by Tim Dawe
Europe has many grand buildings: cathedrals, castles, palaces and stately homes. But one “castle”, tucked away in the Bavarian Alps, is very different. The Royal Castle Linderhof, 75km from Munich, was built in 1878 by the last king of Bavaria, “mad king” Ludwig II. He built four ostentatious castles – including the fairy tale Neuschwanstein – but Schloss Linderhof was the only one completed. Ludwig’s grandiose plans and building obsession finally led to his downfall and a mysterious premature death.
Linderhof is a wonderful surprise. It’s a palace entirely built for just one person. It sits square and squat within a traditional laid-out garden yet unlike Europe’s other imposing great piles of grey stone, you could feel at home living here.
While this palace-for-one may resemble a miniature – more mansion than palace – its grounds are of a grand design. There are 50 hectares of alpine forest, much of it shaped into parkland and formal settings around the palace.
I walk up a winding woodland path past a swan lake and signs to Moorish Kiosk and Moroccan House when suddenly this cream-coloured wedding cake hoves into view. I’m stopped in my tracks.
I join others waiting outside the front door for the next tour to start. Ludwig’s front yard contains a large ornamental pool featuring a spectacular water display. A fountain spouts water 25 metres over classical gilt figures. Beyond the pond is the Venus Grotto, topped with a replica Venus Temple. The grotto is a fantasy wonderland complete with the swan-sculptured royal golden boat, a replica from the set of Wagner’s Tannhäuser opera, a Ludwig favourite.
The nearby Moorish Kiosk and the Moroccan House were acquired by the spendthrift Ludwig at International Exhibitions in Paris (1867) and Vienna (1878), respectively; lavishly – and expensively – furnished to meet royal whims.
Our tour commences with Germanic precision; a set number of roped-in visitors, set timing for each room stop and a set patter. To be fair, this is a palace in high demand on the tour coach set, though not so this grey day. We admire the lobby with its Meissen swans and other favoured objects before being whisked upstairs. Except for this lobby, the entire ground floor is for servants or for serving.
The first explanatory stop is a reception room, one of four in each corner of the second storey, each with an ante chamber. It is dedicated to priceless tapestries; alas they are facsimiles as the originals are no longer strong enough for display. We move on to the never-used audience room on the western side – rather ironic for a private residence housing one solitary man.
The largest of the four main rooms at the rear is the royal boudoir, referenced by Ludwig’s namesake, France’s Louis XIV. Centre stage, raised on an altar-like structure, is an enormous wooden bed, the magnificent view from which is possibly sleep-inducing. A natural watercourse cascading down 100m to an ornate pool is “corrected” to end in line with the royal window and bed.
The front space is equally inspiring – and personal. It pays homage to the Sun King’s Hall of Mirrors at Versailles and indirectly to absolute monarchy, another Ludwig obsession. It’s quite extraordinary. The baroque palace exterior gives way inside to a riot of rococo fittings and furniture. But this room is completely over the top. No space is spared a fantastic flourish. Rare, exotic objects abound.
Unlike its namesake, this is a reading room for one (Ludwig was nocturnal). Mirrors are carefully positioned to reflect thousands of hanging lights. It is said that with all 16-branch ivory candelabras alight, the infinity effect inspires ecstasy.
But the last of the four main rooms, the dining room, provides an insight into the creator and occupier of Linderhof. Compared with the other rooms it is relatively plain; some large cabinets for show and the only functional piece, a 2sq m dining table. It was here that Ludwig dined alone, with his imaginary friends Marie Antoinette, Mme de Pompadour and his idol, Louis XIV. Rather than have a customary dumbwaiter fitted, Ludwig designed a mechanism where below-stairs servants cranked up through the floor, not just a dish but the whole table – laid, served, candlelit and set for four – so the hermit king need not have contact with another human.
It’s an amazing “Royal Castle” in a magnificent park but what sets it apart is the story of Ludwig. He was the Michael Jackson of his time (in this case called mad not wacko), the last of his kind from a dysfunctional family, pining to be an absolute monarch, and totally out of step with the times. And given his bizarre behaviour, out of step with reality. His outlet was to build and build. At one stage he had three castles under construction and was planning another whilst draining the coffers of an elected, and exasperated, government.
In desperation the government sought to determine his mental competence. As a result a commissioned psychiatrist certified him insane. One summer evening in 1886 he went boating on nearby Lake Starnberg. Later he was found drowned, covered in scratch marks, the certifying doctor dead with him. He was 41. The next day all work on the hugely extravagant Neuschwanstein Castle ceased and in quick succession all Royal Castles were resumed by the government.
Bavarians like to say: “It’s a mystery.”