In the family of regions that makes up Germany, Bavaria is the member that is most unique. The differences that distinguish this scenic state from its siblings are defined in customs, culture and landscape. It’s the part of the country that fulfills a mental picture shaped by images of cuckoo clocks, alpine villages, forest-covered mountains, oomph bands, beer gardens and men dressed in lederhosen. It’s a land of romantic castles, medieval towns gingerbread-type houses, woodcarvers’ shops and mountain lakes. Indeed, Bavaria is like a place lifted straight from the pages of a story book.

In fact, the late Walt Disney recognized the fairy-tale quality of the region when he elected to adopt Neuschwanstein – one of Bavaria’s most famous castles–as the pattern for Cinderella’s castle that has become the centrepiece of all Disney theme parks. However, unlike Disney’s magical world of make-believe, Bavaria is the real deal. For centuries it was one of the great duchies of the Holy Roman Empire and today it is Germany’s largest province (70,000 sq. km) lying in the southernmost part of the country running north from the Austrian border.

I have toured Bavaria by car and while the entire region is utterly enchanting, overall it was its castles and palaces that left the most lasting impression. In fact the region is dotted with scores of these marvellous centuries-old structures that often feature tall spires, turrets, towers and luxurious interiors where the tales of the people who once occupied them are as captivating as the buildings themselves. Most famous castle builder of all was Bavarian King Ludwig II, generally referred to as “the mad monarch“ whose eccentricity bordered on insanity. Taking the throne at the tender age of 18, King Ludwig immediately suffered two emotional blows. His kingly powers were reduced to figurehead status and to compound matters he experienced an unrequited love. Eventually the handsome young monarch retreated to a life of dreaming and imaginary things, becoming more peculiar by the day. Disenchanted and despondent, he turned to the one thing that made him happy: building castles.

One of his first projects was the building of Schloss Linderhof which is, in fact, a smaller version of the magnificent French palace at Versailles. Today, the castle is open to the public and tours of the palace reveal a statement to elegant excess: gilded mirrors, marble staircases, frescoed ceilings and priceless paintings. Two features of Linderhof underscore the king’s delicate sanity. To satisfy his ever escalating passion for privacy, Ludwig’s dining room table was built to be lowered through a door in the floor to a cooking chamber below. When it was set with food the table was hoisted to its original position without the reclusive king ever having to see either servants or cooks.

The coup de grace of the mad monarch’s eccentricity was the magical grotto he ordered constructed on the grounds behind the castle. This mammoth, man-made cave of artificial rock, complete with stalactites and stalagmites, plus an underground lake, was Ludwig‘s favourite place to escape from reality. Here, he often spent his days rowing around his fake lake in a shell-shaped boat listening to Wagner’s opera music as it echoed off the walls of his cave. Visitors can tour the castle, the grotto and the palace grounds that are punctuated by immense fountains, Baroque statuary and marvellous gardens.

Ludwig’s eccentricities were less blatantly visible in another of his opulent castles, Neuschwanstein – the splendid edifice that inspired Walt Disney. A few miles from Linderhof, Neuschwanstein is set high on a rock ledge above a craggy gorge. This wildly romantic stone structure rises from a dense forest and its lofty towers and spires are wrapped in wisps of clouds and mist.

Year round tours of this storybook-style castle reveal elaborately decorated parlours, a Byzantine-type throne room, a music hall with marble columns, huge Bohemian glass chandeliers and frescoed walls and ceilings. To give some notion of the workmanship invested in Neuschwanstein, it took four-and-a-half years to complete the king’s bedroom alone.

The reputation achieved by Neuschwanstein and Linderhof castles can be measured by the hundreds of thousands of people who tour them annually.

Although Bavaria is steeped in history and legends like the fairy-tale king, it is a modern-day place supporting a host of activities: unlimited rock climbing, hiking, biking, golf, sailing and a host of health spas. Moreover, the further a visitor delves into the scenic Bavarian countryside, the more fascinating it becomes. Notwithstanding the castles, there are pleasures around every corner like the picturesque village of Oberammergau where Bavarian woodcarvers perpetuate a time-honoured tradition. Situated just a few miles from the Austrian border, this town is the best place to buy authentic Bavarian woodcarvings.

Of course one of the main sources of pleasure throughout Germany, including Bavaria, is its famous beer halls and beer gardens with the annual highlight being Octoberfest. Lasting for 16 days and running this year Sept. 22-Oct. 7, the tradition began in 1810 to honour the marriage of Bavarian King Ludwig I, father of the mad monarch. Although the biggest Octoberfest celebrations are held in Munich (the region’s capital), the biggest beer party on the planet is also widely celebrated throughout Bavaria.

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