Category Archives: Germany

Trying on Royalty for Size

The best art and history museums everywhere have entertaining programs for children–after all, children are the future. I’m always happy when I see kids having a good time at a museum. For instance, the Residenz in Munich gives kids a chance to dress up as royalty from days long past.


The Residenz was the ancestral home of the royal Wittelsbach family for generations. “Mad” King Ludwig was born somewhere in its warren of grand bedrooms, salons, music rooms and chapels. Having slogged my way through the corridors twice on two separate trips, I can understand why he went “mad” enough to escape to his personal castles at Neuschwanstein and Linderhof. Away from Munich, he could at least live on a more human scale.

The palace is so huge and confusing that the audio tour considerately offers an escape hatch: a sign about halfway through informing the visitor that the shorter tour is complete, and the full tour is optional. The first time, I didn’t think my tired feet could take any more polished marble corridors. The second time, I made it all the way through and found it worthwhile. Still, although it’s a nice place to visit, I wouldn’t want to live there.

I doubt that Ludwig enjoyed dressing up as much as the kids visiting his home these days. I’m glad to see kids at the very entrance of the Residenz having a good time imagining life in days long past. I hope they all develop a taste for history.

This post is an experiment. I’ll soon be traveling, and I wanted to try posting using nothing but my trusty phone. If you are reading this, the experiment worked!

“Nice Fish” at Guthrie Theater

One of the best things about travel is making connections between things that seem unrelated.  For instance, last night I saw the play “Nice Fish” at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and found myself thinking about Ludwig II of Bavaria. I’ll explain!

First, about the play: the wonderful actor Mark Rylance introduced large television audiences to the work of Duluth poet Louis Jenkins (who has been featured reading his prose poems on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, among other places). In 2008, while accepting his Tony award, Mr. Rylance did a hilarious deadpan recitation of a poem about the wearing of uniforms. You can watch the speech at

Louis Jenkins emailed him, and soon the two men were collaborating on what eventually became the play “Nice Fish.”

NiceFishPosterIn the play, two men share an afternoon on a frozen Minnesota lake–a time-honored pastime in these parts.  The actors are Mark Rylance himself, on the right, and Jim Lichtscheidl on the left. Besides co-writing the play, Mr. Rylance also directed, along with his wife, Claire Van Kampen.

In the course of a long freezing afternoon, they encounter an insanely officious game warden. Then things turn surreal with the appearance of three figures from Germanic myth–sort of.   There’s an alluring young girl who pops out of a fishhouse in a bikini. She later changes into a festive prom-like party dress and teaches the lovestruck Ron to waltz.

Mark Rylance’s character can hardly believe his good fortune when she seems to fall in love with him, but she confides that Wayne, the owner of the fishhouse, is her sort-of boyfriend who’s gone off to fetch supplies.  When Wayne returns, roaring onto the ice on a vintage snowmobile, he summons his brother, Wainwright, who acts as his wingman.  Complications ensue.

Mr. Rylance writes in the play’s program that he got the idea of introducing these characters while watching the opera Das Rheingold, by Richard Wagner.  Probably none of us would be watching Wagner operas if Ludwig II of Bavaria had not decided to be Richard Wagner’s patron.  I’ve written about Ludwig’s awe-inspiring grotto at Linderhof Castle, constructed as his personal theater for private performances of Wagner’s operas.

Ludwig's Grotto

Ludwig’s Grotto

Having arrived just before curtain time, I watched the entire play without reading the program notes.  So I didn’t know that Flo was a stand-in for Freya, the Norse goddess of eternal youth.  I didn’t know that Wayne and Wainwright were stand-ins for the giants who kidnapped Freya. (The plot of Das Rheingold, involving a magical ring, also provided some of the inspiration for J. R. R.  Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings). I doubt most of the audience around me cared much about the underlying myths, either.  The show was laugh-out-loud funny and thought-provoking to those of us who thought we were just watching Midwest eccentrics on a frozen lake.  (Yes, the supposedly staid Midwest has plenty of eccentrics–we all have relatives, don’t we?)

The play ends with a hilarious yet touching enactment of aging, death and the afterlife. It has had mixed reviews, including complaints that it is too long.  Personally, I would cheerfully watch Mark Rylance read blizzard school closings for the entire state of Minnesota.  Seeing what he can do as playwright and director is well worth my time any day.  I just might go see the show again before it closes!

Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe–with connections to modern life.

Moonwalk with Ludwig

"King Ludwig II of Bavaria," Ferdinand Piloty, 1865, Public Domain

“King Ludwig II of Bavaria,” Ferdinand Piloty, 1865, Public Domain

Ludwig II of Bavaria identified with Louis XIV, the Sun King of France. (In German, Ludwig is the same name as Louis).  The trouble was, the French King Louis XIV actually was an absolute monarch who expanded and presided over quite a large and powerful empire.

Louis XIV by Rigaud, Public Domain

Louis XIV by Rigaud, Public Domain

Louis XIV was also a warrior. He actually led his own forces in the battlefield.  Ludwig? Not so much. And he had little interest in the day-to-day work of government. Ludwig was a monarch of the kingdom of Bavaria, which was much smaller and less powerful than France.  Through no real fault of Ludwig’s, Bavaria was more or less eaten up by Germany, under Kaiser Wilhelm I of Prussia, during his reign.  But while Bavarian independence lasted, Ludwig was a much-loved monarch of a proud independent kingdom.


He visited Versailles early in his reign.  When he came home, he decided to build a dream home–or maybe two or three or four dream homes.  Linderhof Palace, where he actually spent a lot of time, was designed as a mini-Versailles-for-one.  It is in French Rococo style and has any number of references to the Sun King, including this ceiling medallion in the main entry.


But Ludwig called himself the Moon King.  He often stayed up all night and slept all day.  He was fond of moonlit sleighrides. Pulled by four white horses, he rode in solitary splendor, enjoying the spectacular Bavarian landscape of mountains, foothills and farms.

During these forays into the countryside, he would often stop and visit with the locals, who adored him.  His life was lonely, but by all accounts at least some of his servants and a few of his peers became loyal and trusted friends.  The movie Ludwig, directed by Luchino Visconti, touchingly describes some of these friendships, which lasted to the untimely end of Ludwig’s life.

Michael Jackson in Vienna, Austria, 1988, Zoran Veselinovic, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike

Michael Jackson in Vienna, Austria, 1988, Zoran Veselinovic, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike

If I had to make a modern comparison, I would compare Ludwig IV to Michael Jackson.  I would not want to offend fans of either man by carrying the comparison too far.  But both of them were romantic, idealistic, talented, misunderstood, and wildly famous but still lonely. Both of them died far too early in mysterious circumstances.  And both died accompanied only by their physicians.  Sometimes the past can help us understand the present.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Lunch with Ludwig II

In his dining room at Linderhof Palace, King Ludwig II did not want servants bothering him.  Maybe he wanted to avoid the inefficiencies of dining at his childhood home, Hohenschwangau Castle, a few miles away from Linderhof.  In Hohenschwangau, the kitchen was in a separate building.  When the family  sat down to eat, someone had to stand next to the window.  This servant would wave at another servant stationed at the kitchen window when it was time to bring in the next course.  Then the food had to be carried up a couple of flights of stairs in insulated containers.

Hohenschwangau Castle

Hohenschwangau Castle

When he built his own personal dream home at Linderhof, Ludwig did away with all that nonsense.  He designed a dining table that disappeared through the floor into the kitchen directly below.  I had seen this table, but I couldn’t imagine how it actually worked until I watched Luchino Visconti’s film Ludwig, made in 1972.  There is a scene where Ludwig leans back from finishing one course, and a couple of servants down below crank the table down to restock it.  Sliding panels automatically fill in the space, relieving my worry that poor Ludwig would accidentally fall into his kitchen. It’s a sad scene. The liveried servants down below are making coarse jokes about their employer and guzzling his leftover wine.

No doubt it was always hard to find good help.  Ludwig was probably not the most considerate employer, either. Today, it is possible to peer in through the ground-level kitchen window and see the mechanism that lifts and lowers the table.

The dining room is French Rococo, like the rest of the very small palace. That translates into a lot of carved gilded woodwork, framed mirrors and exquisite porcelain.

With tourists traipsing through the place, the windows are covered with heavy shades to protect the interior.  But Ludwig would have looked out at a very pretty French-styled garden complete with fleur-de-lis flower beds.


Ludwig’s disappearing table is not large. Today, there is only one throne-like chair.  Ludwig almost always ate all alone.  In fact, there were no guest quarters in the small palace because there were no guests. But according to the guides, Ludwig often had the table set for at least one other person, sometimes two or three.  He liked to chat with some of his imaginary friends, whose portraits appear in the room:  Marie Antoinette, Madame de Pompadour, and Louis IV.

When the Bavarian government finally got fed up with Ludwig’s spending and failure to sit in boring Cabinet meetings, much was made of his unusual habits.  Was having imaginary friends evidence of insanity? Personally, I don’t think so.  I think Ludwig was a man who wanted to create the illusion of being with his favorite people in a perfect world.  For about 22 years of his life, from 1864 to 1886, he had the means to do just that.

Join me next time for more insight into some of the quirky byways in the art and history of Europe!

Ludwig’s Local Starbucks at Linderhof

After the Siege of Vienna by the Ottomans was broken in 1683, the conquering army of Austrians found sacks of Turkish coffee left behind.  Immediately coffee became a popular drink, and coffeehouses sprang up.  Of course, Ludwig was not a sociable man, and he had no use for internet access.  So instead of heading to his local watering hole, he savored his morning coffee in his very own Moorish Kiosk on the grounds of Linderhof Palace.

Moroccan House at Linderhof

Moroccan House at Linderhof

The structure was built for the International Exhibition in Vienna in Paris in 1867.  Ludwig wanted to buy it, but a railroad mogul beat him to the punch.  He had to wait until a little later, when the railroad went bankrupt. The interior is otherworldly, lit mostly by sunlight streaming through stained glass.

Moroccan House Interior

Moroccan House Interior

The most distinctive feature is the Peacock Throne.  Unfortunately, tourists are only allowed to peer into the doorway, so it’s hard to say whether the throne was built for comfort.

Ludwig was always dressed impeccably for any occasion.  History does not record what he wore for his jaunts to his favorite morning coffee spot, but I can use my imagination.

Join me next time for further exploration into quirky corners in the art and history of Europe!

Linderhof: “Mad” King Ludwig’s Real Home

Last fall I was finally able to visit Linderhof Palace, King Ludwig II’s favorite home, at a time when the grotto was open.  I was anxious to see it, especially after watching Luchino Visconti’s very fine film Ludwig, about the life and mysterious death of the notorious Bavarian king.


Ludwig built Linderhof as his own personal getaway.  In fact, it was the ultimate bachelor pad.  But he enjoyed the place in solitary splendor; he rarely if ever had visitors.  He built a special music room for his favorite composer, Richard Wagner, but Wagner never saw it. The grounds are breathtaking, and because the palace is quite small, each room looks out onto a beautiful manicured view with pristine mountains in the background.

Linderhof Palace

Linderhof Palace

In Visconti’s 1972 film Ludwig, the king is played by Visconti’s real-life romantic partner and muse, Helmut Berger.

It is hard to say how accurate the life story is.  But it is certain that Ludwig was an eccentric and  dreamy romantic.  His people loved him, but he was not much of a king when it was time to hang the ermine in the closet and get some work done.

One of Ludwig’s very few friends was his cousin, the Austrian Empress Elisabeth, nicknamed Sisi. She was famously married to the Emperor when she was only 15, and spent the rest of her life wanting out.  She is played by Romy Schneider (who also played Sisi in the very silly but entertaining semi-fictional series of Sissi movies).

The grotto was built up the hill behind the castle.  The entrance looks like a fort a very ambitious child might build.


But the grotto itself is as jaw-droppingly weird and beautiful as it was in Ludwig’s day.  He had Wagner’s operas performed inside for his own personal pleasure.  The water was heated, so that he could swim in it if he tired of being rowed around in his gilded shell boat.  And the lighting could change colors depending on his mood, or the mood of the opera scene.

Ludwig's Grotto

Ludwig’s Grotto

The grotto is still festooned with the floral swags that Visconti’s movie crew put up.  The film has a fantastic scene where an Austrian actor is taken into the grotto to meet Ludwig, who wants him to recite dramatic speeches 24/7.  Helmut Berger, as Ludwig, floats out of the gloom in his shell boat, wearing a dark overcoat and a black Homburg–with an enormous diamond brooch pinned to the side. He fixes the actor with an imperious, piercing stare. The actor tries hard to be Ludwig’s New Best Friend, but the friendship ends badly and Ludwig is alone again.

Nearby Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau Castles are justly famous, but they are overrun with tourists.  Armed with a Bavarian Castles Pass, I actually went to Linderhof twice during my last trip.  One day it was rainy, the next it was sunny.  I can’t say I had the place to myself, but there was time and space enough to ponder the mysterious life of Ludwig.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Bears in Berlin

In the Rocky Mountains of northwest Colorado, where I live, spring means BEARS.  We scurry out to the curb with our trash practically when we see the garbage truck coming, and haul in the empty garbage cans as soon as the truck is past.  If we had birdfeeders out in the winter, we bring them in.  Still, sometimes the bears get a little too close, like this yearling cub trying to open my back door last week.

Notice the cub's claws!

Notice the cub’s claws!

His mother and brother (or sister) watched with great interest.  Maybe they could all have a feast!


My door has a lever handle, and the cub knew how to push down on it.  When that didn’t work, he tried his already-powerful jaws.  All this was going on while I stood just inside the glass, hoping the deadbolt would hold. The note on the inside of my door says “Do not open this door!” I don’t want it left unlocked by accident.

My house seems to be located on an ancient game trail. Moose, elk, deer and bears parade past as if they owned the place–which, in a way, they do. Taking the wildlife officer’s advice, I have pots and pans ready to bang if bears come too close again.  These animals need to be kept wild if they are to survive.

Last spring at this time, I visited Berlin for the first time.  I saw bear statues everywhere, in bright colors and playful poses.

A bear appears on the city flag of Berlin, too.

Flag of Berlin

Flag of Berlin

No one seems to know when or why the bear became the symbol of Berlin.  There was an early ruler whose nickname was “The Bear.”  Or, more likely, the origin was a pun on the name of the city.  Sadly, though, there have been no bears in the entire country of Germany for almost 200 years.  Historically, wherever they appeared in Europe, they were exploited and abused. Farmers hunted them to extinction. In 2006, one of the 30 bears known to live in Austria wandered across the border into Germany. He was tracked for two weeks, then killed as a danger to humans.  Efforts were made to transplant bears into Austria in the 1990’s, but now they are extinct in that country too.

I feel blessed to live in a place where we try to coexist with the wildlife right outside our doors. I’ll do my part to help this magnificent creature live and thrive in the mountains!