Hidden within the Austrian and Germanic borders, the palace of the last king stands still, only ever brushed by the wind. To reach the main building, you must traverse the valley dirt road downhill to a rocky beach. A crystal blue lake sits beside Bergen waiting for you. If you turn from the water and look up the road, it will change into a multi-colored cobblestone. And beyond, another hill will arch upwards into a cluster of green-leafed trees blowing delicately in the wind. Above them, you can catch a glimpse of gold and marble.
It was hot, and German summer heat is drier than what I am used to, back home in Minnesota. The sun baked my shoulders and even through my sunglasses, I squinted my eyes. Looking wildly at all the tourists and their traps, carts and stands decked in German, Bavarian and Austrian flags, watercolors of the palace beyond and commemorative shot glasses for the trip. I stopped to catch my breath from the climb, and gazed up at the mountains through the sunlight, then down at the kinden spielen in die Wasser.
“Komm gleich!” my godmother called, marching ahead, her blonde hair gleaming in the sunlight and flip-flops slapping the rocky sand.
I followed the rest of my family beside and behind. We continued up the road.
I could already tell that this was a strange, remembered place. We approached the palace, and looked above the other tourists in the crowd. I saw the blue and white German signs through twisting willow trees. The hot breeze blew about their wicker branches concealed in the courtyard ahead, but I peeled through the damp crowd to the shadowed stone archway to get out of the heat.
The smell of water and pollen surrounded me and blurred my senses as we broke into the cobblestoned courtyard. No wonder the King went mad here. Golden statues stood at either side of a deep, clear pool, fountains blew down a light mist to help us escape the heat. Peacocks with bright blue and gleaming green tail feathers stalked about the square. At the north side of the pool, was the palace itself, dressed fittingly in gold and otherwise marble. It was small compared to the grounds in which it stayed, flanked by Bergen on all sides.
The residence carefully hidden away and entombed within our unser Wesen, Deutschenvolk refused to speak of madness, despite their relationship to Freud, they rather hid it in the land. The old King had done just the same.
I turned to gaze at the southern side of the pool that led up to a dual staircase, to lion statues upon another, smaller courtyard and then trestles, flanked royally by flowers and vines, and then a small gazebo that allowed any wandering tourist a doorway to venture the grounds.
I gasped and my godmother smiled at me.
Linderhof Palace is the smallest and most unknown, but one of the most elaborate of der Märchenkӧnig, or our last Bavarian King, or King Ludwig II’s palaces. You will probably know him for his much overrated and famous castle, Neuschwanstein, or as many more Americans know it, the castle at Disney parks. If you ask me about Neuschwanstein, there were way too many stairs, after a much grueling uphill mountain hike that wrapped in circles about the river-soaked mountain like swirling stairs. Needless to say, Neuschwanstein is not for the faint of heart. Now, Linderhof, was much smaller, with keiner grӧßen erklettern oder treppenhäusern. Nein, it was decked with a mahogany staircase and red velvet rugs. Just a quiet place for a gay king to die…
We stood in a line, still in the baking sun, linked off by a velvet rope just outside the palace. Every twenty minutes, without fail, the fountain exploded again. We gripped papery brochures in our sweaty hands. We were waiting for the indoor tour. One of the peacocks stalked about and pecked at my skirt briefly, before my godmother and I shooed it away with our brochures. She was practically bouncing like a young girl with excitement, her sundress flowing behind her. She leaned into me, “A few mehrere minuten, aren’t you excited?”
I nodded and smiled at her. She had this lovingly awful habit of switching languages mid-sentence. She, being American but having had my god-siblings in Germany and having lived here for more than 20 years, spoke with a miniscule accent, but it was still better than mine.
She grabbed my wrists and hooked arms with me still excitedly bouncing. Our attention was drawn to the tour guide in black and white and as she spoke into an earpiece, she also undid the velvet boundary and gestured to us to enter.
Another tour guide met us therein. He introduced himself, and began to discuss the marble foyer we were in. My godmother, giddy as ever, asked me if she needed to translate. I shook my head. I turned from her, in fact, I am barely listening to the quick German that flashed by my ears since I was only staring up at the crystalline glass walls, holding a multitude of ornate artistic objects within and above, a crystal chandelier the size of a large pond. I turned about myself, my sandals steps echoing on spotless floor, so clean, that as I looked down at my feet I could see my own face gazing back at me. My eyes were wide. When I looked back up, they passed the tour guide in his little black waistcoat to the glass walls with their teasures inside. I wondered, while peering at them if I flicked the glass with my nail, would it radiate like a great gong? I shook my head at the notion and tried to listen to the tour guide.
The peacocks, den Pfauen, which was a new word for me, were explained by the tour guide to be not only King Ludwig's favorite animal, reminiscent of his favorite royal blue color, were also used to announce die Kӧnige presence when he stayed at the palace. I looked back at the door we entered from, its golden frame still as einen Schlagschatten, a vision of what is left behind here. With squinted eyes and swallowing, I wondered if that meant he was still here, somehow, waiting...I blinked, melancholy for him, knowing that even with three palaces he must’ve been the most lonely man in the world.
The tour guide led us up a large mahogany staircase that parted into two swirling directions. My feet sank into the velvet rug of the second floor, my toes just edging out of my sandals to truly feel it. And it wasn’t the cheap crushed, dusty velvet I was used to. Nein, es ist Echt und it's like if honey were a fabric, it was just as sweet.
The tour guide led us up into a room that I can only describe as decked in gold. Its walls were divided in halves. The top was a pinkish but graying mural of Wagner’s opera, we’d see more of these throughout das haus, the guide explained. Haus was the word he used, like home but also like building. I didn’t know what to call this place. It felt too small to be a castle, too lavish to be a home. How could it have ever been a home, how could anyone ever be comfortable here? Unless he was comforted by the sentinel Berge, his extravagance barely exceeded that of French or Austro-Prussian royals at that time, but was it the Wagner Opera and the golden walls that comforted him, that soothed his sleepless nights. No, because the Mad-King, the Mythic King did not sleep.
The tour guide directed our attention to a white but gold extravagant piano, made specifically for Wagner who never visited. I gazed at it, imagining a ghostly place for a composer built there for him, and never filled. Did the King sit across from that spot and gaze longingly at it? An empty, golden and pink piano, never touched, dusted and haunted with the memory of his Zeitgeist moving beyond itself, beyond where it belonged and where it ought to remain. The loneliest man in the world, indeed. There is an echo of a chandelier in this room and my eyes cross it as I glanced out the gold-paned window into the mountainous yard, wondering how anyone could live here in such a opulatent place. What was he trying to prove?
But he did live here, a lot in his final years of life. In the wake of the Wars of Unification perpetrated by Barvaria’s ultimate enemy and nӧrdisch bruder Prussia, King Ludwig, our King of Myth, had succumbed to madness or exhaustion and would not be, could not have been the man to lead der neuen Vaterland into the next century. Many don’t know this but the German nation is about a century younger than America. Its final proclamation was made by the Prussian military Commander Bismarck only ten-some years before the death of the Bavarian King in 1870. Before Germany was Germany it was 200 or so principalities, some of the biggest already previously mentioned. Before the King died, he had fought the Austrian Habsburgs in the Seven Weeks War and with his defeat was forced into an alliance with the Prussians and Bismarck, bringing four more wars down upon his head.
These being the Wars of Unification, which left the newborn Deustchland similarly scrabbling and divided.
Before we entered the next room, I glanced at my godmother, sie ist bayerisch, through and through. Yet here we stand at the border of her, his, our land, not knowing what our ancestors called themselves or what we should call ourselves. Bayerisch oder österreichisch, but it certainly wasn’t German. She squeezed my hand tightly in hers, soft and warm, but still as comforting. She smiled at me. “Können Sie es glauben?”.
I shook my head, awed and equally appalled at the temptatious golden walls.
We stood together in the reminiscence of an old nation. Her eyes gleamed as she held my hand, as if she was trying to tell me something. I’m not sure what, yet the words of some old song echoed in my head, Du gehörst heirher, Du gehörst heirher.
As we were guided into the next room, I felt melancholy engulf me, like die Berge hug the vallies. At the moment I didn’t really know why but now it was not only for my godmother and I, but also der König. He was the one trying to save our names, our place, our country and he lost. Prove us to be worthy as any other nation.
His palace was not exactly what one may call homey. If the previous room was decked in gold, this one was leaking it. Wall to wall, ceiling to ceiling, encased in it like der Kӧnig was attempting to recreate a more elegant mine for the metal. Ja, the tour guide assured us it was real gold. This room is called das Spiegelsaal oder the Hall of Mirrors, as each gold plate upon the wall resembles such. Even gold paint, made from real gold, was used for the decorations. The room also featured a magnificent view of the mountains from massive windows and a small seating area across from it. Although to me it was a blue velvet throne trimmed in gold.
All while the tour guide spoke, and others looked around in awe, I drew my eyes nearer to the immaculate details of the walls. I wanted to dig my nails into the gold and steal it away. What the hell was this all about? I wanted to touch it, feel its tired memory on my fingertips, peel it up to hear his words and wishes therein. For if I turned back I could see his cordial throne, his Victorian ghost sitting there, where he took tea perhaps, spoke to his doctor and advisors about his ills and that of his nation. I would bring the gold paint home and put it under a microscope, investigate it, discover its historical purpose, and find his echoed conversions within. Then I would use it to pay for college.
King Ludwig never married and lost his title, throne and kingdom to the expanding Prussians. He was declared insane before he turned 40 and died. He loved art, architecture, and music with a passion. His queerness has little real basis and is only contingent on the facts given above. He built three castles yet only lived to see the completion of one, Linderhof, named ever-affectionately for the linden tree upon its grounds. He built castles to save Bavaria, believing his love and conserving of culture could preserve his dying state. He paid more and more zeit und geld to his Wagner murals and gold rooms, and less and less to the encroaching Prussians. He did that until he only remained in his gold-trimmed palace alone, except for his doctors.
His bedroom resembled that of das Spiegelsaal, all gold, except for the sitting place now was a massive fluffy blue velvet bed, looking as any other royal bed, canopied and caged away from the world. This room also lacked golden mirrors. I stood apart from my godmother, and wandered freely throughout the room. How could anyone sleep in such a place? was it for lack and therefore need of comfort?
All his life he was rejected and perhaps unloved. Handsome and charming, so they tell us, ja. Doch der Man war Kӧnich erst, a failed one at that. Yet he was not mad, having failed against Austria and now failing against the Prussians, his advisors began plotting against him, to remove him from his throne. He, being a constitutional monarch, could not simply be removed, but had to be proven unfit to rule.
Two separate psychologists diagnosed him with insanity. It must have been easy to get away with, too, as he retreated into the safe space of art and music as well as away from the public eye. Although he might have been relieved to give up on his dream of preserving his kingdom.
Could castles save a nation? No. Could castles preserve the memory of the land? Ja, remarking upon its beauty. I had seen all die Märchenkӧnigen palaces. He’s the one king I knew the name of...national pride, national awareness trickled from the golden walls and velvet sheets, it ran in rivers down der Deustchen mountainsides.
My godmother helds me, clinging to my side, and all the while I felt frozen in time, the quick German rushing by my ears and my mind morphing with memories of then and now. Blinking I looked over at her as she squeezed my shoulders, her sweetness emerging from her and into me. She smilied and nodded. She had seen this place a thousand times, she brought me here, because I wanted to come. She whispered translations to me and I finally met her eyes saying, “Danke schön,”
“Alles für dich,” she responded calmly.
I took her hand again, tightly, realizing that she was my comfort, and I might be luckier than our last King.
The next two rooms that captured my attention were firstly, a room smaller than the two previous, one with little more than elegant walls and a table that underneath had an specially-made dumbwaiter to conceal the king’ss food if he was ever interrupted while eating. He was exceptionally private and embarrassed, as with extremely poor teeth he could not endure to eat the elegant meals of his royal counterparts. So, if a servant or his doctor ever stumbled in, he had a way to ensure his comfort.
The table itself, one made of iron, partly wooden and marble was extraordinary. I bent over to inspect the mechanism at a distance. It also has dark wood constructed of odd pieces and spindles. Head cocked, I looked up at the tour guide who smiled with an odd pride and began to talk with the group about how der Kӧnich commissioned the piece himself.
The last room, simply referred to as das Telefonzimmer, held only that. A very old-fashioned telephone that sat upright in the middle of the room with the familiar talking piece and the face-like sound receivers and nose for which to hang the mouthpiece. Beside those features, it had a dialer for a mouth. This, within the King’s lifetime, was the first phone in Germany. Why’d he have it? Who the hell did he call? The Prussians? His doctor? Its box was bronze and brown in color, but we could not inspect this piece up close, only peer into the room. Perhaps the phone itself was too delicate and too worn with time.
As we ended our tour and descended the other side of the red-carpeted staircase, and re-entered the courtyard, the fountains exploded again.
We wandered past them back to the gorgeous blue, rocky shores lake where we had hiked to and I bent to dip my hand in the water and cool off. I gazed up slowly at the reflection of the green mountain that straddled the Austrian border within the water and waited. Was this where he died?
This is the last story they tell us of The Fairytale King. He and his doctor, von Gudden had taken supper, separately and after der Kӧnig felt the need for some air. His doctor insisted on attending him, but der Kӧnig wished specifically for no other attendants to come. Which was customary for his safety, in 1886, he wished otherwise. It was a windy evening, and the men left through the courtyard and walked together back to the mountain lake and the rocky shoreline toward the east side of the park.
All that the servants and attendants knew from then on was that a rainstorm blew in and lasted until the morning. When it passed they found der Kӧnig and his doctor’s bodies bloody and water-logged.
Some say der Kӧnig jumped in and his doctor tried to save him. Others say it's the other way around. Der Arzt hat der Kӧnig ermordet.
Or it was some jealous artist or cleric from the bushes with a gun or a club.
Nein, they may say, it was the storm itself that blew them in and drowned them both.
Nobody really knows what happened to the last King of Bavaria.
Und wenn wir kennenlernen, was passiert mit der Kӧnig?
What if he didn’t die? What if his Königreich lived beyond him? Und Bayern remained Bayern. Nein. The Prussians were too close, Austrians were too angry. War is always inevitable, perhaps his death was the beginning of it.
I pause a moment with pursed lips, looking at my reflection overlaying the reflection of die Berge in the crystalline water. I lost my breath, my chest tight and hand still. For a moment I was transported and I knew him, I knew why. We cannot always go on. Sometimes grief and time catch up to us like water in a rainstorm and we become lost to die Geschichte.
I blinked. My godmother called me, I rushed back to her and embraced her, resting my head on her chest and my nose in her blonde hair. She brought me here to show me a bit of das Vaterland, aber sie ist meine Mutterland, my home.
“Danke schön,” I whispered again.
“Du bist Bayerish jetzt.” she joked, breaking from me.
I laughed, looking back at the palace and think if he lived, we would have had a proper title.