Cities / Towns Visited: 27
Countries Visited: 10
Steps Taken Today: 11,049
Steps Taken Around the World: 1,075,604
We were awoken by the streaming in of morning sunlight through the windows. It will continue to confuse me as to how many dormmates seem to be able to sleep with the window open, letting in the light and noise of the outside world; we are not those people. So, lacking in a couple of hours of sleep we could definitely have used, we rose to explore the city. If we were awake we were going to make the most of it. Hence after scoffing down a hostel breakfast, we stepped out onto the street and started on our way into the heart of Vienna. Our first stop for the day was the Hofburg Palace. The Habsburgs main residence when they weren’t off at their countless other estates. The first thing that hits you as you draw closer is the sheer scale of the place, it’s not just your standard one building palace, it’s an entire complex of separate buildings around the main building. The entire estate covers several blocks, but when you consider that the entirety of royals and their entourage was over a thousand people it becomes more than just a lavish display of wealth, and more of a logistical necessity.
Eventually we located the entrance we wanted, purchased our combo ticket (which would cover our next day’s adventure as well), and stepped into the first part of the exhibition. The first exhibit is the royal silver collection. Now please don’t think this is just a few small rooms of silverware, because it’s not. It is a rabbit warren of at least a score of rooms filled with cabinet after cabinet of copper cookware; silverware and goldware (including flatware, cutlery, service dishes, and cups); porcelain dinnerware and service ware, glass stem ware; lavish gold and silver table centrepieces; and an incredibly large selection of candelabras. Along with the audio guide and the dozens of information boards it took at least 90 minutes to get through it all. The scary thing was, apparently that is only a portion of the full amount the royal family had before the dissolution of the monarchy and Austria becoming a democratic republic. A large portion was also lost during many historical wars as it was melted down in order to produce coin. It was educational, if not a bit long winded, and was fascinating to learn all of the pomp and ceremony that goes into royal banqueting and meal service. As a chef I can only sympathise with the amount of work these loyal workers had to put in everyday to make a plethora of food which, for the most part, wasn’t even eaten, as it was mainly a show of wealth.
After we finally escaped the clutches of kitchenware, we moved upstairs, stowing our cameras as photography was, once more, forbidden. Now, in case you are unaware, one of the most famous of the Habsburg monarchy is the Empress Elizabeth of Bavaria, fondly known as Sisi, who was the cousin and wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I. There is a large exhibit on her life and untimely death upstairs at the palace. She was thought to be one of the most beautiful women of her time, and her story has become somewhat of a myth. Despite her husband passionately adoring her, she did not reciprocate the feelings and she was somewhat of an unwilling empress, who hated the attention, and often refused to attend to her royal duties and events. She was well aware of her beauty, and thus spent much time and effort on her beauty and fitness regime to keep her impossibly slim figure (seriously her waist was just over 40cm in circumference); she was a gifted gymnast and equestrian. She also spent countless hours having her ankle length hair attended to, including needing an entire day set aside every couple of weeks to wash it (which she of course washed with egg yolks and cognac). She had four children, three daughters (one who died at age 2), and one son and heir to the throne who committed suicide in his twenties. From the day of the death of her son, until her own death she wore mourning clothes, and never came out of her depression triggered by the event. She was an avid poet and writer, and much of her dislike of court, general negative thoughts on her forced marriage to her cousin, and her loss of personal freedom are apparent in her writing. When she was 60 she travelled incognito to Geneva. One of the members of staff at the hotel recognised her though, and the local paper quickly announced her presence in the city. When returning to her boat a few days later, on foot with her lady in waiting as she did not want the pomp and ceremony of a procession, to cross back over the lake to Montreux, she was stabbed in the chest by an Italian Anarchist with a needle file who had learnt of her presence in the city from the paper. She initially did not notice she had been stabbed, thinking he had simply stumbled into her, but as soon as the boat departed from the dock, she collapsed. She died a short time later. Although she was often somewhat of a spoilt brat, did little to attend to her duties as empress, and was quite vain and conceited, after her death she was looked back on as an unfortunate soul, with her shortcomings often overlooked. Her story was an interesting one, although you have to take it all with a grain of salt, but it was almost refreshing to hear her writings on her distaste at the selling off of upper class women for the financial and political gain of the ruling men, as if they were prize livestock. Where most other women in history have kept silent on the issue, she wrote down what I’m sure many of them believed.
The last section of the tour was through the state apartments of the palace. Although you are not permitted to take photos, anyone who has been to a European palace can imagine the plush décor, ornate wall coverings and ceiling decorations, and lavish furniture. Room after room of extravagance once more reiterated just how wealthy this dynasty really was, especially in its heyday when it ruled over a large portion of central Europe, not just in Austria but also Hungary, large sections of Eastern Europe, as well as what is now Slovakia and the Czech Republic. It was bittersweet to see Franz Joseph’s study, with its two large portraits of his beloved wife , one of which sat directly in front of his desk, and depicted her in a white nightgown, with her hair hanging loosely over her shoulders. He was a much liked monarch, who dedicated most of his time to the service of his people, and happily called himself the country’s civil servant. It is somewhat heartbreaking to see that his kindness and love was unrequited by his spouse. Couple this with the murder of his brother Emperor Maximillian of Mexico, the suicide or his only son and heir, and the assassination of his wife, he led a somewhat tragic existence. He was quite a humble ruler, and his rooms in the palace are the least ornate, with minimal furnishings (including the fact he slept in a simple metal framed single bed. His somewhat military like organisation to his personal chambers layout and his daily schedule (which mainly involved long hours of sitting at his desk attending to the matters of the empire, and receiving members of the public who had requested an audience with him to present their issues; this included him eating his breakfast and lunch at his desk) was obviously a result of his military service as Emperor. If nothing else, I came away from the palace with a soft spot for the emperor, and a much expanded knowledge of the Habsburgs.
At this point we were peckish, but still had things to do so we decided to make a brief stop at the cafe of the palace for afternoon tea. The Palace has been making apfel strudel in its kitchens since the monarchy resided there, and it didn’t take much insistence to agree that we would order a serve along with a serve of another Austrian classic, topfenknödle (quark dumplings rolled in almond and served with strawberry compote). Coupled with home made raspberry lemonade and hot chocolate, we successfully refuelled to continue our adventure.
From here it seemed only natural to make our next stop the Kaisergruft; the royal burial crypt of the family we had just spent the morning learning about. As we bought our tickets and walked down into the crypt it was certainly something to behold. Both sides of the central walkway were flanked by huge intricate coffins. Set in bronze, they are detailed with statues of everything from a few with full size depictions of the royals they hold, to skulls, eagles, military paraphernalia, and religious symbols, dependant, obviously, on the life of the person being memorialised. The different family groups from throughout the centuries are separated by room. Empress Maria Theresa sits in the centre of hers in the largest off all of the coffins; a double sarcophagus alongside her late husband. Around the walls lie almost all of her 16 children, along with some of her grandchildren and in-laws, and including a number of tiny coffins housing still born and infant deaths, one of which was never even names. From here we passed through the remaining rooms, stopping briefly to look at the tombs of Franz Joseph, Sisi, and their son Rudolph. The most notable exceptions to the crypt which is the official resting place of the long-standing monarchy are: Marie Antoinette (who’s bones most likely lie in the Paris Catacombs as there were not given special burial after her beheading), and Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie (the nephew of Franz Joseph who’s assassination was a trigger for the start of the first world war). Our visit was certainly made more intriguing by the fact that we had already learnt so much about the family so far on our travels, and were able to piece together parts of the stories as we explored.
Coming back up to ground level we wandered down the street to visit the Stephensdom Cathedral. Now, seemingly Europe’s scaffolding budget is out of control this year as, once more, we were facing a noteworthy building flanked in part by the walkways of construction workers. Setting that aside we took a moment to admire the roof, which, instead of the usual stone top, it is covered with a beautiful tessellating pattern of coloured tiles. We popped our heads in briefly, wandering around under the vaulted ceilings, and admiring the stained glass and religious art. It was beautiful, as they all are, but finding little to differentiate it from the plethora of other gothic cathedrals we had seen previously however, we scurried back out.
With the sun beating down, and pretending we hadn’t just had sugar based treats less that two hours ago, we treated ourselves with some rather unconventional cake inspired ice cream flavours; raspberry bombe, apfel strudel, Sacher Torte, and Marillenkuchen(a kind of apricot cake), all of which were delicious. However, the shop selling it was claiming theirs to be the best ice cream in the world, which no one should ever try and claim, as it is almost impossible to live up to the bar you have then set yourself. As a pastry chef that spent the last four years in a job where I made ice creams, a little bit of me ate a couple of those flavours and thought of how I would improve them. Regardless, they were a cool relief from the heat.
Our last brief stop on our way home was the Pestsaule; a memorial statue in the middle of one of the smaller town squares, which is dedicated to the local victims of the bubonic plague which ravaged Europe in the middle ages. With its figures of tortured souls, and comforting angels it was a juxtaposition of dark and light, and a fitting reminder of those who were taken by the merciless disease.
A quick stop at the shops, and a home made dinner, saw us falling exhausted into bed not long after. I took a moment to think over my day as I unwound for the day. So what had today’s life lesson been? I guess I pondered most on the Habsburgs, and all of the monarchies around the world, both past and present. We all look at their privileged lives, and often find it hard to pity those in royal positions. We see their demise as a ruling party and think ‘Well it was democracy’s turn anyway’, or look at current monarchies and think sarcastically to ourselves ‘oh, it must be so hard being them’. However, I think what hit me the most today, is that we often forget that at the heart of it all, they are a family, and enjoy the same triumphs and suffer the same losses as all families do. The joyful bringing into the world of children, and the loss of those they love. Some suffer from depression because of the pressures of their life; some feel the pain of unrequited love; some had to bid farewell to their children, and some were not even there to say goodbye when it happened. All the gold in the world will not numb these most human of feelings, and we must do our best to see the fact that they are just as fragile as we are; but the difference is, the whole world watches their pain. They may not suffer from the financial burdens of a lower class life, but a life of public service and in the public eye presents its own hardships. Don’t let your lack of sympathy for those with great power and wealth dull your humanity.