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Floating in the clouds atop a rugged hilltop above little villages and mountain lakes, King Ludwig II’s folly was conceived as a romantic homage to the Middle Ages and to the Germanic mythology evoked in the music of Richard Wagner. As Ludwig wrote to the composer, “It will also remind you of ‘Tannhäuser’ (Singers' Hall with a view of the castle in the background), ‘Lohengrin’ (castle courtyard, open corridor, path to the chapel). . . .” He began work on the castle in 1868, shortly after the death of his grandfather, Ludwig I, left him with a considerable private fortune. Construction of this dream palace continued for 17 years; for years, Ludwig watched the progress through a telescope from neighboring Hohenschwangau. Between 1884 and 1886, the king lived in the partly-completed Neuschwanstein on and off for a total of 170 days. He was at Neuschwanstein when he received news of his dethronement, on the basis of mental instability. Three days later he was found dead. All work on the castle stopped immediately, leaving a part of the interior uncompleted.

Just as Ludwig built Neuschwanstein to recreate legend, his ersatz version of a distant past has become the iconic European castle—appropriated most famously by Walt Disney as Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland. It’s no accident that one of Ludwig’s designers was the Wagnerian set designer Christian Janck, who ensured that almost every room suggests legend and saga. The king’s study is decorated with painted scenes from the medieval legend of Tannhäuser. Murals in the king’s bedroom portray the doomed lovers Tristan and Isolde (a mood reinforced by scenery—through the balcony window you can see a waterfall in the Pöllat Gorge, with the mountains in the distance). The Sängerhalle (Singer’s Hall) takes up almost the entire fourth floor and is modeled after Wartburg castle in Eisenach, the site of the Meistersinger’s song contests in the Middle Ages; frescoes depict the life of Parsifal, a mythical medieval knight. Ludwig’s illusions of grandeur come quite forcibly to the fore in the unfinished Throne Rome, designed to resemble a Romanesque basilica, with columns of red porphyry, a mosaic floor, and frescoes of Christ looking down on the Twelve Apostles and six canonized kings of Europe.

After you leave the guided tour, you can make your way down to the enormous kitchens of the castle. Here you’ll be reminded that this castle was built in the 19th century, not in the Middle Ages: The automatic grills and huge stoves are indicative of technological innovations used throughout the castle, which include running water, flush toilets, central heating, electric buzzers to summon servants, even telephones.