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The municipality of Schwangau lies at an elevation of 800 m (2,620 ft) at the south west border of the German state of Bavaria. Its surroundings are characterized by the transition between the Alpine foothills in the south (toward the nearby Austrian border) and a hilly landscape in the north that appears flat by comparison.
In the Middle Ages, three castles overlooked the villages. One was called Schwanstein Castle. In 1832, Ludwig’s father King Maximilian II of Bavaria bought its ruins to replace them with the comfortable neo-Gothic palace known as Hohenschwangau Castle. Finished in 1837, the palace became his family’s summer residence, and his elder son Ludwig (born 1845) spent a large part of his childhood here.
Vorderhohenschwangau Castle and Hinterhohenschwangau Castle sat on a rugged hill overlooking Schwanstein Castle, two nearby lakes (Alpsee and Schwansee), and the village. Separated only by a moat, they jointly consisted of a hall, a keep, and a fortified tower house. In the nineteenth century only ruins remained of the twin medieval castles, but those of Hinterhohenschwangau served as a lookout place known as Sylphenturm.
The ruins above the family palace were known to the crown prince from his excursions. He first sketched one of them in his diary in 1859. When the young king came to power in 1864, the construction of a new palace in place of the two ruined castles became the first in his series of palace building projects. Ludwig called the new palace New Hohenschwangau Castle; only after his death was it renamed Neuschwanstein. The confusing result is that Hohenschwangau and Schwanstein have effectively swapped names: Hohenschwangau Castle replaced the ruins of Schwanstein Castle, and Neuschwanstein Castle replaced the ruins of the two Hohenschwangau Castles.
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