Vienna’s imperial palace will overwhelm you…
Even as you survey the facade of ornate Habsburg Palace, the winter residence of the Austrian imperials since the 13th-century, you sense fulfilment. The very essence of Vienna’s cityscape is embodied within these walls…several squares and gardens, 18 groups of buildings, 19 courtyards, and 2,600 rooms spread over a massive 60 acres…a mini city in itself!
No reason to be overwhelmed. The entrance ticket defines three specific areas to tour…the Imperial Apartments, Sisi Museum and Silver Collection. In a vast baroque riding hall, world famous Lipizzaner stallions dance under sparkling chandeliers, baroque stucco and an arcade of elegant columns…the celebrated Spanish Riding School. Keep that for later.
Every inch of the lavish Imperial State Apartments tells a resplendent tale of the Habsburg dynasty, their rule, their power and their glory. Life-sized statues of men in uniform and ladies in black dresses with train stand motionless in the large Audience Hall, creating an action replay from another century. Here, Maria Theresa’s great-great-grandson, Emperor Franz Josef met about 260,000 subjects during his 68-year long reign. Picture him ending the conversation with a slight inclination of his head. In his Study, imagine him at his desk at 4 am in the morning. In his spartan bedroom, visualise him walking from his simple iron bed to the portable washstand to splash water over his eyes.
My favourite part? The salons and reception rooms of the Empress Elisabeth (lovingly called Sisi). Adorned with magnificent paintings reflecting her love for the Mediterranean landscape. Marble sculptures, tapestried walls and gilded ceilings showing off her exquisite taste. In the Grand Salon, under the famous painting of Sisi in the Court Gala robes and 27 diamond stars in her Rapunzel-black long hair…it dawns on you that it is the sparkle of her glossy, translucent skin, rosy cheeks, lush hair and innocent eyes (and not the jewels) that have magnetized you. There is a certain mystique about her! You can’t help conjuring up a vision of one of the famous masquerade balls that used to light up the palace…noblemen in fitted red and gold suits, and ladies decked with jewels and glamorous gowns, the royal couple leading with the first dance and all eyes on Sisi…admiring, idolising, envious and predatory.
The show-stopper is most definitely the Sisi Museum. Who is the real person behind the mask of Empress Elisabeth, wife of Franz Josef? The 300 sensitively designed exhibits show the transformation of an innocent, dreamy young girl, into a defiant, restless, unapproachable, obsessive and melancholic enigma…the beauty icon of Europe, whose tragic assassination once threw the world into mourning. A fairy-tale life filled with escapist episodes, dieting and exercising mania to the extent of anorexia for an enviable 21-inch waist, mandatory three-hours long hair rituals, all come alive. Flashback in time with her personal belongings…parasols, jewellery boxes, beauty recipes, travelling medical chest, her milk tooth, christening dress and even the black coat used to cover her after the assassination at Beau-Rivage Geneva by an Italian anarchist. What a life! Lady Diana and Sisi would have made great friends…they sure had a lot in common.
The expression ‘dinner fit for a king’ couldn’t find a better example in the Silver Chamber. French cuisine for weekday official dinners and Viennese cuisine for the obligatory (but lively) Sunday family dinners…the staff in the imperial kitchens would have always been on their toes. Ogle at the fabulous collection of over 7000 items…kitchenware, silverware, golden and porcelain items, table linen, glass services and centrepieces of gilt bronze on display in a huge 1,300 square meters area. The highlights: the solid-gold personal cutlery set of Empress Maria Theresa, a 116-piece fine porcelain Minton dessert service, the golden table service of Napoleon I, and Empress Elisabeth’s portable travelling service. The most eye-catching: an ostentatious gold and bronze table centrepiece, 33 meters (108 feet) long! Quite appropriate for the lavish pomp of imperial banquets! Glare at the elaborate ‘Imperial Fold’ of the table napkins, trying to memorise the way the hollows wrapped around the small bread roll…this is still a closely guarded secret that only two people know and pass it on to someone before they die! In the age of YouTube, you wonder how?
The 20 rooms of the Treasury glitter with precious paraphernalia…robes, crowns, sceptres, ornaments, crucifixes, jewels…symbols and insignias of the Austrian Empire and the Holy Roman Empire…more than 1000 years of European history and memorabilia from significant coronations or baptisms. The highlight is the imperial crown of emperor Rudolph II, studded with countless gems and the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire, with the octagonal imperial crown. The Austrian world dominion proclaim itself from the wall panels amidst the blatant show of wealth and prosperity of the Habsburgs. Only 7,000 items of the 150,000 in the collection’s holdings are displayed here…how all that wealth was amassed in the first place? Also, how much is too much when it comes to royals?
As you leave the complex, consider the abrupt end of all glamour and glory. The home of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is now a landmark tourist destination attracting 600,000 visitors annually. In the winter palace, there is no Maria Theresa, no Franz Josef, no Empress Sisi…instead a contemporary, ordinary civilian works as President and receives dignitaries in Maria Theresa’s erstwhile bedchamber.
The Sisi mystique is probably still haunting you…so stoke it further. Nearby in the famed Kohlmarkt, Vienna’s most luxurious shopping street, where court-appointed jewellers were once housed, take a peek inside the store of A.E. Kochert, the jewellers who had created the diamond stars for Empress Sisi’s hair. So what if you can’t afford any of their baubles? Just feel the shadow of royalty. Then venture into the 200-year old Imperial and Royal Court Confectionary Bakery, Demel, where she used to order her sweets. Her favourite violet sorbet dessert is still on the menu…order some for yourself, relive part of the enigma. Looking for something more concrete? Then walk into any souvenir shop in the city. Her Winterhalter portrait is everywhere…on brochures, magnets, mugs, chocolates, tote bags, fridge magnets, umbrellas, fans. Replicas of her diamond stars filled shelves of gift shops. Pick what strikes your fancy…take her home!
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