more equipped to handle the harsh weather than the poor victims of the concentration camp suffered about 85 years ago.  We viewed the inside of the barracks and I couldn’t believe how barren they were and that people actually survived the horrible conditions they were forced to live in.  We talked about how hard it would be to have the will to survive, especially not knowing where the other person was and if they were alive, as the Germans separated the men and women.  We each agreed that the not knowing might help to spur us on to fight in the hopes that we’d see each other again.  We saw the crematoriums on the property and stood in the tiny gas chamber room.  I kept shaking my head in horror at what humans are capable of doing to other humans.  It was a disturbing but important visit to make.  The human spirit and will to live is strong and nothing has reminded me of that more than at Dachau and places like it that I’ve visited in the past (the killing fields in Cambodia comes to mind).

Once we’d seen all the most important things in the memorial, we were starving.  Uh-erm.  Sorry, that seems insensitive, but we hadn’t eaten in 6 hours and we did in fact feel extremely guilty that we were about to gorge ourselves on a delicious and filling lunch at the memorial cafeteria for a reasonable price in a warm building.  The irony did not escape us once again.  We felt sombre and saddened.  I offered a tentative joke: “I’d die on the first day because I hate missing a meal and I can’t handle the cold.”  It wasn’t that funny but I honestly don’t think I would have had the strength to live through the terrors the Jews had to suffer in the concentration camps.

We left Dachau and returned to Munich, sufficiently reminded of the ugly in the world and tried to cheer up by seeing the Christmas market.  There were an overwhelming number of people but the atmosphere was decidedly more joyous and the lights were pretty.  A strange juxtaposition of tourist attractions which left me feeling, anyhow, a bit conflicted.  We shouldn’t forget about the suffering of others in our own time most of all.

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