The next part of our tour of Southern Germany, from Augsburg to Schwangau, took us down the bottom section of Germany’s Romantic Road. One of the oldest tourist routes in the world, it was built after WWII to attract visitors to Germany. We were on a well-worn path and felt transported back to the past as we drove through small peaceful villages with onion-domed churches and by castles perched on steep mountainsides. Rather than finding cool and unsettled weather as we approached the Alps, the sun was shining and the warm weather continued. We could not believe our good luck!
Our destination was Neuschwanstein castle, the fairy tale castle that Walt Disney used as his model for The Magic Kingdom. As we drew near, we could see it perched on a steep cliff.
When we arrived at the small town of Schwangau, where we stopped to buy admission tickets, we knew we were most definitely on-the beaten path. Each day, thousands of people visit Neuschwanstein and nearby Hohenschwangau Castle.
They are popular for a reason. They both are in spectacular settings, and Neuschwanstein is so huge, over-the-top, and dramatic it feels like you’ve stepped into the world’s biggest opera set.
Ludwig II of Bavaria built Neuschwanstein in the nineteenth century. He was a recluse, and it is hard to understand why anyone would want to live alone in such an enormous castle. The King was a patron and admirer of Richard Wagner, and the castle was intended to honor the composer. Neuschwanstein is named after the Swan Knight, one of the characters in a Wagner opera. Many rooms were inspired by characters from Wagner’s operas.
While King Ludwig had more ambitious plans for the castle, he unfortunately died before it was finished.
After our castle tour, we took a short walk to the Queen Mary Bridge – Marienbrücke in German – a footbridge suspended over a huge gorge that affords views of the entire valley. This is where you take the classic photo of Neuschwanstein, one of the world’s most photographed places.
Later that day, we took a small detour to nearby Steingaden, and turned down a lovely country lane leading to the hamlet of Wies. Set at the foot of the Alps, in an isolated spot with a small cluster of houses and a huge parking lot (that we were lucky to find nearly empty), is a remarkable church with a fascinating story.
Wieskirche – or church in the meadow – is one of the most famous Baroque churches in the world. When you first arrive , it is hard to understand why such an impressive church was built in such an isolated spot.
The outside of the church is elegant, but that is nothing compared to what you encounter when you step inside, where you are dazzled by a burst of light and color, sculpture and fresco, saints, martyrs, putti, and more.
The church is not dark and somber, but light and airy, a rococo treasure in a stunning natural setting. After taking in the church’s rich interior, we strolled down the path outside, admired the mountains bathed in late afternoon light, greeted the cows grazing in the field, and arrived at the parking lot just as the sun was setting.
The next day, we hiked to the top of the Hörnle Mountain. Blessed with yet another warm day and clear skies, we enjoyed a 360-degree view that included the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain, the Ammer mountains to the west, and lakes stretching all the way to Munich to the north.
Later, we visited nearby Oberammergau, set in a breathtaking mountain landscape and famous for frescos called Lüftlmalerai (Lüftl for short), which translates to “air paintings”. No one knows for certain how the Lüftl got their name. It could be connected to the need for artists to work in the fresh air and finish quickly before the plaster they were painting dried.
We didn’t have to walk far to find these astonishing trompe-l’oeil paintings that cover the facades of many village houses. They were everywhere. The paintings were a way for prosperous townspeople in the 18thcentury to display their wealth.
Many of the Lüftl scenes are religious, some had to do with the profession of the person who owned the house, and some depicted characters from fairy tales. One of the most prominent is the Pilatushaus, or house of Pontius Pilot, owned by the citizen who played that character in the famous Oberammergau Passion Play, a unique play that began in the 1600s. When a terrible plague devastated the small town, the villagers promised God that they would perform the “Passion of Christ” every ten years if he spared the town. It survived, and they followed through. Today, hundreds of townspeople take part and half-a-million people attend every ten years when the play is performed.
Woodcarving is another Oberammergau tradition that started in the 1500’s and is kept alive today. Each piece is unique, carved from local wood, and highly detailed. You can see wood-carvers at work in their shops, where they also sell their carvings.
The next day, we headed west along the Alps toward Austria….