If your goal is to see those famous mountain castles in the Bavarian highlands, and you don’t want a stressful trip from Munich, then Fussen is the ideal spot to make your base. It served as a summer home of the medieval bishops of Augsburg, so close near where the kings of Bavaria would make their fairy tale residences, though admittedly, it seems from what’s left behind, uptight religious folk weren’t quite as awesome as kings who had their heads in Wagnerian clouds.
If you are staying in Munich, it is still perfectly doable to see Neuschwanstein and its sister castle in a day trip.
The adventure begins
I went there with my wife and parents a few years ago. We took the train in from Prague, and as we passed over the border, traveling with four is always best to do on the Bayern Pass. That will save you a load of money, though it might make things a little longer and you might have to plan the changes a little better, but if you’ve got the smart phone app from DB, all of this is made a breeze.
the main street in Fussen
As your train rolls down from Munich, those Alps keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger until finally your at the foothills. When we were there, we stepped off the train and looked up to see—clouds! Yikes. So that wasn’t the best part of the trip. But given better weather, you’d get to see the whole expansive front range of the Alps, in all its steep and craggy glory, the perfect range to plant romantic, breathtaking castles on.
From the trainstation, old town Fussen is only a few minute’s walk, and then you’re lost amidst rows of streets that have an almost Italian feel to them. This is because Fussen’s got an old Italian history itself, as does much of Bavaria.
A bit of the ole history
The city was founded on the old trade routes of the Roman Empire, moving goods up to supply the Roman legions stationed at the front and to suck out the riches of newly conquered Gaul. The position of the Bishop of Augsburg was made quite politically powerful under the early Holy Roman Empire, back in the days when the Emperor had the power of placing bishops–which meant it was a legal way to have your own supporters in powerful positions and not having to worry about the landed class of nobility.
a square in Fussen
The plan backfired a few centuries later as the Pope wrested the power of recognizing bishops from the Emperor while maintaining the secular powers that had been granted to the position. The Bishop of Augsburg was one of those who clearly was on top of this dispute, being one of the most powerful positions in Europe for many centuries. During the peak of power for the position, the Bishop placed his summer palace at Fussen, making it both a fortress to control the trading routes and an absolutely beautiful place to spend one’s summer months.
the courtyard of the Fussen High Castle
The museum of the High Castle–the Bishop’s Summer Palace–is definitely worth touring. There’s an art museum filled with 19th century drawings of Fussen, a dungeon, a chapel, and walk along the city walls and views of the surroundings from the towers. It’s certainly not the best castle in the area—there’s steep competition in that department—but it’s definitely a nice visit while there.
Where to stay
In Fussen, we stayed at Ludwig’s Hotel, which was one of the cheapest hotels in town coming in at almost 200 euros for four people. There is one hostel in Fussen, but I imagine it is often booked and even the Airbnb places were on the expensive side. For budget travelers, the best option would probably be to just stay in Munich and catch a morning train in. Ludwig’s was a great option though, in a fully renovated old building, where the biggest complaint on the booking site and from my family were the stairs. No lift in medieval buildings, ah! But really, it’s not such a bad complaint at all. The place was also a good choice in that, besides the Franziskaner around the corner, it’s perhaps the best restaurant in town.
another city street in Fussen
To the castles!
Here we hit the first scheduling quandary. My wife had to leave on Sunday by noon in order to get to Munich for her bus—a mein Fernbus—back to Prague. This meant we had to make a decision, would we go to Neuschwanstein that afternoon or see it in the morning before her bus? The best answer, which was obviously the one we took, was to simply relax in Fussen that afternoon and then to head out in the morning. It became clear the next day that mornings are definitely the best times to go.
Neuschwanstein in mist
The bus from Fussen leaves for Hohen-Schwangau at the five past every hour from the train station and costs 4 euros round trip. The ride takes about ten minutes and is the first stop. From there, one can reach the ticket center, which on the Sunday morning we went, right during peak season, did not have a huge crowd. You buy the ticket there for a certain time slot. As there are only so many people allowed at each time, the slots do sell out, and since there is no easy way to make reservations—the Internet seems to barely have been introduced in Germany—then it’s best to come in the morning or risk not being able to see the Castle that day.
looking at Neuschwanstein from Hohenschwangau
There are three things to see from there and buy tickets for: Neuschwanstein, Hohenschwangau, and the Museum of Bavarian Kings. We bought the Neuschwanstein ticket, though looking back I do wish I at least saw the museum more. Without having toured both Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau, I can’t advise which is more worth it. Having seen a hundred castles or so already though, I can tell you that there’s probably no point in seeing both, unless you’re just really hungry for Bavarian history. But in that case, then why not see the museum? If you want to get a sneak preview of the two castles in order to make an informed decision beforehand, then watch the BBC documentary, “The Fairytale Castles of King Ludwig II.”
The Neuschwanstein Castle tour was worth the 13-euro price of entry (25 Euro for the two castle pass). There aren’t too many people on the tour, though it was a bit full of Asians who I don’t think knew any English since they were constantly jabbering in their own tongues during the tour—making it often hard to hear the tour guide—and obviously didn’t understand the tour guide’s shouts of “Nein! No photos! Das ist verboten!”
The tour itself is fairly interesting, with all sorts of details about Ludwig II that I’ll mention in the next post. I imagine that, insofar as this tour was basically Ludwig II’s biography tour, the Hohenschwangau tour must be equally so regarding his less interesting father, Maximilian (if you’ve read my Munich blog though, then you’d know his grandfather Ludwig I did plenty an interesting thing).
the castle gates of Hohenschwangau
We later walked the grounds of Hohenschwangau, which are perhaps even more beautiful than the grounds of Neuschwanstein, though it’s a pretty close contest. Really, I wouldn’t mind living in either, though when if you lived in Hohenschwangau, you’d probably grow up thinking your neighbor must be an ass hole, having the only house in the block built solely to top yours. It goes without saying though, if you tour one, you should at least see the grounds of the other.
looking up at Neuschwanstein
Neuschwanstein itself is far more impressive and an idealized version of one than Hohenschwangau, where even though Hohenschwangau was built for beauty as well, you could at least see some military intention in its construction. Neuschwanstein then exists as a bizarre simulacrum, a fantasy castle built in the time when castles were already out of date. So when you think of Disney, how it was built after Neuschwanstein, it’s only doubly weird—a copy of an idealized copy of the real thing.
Looking up at Hohenschwangau
Ultimately, the tour of Neuschwanstein is the tour of a house of a rich 19th century nutter. When touring it, you can only think of all the rich nutters we’ve got now and wonder whose houses we’ll be touring in a couple hundred years. Are any now built nearly as impressive as the Bavarian king’s?