I want to remain an eternal mystery to myself and others,” King Ludwig II once said.
I had no idea who this mysterious king was and why he said that until my group’s travel director told us stories about Bavaria and its kings during our coach tour in its capital, Munich, in Germany.
And little did I expect that I would be tracing the footsteps of a “crazy” king obsessed with art and music — especially the musical dramas of composer Richard Wagner, whose “Bridal Chorus” from his opera Lohengrin is still widely played in weddings today.
My eye-opening history lesson started during our visit to Munich’s Nymphenburg Palace, the summer residence of Bavarian rulers.
The Baroque palace with a lake full of white swans and an expansive garden is where the mysterious king’s life story began.
King Ludwig II, born in 1845, became king of Bavaria at the age of 18, but he was more interested in architecture and the arts than politics.
Two years later, he was no longer a sovereign ruler after Bavaria lost a war. To live out his dreams in his fantasy kingdom, he started building extravagant castles and palaces for himself.
He also withdrew from the public eye, spent more time in the mountains and often travelled at night, especially in a golden carriage fitted with electric lights.
This bedazzling vehicle is on display at the Marstallmuseum in Nymphenburg Palace, together with a large collection of ornate coaches and sleighs of the Bavarian rulers.
Passion and prayer
My tour included a visit to Oberammergau, a quaint village with buildings that have an old-world charm and colourful frescoes that look straight out of fairy tales.
It is most famous for holding the world’s longest-running and largest stage production of Passion Play, which depicts the last days of Jesus’ life.
Held once every 10 years since 1634, the play is performed to fulfil a vow made by the locals after the village was spared from the grip of the Black Plague.
The massive production engages a cast of around 2,000 locals (including 450 children), which makes up almost half the population of the village, and takes place in a 4,500-seater Passion Play Theatre.
There are roles for folks of all ages, so it is not surprising that many locals have performed in the play at least once in their lifetime.
Sometimes, the whole multi-generation family — from toddlers to grandparents — would be acting together.
The next Passion Play will be from May to October 2020 and is expected to draw 500,000 visitors from all over the world.
I was also amazed that the play has been performed for almost 400 years.
In fact, King Ludwig II watched the Passion Play in a special private performance in 1871.
He was so impressed that he presented a 12m-tall marble Crucifixion Group sculpture, the largest stone monument in the world then, to the Oberammergau people.
For three years, he made an annual trip to the monument for prayers.
King Ludwig II’s close ties with the village could also be because his favourite residence, Linderhof Palace, was nearby.
Tragic fairy tale
Neuschwanstein Castle, which sits on a ridge with a dramatic mountain backdrop in Füssen, is the most impressive building constructed by King Ludwig II.
The design was so iconic that Walt Disney used it as a model for the fairy tale castle in Disneyland.
To arrive at the castle like royalty, I sat in a carriage drawn by two horses that trotted slowly up to a mountain covered by beautiful autumn foliage.
The carriage was not golden and I was not wearing a gown. Nevertheless, I felt like a fairy tale princess on her way to a ball in a mediaeval castle.
Along the way, I saw another mediaeval-looking castle — the yellow-hued Hohenschwangau Castle — near the base of the mountain.
I heard that this was a castle that King Ludwig II grew up in. Built by his father, Hohenschwangau Castle was an inspiration for the young Ludwig to design his own fairy tale castle.
Though most fairy tales have a happy ending, this one ended quite tragically.
The construction of Neuschwanstein (called the “New Castle” then) started in 1869, when the king was 24 years old. It was still not fully completed when the king, who never married, moved into it 15 years later.
As his extravagant building projects nearly bankrupted Bavaria, the “Fairy Tale King” was soon declared insane by his government.
In 1886, the 41-year-old royal and his psychiatrist were found dead in Lake Starnberg and their deaths remained a mystery. Since then, the castle was named Neuschwanstein (“meaning New Swan Stone”) and opened to the public.
Till this day, it was never completed, yet it is one of the most visited and photographed castles in the world.
The swan rules
As I queued up with dozens of tour groups waiting to enter Neuschwanstein Castle, I was sure King Ludwig II would not be pleased had he known that his private retreat would one day be “invaded” by up to 6,000 tourists daily.
It is unbelievable that this colossal castle, which could house over 200 rooms, was built for one man’s private use and not for official functions.
The rooms were decorated with pictures of kings and knights, poets and lovers, especially characters who were inspired by the operas of Wagner, to whom the king dedicated the castle.
The Throne Hall, which looks like a combination of a church and throne room, has a space for a throne but it was never built when the king died.
The swan was a common motif in the interiors because the king was also nicknamed the “Swan King”.
He saw himself as the fictitious swan knight Lohengrin from Wagner’s opera as well as a real knight of Schwangau, whose heraldic animal was the swan. This probably explained why the souvenir shop was full of swan soft toys and swan-themed decorative items.
Another unique design of the castle is that although it embraced the architecture of the Middle Ages, it was equipped with 19th-century technology.
The king ensured that it had hot air central heating, running water, hot and cold water in the kitchen, toilets with automatic flushing systems, telephones, a lift to transport meals upstairs, and an electric bell system to summon his servants.
Eccentric, passionate or ingenious, King Ludwig II’s wish to remain an eternal mystery to himself and others has come true. But thanks to him, we can walk into a real-life fairy tale castle even in the 21st century.
• I flew on Emirates from Singapore to Munich via Dubai.
• From Munich, Neuschwanstein Castle is about two hours’ drive away, while Oberammergau is about one hour’s drive away.
• Visit www.bavaria.by for tourist information on castles, palaces and other attractions in Bavaria, Germany.
• Trafalgar has six itineraries for Europe tours that will include stays in Oberammergau and tickets to watch the Passion Play 2020. For Oberammergau trips in 2020, book before Feb 28, 2019 to enjoy up to 10 per cent savings. Everyone saves an additional 5 per cent if you travel in groups of five or more. Visit www.trafalgar.com for details.
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