New Year’s at Neuschwanstein Castle
View from Marienbrücke (Bridge)
Neuschwanstein Castle is the castle that all other castles aspire to be. Known as the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Cinderella’s Castle, Neuschwanstein Castle is located literally on the edge of the Alps and the border between Germany and Austria. It can be visited as a fairly easy day trip from Munich (2 hours by train), or you can plan to spend more time in the quaint village of Füssen. I, myself, stayed overnight to allow maximum time for hiking the next day, as there is an abundance of beautiful trails and surrounding mountains around the castle to explore.
I arrived in Füssen at around 9:00 pm on December 30th from Innsbruck (from my previous trip), and found the town center to be practically deserted, except for these people huddling around an open kiosk. The town had a distinctly medieval feel and reminded me of Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic. I headed straight for my hostel and called it an early night in order to rest up for the hiking the next day.
At 7:00 am on Dec. 31, I left the hostel and set out on my 2 hour hike to the castle. I was pressed for time because it was New Years Eve Day, and I wanted to be back in Hannover by around 8:00 pm for a friend’s party, requiring me to catch a 1:05 pm train from Füssen. I could have taken a bus from the main train to the town of Hohenschwangau, which lies right below the castle, but I had heard the hike from Füssen offered some beautiful views of Neuschwanstein from afar. The walk from Füssen was fairly moderate and appropriate for all ages. Be prepared for it to take anywhere from 1.5 – 2.5 hours.
This was my first view of the castle I got on the walk from Füssen. According to the signs, this lake is a popular swimming location during the summer, but as it was winter, it was frozen over while I was there. Because I first saw the castle from so far away, I couldn’t believe how small it was. “This is it?,” I thought. I was definitely in for a surprise. Also on your hike, you will pass by Hohenschwangau Castle, which you can see on the right side of the photograph. While it is beautiful in itself, its hard to stay there long when you can see Neuschwanstein off in the distance.
After passing through the small town of Hohenschwangau, you have about a 30 minute journey up to the castle. I think this is the town that the bus drops you off as well. Once you get to Hohenschwangau, you can either walk the 30 minutes up the road to Neuschwanstein, or hire a horse drawn carriage if you are in a rush. Once you actually make it up to the castle, you realize how incredibly huge it actually is – it’s massive. To think that it was built as a “retreat” for one person (King Ludwig II) is amazing. The white limestone used to construct the majority of the castle came from a local quarry and gives the castle a unique look against the backdrop of the Alps.
I took this photo from the first viewing platform you reach on your walk up to the castle. However, it did not give me the head-on angle I wanted, with the snowcapped mountain peaks in the background. I decided to hop the barrier to Marienbrücke (the bridge is closed during the winter, but you will see people on it all day as there is no one monitoring it, just be watchful of the ice along the road). Once I reached the bridge, I realized that this still was not the view I was looking for (first picture of the post), so I decided to keep going a little further. By this time, it was around 10:00 am, and I planned on taking the bus back, so I figured I had about 2 hours of hiking before I needed to go back to catch the 1:05 train.
I blindly chose a trail and started out on the hike, hoping that it would eventually lead me to a place where I could get the head-on view of the front of the castle that I desired. However, I eventually realized after 30 minutes that it was taking me in the opposite direction around the mountain, blocking any sort of view of the castle. At this point, I had to decide whether I should turn around and head for the bus, or sacrifice my New Year’s Party time for hiking in the Alps. With the thought in mind that I wouldn’t have this chance again (and I really wanted that picture), I pulled out my iPhone in the middle of the woods and looked up the train timetable back to Hannover. The latest possible train I could take that day left Füssen at 3:05 pm and reached Hannover at 10:50 pm. I calculated in my mind that I would need an extra 15 minutes to reach the party from the Central Station, putting me there just a little bit after 11:00 pm, with less than an hour to go til midnight. “Worth it,” I thought to myself, and headed onward, vowing that I would be at the bus stop at 1:30.
At around 11:00 am, with only 2.5 hours left on my self imposed deadline, and still no castle in sight, I started to worry that I would leave Neuschwanstein Castle without my picture. I know it was only a photo, but I had a feeling that it was going to be a beautiful picture, one that many people would not have taken on their own since it was so difficult to reach (at least in winter with the trails closed). However, with the beautiful scenery along the winding, ever-rising trail, it was impossible to be upset about the choice I had made to continue hiking.
And then finally, the trail turned back towards the direction I knew the castle to be, and I could see below a sliver of the lake and town of Hohenschwangau that I had walked through earlier.
A little farther, and the entire lake and town came into view. I knew the castle would just be right around the corner…
And there it was…hundreds of feet below me. The trail had put me way too high above the castle to get the shot I wanted. I had realized this would happen during my hike, which was a constant climb, but I had hoped the trail would start descending the mountain on the other side to the front of the castle. This was not the case, as this side of the mountain was a sheer cliff (which I dangled my feet over for this picture), and I started to think that the only way possible to get the head-on view of the castle would be to repel down the mountain (sarcasm). At this time, I needed to decide whether to head back, or to go forward, hoping the trail would eventually make a turn down to the town, that I, for some reason, couldn’t see ahead of me. Hoping to at least see some new scenery and gambling once more for the chance to see Neuschwanstein from the front, I chose to keep moving forward.
At first, I thought I had made the right decision, the trail started to descend! It seemed that I was headed in the right direction, and I was going to get my picture. However, only a few minutes after I snapped this photo, the trail started climbing again and didn’t stop for the next hour…
1:00 pm, on top of Tegelberg
I don’t have many photos of my 1 hour journey to the top of Tegelberg (Mountain) as it was mainly through knee-deep snow and forest. I did come across some mountain goats, but they were too far away to get a good picture of. At this point, I was beginning to panic that I would not make it back to the train in time, and would be spending New Years alone in the tiny town of Füssen. I had walked too far to turn around and retrace my steps, so I kept moving forward, hoping to find an easy way down. Luckily, the trail ended up at the top of Tegelberg with access to a gondola, 3.5 hours after I decided to hike further on after not being satisfied with the view from Marienbrücke. On the deck pictured here, I ate a quick, but delicious lunch of bratwurst, sauerkraut, and bratkartoffeln (fried potatoes), my first food of the day. During the gondola ride down, while I was trying to figure out exactly where I was and what route I should take to the bus stop, Neuschwanstein Castle suddenly appeared from behind a ledge. I was staring directly at the front of the castle, with the beautiful mountain peaks in the background – exactly what I had been looking for all day.
A photo from the gondola was not possible, as the windows were extremely dirty and the castle far off in the distance. However, I thought that if I was able to get on top of the ledge above the trees, it might be able to provide me with a clear shot. As soon as I exited the gondola, I headed off on the route I had decided upon during the ride down, creating my own trail through the thick fur forest. After about 15 minutes of crashing through the thick evergreens, I came to a 50 foot rock face with a small ravine down the middle of it. I had come too far and was too close to give up now, so I started up the ravine, which had to be near an 80 degree angle. At this time, I had had only minimal rock climbing experience, and started to panic about halfway up, when I thought I had reached a point where I couldn’t continue upwards, or back downwards. After two or three minutes of testing the stability of all of the rocks and ledges I could get my hands and feet on, I was able to pull myself upwards and scramble the rest of the way up to the top of the ledge.
And there it was, not perfect (I had hoped to be a little higher to see more of the mountains and the entrance wasn’t centered), but I had achieved my goal of viewing it from the front. Being able to see the way the towers stacked up on each other against the backdrop of the snowcapped mountain peaks was worth the effort. I had never seen anything like it before, and am convinced it has to be one of the most beautiful combinations of architecture and nature in the world. From this view, one can definitely see how Walt Disney was inspired to design his own castle; check out the resemblance:
After taking in the castle for as long as I could, I started making my way down the back side of the ledge towards the town and bus stop. Luckily, on the other side, it was not as steep, and there were many small trees to grab a hold of (fell about 3-4 times) on the way to the bottom where a small river flowed through. Trying to cross the river was somewhat difficult, and while trying to shimmy across one ledge and climb over a fallen tree at the same time, I thought to myself, “No, not today; I don’t want to die today,” and turned around to look for another way to get down. I eventually found a safer route and walked across the river (thankfully I had worn my waterproof boots). After a 30 minute jog through the forest and into the town, I made it to the bus stop, only to find the bus had come 10 minutes earlier and wouldn’t be returning for another 50 minutes (of course).
With no other options, I put the address of my hostel in Füssen into Google Maps and started heading that direction. According to Google, it would take me over an hour to walk the 5 km back to town, so I put some upbeat music on my iPhone, tightened my backpack straps, and started running. Luckily, a trail ran along the route provided by Google Maps, so I didn’t have to run directly on the road with my hiking boots. After constantly checking my phone to track my progress, I realized that if I kept up my pace, I’d be able to stop by the hostel, grab my bag, and make the train just in time. And that’s exactly what happened; the train pulled away from the station two minutes after I sat down.
Four hours later, during a break between trains in Nuremberg, I had time to watch some fireworks from the station, grab a couple beers for the last train of the trip and beginning of the New Years celebration, and reflect on all of the amazing things I had done and seen that day. I realized that if there had not been a gondola on top of the Tegelberg, I would now be attempting to book an extra night in the hostel alone in Füssen. Absolutely no time was wasted, and I was able to meet up with my friends around 11:00 pm,just in time to join them in shooting fireworks off in the streets of Hannover for 2 hours with thousands of other people (a story in itself).
I couldn’t write up a better way to end 2013 and ring in 2014.
A parting view of Neuschwanstein, taken during a break on my run back.