Castles and Stately Mansions of Bavaria

After a warm and sunny week in Malta, the next stop on my journey was the Bavaria region of Germany. Bavaria is very different from the rest of the country; among other things, it’s known for its beer halls (Munich is the setting for the annual Oktoberfest), castles, the Alps, and its dark history where Hitler’s Third Reich originally came to power. In this post, I’ll write about the lighter side of Bavaria, with its historic castles and grand palaces.

Munich’s Old Town from above

During my week in Bavaria, I decided to make Munich my base, which is the largest city in the region. Munich is easily traversed via an efficient metro system, and the region of Bavaria has a fast (though expensive) network of trains. Munich has a great Old Town, with Marienplatz as its center. When you visit Marienplatz, don’t forget to check out the Neus Rathaus (New Town Hall). Although you can’t enter the building as it’s home to a working government, the Neus Rathaus has the world’s most famous glockenspiel high on its exterior. Every hour, the glockenspiel will emit musical chimes, accompanied by a cute display of figurines. Although admittedly touristy, it’s still a fun sight to check out.

After taking a walk around the Marienplatz, head to the Residenz, which is just a few minutes away on foot. The Residenz is a huge mansion that was home to Bavaria’s kings for 400 years, from the early 16th century until World War I. Although much of the building was destroyed on the Second World War, it has been reconstructed faithfully. Inside, you can see artifacts of previous rulers, as well a collection of relics from Christian saints. There is a free audio guide with admission that gives you plenty of information about the palace and its history. However, it can be a bit dry, so you might want to fast forward through some parts. And make sure not to touch anything, as the staff are watching all the visitors like a hawk.

The Antiquarium in the Residenz

The nearly 100 rooms in the Residenz that are open to visitors are all elaborately decorated with historic paintings and furniture. If you want to see everything, you should allow at least 2 to 3 hours. If you only want to see the highlights, then make sure not to miss the Antiquarium, which is a long hallway with marble floors and lined with sculptures, whose ceilings are covered with elaborate frescoes. Near the entrance, the Perseus Fountain in the Grottenhof is also very impressive.

Perseus Fountain in the Grottenhof

A short ride on the metro will bring you to Schloss Nymphenburg in the suburbs of Munich. Built in the 17th century, this palace was used as a summer home for the royal family. Schloss Nymphenburg has a grand red-and-white exterior, and is framed by a huge man-made lake. Inside the palace there are a number of small museums, some more interesting than others. If you’re a fan of porcelain, on display in the main building of the palace is the world’s largest collection of porcelain. You can also check out the room where King Ludwig II was born, an eccentric king whom I’ll talk more about shortly. Probably the most impressive part of the palace is the huge garden in the rear. If the weather’s nice, spend some time to take a stroll around, making sure to stop and visit the various pavilions along the way. The most impressive pavilion is the Amalienburg, a hunting lodge with its beautiful Hall of Mirrors. You could easily spend a couple of hours exploring just the garden and its treasures alone.

The facade of Schloss Nymphenburg

Another excellent castle is located at Nuremberg, roughly a two hour train ride north of Munich (or faster if you take the expensive ICE train). When most people think of Nuremberg, images of Nazi party rallies or the Nuremberg trials come to mind. While these are important parts of Nuremberg’s history, the city’s history dates back much further to the Middle Ages, when it was one of the most important cities in the Holy Roman Empire. During this time, the castle at Nuremberg (also known as the Kaiserburg) was one of the primary residences of the Emperors, and was also known to be one of the most imposing fortifications in all of Europe. Unfortunately, much of the original castle was destroyed during air raids in World War II, but it has been restored faithfully. While touring the castle, you can see disturbing photographs of the extensive damage caused to the castle, as well as to the entire city, during the war. Don’t miss climbing the round Sinwell tower, where you can catch great views of Nuremberg’s beautiful Old Town from the top.

View of Nuremberg from the Kaiserburg’s Sinwell Tower

Since this post is about Bavarian castles, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the famous castles of King Ludwig II. King Ludwig II was an eccentric 19th century king with more of an affinity for theatre and the arts than for ruling. He grew up in Hohenschwangau Castle, which is in a beautiful setting nearby to the Bavarian Alps. Ludwig was a big fan of medieval history and architecture, and wanted to build a castle that was reminiscent of the castles from the Middle Ages. The result was Neuschwanstein Castle, one of the most recognizable castles in the world and the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s castle at Disney World. Ironically, King Ludwig destroyed the ruins of a real medieval castle to build Neuschwanstein, which although beautiful, does not resemble a medieval castle in the slightest.

Hohenschwangau Castle

Both Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein Castles can be visited in a long day trip from Munich. You should definitely buy tickets online before your trip, as you can only visit by guided tour and they usually sell out well in advance, To get to the castles, you need to take a train about 2 hours south to the town of Fussen. When you arrive at Fussen, there is a shuttle bus near the train station that will take you to the castles. You need to arrive at least one hour before your tour (which is scheduled for a specific time) to pick up the tickets. You should visit Hohenschwangau Castle first, and then take a short bus ride (or a long walk uphill) to Neuschwanstein Castle.

The turquoise waters of Alpsee lake

Regarding the castles, they could not be more different from one another. Hohenschwangau is an authentic castle that was lived in by Ludwig II and his father. As such, the interior much resembles other historic German castles. Many people prefer Hohenschwangau because of its authenticity. However, while Neuschwanstein Castle does not have much interesting history behind it, I personally think it is one of the most aesthetically beautiful castles I have ever seen. First, its setting on top of a steep cliff affords incredible views of the surrounding mountains and the nearby Alpsee Lake. Second, the castle itself is like something out of a fairy tale or a movie set. Nearly every square inch of the walls (and even the ceilings) are painted with elaborate scenes. There is a huge theatre inside the castle with a beautifully decorated stage. Not to mention, Ludwig even built an artificial grotto inside the castle! Unfortunately, photographs are not allowed inside either of the two castles.

Ludwig II’s Neuschwanstein Castle

To conclude the story of Ludwig II, Bavaria was deeply in debt by the end of his reign and, seeking a cause to depose him, he was declared insane by a panel of doctors who had never even met him. Shortly after he was removed from power, Ludwig died a mysterious death where his body and that of his psychiatrist were found floating in a waist-deep body of water along the shores of Lake Starnberg. Although his death was officially ruled a suicide at the time, that seems unlikely and to this day no one is really sure what actually happened.

In the next post, I’ll write more about the dark history of Bavaria and its role in the rise of the Nazi party during the 1930s.



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