“Well, it ain’t the Redwoods.” My head snapped up in a grin and met my friends’ gazes, all of us in amazement and dissolving into laughter at this comment thrown out by an exhausted tourist. We were climbing through a forested trail in Schwangau, Southern Germany one afternoon in late May. Light streamed between the tall, elegant pines as we panted our way up the steep path. Ain’t the Redwoods? Perhaps this traveler had stopped short of the actual destination at the end of the trail, and been left unimpressed by the beauty of the surrounding German countryside. His comment giddily propelled us to carry on until we reached Queen Mary’s Bridge at the top of the hill. My breath caught as, finally, the sea of tourists parted and the last few pine branches flashed out of view to reveal my travel dream: the Neuschwanstein Castle.
The sounds of iPhone cameras and selfie sticks snapping into position faded away as I remembered staring at the view before me years ago, tucked away in the corner of my history textbook. Neuschwanstein Castle is simply enchanting, with white gleaming towers crowned with royal blue tiles. Commissioned by King Ludwig II of Bavaria in 1868, the Castle was intended to honor the romanticism of Ludwig’s favorite composer Richard Wagner and mimic medieval style architecture. The Castle also dots popular culture, from inspiring Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella castles to forming the backdrop for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang taking flight.
Neuschwanstein Castle lies just two hours south of Munich by train. My friends and I decided to buy a joint ticket for the train ride from the Munich central station to the town of Fussen, and for the bus ride from Fussen to Ludwig’s estates. Tickets can be bought from the Munich central station (München Hauptbahnhof) for under 30 euros, and provide travelers with a charming ride through the rolling German countryside.
The history, beauty, and mystery of Neuschwanstein are captivating. Time seemed to slow as I walked across Queen Mary’s Bridge, my eyes locked on my travel dream standing so elegantly against a crisp blue sky.
Looking up ahead, I saw a few travelers scrambling along a trail up an imposing cliff overlooking the Castle. My friends and I crossed the congested bridge and climbed up the narrow, steep trail. On our hands and knees climbing up the dusty rocks, one of us who had made it to the top yelled out, “Look behind you!”
Heaving ourselves over the last few rocks, we all turned our heads to see the snow-capped Alps and glittering Alpsee Lake. Neuschwanstein to my right, it was the heavenly mountains that mesmerized us for what felt like hours. Blinking was the only thing to keep us from forgetting that the mountain landscape before us was no painting or photograph, that beyond those sparkling mountaintops lay Austria and the sailboats breezing across the lake below were real. Every so often a car would roll down the road through the countryside below, gliding into a small town and reinforcing the surreal feeling of sitting among misty mountains and castles on clouds.
The hour alone spent gazing at this view taught me perhaps my most important lesson from study abroad: to always have an open heart. To let life in and embrace any surprises along the way.
Soaring over the Atlantic on the plane ride home from my study abroad experience, I tried to think back to the start of my journey four months ago. I remember having only this thought: I hope it’s all I’ve dreamt it to be. Study abroad had become my Maltese Falcon, this idyllic period of time filled only with adventure and self-discovery, with beautiful castles and far off places. While I can luckily say study abroad was all I dreamt it would be and more, I came home with unexpected souvenirs as well. I can home with confidence and ambition. With perspective and growing patience, with joy. With an open heart to all my life at home now has to offer, and the drive to make the most of every adventure that comes my way. And to always look up, because there may be a road less traveled to guide me to a new dream.