Bavaria is dotted with a myriad of historic castles, of many different ages and styles, and many of which are a relatively convenient day trip from Munich. Undoubtedly the most famous of them all is Neuschwanstein Castle, model for the castle at Disney World one of the most instantly recognized German landmarks the world over. Neuschwanstein’s tower pokes through the clouds like a giant exclamation mark, a fitting metaphor for the amazement to be experienced here.
When you arrive, whether by train, tour bus, or car, the touristy restaurants with English menus and shops sporting tacky souvenirs at the bottom of the mountain give you a sample of what’s to come. While I knew how famous this landmark was, I was unprepared by the extent to which it’s popularity would impact my experience. But all-in-all it was worth it.
The castle is actually very high up on the side of a mountain, and you have a few options of getting close: hiking it (not recommended unless you have plenty of energy and determination – it’s further than it looks from the bottom!), or taking a bus or horse carriage, both of which come with a wait and a charge. The scenery takes you through densely forested area. You must reach the top for spectacular views of the valley unencumbered by trees and other obstacles. And the view is indeed incredible – it is understandable why this location was chosen. You emerge from a tunnel of trees to wide-open views of vast landscapes, tiny houses far below, and puffy white clouds populating brilliant baby blue skies. And soaring above it all, the magnificent Neuschwanstein tower.
I shared this view with a multitude of other tourists, from all over the world. It was shoulder season, and I can only imagine how packed the entrance to the castle is in peak season. Guided tour is the only way to “explore” the castle – if you can call it that. It’s not really the way I like to explore a place – free reign is by far my favorite way to go. But that was not the most disappointing aspect of my visit – I quickly realized why the tours were guided. I discovered that cameras, photography, and filming of any kind whatsoever are not allowed in the castle – and security guards are constantly spying on you to assure compliance. Being herded through the rooms at the guide’s pace (who is trying to make time for as many groups that day as possible – with a LOT of people waiting), not being able to capture the experience with my camera, and being routed through not one but two gift shops, made the experience feel like a trip through a glorified theme park. But despite this, I was enthralled by the little time I was able to spend in the lavish rooms, and the breathtaking exterior of the castle alone was worth a visit at least once, although I doubt I’d brave the crowds again.
Despite being forbidden from taking photos, I didn’t want to leave you hanging without a visual taste of the interior. Fortunately, there are photos available old enough to qualify for public domain that I can share with you. I was particularly impressed with the astonishing Throne Room. As a scholar of ancient Roman art, I really appreciated the authentically inspired rendition of the brilliant Byzantine art style here, from the arches and columns, to the clerestory, to the gilded walls depicting spiritual scenes. It is no wonder this art has continued to be so cherished and emulated throughout history.
The concept of a museum denying visitors the right to photograph and film is one I find acutely disturbing – but that is an issue for another post. Ultimately, it was a tremendous hassle to visit Neuschwanstein, between the exhaustive regulations and thick crowds of tourists. But none of these drawbacks can diminish the beauty of the building and how moved I was to finally be able to witness it first hand. If you have the chance, I’d say go, and make the most of it.
Harburg Castle stands in stark contrast to Neuschwanstein. Here you are also required to embark on a guided tour, but the atmosphere is far more relaxed and welcoming. I only encountered one room I was not allowed to photograph, and was not only free, but encouraged, to film and take photos to my heart’s content during the rest of the tour. There was no rushed feeling, and I felt more like I was exploring the place than being shuffled through it.
I did not feel the suffocating burden of massive crowds of tourists. Harburg is much older, and many would argue not nearly as spectacular as Neuschwanstein with its more modest decor. But Harburg provided a more intimate, genuine experience that I felt offered a welcome balance to my visit to the tourist and commercialism overwhelmed Neuschwanstein.
I filmed a video tour of the castles (in the case of Neuschwanstein, the best I could!) you can view here!: