Fifteen years ago, Rishad Saam Mehta was chasing the corporate dream when his true calling came wrapped around a sandwich. The newspaper holding his lunch carried a classified by an automobile magazine, calling for new writers. He switched careers, fell in love with fast cars and the open road, and turned travel writer. In his second book Fast Cars & Fidgety Feet he writes about riding a ski-mobile in the Arctic, cycling through Tuscan villages, discovering hidden legends, and wishing the adventure never ends.
Schloss Neuschwanstein—the most evocative symbol of nineteenth century Bavaria—towered over the village of Hohenschwangau. Unfortunately we’d left behind the good weather in the north, and as we approached the castle, the Ferrari growling like a horse champing at the bit at being restrained after such a wanton gallop, the weather was a mess of rain and heavy cloud, but this only added to the castle’s charm. Rising like the strongholds found in stories penned by the Brothers’ Grimm that begin with, ‘A long time ago in a kingdom far away…’, it is Neuschwanstein’s tapering steeples that inspired the castle in the Walt Disney Pictures’ logo. King Ludwig II of Bavaria (often called Mad King Ludwig for his eccentricities) commissioned it as a personal refuge and also as homage to Richard Wagner, the German composer, who wrote very tempestuous music. His orchestral work, called ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’, is a stormy piece of classical music full of trumpets, trombones, cymbals and kettledrums, and is about mythical creatures from Norse mythology. That rainy day, with thunder providing a constant drum roll, looking up at the castle towering above the village, I almost expect Wagner’s Valkyries to launch themselves from the tall turrets of Neuschwanstein and come riding down the ramparts.
As the story goes, Ludwig II had more than just an admiration for Wagner’s music. He was fifteen years old when he saw the composer’s opera Lohengrin. What started off as appreciation of his music soon developed into love for the composer himself.
We stopped in the village below for a cup of coffee and got talking to a cherubic local coach driver who ferried tourists up to the castle in a horse carriage. He was practically offended when I referred to Ludwig as the ‘Mad King’. While the world sees Ludwig as the king who squandered money on fairy tale castles, Bavarians remember him fondly. They call him Unser Kini, which means ‘our cherished king’ in the Bavarian dialect. The carriage driver was quick to tell me that Ludwig built Neuschwanstein from his personal fortune. Since the castle was built around the 1880s, many senior citizens from the region still remember stories that their grandparents told them about the king and the construction of the castle. History may ignorantly dismiss Ludwig as nutty, but here in south Bavaria, where his beautiful castles enhance the landscape, he is still regarded with a lot of affection and admiration.
The town of Füssen, 4km from Neuschwanstein, and the castle itself, are at the southern end of the famed German Romantic Road that is 350km of highway between Würzburg and Füssen, and is studded with quaint old towns and castles. It earned its nickname in the 1950s when travel agents started promoting it as a romantic drive, and today it is one of Germany’s most popular touring routes.
I was looking forward to driving through Füssen: Steve McQueen’s motorcycle stunts from the epic Hollywood movie The Great Escape were shot there. Depicting the true events of an escape attempt made by Allied airmen from a German POW camp in Poland during WWII, The Great Escape is one of my all-time favourite movies and always makes it to any list of great war films.
Once there, I was thrilled when a local pointed out the exact meadows around Füssen where the movie’s closing sequences were shot.
Appeared in the March 2016 issue as “Lure of the Open Road”.