Neuschwanstein, Wies and Garmisch

On The Road Travel Essays

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Neuschwanstein, Wies and Garmisch

Neuschwanstein Castle  Located in a small area called the "Royal Castles," and set in mountainous terrain that's famous for the Disney-like spell it casts on visitors. Of the two castles — Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein — by far the most famous is the latter. You've seen it on almost every travel poster of Germany.

German Disneyland: The castle is the pure product of 19th-century German Romanticism, epitomized by Wagner's glorification of medieval life. The castle is designed inside and out for its visual effects: the most soaring turrets, the creakiest drawbridges, the most precipitous walls, the gloomiest gables — everything that fed the fantasies of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, known to history as "Ludwig the Mad."

Ludwig employed a stage designer, not an architect, to draft the plans. This meant artificial grottos, a Byzantine-style throne room, and balconies where Ludwig could look out over miles of woods and lakes.

Ludwig's end: All told, Ludwig spent only a few months at Neuschwanstein. It was while staying here that he learned he had been deposed as King of Bavaria. Later he was found dead in the shallow waters of a nearby lake, in circumstances that remain a mystery.

Church of Wies  Located in the Ammergau Alps, which are hardly "alps" in the fullest sense, but moderately steep hills lying between the Lech and Ammer rivers.

This church is one of the most remarkable in Bavaria. It was built between 1746 and 1754 to be a secluded pilgrimage site nestling "in the meadow" (in der Wies), hence the name. Its interior decorations include innumerable statues, gilded stucco work, columns, and a huge mosaic covering the whole of the dome inside. The brilliant artistry of the decoration, and the theatrical effects it achieves, make the Church of Wies the perfect illustration of the Rococo style in southern Germany.

Garmisch  This resort town is ever-popular among travelers looking for remnants of "yesterday's Germany." In winter, the town becomes an international skiing mecca, known as the "Snow Stadium of Germany." The Winter Olympics were held here in 1936, and this stimulated the town's growth as a permanent resort. For much of the winter, the skier can count on a good 12 to 20 inches of snow in the surrounding mountains, the heavy snowfall produced by the interaction of Alpine and lowland air masses.

Garmisch attracts almost as many visitors in the summer, among them U. S. military personnel stationed in Germany. During warmer months, herds of sheep and cattle are let out to graze in Alpine pastures around the town. Everyday at dusk, they're brought back to town, and as they cross the main street, a policeman has to hold up traffic a good half hour.

A stroll down the sidestreets will reveal a panorama of Alpine houses (each with its long roof, sloping sharply to the let the snow slide off). Many of the outside walls are painted with scenes from the life of the town, or with pictures of the family's patron saint. In summer, window boxes are filled with flowers in bloom, most often petunias and bigonias.

A typical old-timer of Garmisch is a sight to behold. (Be on the lookout.) His Bavarian costume includes Lederhosen (leather shorts), long stockings, bright red suspenders, white shirt, and a green felt hat with a red feather in it. More than likely he'll be puffing on a long-stemmed pipe.

Mittenwald  The name of the town, appropriately, means "middle of the woods." With only 8,000 inhabitants, and in spite of traffic passing through it, Mittenwald has kept its Alpine- village look. Goethe, who once stayed here on his way to Italy, pronounced the town a "living picturebook," and that's what it remains today.

Paintings on the walls of the houses continued the by-now familiar tradition, some of these murals dating back to the 18th century.

In the center of the town is a statue of Matthias Klotz, who brought the skill of violin making from Italy to Germany in 1684. That skill is still practiced locally. The statue stands at the foot of the local parish church, built just after Klotz died in 1743. The tower of the church is covered with paintings from top to bottom — the most spectacular example of this art in the whole area.

Oberammergau  The town still maintains a famous tradition, the Passion Play, a series of day-long dramas performed every 10 years. The custom dates from 1634, after a frightful plague in this part of Germany stopped just short of the town. The townspeople vowed to present a Passion Play every 10 years out of gratitude, and they've kept their pledge. Thousands of visitors from all over the globe come to the town every decade, making it a kind of shrine for Catholics and Protestants alike. (The next performance is in 2000.) The Passion Play depicts the trial and death of Jesus, with all the parts played by amateurs who are permanent residents of the town. A local baker might act the part of Jesus, a barber might play Pilot, a housewife Mary Magdalene, or a lawyer take the role of Judas. The parts are changed with each Passion Play, of course, and the announcement of the citizen selected to play the part of Jesus is a major news event all over Germany. Almost any of the local citizens are able to play some part, since acting has become a civic tradition in Oberammergau. The players prepare for their roles long in advance, cultivating their beards in some cases a full year in advance in order to look the part.

Once again, you'll see in Oberammergau the famous painted houses, some with religious, some with local themes. Bright blues, yellows, and sometimes purples swish and swirl in elaborate shapes. Window boxes are equally colorful.

The Bavarian Alps  These mountains become, over the Austrian border, the Austrian Alps. But they're a single chain, which came into being 10 thousand years ago. Massive glaciers in what is now Switzerland began to expand eastward. Acting as giant shovels, they scooped up earth, rocks, and whole mountains as they gouged their way across the land. The glaciers halted just before the spot where Munich stands today. All this debris was left in huge piles, and these piles are now the Austro-Bavarian chain. It has been estimated that the glacier that carved out the Inn River Valley must have been 5,000 feet thick.


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