From Neuschwanstein, we drive winding roads an hour east to Linderhof Palace, Ludwig’s royal villa, which has a baroque facade that makes it seem puny in the wake of Neuschwanstein. Our girls can’t believe the nocturnal king spent most of his nights in the Hall of Mirrors, which, when illuminated with candles, reflects the light incalculable times, creating the illusion of an endless corridor. A 108-candle crystal chandelier hangs in the bedchamber, and the table in the dining room sits on a platform that could be lowered into the kitchen on the floor below, so that Ludwig, who had become self-conscious of his bad teeth, could dine alone without ever seeing the servants. Upon the hill beyond the lavish, terraced gardens is a Moorish kiosk furnished with a bizarre peacock throne, where Ludwig sat smoking a hookah amid servants garbed in Berber costumes.
The astonishing highlight of Linderhof is so well concealed that we nearly miss seeing it. The Venus Grotto, a massive man-made cave reminiscent of Pirates of the Caribbean, contains artificial stalagmites and stalactites draped with garlands of flowers, a heated artificial lake and waterfalls illuminated by colored lights, and a wave machine — all modeled after the Venus Grotto from Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser. Using the first electricity generated in Germany, Ludwig could light the lake water in red to replicate the Venus Grotto or in turquoise to duplicate the Blue Grotto of Capri. He sat in a plush, gilded, shell-shaped boat in the middle of the lake. The king built this bizarre grotto in the hopes that Wagner would perform Lohengrin on the elaborate stage on the far end of the indoor lake. Both Ashley and Julia find it sadly ironic that Wagner never visited Linderhof.
Now the girls confess their curiosity to explore the true objective of our journey — the facsimile of Versailles on Herreninsel, a 593-acre island in the middle of a large freshwater lake affectionately called the Bavarian Sea. From the town of Prien am Chiemsee, we take a boat to the island and then stroll along a path through the woods to Herrenchiemsee Palace, which, sure enough, looks like a carbon copy of Versailles. Built as a monument to Louis XIV of France, whom Ludwig zealously admired, Herrenchiemsee boasts a Hall of Mirrors larger than the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles and containing 77 chandeliers. Ludwig designed his dressing chamber with floor-to-ceiling mirrors and gilded carvings of trees to make the room look like a boundless fairy-tale forest where Peter Pan and Tinker Bell might gallivant.
In the palace museum, our kids learn that in 1886, having rung up a tremendous debt, Ludwig refused to deal rationally with the foreign banks threatening to seize his castles. A psychiatrist running a state commission declared the king insane, arrested him at Neuschwanstein Castle and brought him 55 miles north to Castle Berg on Lake Starnberg. The following night, authorities found Ludwig and the psychiatrist drowned in shallow water in Lake Starnberg. To this day, the mystery remains unsolved.
“He was definitely crazy and committed suicide,” declares Ashley.
“No,” protests Julia. “He was a genius who got murdered.”
“If Ludwig were alive today,” says Debbie, “he’d be a Disney Imagineer.”
Who’s right? You be the judge. All I know is that our girls had an experience far more mind-blowing than Snow White’s Scary Adventures.