70 million visitors left their mark. That’s why Neuschwanstein Castle needs a mammoth renovation. During the tour, we spoke with site managers and the restoration staff about the work in 93 rooms, on 2,329 objects as well as 664 windows and doors, about limited-boiling petrols and pre-dry visitors. Text: Florian Kinast. Photos: Thomas Linkel
Neuschwanstein Castle: Behind the Scenes of a Restoration
The dragon had to “loose a lot of feathers”. The paint has peeled off its wings, and the wall plaster is shimmering through in spots all over its body. Small wounds, scars from a century and a half. Perforated, the crumbly vine leaves beside it, whose curved ornamentation twines upwards, look yellowed and withered, as if in late autumn after a summer that has been far too dry. Time has also visibly gnawed away at the tooth frieze above.
Ramona Proske sits 4.5 metres above the floor of the royal study, right next to the wall art with fauna, flora and mythical creatures. For weeks, she has been touching up the old crumbled areas with mixed dry pigments from her paint box. The palette ranges from earth-coloured ochre and umber tones to green chrome oxide and ultramarine blue.
The group of visitors who push their way out of the stalactite grotto under Ramona’s scaffolding towards the Singers’ Hall are unaware of all this. Fragments of the castle guide’s words penetrate upwards, the name Ludwig is heard twice. Terms like eccentric, idiosyncratic, loner are mentioned. Then it’s quiet again. Until the next tour in five minutes.
Neuschwanstein is not only one of the most famous tourist attractions in Germany. It’s also a massive construction site at the moment. Ludwig II’s palace is currently undergoing the largest renovation in its 150-year history at a cost of 20 million euros.
355 Pieces of Furniture, 65 Paintings, 5,450 Square Metres of Wall Space
The figures show how extensive the work is: There are 2,329 objects to be restored, as well as 93 rooms with 184 wall and ceiling fixtures. Add to that 65 paintings, 355 pieces of furniture, all 664 windows and exterior doors, not to mention the 315 individual elements made of oak, pine and spruce. That’s a lot of wood!
Neuschwanstein’s ageing condition, its many aches and pains, was and is mainly due to the crowds of visitors. The first onlookers flocked to the palace just six weeks after the death of “Kini” Ludwig II in 1886, and to date there have been a total of over 70 million. At its peak before the pandemic, 1.5 million visitors came every year.
Sweat, Fibres, Road Salt Residues
Every three to five minutes, a group of sixty people pushed their way through the halls and chambers. The visitors not only brought a lot of money, but also left behind clothing fibres, skin flakes and, with their sweat and breaths, a lot of moisture in the castle. Over the decades, all of this has had a massive impact on the fabric of the building and the works of art.
It is even worse in rain and snow, moisture and dirt. Slush and road salt do not simply roll off – even this rapturous and dignified castle.
That’s why they have already helped in the entrance area. Heiko Oehme points to the clean-up areas they have laid out: large scrapers on which stones and dirt get stuck even before visitors reach the royal chambers.
As one of the responsible building officers, Oehme is an insider of the mega-project. He knows the importance of the installed ventilation systems on the way to handing out the audio guides before the tour starts: “It helps,” says Oehme, “to pre-dry the visitors’ clothes a bit already.” That way they are halfway clean and dry before they are guests to the king.
Not Safe From Any Surprise
When it came to installing technical innovations, a lot could be planned, says Oehme. “When we inspected the existing buildings, however, we were often blindsided.” Whether it was accumulated water that was suddenly discovered behind old columns or previously undiscovered rotten wooden beams under colourful terrazzo tiles. “There were a lot of things we didn't expect,” he says. “You find one surprise after another.”
The damage to the staircase was clearly visible from the beginning. Oehme speaks of “wall surfaces that have been washed down”. He points to the damage to the red and green paintings where there is no paint left, only plaster. The cause? Clothes, bags and backpacks, many thousands of them rubbed along the painted walls as they walked up and down the steps. That is why they have mounted the handrail a few centimetres further away from the wall for holding on.
The Heavy, 1,000-Kilo Chandelier
Oehme leads the way up to the throne room, which has been restored after five years of work and is the most impressive state room and the heart of the palace. The central masterpiece in the room: the one tonne, four metre high brass chandelier in the shape of a Byzantine crown, with 96 candles, interspersed with Bohemian stained glass.
To make it easier for the restoration staff to repair the damage and remove the accumulated dirt from the metal, the chandelier was lowered to the ground via a crank construction that had already been installed in the dome during Ludwig’s time and enclosed with chipboard. There, acrylic glass panels embedded in the cladding provided visitors with an exciting insight.
The experts’ work on the chandelier, says Oehme, has been an almost greater attraction over all these months than the throne room itself, which features, amongst other things, the portraits of the twelve apostles and six canonised kings, as well as a staircase made of Carrara marble.
Jet Nozzle Diffuser for Quality Air
Somewhat hidden to the right of the apse, a good ten metres above the ground, are the new, shiny metallic jet nozzle diffusers, the technical term for the silent systems for effective ventilation of high rooms and large halls. Soon, the aluminium blocks will be coloured so that they blend into the overall ensemble and are not so conspicuous.
The throne room is a good example of the complexity and artistic tightrope walk of the restoration work. As Oehme emphasises, it is “not at all a matter of giving Neuschwanstein a new shine”, which is why he asks several times today to refrain from using this sweeping phrase, which is often used in connection with the restoration of various media.
Rough Edges and Quirks – not Disney-Beauty
“We don’t want to bring the castle back to the condition and appearance of the 1880s, but only to repair the damage caused from the outside. We want to preserve the natural traces of the ageing process.”
"We want to preserve the natural traces of the ageing process.”
Neuschwanstein is not meant to present itself as the prettified, immaculate Disney castle that many tourists would like to see it as. It is supposed to be a castle with rough edges and quirks, with flaws and wrinkles. It is about restoration and not plastic surgery. Neuschwanstein’s long life is something to be proud of.
Spots in the Starry Sky
The best example is the patchy starry sky on the ceiling of the throne room. One consideration could have been to simply retouch and “rectify” the numerous black spots on the midnight blue paint. But the project leaders started researching, discovered old photographs from the time shortly after Ludwig’s death – and saw there that the dark shadows were already visible back then.
The experts dug deeper and deeper into the matter and came to the conclusion that the king had pushed with great impatience to finish the sky as quickly as possible, which is why the stains appeared through chemical processes soon after the hasty application of the paint.
“The stain is a historical testimony to the haste with which Ludwig pushed the completion of the hall,” says Oehme, “something we didn’t want to gloss over in retrospect.” If you like, you can also take a symbolic view of the darkened sky. For the dark clouds that were already gathering for the king in the bright firmament before he was declared insane and his life came to an end in Lake Starnberg.
Stephan Wolf, himself a trained church painter and now head of Department 5 at the Palace Administration’s Restoration Centre, also deals with clouding on works of art in Neuschwanstein. This includes polychrome architecture-bound settings, stucco, natural stone, construction-bound metal and paintings. In short, the entire wall restoration.
"Oh, it is necessary to create such paradises (...), where for some time, one can forget the shuddering time in which we live."
King Ludwig II.
Builder of Schloss Neuschwanstein
A Clean Break
Wolf tells us that it was not only the mass of visitors that was difficult for the castle to cope with, but also the decades-long method of treatment during maintenance, as he explains using the oak panelling next to the Singers’ Hall on the fourth floor.
For decades, the staff had cleaned the wood with damp oil cloths, says Wolf. “At first glance it worked quite well, but unfortunately the oil did not dry, but bound dust and dirt. Thus, the grease layer became thicker and thicker over the years.” The trick is now to remove the layer of grease with so-called limited-boiling petrols.
They work with agents that react as weakly as possible. This is to prevent the original wood layer from being attacked in addition to the grime. Only if this does not help, says Wolf, should one resort to stronger solution tinctures. The basics of wood restoration!
Wolf takes us on another tour of the various floors, talking about the 5,450 square metres of wall surface that need to be worked on in all the rooms. He also talks about the methylcellulose derivatives that are also contained in wallpaper paste, water-soluble mixtures of dry pigments that Ramona Proske applies to her dragons, for example, about the broken metal parts on candelabras, about broken fingers on the figures in the Singers’ Hall, about cracks on the blue lapis lazuli columns caused by the sun’s UV radiation, about the bird excrement that they have to carefully remove from the works of art again and again with cotton swabs. In the past, when you opened the windows, pigeons would flutter in.
More pictures from Neuschwanstein Castle
Work During Operation
The greatest difficulty of all? Despite all the myths surrounding Neuschwanstein, the project manager believes that it’s not the building itself. “It’s art from the 19th century,” Wolf says as we leave, meaning it’s rather routine. The big challenge, he says, is enforcement during ongoing operations, even though currently “only” a maximum of 35 visitors per tour rush through every five minutes.
Closing Neuschwanstein completely for the time of restoration would make the work much easier. On the other hand, the Palace Administration would lose immense amounts in entrance fees – around 5,000 euros per hour.
And What Happens When It’s All Done?
How they proceed after the complete restoration, whether they increase the number to sixty visitors per tour again, whether they stay at 35, whether they find a solution in between – all that is still open. What’s also clear is that the more visitors, the more revenue, but also the greater the burden on the building and the art ensemble. It’s a difficult balancing act.
The restoration is to be completed by spring 2024, and at the moment they are well on schedule. But they are guaranteed to find many more surprises.