As soon as I heard that there might be a castle tour organized in conjunction with the 2017 Wrint Excuses Retreat, I knew I had no choice but to go. When else was I going to get the opportunity to travel the German countryside visiting CASTLES in the company of some of my most favorite people on the planet including a few Hugo award winners?
The tour was everything – and more – than I could have hoped for.
It began with catching the morning train from Kiel to Munich. I’ve traveled on European trains before, but that was before the advent of WiFi, so it was really fun to watch my travel companions delight in our circumstance and post their delight to Instagram and Facebook. I took advantage of the good connection to post the first of my blog posts about this year’s retreat (see part one, two, and three) before succumbing to my inevitable motion sickness induced snooze.
In Munich, the staff of the Hotel Metropol checked our group of 27 in with the utmost efficiency. They had our room keys prepared with our room numbers assigned so that we weren’t clogging their fairly small lobby. After a brief respite, we returned to the lobby to meet our guide, Maxine who stayed with us for the next few days.
Maxine took us on a walking tour of the old city spouting off history that inevitably circled back to one of two topics: beer and the Nazis. I spent most of my time attempting to capture photos of pigeons, gargoyles, and doors. The walking tour of Munich concluded with a quick cab race across the city to the Augustiner Keller, the producers – our tour guide assured us – of the finest beer in Bavaria, and by extension the world. It was pretty good beer, but I must admit to preferring some of our Maine microbrews.
The next three days are a whirl wind in my mind: hours sitting in a bus, miles hiked up hills, photos taken of towers and cobbles and doors. Each day has an anchor point – the castles.
First, we went to Schwangau and Neuschwanstein. These were the two I’d anticipated seeing the most and the two that were perhaps the most disappointing. Part of the pleasure I take in visiting historical places is imagining the lives of the people who lived in those places, feeling a connection to them: here I stand in this place where a queen stood many hundreds of years ago. I got that sense from Schwangau, which was a residence – a castle complete. We wandered the rooms witch their rich furnishings, slightly tattered from wear and I could almost see the ghosts of kings and queens and young royals going about their daily lives.
But Neuschwanstein – poor Neuschwanstein: the castle I think of when I think of castles, the Disney castle – was never finished. I didn’t know that coming into the tour, but Maxine told us that Ludwig II died before it could be finished and all building ceased with his death. Only a third of the interior rooms are finished and these were the rooms we saw. It was like walking through the ghost of a lost dream. It was like looking at a Van Gogh painting; sadness emanated from the gilding and mosaic. They were never appreciated during the life of the visionary.
My favorite castle was Burg Hohenzollern in Tubingen. It’s a classic castle on a hill, but unlike Schwangau and Neuschwanstein it had deep history and still functions as an occasional residence for the Prince of Prussia and his family. We arrived at Hohenzollern early, before all the other tourists and hiked up from the parking lot through gorgeous woodlands. The climb was steep and left us winded and gave me a very clear idea of what an invading force would have faced trying to take the castle.
Our cries of delight echoed off the stone as we rounded each bend and found another gate, as we took in the murder holes and arrow slits, the functional castellations. And unlike the castles of the previous day, Hohenzollern had yet to be mobbed by tourists. We were alone. We could have closed the gates and claimed the castle for ourselves. Our guide must have picked up on our enthusiasm because she allowed us to take photos of the interior even though we weren’t supposed to.
Eventually, we had to leave. We didn’t want to, but we had to drive to Heidelberg, and the rain was setting in and the other tourists had arrived. So, after lunch in the castle, we fled back down the hill and climbed aboard our bus for another long drive through the German countryside.
The next and final day of the castle tour found us in Heidelberg Castle, the first and only ruin we toured.
By this time in the trip, I was feeling tired from all the travel, starting to come down with the cold that had been traveling through the group, and feeling keenly the imminent goodbyes I’d have to say. I didn’t really appreciate this castle as much as I might have otherwise, but it was a gorgeous day and we were in a ruined castle in Germany and so it was a good day.
Now I sit in my living room, a week removed from castles and I miss them. I miss being surrounded by history and good company, but I’ll cherish the memory of this experience. I hope I’ll be able to do another trip like this, but there are no guarantees. I hope I’ll be able to go back to Tallinn and Stockholm and the other ports we visited on the cruise. I hope that I’ll be able to continue this fairy tale existence of mine for a while longer, but coming home and catching up on all the news that happened while I was away leaves me disheartened.
Part of me wants to bury my head in sunshiney memories and castles and history, to ignore the reality of the world, but then I think of a picture our tour guide showed us of Munich after the war. Not much of the city survived the bombing campaign. Now that image of a city of rubble superimposes itself over every image I see of torch-wielding men screaming hate and I can’t help but wonder if we’re heading down a road that will leave US cities as Munich was left, as Heidelberg Castle was left following the 30 Years War.
I don’t know what I’m going to do about these fears yet. I still have jet lag, I still have a big project to finish at work, I have five gigs coming up between now and next Sunday, but while I do these things, I’ll think, I’ll write and I’ll find my way.
Thank you for reading.