Cheese, Castles and Kings

Blog Audio

Day 1 Continued. Written Nov. 13. 2020. Audio edit and music by Valentin Jann.

We began the journey just south of Munich, driving route 17 with the aim of getting to Hohenschwangau for the night. This little Bavarian district lies scattered in a valley between two of Germany’s most visited castles. Perched on opposing hills, courtesy of King Ludwig II and co., Schloss Neuschwanstein and Schloss Hohenschwangau are a pair of fairy tale bookends — the sort of dolls houses your sister wouldn’t let you play with as a child. Their soaring conical turrets give a historicist, albeit romanticised, nod to the former medieval ruins, Vorderhohenschwangau and Hinterhohenschwangau, which frankly, were hard to pronounce anyway.

Schloss Neuschwanstein, Bavaria, Germany.


Ludwig II. was certainly a flamboyant man, like a child who somehow secured planning permission to build their dream house out of peanut M&Ms. Schloss Neuschwanstein was designed as a royal residence, painstakingly and fantastically himself. It had taken 17 years to complete and cost an equivalent of 40 million euros to build. Out of 200 rooms in the castle, Ludwig had lived to see only 20 completed. This seemed unfair of the universe.

I’ve never been inside the castle. It’s on the “One Day List” which, due to the current COVID-19 restrictions, will soon require a scribe. The carpark of the Tegelberg gondola is as close as we’ve stood, stopping there on a drive along the Deutsche Alpenstrasse last year.

That summer, it had rained all night. Valentin had spent the evening squatting in the middle of the carpark tending to a Thai curry while being battered by torrential rain. Tonight, the air was sharp, crisp but thankfully dry. We ate a Brotzeit in the van.

Brotzeit or “Bread time” is a meal I can always get behind, belonging to the category of snacks masquerading as meals. Ranked in order of preference:

1. Second Breakfast

2. Afternoon Tea

3. Elevenses (On the merit that the excuse to eat Bourbons was so poorly disguised.)

But Brotzeit is more than just a snack masquerading as a meal. It has the added appeal of feeling Medieval – hunks of rye bauernbrot full of great shards of caraway seed you can happily pick out of your teeth for the rest of the day. And then, of course, the cheese. Brick-like and coated in dried flowers, it is hacked out of its rind with a pen knife and slapped on there with a bit of intestinal sausage – the food of kings.

One of our typical Brotzeits in the van


Before I met Valentin, I’d have said my enthusiasm for dairy was above average. There is in my home a “cheese box” after all, sporting a block of Sainsbury’s Cheddar. This is usually bluer and furrier than Cheddar should be. We have a milk man – how British – and once every two weeks or so, someone will buy a 500 gram pot of plain yoghurt from the supermarket. If this doesn’t last a week, then there have been cravings for something more delicious, that wasn’t on the list.

I had to re-evaluate this identity when I met Valentin. He, like many Bavarians I have met, will start the day with a breeze block of Bergkäse on buttered toast. Cheese for breakfast was a concept I initially found jarring, preferring my bowl of Crunchy Nut discombobulated e-numbers. Gouda was the sort of thing you ate obligingly once a year as part of a continental breakfast, too groggy after the Dover-Calais crossing to notice what you were doing.

When it comes to dairy, there are no corners to be cut. The fuller the fat content, the happier the German, it would seem. There were a couple of occasions, earlier on in the relationship, when I’d found Valentin in the kitchen, holding a carton of something skimmed or reduced in fat with a look that said he wasn’t sure it was safe to consume.

I can be equally perplexed by the Bavarian consumption of cheese. Last winter we’d stayed in a hut with some friends of his, who had slaved over a man-sized Käsespätzle. For those who don’t know, this is a dumpling dish buried in grated cheese and crispy onions. It’s like eating gnocchi on a hallucinogenic.

Watching someone prepare Käsespätzle is always a spectacle. That night one member of the party went to fetch cheese from the pantry and returned with two kilogram bricks of Emmental. There was much discussion as to what was to be done with them, and gesticulating. They grated well into the night.

Each dumpling, no bigger than a pound coin, was boiled over a hot stove. Hours passed and many members of the group had stripped down to their undershirts, stoking the wood-fired aga with intermittent shouts to runners for “mehr käse!” (more cheese). When the final egg timer went, the Käsespätzle required two people to carry it to the dinner table. I hear some guests reported strings of cheese over a metre in length… I have included a photo representation below.

Ood photograph taken from


Back in Hohenschwangau, we left the van and just stood in the carpark for a while in the dark. (Perhaps it was the Blumenkäse.) Valentin was taking photos of the stars over Schloss Neuschwanstein, and I was standing a few metres away, trying not to get in shot or succumb to cheese-induced surrealism. The castle somehow looked closer than before. I felt a bizarre and sudden urge to break in.

Against the black hills, the Neuschwanstein blazed like veneer, illuminated from below by a series of spotlights.

Parked at the foot of the Tegelberg, Schloss Neuschwanstein.

It looked spectral, a hologram or an illusion, bringing to mind the 1917 Cottingley fairies, too bright, too perfect, but so almost real. Perhaps in the daytime it’d be beautiful. At night, there was something disturbing about it. The taller turret, furthest from us, cast a shadow of itself against the rising cliff face behind it – a giant, phallic silhouette.

There was some strange adrenaline in me, like I should run or smash something. In the dark, Valentin had finished taking his photograph, coming up and resting his chin on my shoulder as if to say, “well?” I informed him that I planned to break into the Schloss. I asked him what he thought was inside, how far away it was, could we walk? What would the security be like?

He can fake a serious face when he wants to. He said there was a ballroom inside. We agreed on first breaking the ground floor window and then dancing until arrested. The more we plotted, the more receiving a criminal record seemed like a worthy price to pay for a night in Ludwig’s brainchild.

We drank a radler and went to bed. I couldn’t sleep for thinking about parachuting into the armoury.

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