King Ludwig’s Herrenchiemsee Castle in Bavaria

On a picture-book, sunny Sunday in early September, I was on my way to visit Ludwig II’s castle, Herreninsel, located on an island in Lake Chiemsee in the south of Bavaria, Germany. To get there, I boarded the Ludwig Fessler, the only paddleboat which runs as a ferry from Prien to the Herreninsel. The Ludwig Fessler is the flagship of the ferry company and does not run very often. It is mostly the smaller ferry boats which connect Prien to the islands of Herreninsel, Fraueninsel and Gstad.

King Ludwig II tragically drowned on June 13th 1886 in the Starnberger Sea under – to this day- suspicious circumstances. He was one of those controversial personalities who some called a genius while others labeled a mad man. He was considered a genius because he was ahead of his time in two important aspects: he recognized and pursued the necessity to protect and preserve nature and the environment, and he had a keen understanding of and interest in the development of modern technology.

Those who considered him a mad man were struck by Ludwig II’s idolization of Ludwig XIV of France, and the absolutism he represented in perceiving himself as a limitless monarch. This was very much out of step with the political reality of the 19th century. Driven by his wish to create a monument to the Roi Soleil and to emulate absolutism, he built four castles, spending mind-boggling amounts of money – not all of which was his own. His last and most costly was Herrenchiemsee which was  to become his very own “New Versailles”.

The acquisition of the island (then called Herrenwörth) by Ludwig in 1873, was an expression of his genius side. The heavily wooded island, home to endangered wildlife, including 13 species of bats, belonged to a lumber company set on cutting down all the trees. Ludwig bought the island to preserve the trees and because it was an ideal setting for his temple of fame where he wanted to celebrate the memory of Ludwig XIV. Unlike the Roi Soleil, Ludwig who suffered from insomnia, adored the solitude and quiet of the night and the soft, blue light of the moon, both dominant features in the decor of Herrenchiemsee.

Along with a jolly crowd of Ludwig fans, I disembarked after the 20 minute ferry ride from Prien. The castle is first visible from the water, but not from the jetty. You make your way to the ticket counter and book your guided tour which is the only way to visit the interior of the castle. The ticket also allows you to visit the museum which is located at the ground floor of the castle. You then have two choices: you can either walk along well indicated paths through dense woods or you can take a ride on one of the horse drawn carriages, but you have to pay extra (6 Euros) for that pleasure.

I opted for the walk, slightly uphill and taking about 15 minutes at a leisurely pace. I have seen Versailles and was properly impressed. But after visiting Herrenchiemsee, I am tempted to say that it surpasses Versailles. In fact, the custodian of the museum told me that several years ago when restoration work was needed at Versailles, art experts from France came to Herrenchiemsee to consult with the curator and to gain inspiration. Ludwig’s modern side also came to the fore in building Herrenchiemsee; he used the best technology of his time for the construction of his – unfinished – swimming pool and heating system. 

Speaking of “unfinished”, in 1885 Ludwig simply ran out of money and was unable to borrow more from nearby rulers, including the Turkish sultan. It’s a very strange experience to marvel at the magnificent staircase and mirrored halls as well as the king’s elaborate bed and staterooms, and then to turn a corner and see nothing but entirely bare walls. Ludwig only spent nine nights in his castle and only slept once in his bedroom with the famous blue globe which imitates moonlight.

Plan on several hours for your trip to  Herreninsel because apart from the castle and the museum you will want to wander through the elaborate gardens and make your way to the Abtei which is important in modern German history as it was here  that the German constitution, the Grundgesetz,  was established in 1948.

If you wish, you can stay overnight in the Schlosshotel Herrenchiemsee, a rather grandiose hotel which is currently undergoing renovation. Several restaurants and a Biergärten invite you to a rest and a Brotzeit along the way. The last return ferry to Prien leaves the Herreninsel at 7pm.

To learn more about this part of Bavaria, read Inka’s article about Fraueninsel Island

Written by Inka Piegsa-Quischotte for

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