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Mad For Munich And Its Fairy Tale King

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You've seen it before, even if you don't remember exactly where. It's the same pile of limestone that has adorned every German travel poster since the Kaiser was in diapers. It co-starred with Dick Van Dyke in "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." It was the prototype for Cinderella's Castle, and -- all turrets and towers and moats, oh my -- for the Wicked Witch's digs as well.

But here it is in person, in all its outrageous Romanesque-Byzantine-Late Gothic splendor, the most famous castle of them all: Neuschwanstein, built from 1869 to 1892 by Bavaria's mad King Ludwig II, the king who would be queen.

Having traveled from Brussels to Munich along a scenic route following the Rhine, I'd watched countless castles whiz by. But none of those pretenders could match Neuschwanstein for sheer theatricality, for pure castle-ness.

Ludwig, as those up on their European royalty know, was a loony 19th-century Bavarian monarch persecuted for his sexual orientation -- or perhaps for his outlandish taste, lavish spending and general capriciousness. On a drizzly day, I meet George, my group's guide, who informs us that poor Ludwig used his new home for a mere 170 days before being forcibly removed by a group of conspirators egged on by disenchanted relatives. (He was found drowned the next day.)

Forget opera queens -- Ludwig was the opera king. As Richard Wagner's chief patron, he bestowed upon the composer huge amounts of money and support (and perhaps his love as well, to judge by surviving letters).

Once inside the castle, I quickly see that this place redefines the word ornate. Every nook and cranny is decorated on a Wagnerian theme. Ludwig's study is done up with scenes from "Tannhauser"; another room is pure "Parsifal." George points out the swan chandeliers in an antechamber, another huge crown-shaped chandelier in the Throne Room, the carved oak paneling, the mosaic floors. Even the servants' rooms are plush beyond belief. "His servants liked him," George confides, not mentioning that one of them was required to wear a black mask because Ludwig didn't like his face, or that another betrayed him to his persecutors.

Of course, Munich is much more than just Ludwig. Although Bavaria has a reputation for conservatism, Munich itself is a fairly liberal town. It was here, in 1864, that Karl Ulrichs (1825-1895), perhaps the first Bavarian to publicly declare himself gay, published a series of pamphlets on homosexuality. And way back in 1996, the gay political party Rosa Liste succeeded in electing its first candidate to the city council. (Ludwig was just born a century too early.) And, of course, in October the city wigs out with the annual beer bash known as Oktoberfest, when locals and tourists alike down endless rounds of suds in purpose-built beer gardens.

And so let's lift our steins to poor Ludwig, the original fairy tale king.