You know that saying about the journey and not the destination? And the joy of unexpected surprises along the path? Our adventure today reminded me of those nuggets of knowledge as well as highlighted some previously learned lessons. The largest jewels in today’s crown of learning are, “be true to thine own travel style” and “the best experience is not always the most thorough experience.” Some other shiny gems include, change (the money type) is important for more than happy hiking and unexpected surprises can lurk in tourist destinations.
Today, along with probably half of Europe, we visited Neuschwanstein Castle. If you are a Disney fan, the castle may look familiar to you as it is the castle that inspired Sleeping Beauty’s abode. King Ludwig II of Bavaria was a Robert Wagner fanatic and a bit of a recluse. He had Neuschwanstein built both to honor the composer and serve as a retreat in which to live out his romantic ideas of the Middle Ages. More than 1.3 million people visit annually, about 6,000 a day in the summer. I read on one website that it is the most visited castle in Germany and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe. I didn’t actually research any of this until after our visit, but I believe it now.
Have I mentioned that we are neither sophisticated travelers nor planners? We are not. We got up this morning after an amazing adventure yesterday (Four Lessons in a three Hour Tour) and decided that we needed something a little less physically taxing as our legs were a bit sore from missing the Gondola ride. A castle visit sounded like a good idea and because both of my husband’s parents have traveled in the area and my father-in-law especially is an über planner and sharer of information, we knew that Sleeping Beauty’s castle was a short jaunt from Oberammergau.
The forty or so minute drive to the castle was beautiful through little villages and along fields, rolling hills and lakes and when the castle actually came into view, perched high on a mountainside, it truly looked like a scene from a fairy tale. This was going to be good. We were excited as we drove along a narrow country road through more of those beautiful fields, a tractor here and there, a forest ahead of us, oh, a beautiful church right in the middle of a field and now we are noticing some cars parked here and there along the narrow road, but what are the people that drove those cars doing? Where are they? We are so clueless. Long story bearable here: the narrow road becomes clogged with cars (people parking for free and walking) and behind the forest are carparks and lots and lots of tourists (you would never know on the approach). My husband asks, “Where are we?” I have no idea. We park the car and follow the hordes of tourists while dodging giant tour busses. What has happened here? I will tell you, things are not always as they appear.
My children are good natured and while as a family, we are all much happier on a pristine mountain side, they will entertain each other anywhere and are usually up for most adventures (even touristy ones). My husband, on the other hand, starts exhibiting his special “I’m not going to have a good time because this is touristy, tourist behavior.” The moment the trees part and we see three different car parks to choose from, he is lost. He parks the car and says, “I’ll just follow you.” So, I head off in the general direction of all of the other tourists, my children happily chattering and dodging tour busses, my husband skulking behind. Then he says, “Where are you going?” You get the picture. I am going to need food and maybe even Bier for this adventure, so I fearlessly lead them to snacks. I’ve been wanting to try Curry Wurst since we got to Germany because it has a cool name and this is the perfect time, probably not the best place (amusement park food) but I can’t do this project hangry. The Curry Wurst was good enough to try it again somewhere and the Bier was helpful.
There were so many people. We decided to skip the inside castle tour and just walk up and look around (no waiting in line for tour tickets, tours, busses, trams, horse carriages, or however anyone else gets to the castle without walking). Before we walked up to the castle though my daughter and I decided to visit the restrooms. And herein, a couple of lessons awaited. I was happy because there were signs all over the place pointing the way (WC means bathroom) to the restrooms (all three stalls for countless, tour bus loads of people) but that joy was short lived. Germany, so far, has been a delightful experience in order and efficiency so this toilet soiree was a big disappointment. If you visit this castle (and maybe it’s also true of other super touristy areas) remember the importance of carrying change (pay to get to use a toilet), although there may be a change machine lurking in an inconspicuous place outside the bathroom (that I saw after some nice people behind us broke our 2 Euro coin). In addition, there is probably a cleaner facility with a shorter line at the top of the hill (inside the castle even). Enough said but an important lesson that we will carry forward.
So we walked up to the castle, took some pictures, looked around the outside (noticed the cleaner bathroom with a significantly shorter line) and walked back down towards the carpark. The castle had lost all of its appeal by this time and my husband was completely on the dark side, firmly entrenched in his tourist survival mode. He had even begun speaking in his pretend foreign language to amuse himself. This was especially amusing because as he started in with his language, I walked ahead so I would have a better chance of keeping my mouth shut and just getting back to the car and away from Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, but then I heard him chatting with someone (other than our kids) in English. It was someone from our hometown in California! Oh and that someone happened to be the son of the highly respected, very nice, very reassuring Orthopedist who has treated both of the kids, our daughter in just the last few months. Small world to be sure and one of those unexpected bonuses that has nothing to do with any destination. It was fun to chat with him on our walk back to the car.
We stopped and took some pictures of the castle in the distance as we drove away and those were my favorite pictures of the day. Sometimes you know things but they are still not intrinsic, not really integrated into the way you think or operate. When my girlfriend and I visited Europe in our twenties, we would pick up a tourist map of each area and methodically and excruciatingly visit as many points of interest as we could squeeze into our day. I have known for a long time now that that type of exploration is not my style and I don’t enjoy the experience of Disneyland or that type of busy, wait-in-line for everything, touristy location. I also know that sometimes you just have to visit the tourist trap because it is a tourist trap for a reason and you just might want to check it out for yourself.
I truly understood for the first time today that one can choose a different way to experience something that lots of people experience. Duh, right? It was an epiphany for me though. Neuschwanstein Castle is definitely a “Disneyland experience” up close, but that doesn’t mean it had to be our “Disneyland experience.” We could have seen it in a different way, one that would have felt more magical, organic and satisfying and I finally saw this through the camera lens when I took my favorite pictures of the day. We could have parked on that narrow road and wandered around in the deserted and beautiful green acres of the valley and just enjoyed the view of the castle in the distance.
Be true to thine own travel style and remember, the best experience is not always the most thorough experience.