By Jim Ferri
About two weeks ago, on our way to Munich, my wife and I took a side trip to Füssen, a cozy little town in Bavaria snuggled up against the Austrian Border.
With centuries-old streets and buildings, a palace right in the middle of town and not one castle, but two – one of which many believe was the model for Cinderella’s Castle in Disneyland – it could be mistaken for a back-lot set in Hollywood. Adding to its enchantment that day was the light dusting of snow that covered everything in sight.
Since we had little time to spend before continuing on to Munich, we made arrangements for a guide with the local tourist office. Our guide Erih collected us at our hotel right after our afternoon arrival and for the next three hours whisked us about the old town whose lineage we soon learned can be traced back to Roman times.
Such mini-tours can be daunting since guides often want to fit 2,000-plus years of history into such a short period. (On the other hand, you can’t blame the guide since the only real variable is the time you decide to devote to a tour.) Our tour was interesting both becase Erih did a good job of bringing Füssen’s history to life and the town was compact and easy to maneuver.
One of the first places she took us was to the Rathaus, the City Hall, which is located in an old Benedictine monastery. The monastery was founded in 840, and evidence of Roman barracks dating from the fourth century have been found on the site. Most interesting, however, was that the old building not only housed civil offices but also a fascinating museum of musical instruments.
The museum’s exhibits are set in different rooms, each the former cell of a monk and as we walked through the cells I couldn’t help but admire all the different musical instruments. At one time Füssen was one of the most important centers in Europe for building musical instruments, an era that came to an end following the Napoleonic wars when people were forced to go into the trades and work in factories.
Füssen was the cradle of lute-making in Europe (the first European lute-makers Guild was founded here in the 16th century) and in one cell we came upon an exhibit on the making of a lute, beginning with the raw wood from the forest. In another cell, while viewing a dissected violin, I realized for the first time just how incredibly complicated it was to build the instrument.
Over the centuries many of the town’s craftsman drifted off to other cities in Europe but the museum presented a wonderful snippet of the musical history of the town. Later, as we wandered the medieval lanes of the old town, I spied the shop of a violinmaker and the history of the place started to come alive.
Erih kept us moving along at a pretty good pace, leading us through little shops and a market, and then into St. Mang, a Baroque church known locally for its organ and the large, early 18th century Dragon candlestick that sits on its altar.
From there it was off to the High Palace, the former summer residence of the Lord Bishops of Augsburg and a well-preserved late-Gothic castle complex that houses a museum of paintings. Although the museum was closed that day, Erih wanted to show us the painting done on the exterior of the building and as soon as we walked into the courtyard we stopped and stared for a few moments. From a distance the trompe l’oeil painting on the building had tricked us into thinking it had corner towers and ornate window frames. The bishop, Erih told us, was flush with tolls collected at the river crossing not far away, and had the then-costly style of decoration, first developed in Italy, done on his residence by local artists to impress his visitors.
We were staying at the Luitpoldpark Hotel in Füssen, which was quite comfortable, but since we wanted to sample authentic Bavarian cuisine we dined in the restaurant of the Hotel Hechten that night. Wanting to stick to strictly Bavarian cuisine, I order a beer and what the restaurant’s English menu described as “Our famous leg of pork in King Ludwig beer sauce with Sauerkraut and a potato dumpling.” It was good, but impossible to finish.
The next morning we set off for Neuschwanstein Castle, the Disney-like bastion built by King Ludwig II about two miles outside town. To reach the castle you must park in the small village below Hohenschwangau, the castle of Ludwig’s parents, before making the trip up to Neuschwanstein. The walk takes about 45 minutes and during the summer months you can take a shuttle bus. On the snowy day we were there we hopped aboard a horse-drawn wagon that cost six euros per person, and another three euros for the return. As we sat behind the horses pulling us through the snow-covered woods, it was almost like traveling through a fairytale forest.
Entry tickets for the castle (€12 adults, €11 65+ years) are purchased at the car park where you are assigned a tour time in your selected language. When you arrive at the castle you wait in the courtyard for your tour that begins, since the castle was never finished, on the second floor.
As soon as you enter, however, you quickly realize that Neuschwanstein is the way a fanciful castle should look. Ornate painted scenes adorn the walls, huge beams support equally ornate ceilings, intricately carved panels line the halls and grandeur is everywhere.
In Ludwig’s bedroom alone it took 14 woodcarvers four- and half-years to complete the woodcarvings, which include an exceptionally ornate bed canopy containing miniature replicas of church spires from all over Bavaria. Two secret doors lead to a bathroom and a dressing room.
Off the bedroom is the king’s living room, replete with a large ornate chandelier, a wall tapestry painted on linen and a large porcelain swan, Ludwig’s favorite animal and the symbol of the castle and Bavaria. From the living room we walked through another doorway and into a fake cave, off of which was a small balcony with a table and chair for looking out over the beautiful countryside now covered with newly fallen snow.
We had wished we could have stayed in the castle longer but the 35-minute tours are timed and another group was following closely behind. We also knew we had to find a restaurant for lunch before moving on to Munich, but Erih had one other thing to show us before we set off. After we took the horse-drawn wagon back down to the parking area, she whisked us across the street to the Museum der bayerischen Könige, the Museum of the Bavarian Kings.
Set below Hohenschwangau on the shoreline of the Alpsee, the museum was once a hotel where guests invited on royal hunting parties would stay. Today it is used to relate the story of the castles and the history of the Wittelsbachs, the family of Ludwig II and one of Europe’s oldest dynasties. It’s quite well done, and the museum offers tours of varying depths and duration, either guided or on audio guides in eight different languages.
With our time constraints we only had time for a short tour but our witty guide Heinrich brought royal history to life, lacing together what we had seen with Erih with the history of Bavaria. When we started sightseeing in Munich the following day he had us well primed for the tour.
My visit to Füssen was partially sponsored by the German National Tourist Office. As always, however, all of the views and opinions expressed are strictly my own – J.F.
If you go:
Füssen Tourism Office
Tel: +49 (0) 8362 93850
Tel: +49 8362 9040
Tel: +49 (0) 8362 91600
Museum of the Bavarian Kings
Tel: +49 (0) 8362 926 46-40
Admission: €8,50 adults