To the Heart of Europe — Day 3: Fairytales

24 May
Friday morning begins with Wilson and me munching on large pastries, hastily bought from a bakery at the Hauptbahnhof. Our train leaves in five minutes, yet Dennis is nowhere to be seen. Always obsessed with punctuality except when it comes to my own, I nervously eye the clock.

“Perhaps we should call him.”

Wilson is phlegmatic. “Nah, he’ll come in time. We can wait.”

At last, our friend emerges from the depths of the supermarket he’s been scavenging, a glum look on his face, unable to find something he really likes for breakfast. Ever the gentleman, Wilson offers him his own pastry.

We’re heading off to the German Alps and Neuschwanstein Castle today, two hours away by train. “Train” is a little charitable for the mode of transport we’ve found ourselves on. Open plan seating, fold-down seats, handholds dangling from the ceiling — it feels more like a metro train travelling round town than a long-distance one headed for the Austrian border. As with most metro trains, it is also an active study in how to make a traveller as uncomfortable as possible. See, I have broad shoulders. The Eastern European woman on the folding seat next to me also has broad shoulders. Next to her, however, is a towering European giant who looks rather uncharitable, so I end up folding my shoulders in while Dennis and Wilson doze off, their heads nodding to the gentle rhythm of the train.

An Australian-accented man, a tour guide by the looks of it, traipses through the carriage. Couples and groups, chattering to each other in a thousand languages, fall into a hushed silence at the approach of this rugged beacon of respectability and might. “Everyone, just a reminder that we’re getting off at Marktoberdorf station. Three stops early, ten past eleven, Marktoberdorf station.” As so often happens in travel, they’ve chosen the two weeks that you’re there to do a bit of repair work. It doesn’t seem to bode well for the rest of the day.

Two hours later, we’re at Fussen station, jostling to get onboard the bus to Hohenschwangau. The bus driver’s jaw is constantly clenched, the very picture of irritation. He glares at our tickets, then waves us through to get squashed by the exit doors, like sardines. Out of the corner of my eye I can see a few more sardine cans in the yard, each crammed with tourists. Can’t help noticing that most of them are Asian, and almost half of them speak Cantonese.

Eventually we begin to move, a cool breeze wafting through the bus as it winds through Fussen town centre. Quaint buildings with colourful facades (and nothing else) are slowly replaced by forestry and lake vistas as we head out of the town. We head up the Romantic Road, the route favoured by tourists seeking picturesque old towns and “the authentic old Germany” as designated by 1950s travel agents. Crossing the Lech river, the road becomes narrower, more winding, more shrouded by foliage. Then all at once the trees stop, open skies take over, and the three of us gaze up at a castle of impossible beauty.

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If Neuschwanstein looks familiar, that’s because you’ve probably seen it before: Walt Disney famously drew inspiration from it for Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in Disneyland. And it’s hard not to see why the creator of the Almighty Mouse would base a million dreams on it, because it looks like something pulled straight out from a fairytale. Stretching more than 200 feet into the air, it perches precariously on a ridge halfway up the Alps, completely isolated from civilization (it’s a half-hour walk uphill from the nearest town). Vibrantly coloured turrets jut proudly into the air — are they home to a prince or a dragon? — alongside elegant arches and windows that you normally see in old Disney movies. Even from a distance — especially from a distance — it smacks of fantastic grandeur and grand fantasies, of secrets and sinister indulgences. It cannot be true, at least in real life. And yet, there it is.

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The man who dreamt up this magnificent pile was King Ludwig II, one of the most eccentric rulers in history and a person guaranteed to liven up any narrative (which is of course why I’m talking about him here). Ascending to throne while still a teen, Ludwig almost immediately showed just how lacking he was as a ruler by picking the losing side in the Austro-Prussian War, and could only watch as his kingdom was absorbed into the German Empire. He soon got bored with ruling and instead spent his time enjoying Wagner — his operas, that is, not the man himself — and commissioning various ornate castles. Unfortunately, he then got so excited about this latter activity that he almost bankrupted the Bavarian monarchy. (The designers, knowing that there was no chance in hell of their designs ever getting funded, simply let their imaginations run wild in their sketches. The end results are spectacular.)

His ministers, however, were understandably more concerned about their salaries, so one early morning in June 1886, they declared him mad and then replaced him with his uncle. Three nights after his forced abdication, Ludwig went for a walk around Lake Starnberg with the doctor who’d pronounced him insane. Both were found dead later in the evening on the lakeshore — but because neither had any water in their lungs, how they died is still a mystery.

Ludwig’s story is FASCINATING, to say the least. How far can a man too bizarre and impulsive for normal society retreat into his own fantasies? Ludwig loved doing inexplicable things like going for midnight rides and then having moonlit feasts on whichever patch of grass he happened to fancy. Only a man who didn’t spend much time on Planet Earth, who was completely detached from reality, could do such a thing. Maybe he found ruling a bore, or maybe he hated the pressure that responsibility gave him. Or maybe he was just one of those people who could never really grow up and face the world’s cruelties. After all, these castles are so impractical and isolated, they seem to live in a world of their own. Maybe Ludwig created this, his own land of childhood escapism, in order to run away from the pressures (or is it responsibilities?) of governing Bavaria. Judging by how he met his end, he seems to have done a very good job of it.

To get a better look at Neuschwanstein, we walk onto the Marienbrucke, a bridge Ludwig constructed over a nearby ravine so that he could look at the castle from behind. It’s strange that the castle, looming large in the foreground, seems like the only thing that makes its presence felt. From a distance, it’s suddenly hard to say which is more dreamlike: the fantasy world that Ludwig created for himself on a lonely mountain, or the simple, abstract landscape far below it. For a moment, we are in Ludwig’s land of fairytales, where everything is hazy and hard to define, where nothing is real and everything is larger than life. Exactly the way Ludwig would have wanted it.

Back in reality, I find myself being positively squashed. There’s a horde of tourists on the bridge, but most of them — all varying strands of Asian — only seem to be interested in the front half. Selfie sticks poke out at all angles while a million different tourists yell at each other, summoning their friends and family for yet another photo. I notice that loads of people have attached locks to the bridge, a proud declaration of their love for posterity, though none of the locks are rusty or date back more than a year. Far, far below us is a waterfall of majestic proportions. The thunder of the water not only reaches us, but also drowns out any conversation, forcing everyone on the bridge to shout ever louder in the hopes of getting themselves heard over the din.

We squeeze our way through onto the back half, which is relatively quiet and allows us plenty of space to goof off and devise the best camera angles. Dennis and Wilson immediately set to work, with me working as occasional assistant and main model. They switch identities at an alarming rate, mugging for the camera and putting on their sexiest faces one minute, then returning the favour the next. By my count, they must’ve already taken a thousand pictures of each other just on the bridge — because whichever way you look at it, Neuschwanstein is still an absolutely awesome castle, vibrant and striking, perfect for two photography enthusiasts (and their tag-along) to showcase their skills.

On the ridges down by the waterfall, I can see a few coloured dots. Wilson and I wave at them. The dots wave back.

Half an hour later, we’ve become dots down in the ravine too, having chosen it over a tour of Neuschwanstein. This is the Pollat Gorge, carved by its namesake river and the waterfall we saw earlier on the Marienbrucke. The latter is even more impressive up close, its throaty growl never softening nor ceasing, the water smashing onto the rocks like the vengeful fist of God. It kicks up a fine mist that casts a fuzzy (dreamy?) veil over everything, and makes the rocks glisten in the late afternoon sun. As I make my way to the edge, I can feel my feet complaining from the steep climb down, and the hairs on my skin prickling from the sudden drop in temperature that the spray’s brought — but nothing compares to the fact that right now, I am surely staring at the mother of all waterfalls.

Further on, the track downhill narrows and is replaced by a series of steel bridges that hug the side of the Gorge. I’ve read that this was only opened last year: it used to be a much more rickety boardwalk that had to be closed because it was in danger of collapsing and taking a good chunk of Bavaria’s tourism along with it. I can still see the rusting foundations through the mesh, their jagged metal teeth threatening to slice open anyone’s leg should the steel beneath our feet suddenly give way. Beneath that the River Pollat gushes on, foaming and flowing everywhere, absolutely refusing any attempt at being tamed. This last bit I gather from a bend in the river, where some wag has diverted part — PART — of the river into a wooden trough that goes on for about ten feet, rounds a corner, and then empties straight back into the river. Much of it simply ignores this last development and spills straight onto our pathway.

I nimbly hop over this deluge on some stepping stones — another win for my namesake. Wilson also gets across almost efforlessly. Dennis, on the other hand, takes too much time dithering on the other side, and is lucky to get away with only splashed shoes.

Back in Hohenschwangau, we realize that we’ve just missed the bus, and to our horror the next one is not for another 45 minutes. There’s some debate as to what we should do. We planned to walk to the Austrian border (just half a mile away from Fussen), but none of us has the energy to do so after our hike downhill. In the end, we just sit by the fountain and do what travel is all about: waiting. We sit silently in the shade, hoping that the bus will miraculously appear ahead of time, that we’ll get back to Fussen with enough time to add a third country to our list. But nothing comes.

On our way back, we’re 10 minutes from Marktoberdorf station when a solitary girl who looks my age flags down the bus. She sits next to a man from Delhi and within minutes they are chatting like they’ve known each other for years. I glance at the slumbering mass of a Chinese man sitting next to me and feel the longing dredge up within. I wish I could wake him up and discuss our families, our friends, heck, maybe even the things we saw on our whistle-stop tour of the Bavarian Alps. But as he’s part of a tour group he probably didn’t pay much attention. The scenery’s the only consolation.

I realize that it’s not the loneliness that’s getting to me — Dennis and Wilson have been rather funny companions and they are good company. It’s someone to speak English with — and not just on WhatsApps, social media and the like. I want real interaction, the familiarity of the language rolling around on my tongue. Cantonese just feels like a language I’ve learnt how to imitate well — it might be my first language and everything, but I grew up reading loads more English than Chinese and I feel much more on home turf when I’m speaking English. Misunderstandings are so much harder to come by when that happens — you just express yourself better, feel more at ease with the person you’re talking to. But nobody’s round to do that here.

On the train we find ourselves sharing a compartment with a woman who looks like she’s in her sixties. She’s reading a travel magazine cluttered with pictures of exotic, exciting locations — places that I would never go to in a million years. My Asperger’s acting up, I try desperately to avoid eye contact with her. After a while she smiles at me kindly, my mind panics — and then, almost without knowing it, we find ourselves talking.

As it turns out, Elisabeth is from southern Austria. Having worked forty years in Munich, she’s taken a couple of days off to see the castles, and has even grander plans for the years after her retirement. “I have family in America,” she says. “My family lives in Austria but I have heard many things about that place. And I would really like to see for myself if it is true.” Although she’s lived and worked in Europe all her life, retirement means that she’s ready to try some new things. I’d never thought that people in their twilight years also did that: usually it’s us twenty-somethings, with our liberal viewpoints and nothing else to lose, who talk about jumping out of our comfort zones. But Elisabeth, it seems, is putting us to shame.

When Dennis and Wilson eventually take over after I’ve exhausted my ideas for conversation, it gradually emerges that choice and the freedom to do so means a lot to Elisabeth. She says that European education stresses, from a very young age, the importance of being able to make choices for yourself. “What I think is most important is that you have your own choice,” she’s saying. “There are so many different ways to go to the heaven that you want, for instance. But you cannot go there because you have been forced to go there.”

“So what you’re saying, is that it makes for a more convincing faith? A professor of mine once said something like that: you made the choice yourself, nobody forced you to do it, you thought out all the pros and cons and such.”

She nods. “It is so. And it should be so in a free society. You do not have to” — she falters for a bit — “to subscribe to anything you don’t want. It is all your choice.” She sounds saddened but not entirely surprised when she hears about Hong Kong as Dennis fills her in on the current political situation (pre-anti-ELAB movement, but already grim for some). “You need to be responsible for your choices, not a government making it all for you,” she says, all introspective.

What’s really caught me, though, is how easy it is for us to just talk. Normally we’d feel more than a little tentative talking to strangers — we’re Asians, which means we’re repressed on the inside. Talking to people who are not us is basically our kryptonite. But the four of us never feel awkward: any gap in the conversation is swiftly filled by new topics, and dialogue flows like the waterfall we saw earlier today. It’s rare that we can speak so freely, disregard all the borders and taboos — a fact not lost on any of us. “This must be what they call cultural exchange,” muses Dennis. In return for an invitation to Hong Kong, Elisabeth recommends that we visit the Hackerbrucke in the west of the city. “It is a beautiful bridge with a good sunset. You will like it. It’s just one stop down the line on the S-Bahn.” Apparently the boys do not know just how obvious their passion for photography is.

We say goodbye to Elisabeth at the Hauptbahnhof, the sun fading fast, joyous smiles on our faces, happy that we’ve managed to actually enrich ourselves on this journey and that we’ve managed to actually make a friend here in deepest Germany. We’re all for getting to the Hackerbrucke — but then we look at Platform 30 in the dying rays of the sun, and the beauty of it all is just so overwhelming that we decide to do it, right then and there.

Dennis and Wilson are more euphoric than I’ve ever seen them: “oh my God, look at that shot of you against the train, it’s INSANE”, “that girl right there is the EPITOME of hotness”, etc. The dark shadows of the platform infrastructure, the tangled web of cables and steel pillars, the lean figure of the boys — all beautifully set against a mix of dark blue and faded gold that is gorgeous to behold. The day might be gone, but for me there’s nothing quite like the last wisps of light, streaking across the sky as we pose for each other’s cameras.

There’s lots more to talk about — the Turkish dinner Wilson and I had, for example, or our (misguided) exploration of a German supermarket — but I prefer to keep that final image of Wilson and Dennis, taking pictures of each other, silhouetted against the setting sun, endlessly debating how to shoot someone beautifully. Perhaps it really is true, what they say: that it’s the people you meet on your travels that matter the most. Or maybe it’s a balance of both, one where the people is an integral part of the scenery, and the scenery enables the appearance of these wonderful people.

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Whichever way it is, it’s been a day to remember for us.

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