The making of King Ludwig's Neuschwanstein Castle

Road Trip 2011: King Ludwig II bankrupted his state of Bavaria by building this fairytale castle, which was still under construction at the time of his mysterious death at age 41.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read

A view of Neuschwanstein from below. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SCHWANGAU, Germany--Given that King Ludwig II of Bavaria built Neuschwanstein Castle as a place where he could get away from the public and the sycophants who wanted to be near him, he might well have shuddered at the notion that just weeks after his death, the incredible palace was opened up as a public museum.

Neuschwanstein, if you're not familiar with it, is one of the world's most fairytale castles. In fact, you've surely seen countless pictures of it, its picturesque towers and walls sitting gorgeously in the middle of an Alpine valley, a gorgeous German countryside nestled below.

'Mad' King Ludwig's fairytale castle (photos)

See all photos

I visited earlier this month as part of Road Trip 2011, and you may well have been there too. With 1.3 million annual visitors, Neuschwanstein is one of the most famous castles in the world, despite its inconvenient location deep in Bavaria, away from most other attractions. And it's said that it was one of the inspirations for Disneyland's Cinderella Castle. In short, this is a building with a big impact on a lot of people.

Ludwig's short, unhappy life
King Ludwig II was born in 1845 in another one of his family's castles, Nymphenburg. He was the oldest son of King Maximilian II of Bavaria and Queen Marie of Prussia. And after growing up largely in Hohenschwangau Castle, which is located just below where Neuschwanstein eventually was built, he became king of Bavaria in 1864 on his 18th birthday. He was hardly prepared for the job, having been brought up without an education in politics or statesmanship.

In fact, though, by the time he ascended to the throne, the role of King of Bavaria was largely a ceremonial one, and the decisions were really being made by others, far away in Munich. And just two years into his monarch, he was further marginalized when Prussia conquered both Bavaria and Austria in what was called the "German War." "From then on," reads an article about him on the official Neuschwanstein Web site, "Bavaria's foreign policy was dictated by Prussia and [Ludwig] was only a 'vassal' of his Prussian uncle."

This is Neuschwanstein, 'Mad' King Ludwig's famous storybook castle set in the foothills of the Alps, in Bavaria. Ludwig died at 41 before the castle was completed, but today it is among the most popular attractions in Europe. Copyright Bayerische Schlosserverwaltung

Still, Ludwig, having grown up in grand castles with ties to the French Kings of the House of Bourbon, had an idealized vision of the monarchy and what it meant. He was enthralled by royalty and nobility and the trappings that went along with it. "Ludwig II was possessed by the idea of a holy kingdom by the grace of God," reads the article. "In reality he was a constitutional monarch, a head of state with rights and duties and little freedom of action. For this reason he built a fantasy world around him in which--far removed from reality--he could feel he was a real king. From 1875 on he lived at night and slept during the day."

Indeed, it was this sense of nobility and separation from his subjects that led Ludwig to envision a new, grander home, a better Hohenschwangau with roots in Versailles and the grand castles of medieval Germany. Not worrying about the costs of such a venture, he commissioned the building of Neuschwanstein and construction began in 1869.

But things did not go well for the young king. He spent far more than his position warranted--or his treasury could support--and the project began to bankrupt the kingdom. In 1885, the article recalls, his creditors, mainly foreign banks, threatened to seize all his properties, including his new jewel of a castle.

This is what Neuschwanstein Castle looked like upon the death of King Ludwig. He never saw it as anything more than a construction site, though he did live there for about six months. Copyright Bayerische Schlosserverwaltung

In fact, Neuschwanstein wasn't even finished yet. Though work had started in 1869, it was still under construction and constant changes in the plans were slowing work down. Yet, for the last six months or so of his life, Ludwig made his home in the storybook castle. Whole floors were incomplete, but Ludwig was nonetheless at home with its place high in the hills above Schwangau, looking down on his childhood home of Hohenschwangau, and close to the woods of the Alpine foothills close to the Austrian border.

Until 1886, that is. That year, things turned bad for the king. In what seems like an attempt to cease his irresponsible spending, he was declared insane. On June 12, 1886, he was arrested in his bedroom at Neuschwanstein and taken to Berg Palace in Munich. A day later, after going for a walk with his psychiatrist around Lake Starnberg near the palace, the king was found dead along with his doctor. No one has ever determined the cause of death, be it murder, suicide, or an accident. Ludwig was just 41 years old.

Dedicated to Wagner
Ludwig appears to have had few real friends during his short life, but one was the world-famous composer Richard Wagner.

Already as Crown Prince, Ludwig had been fascinated with the operatic works of Wagner, and wanted to bring him to Munich as soon as he became king. His idea was that Wagner could help him put together an opera festival. And, upon taking the throne in 1864, he summoned the composer and set the festival in motion.

Over the next years, Munich became the world's opera center, according to the official biography of Ludwig on the Web site, and Wagner composed a series of important works there. And while Wagner was forced out of Munich in 1865 due to a "conflict" with the government, he nevertheless maintained the support of the king. In fact, the king was so taken with the musician's operas that he dedicated his new castle to them.

Throughout Neuschwanstein, there are gorgeous paintings inspired not by Wagner's operas, but by the medieval legends the composer chose as the basis for his work.

Never finished
There is a picture of Neuschwanstein taken in the weeks after Ludwig's untimely death in 1886. It shows the main structure that is so famous today, but with a huge scaffolding alongside it.

Because Ludwig had run up monumental bills, the state of Bavaria immediately ceased work on the castle upon his death. Neuschwanstein was also opened up for visits by the public, but in the wake of the cessation of construction, entire areas of the castle remained unfinished, and still are to this day.

Among them is the entire second floor, and dozens of planned rooms. And while the castle has a magnificent throne room, there is no throne and never was. It, too, was not completed before Ludwig's death. Other areas just barely missed the same fate. The so-called Singer's Hall was completed just two days before Ludwig's death.

Modern technology
Although Ludwig was fascinated by medieval legends and stories, he also wanted the best of the best for his new home. So in designing Neuschwanstein, builders used the latest innovations to ensure that the king had the most up-to-date technology at his disposal. For example, according to the Neuschwanstein Web site, the building had hot air central heating and every floor had running water. The kitchen featured both cold and hot water, and the castle's toilets were among the first with an automatic flushing system.

Even the construction was done with state-of-the-art tools. Steam engines drove the cranes used to build the castle and steel construction was the basis of the Throne Room. Ludwig even had telephones on two floors, though the number of people he could call was extremely limited.

Though actual construction didn't begin until September 5, 1869, workers began excavating the castle's site in 1868, when they removed eight meters of stone outcrop in order to make room for the foundation. According to the Web site, "the latest building techniques and materials were used in the construction of the castle. The foundations were cemented and the walls built of brick with light-colored limestone used merely as cladding."

Work on the castle building itself started in the fall of 1872, and on January 29, 1880 the topping-out ceremony was held. Unfortunately for Ludwig, he never saw Neuschwanstein as anything but a building site since it wasn't finished upon his death.

These days, as many as 6,000 people visit Neuschwanstein on a summer day, making it one of the most popular castles and palaces in Europe. Yet the building is hardly stable. According to the Web site, "movement in the foundation area has to be continuously monitored, and the sheer rock walls must be repeatedly secured. The harsh climate also has a detrimental effect on the limestone facades, which will have to be renovated section by section over the next few years."