“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. I will never forget those words of wisdom which came from a stranger that fateful day in June of 1999 as we rode up the hill to reach Neuschwanstein Castle in a horse and carriage on a dark, rainy day.
It was nearing the end of our week-long trip throughout Germany, following the Romantic Road and visiting as many castles and medieval Bavarian towns as we could possibly cram in to our time off from work. Neuschwanstein was supposed to be the crème de la crème, our last fairytale castle we would see before heading into Switzerland for a few days before flying home. Yet alas we woke up to a thick blanket of fog and rain, shrouding our view of Ludwig II’s masterpiece perched high up above the town of Schwangau surrounded by snow-covered mountains. We had come so far to see Neuschwanstein yet she was nowhere to be found beneath the dark coat of clouds.
I was obviously dismayed about the ugly day and issued a complaint to Paul, my boyfriend at the time. If only I knew what was going on through his head at that moment for this was the day he had planned to ask me to be his wife. It was after my disgruntled complaint about the weather that an older woman next to us said those unforgettable words, almost as if she knew that it was going to be a very special day, a day that would change our lives forever.
We rode up to the castle in silence as I pondered her advice and realized that of course she was right. There was no reason to let the rain ruin our visit and perhaps the rain kept away the hordes of tourists who usually descend upon the castle on a lovely day.
After the tour of the castle, the clouds dissipated and the rain stopped. It still wasn’t perfect but good enough to take a walk around the grounds. We heard that there was a short hike behind the castle to a viewpoint and decided to follow the trail. There was not a soul around but us as we crossed the famous Marienbrücke (Mary’s Bridge) over the Pöllat Gorge and into the thick of the forest. We heard grumbles of thunder off in the distance and feared we were going to get trapped in a storm but continued on up. Perhaps it was a sign of the emotions going on within Paul’s mind as he knew what he was about to do.
We rounded a corner and there sitting majestically upon a steep ridge was the castle. The view was magnificent and took my breath away. It was then that I looked and noticed that Paul was down on one knee and asking me to marry him. It felt absolutely surreal. We had been together for five years and I knew that he was the man I wanted to share my life with. Saying yes was one of the happiest moments of my life until a year later I said “I do”, and then a few years after that we had our two children Max and Sophia.
Bringing our children to the very place where “it all began” was a dream of ours for years. Yet unfortunately a few months before our big trip to Europe, Paul injured his back and couldn’t go. My father ended up taking his place which was very special yet bittersweet knowing that Paul would not be along. Since our castle tickets were booked months in advance, we still went ahead with our plans to see Neuschwanstein. Although it never felt the same without Paul, I’m still glad I was about the bring the kids. Here is the story of our visit.
I rose early for our visit to the castle feeling a mixed bag of emotions. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel when we arrived. I knew I’d be nostalgic and filled with memories of love. Yet, I also was feeling really sad that Paul could not be there with us and instead was laying home back in Minnesota in pain with a flared up back. It didn’t feel right that he wasn’t going to be there with us yet I was still joyful that my children would be able to see this special place.
We drove to Hohenschwangau, the small tourist town below Neuschwanstein, and picked up our reserved tickets for the castle tour which I had diligently purchased six months ago online in order to avoid long queues or any disappointment. We parked the car and began the 30 minute walk up to Neuschwanstein, following horses and carriages and groups of fellow tourists. As we walked, memories came flooding back to 19 years ago when Paul and I rode the horse and carriage to the top in the pouring rain. I had told my children the story many times and as soon as a horse and carriage passed us by my daughter made me promise that we could ride it down. Of course I couldn’t resist and agreed.
We arrived at the top with plenty of time to spare before our 11 am guided tour. I was amazed how many people were there. Neuschwanstein is a very popular day trip from Munich and obviously there were tons of tour buses already parked down below given the large crowds. I winced briefly in disappointment but quickly let it subside. I was not going to let a swarm of tourists ruin this special day. We used the extra time to admire the views of this magnificent setting. Off in the distance sat the town of Schwangau as well as the rural villages of Waltenhofen and Brunnen where we stayed next to the lake Forggensee.
I closed my eyes and imagined what this must have looked like back in 1868 when the Bavarian King Ludwig II constructed such a fantastical, opulent castle. Built replicating medieval styles yet with all the latest technology, the King wanted his lavish castle to emulate his nostalgia and fascination with the culture and concept of monarchy that prevailed during the Middle Ages. The young King lived a lonely isolated life and was obsessed with the operas of Richard Wagner, the romantic ideals of old German knights (especially the Swan Night), and the intricate murals which graced every almost every open space in the castle. Ludwig II used all of his money to construct the castle of his dreams, eventually going into huge debt. His political situation worsened and the only way to remove him from power was to declare him insane. The King was removed from his castle and found dead shortly thereafter in 1886. The cause of his death remains a mystery and Neuschwanstein was never fully completed. Despite its tragic history, Neuschwanstein is perhaps one of the most beautiful castles in the world.
Our tour inside the castle was short but sweet. For all the waiting and anticipation, the tour lasted only 30 minutes and was conducted by an audio guide. It was a far cry from what I remembered 19 years ago when Paul and I had a live guide and the place almost all to ourselves. Unfortunately no photos were allowed inside the castle and most of the rooms are sectioned off by large glass dividers. To be inside such an opulent, beautiful place was incredible. The stunning murals, the hand carved furniture and even the King’s Italian-inspired grotto gave the castle a fairytale feel. It is one of the most elaborate, spellbinding castles I’ve ever seen.
After the tour, it was time to show the children where it all began: The view overlooking the castle where Paul got down on one knee and asked me to be his wife. This was the moment I had been waiting for. I wondered how I’d feel when we got to that very spot. So much has changed over the past 19 years. Time has flown like water down a stream, never stopping or slowing down for a moment to reflect.
After crossing Marienbrücke (Mary’s Bridge), it was time to begin our hike. Unfortunately it would not be like it was 19 years ago when it was just Paul and I wandering off into the forest to find our fairytale view. Instead, it was us and at least a hundred other curious souls following the same narrow path up to the view.
It didn’t take more than ten minutes to reach the spot. We waited for the crowds to slightly subside and then jumped in for our chance to get a couple of shots. I honestly didn’t have enough time to reflect or feel the rush of nostalgic emotions that I expected to come flooding through my soul. Instead, I impatiently awaited the selfie sticks and iPads to clear the way so we could at least get a photo.
Meanwhile my father had already lost his patience with the crowds and began to head back. Was I disappointed in this moment I’d been thinking about for some many months? Was it anything like I’d remembered or expected? Or course not. We all know that life simply doesn’t work like that at all. It would have been foolish for me to believe I’d feel exactly how I did 19 years ago at this very spot.
Yet still it was meaningful. It meant the world to me to share such a special memory of my life with my children. My parents showed us where they got engaged, and that memory stuck with me throughout my life. I certainly hope to return again some day with Paul. Who knows, maybe we will be lucky enough to bring our own grandchildren there someday.