By Jim Ferri
En route to Munich one winter day, my wife and I took a side trip to Fussen, a cozy little Bavarian town snuggled up against the Austrian Border.
Fussen has centuries-old streets and buildings, and a palace right in the middle of town. Unbelievably, this little town has not one castle, but two – one of which many believe was the model for Cinderella’s Castle in Disneyland. The whole town could be mistaken for a back-lot set in Hollywood. The light dusting of snow that covered everything in sight only added to its enchantment.
Getting a Guide in Fussen
Since we had little time to spend in Fussen before continuing on to Munich, we made arrangements for a guide with the local tourist office. Our guide, Erih, collected us at our hotel, the comfortable Luitpoldpark, right after our afternoon arrival and for the next three hours whisked us about the old town. Among other things, we were surprised to learn the little town’s lineage can be traced back to Roman times.
I’ve often found mini-tours to be daunting since guides often want to fit 2,000 years of history into two hours. (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 because Erih did a good job of bringing Fussen’s history to life and the town was compact and easy to maneuver.
One of the first places she took us was 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. As we walked through the cells, I couldn’t help but admire all the different musical instruments.
We learned that at one time little Fussen was one of the most important centers in Europe for building musical instruments. That era, however, came to an end following the Napoleonic wars when people were forced to go into the trades and work in factories.
Fussen: Cradle of European Lute-Making
Fussen was the cradle of lute-making in Europe, and the first European lute-makers Guild was founded in Fussen in the 16th century. 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 European cities. Still, though, 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 violin-maker 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. Soon we were through St. Mang, a Baroque church known locally for its organ and the large, early 18th-century-Dragon candlestick on its altar.
From there we were off to the High Palace, the former summer residence of the Lord Bishops of Augsburg. We were soon at 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. As soon as we entered the courtyard, we couldn’t help but stop and stare 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. Centuries earlier one of the bishops had the decoration, first developed in Italy, done on his residence by local artists to impress his visitors.
Although it was a costly style of decoration at the time, Erih told us, the Bishop was flush with tolls collected at a river crossing not far away.
Pork in King Ludwig Beer Sauce
That evening, wanting to sample authentic Bavarian cuisine, we dined in the restaurant of the Hotel Hechten. Wanting to stick to strictly Bavarian cuisine, I ordered 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.
This being Bavaria, in Fussen you’ll find plenty of other pork specialties such as Schweinshaxen (knuckle of pork served with dumlings and red cabbage or sauerkraut) and many sausage dishes. For lunch try a Bavarian snack platter containing various kinds of sausage, bread, and Allgäu cheese. It’s often accompanied by a wheat beer.
After breakfast the next morning, we set off for Neuschwanstein Castle, the Disney-like bastion built by King Ludwig II, a shy monarch who loved art but hated state affairs. He met death in nearby Lake Starnberg, under mysterious circumstances, leaving the castle unfinished.
Neuschwanstein is about two miles outside Fussen and is Germany’s most famous historic building. To reach the castle you must park in the small village below Hohenschwangau Castle, before making the trip up to Neuschwanstein. On Lake Alpsee, Hohenschwangau was built as a summer residence by King Maximilian II, Ludwig’s father.
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 €7 per person, and another €3.50 for the return. Sitting behind the horses pulling us through the snow-covered woods, it was almost like traveling through a fairytale forest.
Fussen’s Spectacular Neuschwanstein
You purchase entry tickets for the castle (€16.30) at the car park where you are assigned a tour time in your selected language. Your tour begins on the second floor, since the first floor was never finished.
Immediately on your arrival from Fussen, 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. 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 and a wall tapestry painted on linen. There’s also a large porcelain swan, Ludwig’s favorite bird, and the symbol of the castle and Bavaria. From the living room we walked through another doorway and into a fake cave. Off of it was a small balcony for looking out over the beautiful countryside, now covered with newly fallen snow.
If you visit Fussen, you’ll find that Neuschwanstein is best enjoyed in the winter. It’s then when you can enjoy the beautiful royal castle without being pushed forward by a scrum of other visitors, which number about 6,000 per day during the summer.
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 that back in Fussen we had to find a restaurant for lunch before moving on to Munich.
But Erih had one other thing to show us after we took the horse-drawn wagon back down to the parking area. There she whisked us across the street to the Museum der Bayerischen Konige, 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, with the museum offering tours of varying depths and duration and a walk-through family tree. Tours are 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 our sightseeing in Munich the following day, he already had us well-primed for the tour.
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How to Get to Fussen
Fussen is a great day trip from Munich and several other cities any time of year although you’ll encounter fewer visitors off season.
From Munich, the fastest way to get to Fussen is by car. The 80-mile drive, via eithe the A95 or A96 Autobahn, will take approximately one hour and forty-five minutes.
There is also bus service via FlixBus from Munich to Fussen for approximately $6. The trip is approximately two hours, although service has been suspended during the covid pandemic.
There is also rail service between Munich and Fussen. The two-hour trip costs approximately $26 one-way.