Neuschwanstein is the greatest of the fairy-tale castles of King Ludwig II, an eccentric Bavarian monarch with great taste. (Rick Steves’ Europe)

Neuschwanstein is the greatest of the fairy-tale castles of King Ludwig II, an eccentric Bavarian monarch with great taste. (Rick Steves’ Europe)

Rick Steves revisits three enchanted German castles

The nation’s castles date back to medieval times, and today serve as amusement parks and classrooms.

As we’ve had to postpone our travels because of the pandemic, I believe a weekly dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. Here are a few of my favorite European castle memories — a reminder of the fun that awaits us at the other end of this crisis.

Germany can overwhelm you with too many castles in too little time. My three favorites are the remote and beautifully preserved Burg Eltz, the ruined but powerful Rheinfels and the 19th-century fantasy of Neuschwanstein.

Burg Eltz is my favorite castle in all of Europe. Lurking in a mysterious forest above the Mosel River, it’s furnished throughout as it was 500 years ago. Thanks to smart diplomacy and clever marriages, Burg Eltz was never destroyed. It’s been in the Eltz family for 850 years.

The first burg (castle) on the Eltz Creek was built in the 12th century to protect a trade route. By about 1490, the castle looked like it does today: the homes of three big landlord families gathered around a small courtyard within one formidable fortification. Today, tours wind through two of those homes (the third is the caretaker’s residence). The elderly countess of Eltz traces her roots back 33 generations. She enjoys flowers and has had the castle’s public rooms adorned with grand floral arrangements every week for the last 40 years.

It was a comfortable castle for its day: 80 rooms made cozy by 40 fireplaces and wall-hanging tapestries. Many of its 20 toilets were automatically flushed by a rain drain.

Rheinfels Castle, both much mightier and much more ruined, lords over its bend in the nearby Rhine River. It sits like a dead pit bull above the village of St. Goar. This most formidable of Rhine castles rumbles with ghosts from its hard-fought past. Burg Rheinfels was built in 1245 and withstood a siege of 28,000 French troops in 1692, the only Rhineland castle to withstand Louis XIV’s assault. But in 1797, the French Revolutionary Army destroyed it. Once the biggest castle on the Rhine, it spent the 19th century as a quarry. So today, while still mighty, it’s only a small fraction of its original size, a hollow but evocative shell.

For centuries, the massive Rheinfels was self sufficient and ready for a siege. During the age of sieging (which lasted until the advent of modern artillery), any proper castle was prepared to survive a six-month attack. Circling the central courtyard, you’d find a bakery, pharmacy, herb garden, brewery, well and livestock. During peacetime, about 400 people lived here. During a siege, there could be as many as 4,000. Those 4,000 people required a lot of provisions. The count owned the surrounding farmland. In return for the lord’s protection, farmers got to keep 20% of their production. Later, in more liberal feudal times, the nobility let them keep 40%. (Today, the German government leaves workers with 60% after taxes … and provides a few more services.)

Neuschwanstein is entirely different. It’s the greatest of the fairy-tale castles of King Ludwig II, whose extravagance and Romanticism earned him the title “Mad” King Ludwig … and an early death.

While it’s only about as old as the Eiffel Tower, Neuschwanstein Castle is a textbook example of 19th century Romanticism. After the Middle Ages ended, people disparagingly named that era “Gothic,” or barbarian (“of the Goths”). Then, all of a sudden, in the 1800s, it was hip to be square, and a new Gothic style — or “Neo-Gothic” — became all the rage. Throughout Europe, old castles were restored and new ones built, wallpapered with chivalry. King Ludwig II put his medieval fantasy on the hilltop not for defensive reasons, but simply because he liked the view.

The lavish, Wagner-inspired interior, covered with damsels in distress, dragons and knights in gleaming armor is enchanting. Ludwig had great taste … for a mad king. He was a political misfit: a poetic hippie king in the realpolitik age of Bismarck. After Bavarians complained about the money Ludwig spent on castles, his sanity was questioned. Shortly after that, the 40-year-old king was found dead in a lake under suspicious circumstances, ending work on his medieval fantasy-come-true. Ludwig almost bankrupted Bavaria building Neuschwanstein. But today, Germany is recouping its investment a hundredfold as huge crowds from all over the world pay to pack Europe’s most popular castle.

Germany’s history is long and many-faceted. Whether noble residences with flowers, feudal fortresses with rat filled dungeons or Romantic palaces fit for a king, its castles have become both amusement parks and classrooms.

Edmonds resident Rick Steves writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours. This article was adapted from his new book, “For the Love of Europe.”

Talk to us

More in Life

Pineapple Shrimp Ceviche. Ceviche includes raw seafood — in this case, shrimp — that is “cooked” with lime juice, so buying good-quality fresh shrimp is a key element of this recipe. Those with health concerns prohibiting them from consuming raw seafood can saute the chopped shrimp in a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil in a pan and then chill in the refrigerator before mixing with the rest of the ingredients. (Lauren J. Mapp/The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)
Pineapple recipes offer a slice of summer sunshine

Here are three tropical dishes that either don’t need to be cooked or don’t require turning on the oven.

USA, Washington, Royal Slope. Glamping at Stillwater Creek vineyard
Northwest’s sauvignon blanc offers summertime refreshment

This white wine is ideal alongside grilled chicken, sushi or poached white fish, lentils and green vegetables.

Queso fundido with chorizo
Queso fundido with chorizo is the Mexican version of fondue

The hot dip made with ooey gooey cheeses is the perfect way to kick off a meal of tacos or enchiladas.

Lamb Cumin Miso Donburi With Onsen Tamago. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Richard Vines
A Japanese rice bowl with lamb and egg from a London chef

The egg is the trickiest part. If you haven’t poached an egg this way before, it’s worth practicing ahead of time.

After the house became too noisy during pandemic mayhem, this working mom moved her office to the driveway. (Jennifer Bardsley)
Her pop-up home office makes pandemic life easier — and quieter

After the house became too noisy, this working mom found silence in the tent trailer on the driveway.

Neuschwanstein, “Mad” King Ludwig’s dream. (Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli, Rick Steves’ Europe)
Rick Steves revisits three enchanted German castles

The nation’s castles date back to medieval times, and today serve as amusement parks and classrooms.

New: Try our online puzzles

These are quick and fun, and you can play on your mobile device or your computer.

Having trouble concentrating? Put down the phone! (Dreamstime)
Making the most of your reading time during the pandemic

By Laurie Hertzel Star Tribune By Laurie Hertzel / Star Tribune (Minneapolis)… Continue reading

Dr. Paul on telemedicine and the changing face of health care

Hundreds of patients are seeing their doctors through video visits because of the pandemic. There will be no going back.

Most Read