Germany Holidays: Mad King Ludwig and his fabulous castles

Whether he was truly ‘mad’ or not, King Ludwig II’s passion for castle building led to his mysterious death.

Eccentric, big-spending King Ludwig II of Bavaria, or ‘Mad King Ludwig’ as the schoolbooks would have him, was regarded as a liability in his lifetime, but in the 125 years since his death, his legacy of castle-building, particularly at Neuschwanstein, Linderhof, and Herrenchiemsee, has brought millions of visitors to southern Germany.

Ludwig was a tall, good looking 18-year-old when he acceded to the throne of independent Bavaria in 1864. He disliked the tittle-tattle of politics, and struggled to reconcile his intense Catholic faith with his increasing attraction to men. His solution was to withdraw from society and immerse himself in the world of books, poetry and music, particularly Wagnerian opera, with Wagner himself a personal friend.

Meanwhile his views on the monarchy – which was soon to come to an end in Germany – were a throwback to a long-gone more glorious era. In particular, he idolised Louis XIV, the French Sun King, and had his fantasy palace of Herrenchiemsee built on an island in Lake Chiemsee (south-east of Munich) in an attempt to emulate the Palace of Versailles.

Essentially a fabulous piece of scenery perched atop a rock

The medieval town of Füssen, south-west of Munich, is the location for his most celebrated creation, Neuschwanstein, the prototype that Walt Disney used for Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. This is the Ludwig masterpiece that has launched a billion postcards and is essentially a fabulous piece of scenery perched atop a rock emerging from forest. Its salvo of turrets, peaks, gabled windows and tumbling walls looks out over distant lakes and meadows, and is the very epitome of a medieval knight’s castle, despite being little more than a century old. Inside, its ‘medieval knight’ installed electricity and flushing loos for his medieval business.

There’s little conventional in Neuschwanstein’s fixture and fittings. No portraits or family heirlooms adorn the walls. Instead, Ludwig had it decorated with frescos of scenes from Wagner, and the giant Singer’s Hall was designed for opera to be performed, usually for an audience of one. In fact only 16 of the 110 interior rooms of Neuschwanstein were completed when he died. His main base, when he wasn’t in Munich on official business, was his other Upper Bavarian Schloss, Linderhof, little more than 15 km away as the crow flies.

Linderhof is a pocket palace, much more about interiors. Inside, it is the most complete of all his works, a jewel box of a building which is so extravagantly slathered in golf leaf and painted porcelain that visitors are not sure whether to laugh or cry. The most astounding room is the bedroom, again a tribute to Louis XV, who used to hold official audiences in his bedchamber. Ludwig’s is a giant tapestried bed in a riot of Meissen porcelain with a view out to a series of waterfalls, but he was not one to receive visitors while recumbent. Even his dining room has a table only big enough for one, ingeniously contrived so that it could rise up through the floor, fully laden, so that no servants needed appear. Ludwig didn’t want any of the Sun King’s type of court flannery around him; he was far happier with animals, and he would sometimes invite his favourite horse to dinner.

Inevitably, the king came to a mysterious end. He was arrested early one morning at Neuschwanstein by a state delegation led by a psychiatrist, who pronounced him mentally ill. He was taken away and placed under house arrest on the shores of Lake Starnberg. The very next morning he was found drowned in the lake’s shallows, the psychiatrist with him. It was suggested at the time that he’d strangled the latter and then committed suicide, but like the rest of his life, it all sounds pretty far-fetched.

Ludwig’s palaces are state-owned, as are dozens of others.

If you want to visit the castles and need accommodation, check the reviews on

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