The itinerary described here takes the A96 from Munich to Landsberg and then the Romantische Strasse B17 south to Neuschwanstein. Then it dips briefly into Austria along the Plansee and back into Germany to visit Linderhof. Continue into the Ammergau to stop at Oberammergau and then on to Oberau to pick up the A95 to Munich. This is not the only way to do the day. A description of Garmisch-Partenkirchen is also given.
This is a stunning excursion. The landscape is beautiful, the castles are thrilling. It does, however, take all day. The crowds and the endless queuing can be draining. You need to keep the momentum going. To a large extent you cannot avoid the crowds but you can minimise their impact by leaving as early as possible. Neuschwanstein is the worst affected by crowds because at every turn there seems to be a new queue so you should go there first. At worst you may be waiting about 45 minutes for an English tour in Linderhof. You don't really have time to make the short detour to the Wieskirche. In both Linderhof and Neuschwanstein, visits are guided so no detailed descriptions are given here. (For Herrenchiemsee, see On the Road Munich to Salzburg.)
In order to make sense of the incredible castle of Linderhof, Neuschwanstein and Herrenchiemsee it is necessary to understand something about their creator, King Ludwig II.
"Mad" King Ludwig b. 1845 Nymphenburg, King of Bavaria 1864-1886.
This is one of the great romantic figures of nineteenth century history. He cared nothing for affairs of state. As his reign went on, he divorced himself totally from his political role. He was in love with the composer Richard Wagner and shared his obsession with the legendary Germanic past, with its heroes and chivalry and romantic glory. Themes from Wagnerian opera recur again and again in Ludwig's castles. He admired and envied the wilfull trappings of absolutist monarchy embodied in the court of Versailles which he was trying to recreate in his unfinished masterpiece of Schloss Herrenchiemsee. His search was, in his own words, for "an ideal, monarchical, poetical solitude." He was a dreamer, a fantasist, prone to depression, mentally unstable, perhaps mad. In his lifetime, he was adored by his subjects (he remains a cult figure among Bavarians today) but he had many enemies in the Bavarian government.
On June 8, 1886, a group of doctors declared King Ludwig mentally deranged, incurable and unfit to rule. A Prince Regent was appointed the next day and a Government commission was sent to Neuschwanstein to fetch Ludwig back to Munich. On June 12, he was arrested and taken to Schloss Berg on the shores of the Starnbergersee. The following day his body was found drowned in the waters of the lake. The body of his doctor, Dr. Gudden, was also found. He had been strangled and there were signs on his face and body of a fierce struggle. A week later on June 19, 1886, King Ludwig was buried in Munich. Perhaps he committed suicide. Perhaps he killed Gudden. Perhaps, as is often speculated, they were both killed by an unknown third party. Ludwig had never married. There were no direct heirs.
Ludwig's sister Elizabeth, wife of the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, said of her brother: "The king was not mad. He was just an eccentric king in a dream world. They might have treated him more gently." The French poet Paul Verlaine called him "the only true king of the century."
Apart from the northern shore of the Ammersee to the left (swimming, sailing, windsurfing) there is nothing to excite the eye on the route of the A96.
Landsberg am Lech You bypass this town and so barely see it. It is a pretty medieval walled town in a lovely setting. It is best known, however, as the place where Hitler was imprisoned for nine months in 1923/24 after the failure of the Munich Putsch. This is where he wrote Mein Kampf. After the war many Nazi war criminals were detained here while awaiting trail in Nuremberg.
Here you join the Romantische Strasse B17 which follows the broad Lech valley. You have occasional glimpses of the river on the left. There is nothing of specific interest en route. The name given to this part of Bavaria is the Pfaffenwinkel or "Priests' Corner" because it contains so many churches, monasteries and places of pilgrimage. About 10 miles south of Landsberg the Alps begin to loom massively. This is one of the most impressive approaches to the mountains. The Zugspitze, Germany's highest mountain at 9,781 feet, is more or less straight ahead.
Neuschwanstein This is one of a number of castles (most notably also Segovia in Spain) which people say served as the prototype for Disney's Magic Kingdom castle. It also figures in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
When you come off the main road near Schwangau you can get your first occasional glimpses of Neuschwanstein. From the Königschlösser coach park, the square yellow shape of Schloss Hohenschwangau is clearly visible above you. This is the neo-Gothic castle built in the 1830s for Maximilian II where Ludwig spent most of his youth. He lived here again during the construction of his new castle so he could watch over the progress of the building from his bedroom window. Is very close by but mostly hidden by trees in the Alpsee (you can see it much better from the balconies of Neuschwanstein). There are numerous hotels, bars, restaurants and souvenir shops dotted around.
There are three ways of getting up to your destination: on foot (free), by minibus (you pay) or by horse and buggy (they pay). Each takes about 25 minutes all in all and involves some uphill walking (5 to 10 minutes in the case of the buses or buggies from the drop-off point). Once armed with tickets go straight up to the corridor from where the tours start. (NB. Make sure you are in a queue for an English tour and not a German one.) The tours last about 35 to 40 minutes. They finish in the kitchens from where you head out via the loos and down the stairs.
Inside, the themes are Wagnerian, principally from the stories of Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, and romantic neo-Gothic fantasy. It is theatre design rather than architecture. Even so, by comparison with the overwhelming exuberance of Linderhof, the decoration here is positively restrained. The exterior is really much more impressive than the interior. It was built between 1869 and 1886. Ludwig lived here for just 170 days.
If you have time (you need a total of about an hour), take the walk to the Marienbrücke after the visit. The views are superb.
Leave the Königschlösser via Füssen into Austria, Reutte and the Plansee. There are no real customs formalities.
Plansee This is a beautiful Alpine lake just over the border in the Austrian Tirol in the region of Ausserfern. In the minuscule village of Plansee (one restaurant, one snack bar with souvenirs, one kiosk for boat hire and a couple of houses), you can eat very well in a superb setting. Either DM or Osch are accepted.
Linderhof Ten minutes or so beyond the lake you return to Germany and five minutes later you reach Schloss Linderhof. It is not visible from the parking. You walk up 200 yards to the ticket office (plus loos and shop) and then on another five minutes through pretty woods to the palace itself. If you have a large group you will probably have to split up into two tours. The visit lasts about 30 minutes.
This is the smallest of the castles and the most lavishly decorated. It is like Neuschwanstein only in its extraordinariness. It was completed in 1878. It's so luxurious it's silly. The bedroom, always the most impressive room in Ludwig's homes, is absurd. There is not one inch of self-restraint among the gold and marble, the endless stucco, the ornate mirrors and the crystal chandeliers. Ludwig was an admirer of the style of Louis XIV and his court. Echoes of that king and his palace of Versailles, idiosyncratically distorted, are clear and numerous.
After the visit of the Schloss if you have the time and energy it's worth walking up into the gardens following the signs for the Moorish Kiosk and, more impressively, the Venus Grotto. In the Moorish Kiosk Ludwig used to dress up as a Sultan, smoke opium and contemplate. The Venus Grotto is an amazing recreation of a set from Wagner's opera Tannhäuser. Wait a few minutes at the entrance for the short guided tour in English.
At the junction of route B23, the Deutsche Alpenstrasse, turn left towards Oberammergau.
Oberammergau This is a small village of 5,000 people at the foot of the craggy Kofel mountain in the Ammergau, 2,788 feet up. It is of course one of the most famous villages in Bavaria because of its Passion Play.
On entering the village there are some good examples of the Germanic Alpine tradition of Luftlmalerei. This is painting on the facades of houses, usually of biblical or folkloric subjects. (You have the same sort of thing in Garmisch-Partenkirchen or in the Tirol or parts of Switzerland.) From the bus you can see a beautiful series of episodes from the story of Hansel and Gretel and a really kitsch version of Little Red Riding Hood. The most famous example is the C18 Pilatushaus on Verlegergasse.
In 1633 the local area was devastated by plague. The villagers of Oberammergau sealed the place off in an attempt to stay free of the plague but a man secretly entered the village to see his family and he brought the plague with him. It destroyed a number of families but then suddenly disappeared. In response and in thanks to God the villagers vowed to re-enact the story of the passion of Christ every 10 years in perpetuity. The first performance was 1634, then 1640 and every 10 years since then.
The next production is in the year 2,000. There are about 100 performances between mid-May and mid-September. The stage is in the open air. The audience are seated in a huge and ugly theatre built in 1930 (this is the unavoidable bulk in the centre of the village). The play lasts from 8:15 a.m. to late afternoon with a 2-hour break for lunch. During term time when the children have done their scenes they go back to school. In total the cast consists of about 1,500 amateur actors, all locals. There was a minor scandal in 1990 when one of the disciples was played by a Protestant and the Virgin Mary was played by a mother of two because they couldn't find any local virgins. Since WW II the script has been changed considerably to avoid the virulently anti-Semitic elements. (The theatre can be visited. It has exhibitions of costumes and props, but it's not really very interesting.)
Oberammergau is also famous as the home of the Bavarian Woodcarving School. There are scores of souvenir shops selling local wood products. They should be the focus of your visit. Go to one with loos and a commission.
Now turn back towards Oberau and the A95.
Ettal On the right hand side of the road is a huge monastery, Kloster Ettal. The foundation stone was laid on April 28, 1330 by King Ludwig the Bavarian (a different one) to house a statue of the Virgin in Carrara marble which he had brought back with him from Italy. The site was chosen, so they say, because at this spot on the journey home the King's horse stopped and bowed to the statue of the Virgin. Ever since it has been a major centre of pilgrimage. It is a working Benedictine monastery. The present Rococo building dates from the mid C18. The dome is the biggest in Bavaria.
From Ettal it is just two miles along the Ammergau to the small resort of Oberau and the A95 back to Munich (50 miles). The A95 "Olympiastrasse" is one of the oldest motorways in Germany built by Hitler for the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. From here on you pass nothing of interest. The first 15 minutes or so are pretty as you drive through green, pre-Alpine valleys. Then the land begins to flatten out towards the great Bavarian plain. You pass close to the Starnbergersee to the left (where a chapel and a small wooden cross stand to the memory of King Ludwig) but you cannot see it from the motorway.
You may alternatively be following the Loisach valley south continuing towards the Wetterstein range and Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
Garmisch-Partenkirchen 28,000 inhabitants. Altitude 2,362 feet. At the foot of the Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany at 9,718 feet. There is a U.S. Army base here.
This is Germany's finest winter sports centre and among the best in Europe. It was Olympic City in 1936, site of the Skiing World Championships in 1978. It is equipped with 15 cable cars and chair lifts and 39 ski lifts. It has 45 miles of downhill runs, 20 miles of cross-country skiing and an Olympic ski jump. The Olympia Eisstadion has three ice-skating rinks open to the public. If the weather is good and you have the time the ascent of the Zugspitze is a must, by rack railway and cable car.
It is really two towns: Partenkirchen is the older, more traditional town, Garmisch the busier and more glamorous centre. The general aspect of the town is modern. Many of the houses are adorned with Luftlmalerei. In the summer every day around 6:00 p.m., the cattle return from the low mountain slopes and stop the traffic in town as they make their way home.
The composer Richard Strauss (Till Eulenspiegel, Der Rosenkavalier) lived here until his death in 1949.
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