It’s our final day here in Vienna and we are heading slightly out of the city to visit Schönbrunn Palace. Referred to as ‘The Summer Palace’, it’s where the Habsburg’s spent the warmer six months of the year when they were not holding court at The Hofburg.
After a hearty breakfast, we take a cab past the industrial and more run-down outskirts, to what would once have been considered countryside and where it would have taken about three days to reach by horse and carriage. It takes us only 20 minutes by car, and as we round our final turn, suddenly there it is – lit up in all it’s glory by the mid-morning sun.
We venture through the palace gates, which have obelisks topped with a golden eagles on either side, into the palace’s large grounds. Summer in both name and nature, the exterior of the palace is painted a specific shade of ochre that has come to be known as ‘Schönbrunn yellow’.
We make our way inside to begin our guided tour, and as we head upstairs I spy the equally famous Schönbrunn gardens through a window, a fleeting glimpse of some sort of Babylonian dream.
Schönbrunn was a former hunting lodge acquired in 1728 by Emperor Charles VI who used the estate for pheasant shooting. Eventually he bequeathed it to his daughter, Maria Theresa, who had always had a soft spot for the place. When Maria Theresa married Franz Stephan and he became emperor, she rebuilt and extended Schönbrunn, transforming it into a great palace of 1441 rooms designed in the Rococo style.
Maria Theresa was however constantly remodelling, and the palace and its gardens were not finally completed until just before her death in 1780. Following this, it fell into decline and was not used again until reign of Emperor Franz II who renovated it as well as changing its exterior design to to the current iteration. His Son Franz Josef was born here and loved the palace so much so that he chose it as his summer home during his reign, and throughout his marriage to Elisabeth, Duchess of Bavaria.
Our tour will cover the history of the palace, both under Maria Theresa’s ownership and that of Franz Josef and Elisabeth. We begin in the guard’s room, where once upon a time soldiers, the emperor’s bodyguards, would have stood waiting to usher visitors in for their audience with the great man himself. We move through the billiards room (with, you guessed it, a billiards table) another ante-room before the royal apartments begin, then it’s on through the emperors study to what would have been Elisabeth’s dressing room where her extensive beauty regime would have taken place.
Emperor Franz Josef’s wife Elizabeth, known affectionately as Sisi, was actually his first cousin. They were married when she was 16 and he in his early 20s. Although he adored her, Sisi struggled to adapt to royal life and the responsibilities thrust upon her, which were wildly different to her more humble childhood spent growing up on a farm.
Sisi was said to be exceedingly beautiful and had hair that fell to the floor and took several hours to style, and a full day to wash and dry it. Once washed, she would sit on a chair underneath washing lines that her servants had strung up across the room, her reams of hair draped over each line.
Sisi was also said to be very vain, so vain in fact, that she refused to sit for paintings once she reached her early thirties, fearing her diminishing beauty. Because of this, most of the exquisite portraits we see of Sisi at various ages around the palace are actually merely artists interpretations, and we have no accurate indication of what she looked like as she grew older.
Franz Josef and Sisi’s marriage was a woeful one. They had three children together, one boy and two girls. One of the girls died two weeks after birth when Sisi took her abroad on a royal engagement. Despite it being due to an illness, Sisi was blamed for the death and her mind never fully recovered. She would run away often, visiting foreign countries spending a total of 26 years away from home, so much so upon visiting her, her own children did not recognise her and would scream. It was on one of her many trips, this time aged 60 to Geneva, that an Italian anarchist heard she was there, snuck up behind her as she went to board a steamship, and stabbed her through the heart. Not realising at first what had happened she boarded the ship, but then fainted, and was returned to her hotel whereupon she died from her wound.
But tragedy, did not end there for the family. Sisi and Franz Joseph’s only son murder his lover before killing himself, thus leaving Franz Josef without a male heir upon his own death aged 86 in November 1916.
Next we jump back three generations to the much happier reign of Maria Theresa and Franz Stephan. We visit the Great Gallery, a vast entertaining space with frescoes on the ceiling, one of which has been carefully restored after a bomb destroyed it during the Second World War. There’s gold stucco and what seem to be heavy golden chandeliers everywhere, so ostentatious that it’s hard to believe it’s all fake. Yes, in fact all the gaudy gilt is actually carved wood covered in only 1kg of gold leaf. We are shocked to hear that this is the case for most of the ‘gold’ in the palace, that these cheap imitations were solely intended to impress any visitors and act as a deterrent – look how rich we are with all this gold, best not start a war with us as we can afford great armies to defeat you.
The subterfuge doesn’t stop there though. The Carousel Room has several huge paintings that took many years to complete which depict the wedding of Maria Theresa’s son Joseph II to Isabella of Parma. In one of those paintings a little Wolfgang Mozart can be seen sitting with his father amidst the other wedding guests. It’s a sort of old-fashioned photoshop affair though as Mozart never attended this wedding, but was painted in afterwards due to his popularity.
This isn’t the only painting that tells an untruth as all of the paintings of Maria Theresa’s children as youngsters have them looking almost identical, both boys and girls, their cherub faces and porcelain skin unblemished. This was because these paintings would have been produced for the wedding market (Baroque Tinder anyone?) and it wouldn’t do well to have there be some considered more or less desirable. More fakery is abound in the so called Porcelain Room, which looks like head to toe porcelain, which was extremely expensive and highly desirable at the time, but again it’s all painted wood save for two actual real pieces.
What isn’t fake however is Maria Theresa’s bed in the Rich Room. Of her 16 children her youngest daughter is probably the most well-know: Maria Antonia, who went on to become Marie Antionette Queen of France when she married Louis XVI, the last King of France. Maria Theresa actually spent nearly the equivalent of 21 years pregnant (as although she only gave birth to 16 offspring, she actually had 24 pregnancies), and so she needed somewhere she could hold court as well as rest during these times. Cue the gargantuan bed before us, whose canopies nearly reach the ceiling, and whose tapestry is embroidered in reds and golds.
We finish our tour hearing about the last emperor to grace these halls, Charles I, Franz Joseph’s great nephew, who was sent into exile when the monarchy was abolished in Austria in 1918.
It’s an impressive palace full of intriguing and surprising stories, and my mind is still reeling as we leave to visit the Babylonian gardens I spied earlier. We make our way along the side of the palace walls and turn past an orangery into the Grand Parterre, a manicured section of garden with its flower beds planted in looping embroidery patterns. Up ahead of us atop a hill is a great fake Roman ruin, originally called the ‘Ruin of Carthage’. Built in 1778 as a feature for the gardens it looms above us, with the majestic Jupiter Fountain at the base of the hill depicting the Roman God Neptune, complete with trident, riding a shell chariot surrounded by sea nymphs, and commandeering his entourage.
Both are very impressive and completely extravagant. The day is still bright and crisp so we climb the hill and the view back down onto the golden palace and the city beyond is breath-taking.
We’ve certainly earned a coffee break, and so we amble back down and into town to Stephansplatz and pop in the unassuming looking Café Hawelka. Packed to bursting, it’s a cosy little higgledy piggledy place once frequented by Peter Ustinov and Andy Warhol, and local artists were often encouraged to hang their paintings (which still remain) on the walls.
Once we have consumed coffees and an apple strudel, our final cultural stop is The Albertina, home to an impressive collection of paintings, drawings and prints.
We begin downstairs with an exhibition of contemporary pieces and my favourite is an untitled painting of a skeleton with a figure hidden inside his ribcage praying by Jörg Immendorf. The Gerhard Richter paintings that resemble blurry photographs confuse the eye and leave me wanting to figure out more about the subjects, and the neon Warhol repetition of a Mercedes Benz car floods one wall with colour.
Upstairs we meet some of the masters: the beautiful pastel-pointillism of Seurat and Signac, Gustav Klimt’s Nymphs, Edvard Munch’s lithographs and the almost childlike shape-led compositions of Paul Klee and Joan Miró.
There’s also a section showcasing sketches and I really love the charcoal ones by Robert Longo and the oddly macabre illustrations of Marcel Dzama.
We’ve had just about our fill of the arts, and so it’s time to head for a late lunch as the sun drops low in the sky. Having tried just about most of Vienna’s delicacies by now, we plump for a highly-rated modern dim sum place Mama Liu & Sons, and its yummy steamed dumplings and fragrant soups are delicious.
Full to bursting, we amble back to the hotel to collect our luggage and make our way to the airport to catch our evening flight.
It’s been a truly amazing adventure here in Austria’s capital, and I really don’t know what’s been my favourite part. We’ve worked our way through Vienna’s rich and varied history, learning so much along the way, and been throughly welcomed into its open arms by the people we’ve met. I’m sad to leave and as we take off into the velvety-night sky I think about how there’s still so much left to explore, and how I’ll definitely have to come back to see more of this wonderful city. As the great Billy Joel once sang, Vienna waits for you.