If you plan to travel to Bavaria in the near future, you will hear suggestions from lots of people about places to visit. Most of those lists will include Neuschwanstein Castle. It is said to be a key inspiration for the Disneyland castles, and has a very fascinating tale surrounding its construction. I’m not going to tell you that tale. That’s why wikipedia exists. What wikipedia may not warn you about, however, is the bad ass tour guides at the castle, ready and willing to open a can of whoop ass if you cross the line. It all began …
Impatiently, I watched the ticker. My tour number was next, and I was ready to go. At a castle this popular, you don’t just stroll into the lobby like Johnny on the spot. You have to put some work into seeing this landmark.
At the bottom of the hill, I had waited in line for about almost an hour to purchase tickets for my family. This was after the 2 hour drive to reach the castle from our hotel on the Austrian border. We’d had a hard time deciding how to make our way up the roughly half mile uphill trail. You can buy a bus ticket, buy a ticket for a horse-drawn carriage, but as any good dad can tell you; Nothing wrong with a healthy (and free) walk up a mountain! I’d won the discussion with promises of Ice Cream and agreement to push the 2 seat stroller the whole way up. I hadn’t really counted on the desire of both my sons to ride ‘up top’, astride my shoulders, instead of in the stroller. They reluctantly agreed to take turns, at least.
By the top of the hill, I was tired, but happy to share the amazing view. A year earlier, I’d taken a road trip here with my visiting mother, to take in the site, have some time to talk and put some distance between her and my wife. Long term visits can be stressful, after all. So, as we rounded the last corner on this day, finally revealing the castle, I was elated to describe the wonders awaiting everyone inside. ‘Ice Cream, first.’, I was dutifully reminded. We added a pretzel, pizza, water, coffee and a glass bottle coke (inherently superior to every other form) so we could call it a meal. Watching the clock, I urged everyone to move along to the gates of the castle, to be sure we were on time. That’s the first rule of Neuschwanstein. The tour waits for no man, or woman or child for that matter; Keep up or GTFH.
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The tour number ticker at Neuschwanstein bears describing (or you know, you could look at it, on the left side there). If you were a child of the seventies or eighties, you’re probably familiar with red led numbers. They convey real authority. They say ‘look at me’, even at 3am.. especially at 3am, but I digress into neurosis that probably helps explain some of my problems with insomnia. In the case of this castle gate, these numbers represent what tour groups are currently being allowed through the turnstiles to wind their way into the narrow hallways where you will meet your guide.
At this point, prior to actually starting the tour, cameras are EVERYWHERE. The tours are conducted in three languages, German, English and Japanese. You’re going to assume I’m going to invoke a stereotype here, and you’re correct. OMG, there are a lot of people with cameras here. If an enterprising camera thief were to swoop into this courtyard, they would easily net hundreds of thousands of dollars (or Euros or Yen) worth of camera equipment and carry it out within one largish sack. This is seriously a popular destination for people with expensive cameras.
Once the old style rotary clock ticks to your tour start time, and your tour number appears on the LEDs, however, you are expected to put those cameras away. No pictures are allowed inside the castle. That, I have to say, is a serious bummer because there is so many things on this tour of which you will want to take pictures. I generally follow rules, at least when everyone’s paying attention, so I put my camera away. No one appeared to make me do this. I just read the rules and decided to play along. Some people, though, consider it less a rule, and more a challenge. Maybe you’re this kind of person. ‘One picture, what could it hurt? I’ll turn off my flash.’ Watch out! It is people just like you, that the tour guides within await.
On this day at the Castle that Mad King Ludwig built (seriously, check out that wikipedia!), our English tour was joined by people from all over the world. One gentleman, rigged out with 3 cameras, a light meter, multiple lens strung Chewbacca ammunition belt style across his chest, seemed oblivious to the multiple ‘No Photos’ signs. As we all shambled along the iron chain bounded path to the tour assembly area, even my 4 year old son commented. “Dad, why does he get to take pictures?’, he asked. ‘I don’t know, son.’, I answered evadingly. What age do you reveal that some people are just not willing to play along with the rules, even in public? He suggested I say something to him, but I didn’t really see this as my fight. Afterall, I was somewhat annoyed with the rule myself. I’d been on this tour before, and I knew there was a lot of great stuff inside, worthy of photographic documentation.
Once we all were packed into the hallway, passage forward blocked by a heavy door and iron bars, a small window opened to our right. ‘Your tour guide will be with you in just a moment. We remind you, that no pictures are allowed within the castle. Post cards are available at the end of the tour.’ -slam. I think everyone turned to look at camera man, as if on cue. He was oblivious. I think he actually took a picture of the small ironbound window. After a nervous wait, probably not more than 30 seconds, but seemingly much longer, the door ahead opened and we were beckoned into a small chamber at the base of a long stairwell leading up.
Here, we met our tour guide. Let’s call her Frau Weis. That’s not her name. 1) I don’t remember her name. 2) That’s German for Mrs White, and she reminded me of the character from Clue. (Not clue the movie, where she is a widow, but Clue the board game, where she is the biddy old maid that is secretly the mistress of the owner, and obviously feels superior to every guest at the manor..) No, she wasn’t dressed as a maid. She wasn’t wearing a uniform, either. She was dressed in very conservative daily wear, actually. Her authority derived from within, not the trappings of her office. She was ‘The Tour Guide’, and was not to be trifled with. Almost immediately, she spied Mr. Nikon. She cut through the crowd, not excusing herself or twisting through the crowd, but striding purposefully forward, cutting a swath through the room, by force of sheer personality. She spoke quietly, and when she was done, she turned on her heel and strode back to the base of the stairs, not pausing to look back and see if the lens cover was being affixed. She was confidence. She was in control. No one questioned her authority.
No one, except Mr. Nikon. (Do I need to explain that this was not actually his name? … I thought not.). He continued to obliviously size up the space for picture opportunities. I think we all knew how this would end, but we marched forward, on command, climbing the circle staircase behind the tour guide. At the top of the stairs, we stepped into a large wood paneled room, standard castle fare, really. Yes, there were roped off chairs, tapestries, stained glass and large portraits of unsmiling people. Everyone was dutifully impressed, at least from my perspective. ‘click’, came a barely audible sound from the back. All eyes looked forward to the guide, rather than back. We were not a tour group of snitches. We were in this together, at this point. He was wrong, but he was a member of our group. Frau Weis ‘appeared’ not to notice, and began her recitation of the wonders within the room. As she began an explanation of some detail of the woodwork, another ‘click’ sounded, somehow more confident and defiant, from the back again.
Her speech ceased, mid-word, mid-syllable, really. ‘Excuse me, sir!’, she snapped, ‘Do you understand English? I have explained our rules quite plainly to you, and MY English skills are not in question. I have led these tours for over 12 years, and I am confident I have saliently explained that YOU MAY NOT TAKE PICTURES HERE.’ She may not have said exactly these words, but this conveys the general idea quite accurately. If she were here to read this, she would undoubtedly correct some detail, but I assure you I’ve captured the gist. Gandalf would have approved.
She paused to let her final warning sink in, then led the group to the next chamber of wonder. All seemed calm here, and we returned to listening to her regale us with tales of the elaborate construction of the edifice and tragic life of the castle’s patron. This was not a calm destined to last, however, and by the fifth room of the tour, those quiet clicks were once again betrayed by the natural acoustics of a wood lined stone castle. This time, however, there was no clipped interruption of the narrative. No booming voice echoed out to chasten the interloper. Instead, she carried on, and at the end, directed everyone to advance through the doors ahead.
This time, however, she did not lead us, but rather directed us forward past her. In the next room, another guide awaited. I did not look back, but I imagined he would be receiving a stern private repeat of the earlier talking to, and they would both rejoin us shortly. The tour continued with the new guide, however, and soon I stopped looking back to check for the re-appearance of Frau Weis and Mr. Nikon. At the end of the tour, however, my family wished to take some extra time looking through the gift shop, so I took the opportunity to head down and relax a bit outside. I expected to find Mr. Nikon outside, dutifully documenting the exterior of the castle. He was not there. Due to a diaper change, a long consideration of various souvenirs and a break in the castle snack bar, I waited below for over an hour, with not a single glimpse of Mr. Nikon.
Perhaps he was simply whisked outside and hurried down the hill to his vehicle to leave the area in shame. This was my wife’s explanation when I expressed my thoughts to her. I, however, don’t think so. He was truly oblivious. Even after expulsion, he clearly would have remained to take more pictures. That camera, by my understanding of the man, was like a part of him. He would not have passively abandoned his chance to snap the late afternoon pictures that so well frame the Neuschwanstein Castle. I will not, for fear of charges of libel, plainly express my beliefs. However, if you visit the Castle, and you take the time to listen carefully as the tour guide explains the wonders within, I believe you may still hear the occasional click. If you look quickly around, and fail to find the source of that mysterious shutter, then stop for a moment to consider. This is a castle of many secrets, and many untold tales, and maybe, just maybe… ghosts of the unlucky or oblivious souls who once strode its halls. Anything is possible, don’t you think? In any event, if you do visit the castle, I advice you heed the warnings and not take pictures inside, unless you wish to face the wrath of Frau Weis.