Written by John Watters
We took a train tour to Neuschwanstein, the well-known “fairytale castle” that is Germany’s most popular tourist destination.
Things didn’t get off to a great start. You honestly couldn’t ask for worse weather; it rained all day, and it was quite cold. I’m sort of the anti-Boy Scout, with a motto less “Be prepared,” and more “Always be caught off-guard.” So I set off on a trip into the wet, almost wintry Alps in a short-sleeved shirt, carrying only a tiny umbrella. Thankfully, former Girl Scout Alison (multiple merit badges, I’m asked to point out) had thought to pack me an emergency poncho, and I was able to get through the day soggy, but not waterlogged, and not frozen.
Notwithstanding the weather, it was a highly entertaining trip; the castle is spectacular inside and out. (Photos are allowed outside, but not in, so only a couple of misty exterior ones are included here.) The full-castle view was taken from a bridge by the intrepid Alison. The bridge spans a gorge about 200 feet above a swollen river, and that didn’t sit well with my fear of heights. As I inched my way toward it, the guide mentioned the bridge was made of wood – which slowed my inching a bit. Then he mentioned the planks would give under our feet, but that it was all perfectly safe. That slowed me down a bit more. Then he mentioned – jokingly, I think – that it was due for inspection this week. And that’s when I felt the planks begin to give. Moving as quickly as I have in a long time, I abandoned the bridge, the photo op and my wife for the safety of the pathway.
The interior tour was kind of a cattle call – you can’t move thousands of visitors through in a day by letting them linger. But it was worthwhile just the same. Rather than try to describe the castle’s furnishings, though – I’ll leave it at “not exactly Ikea-esque” – I want to mention the guide on our English-speaking tour. He was a man in his thirties named Austin, and he was from Texas, where he had been a choral music teacher to high-school students. He had come to Germany to be a tour guide for the summer, and had stayed for a year. On a day marked by heavy rain, in the middle of a sudden train strike, Austin navigated us through the weather, the missed connections and the ever-changing schedule with poise and good humor. He regaled us with deeply researched stories of the history surrounding the castle’s owner, Mad King Ludwig. He made a potentially disastrous day into a remarkably good one.
I think about what Austin brought to that day. His teaching chops, certainly, but beyond that, outstanding communication skills with a diverse audience. He clearly had theatre in his past, because he was polished and confident. He was a historian far beyond what he needed to be to lead a group of casual tourists. He was multi-lingual, multi-cultural, and worldly. He showed tremendous leadership in keeping a group of 30 strangers together, all safe and accounted for. And he was absolutely hilarious and witty to boot. All of that – in addition to his “official” profession of choral music teacher.
In short, Austin struck me as a poster child for liberal-arts education. I appreciated how much he embodied the ideal we strive for at St. Norbert College – the graduate who is an articulate, inquisitive citizen of the world, excited to be a lifelong learner and to engage with others. I’ve met many students destined to be “Austins” during my five years at St. Norbert, and it was wonderful to meet one of their kindred spirits on the road to a castle.