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Published: February 1st 2009
It may have been our last day today but there was lots of sightseeing still to do. We returned to the Hofburg to do the tour and bought a ticket that gave us access to the Silver Collection, the Sisi Museum and the Imperial Apartments - yet another bargain! We managed to spend a surprisingly long time wandering around the Silver Museum. The contents of the imperial kitchens proved to be far more interesting than a bunch of pots and pans really should be. The four of us wandered around in a less than organised fashion and I know at one point I got distracted by something shiny and ended up doing part of the tour backwards. It didn't really matter. The basic appeal of the silver collection is in its name - silver. There is also a lot of gold and numerous plates with delicate paintings and patterns that are really works of art in their own right. The most famous exhibit in the museum is the Milan centrepiece which is almost 30 metres long.
We moved on to the Sisi museum which as the name implies is dedicated to the life of the Empress Elisabeth, popularly known as 'Sisi'.
The Empress Elisabeth is quite an intriguing character. It is interesting that the two most celebrated women in Vienna, Empress Maria Theresa and Empress Elisabeth, are such opposites of each other. While Maria Theresa was everything an empress was expected to be, Elisabeth was everything except what she was supposed to be. Elisabeth married Emperor Franz Joseph in 1854 at the young age of 16. Originally meant to marry Elisabeth's older sister Helene, the Emperor fell for the younger sister instead and insisted on marrying her. The young Sisi was soon swept up in the elaborate world of the Vienese Court and though she did not dislike her husband he had many affairs of state and the lonely girl was quoted as admitting to her old governess 'I wish he were no emperor'. Elisabeth was uneasy at court and never adapted to the complex rituals and customs of social etiquette. She tried to escape the restrictions of court life through travel or simply withdrawing into isolation. Despite being an 'empress against her will', Elisabeth was very popular with the Austrian people and was considered one of the most beautiful women of her time. Decades ahead of her time Elisabeth had
a strict beauty regime that included home made face masks, daily gymnastics and an obsessive diet bordering on anorexia nervosa. Indeed she might not be so out of place on the pages of fashion magazines today, except perhaps unlike so many celebreties of today Elisabeth's beauty was equalled by her intelligence. She studied ancient and modern Greek, spoke fluent Hungarian, wrote poetry, painted and was an excellent sportswomen who was considered to be the greatest female equestrian of the time.
Although a decidedly eccentric character there is much to be pitied about a girl so unsuited and uninterested in court life being pushed into such a high position. Elisabeth was deeply unhappy for most of her life. Her husband often had little time for her and her mother-in-law Sophie never cared for her. With the birth of Elisabeth's first two children, Sophie (born in 1855 and named by her grandmother without consulting Elisabeth) and Gisele (born in 1856) Sophie took charge of the royal household putting the children in a nursery close to her own apartments and having them raised by attendants she chose. Elisabeth had little influence on the girls upbringing. She did insist they accompany her and Franz
Joseph on a state visit to Hungary in 1857, during which time little Sophie grew ill and died, which served as proof to her mother-in-law that she was unfit to be a mother. Crown Prince Rudolf was born in 1858 and again given over to the care of Sophie. As her health declined, and following the discovery of her husband's affair, Elisabeth began travelling extensively and showed little interest in her children until hearing that Rudolf was suffering under the sadistic military training his father he insisted he complete instead of focusing on his scientific studies as the boy preferred. Elisabeth issued her husband with an ultimatum, insisting that she would have full control over both her own life and her children's lives and upbringing, or she would leave him. Franz Joseph conceded to his wife's requests although afterwards Elisabeth continued travelling and relations between Rudolf and his father remained strained.
1867 marked Elisabeth's only real political contribution during her 45 year reign as Empress when she helped pressure Franz Joseph into the Hungarian Compromise, which reestablished the Hungarian Constitution and turned the Austrian Empire into the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Her fourth child, Marie Valerie was born in Hungary
a year later. Elisabeth took a far more active role with this child insisting in raising Marie herself and spent more time with her family for a while. Meanwhile Rudolf who had grown increasingly bitter and resentful towards his father who had prevented him from going to university in oreder to continue with the military training he hated, was now at almost 30 still denied any active role in governing the empire. Finally in 1889 Rudolf and his 17-year-old mistress Mary Vetsera committed suicide in his hunting lodge at Mayerling. Elisabeth blamed herself for not helping her son more and wore mourning for the rest of her life. Following Marie's marriage the next year Elisabeth returned to her excessive travelling, rarely staying in any place for long. Obviously suffering from the depression she had struggled with throughout her adult life Elisabeth wrote many dark poems and her letters to her children show her deep unhappiness and discontent with her life. She is reported to have been very daring on her travels and even had herself stapped to a chair inside a glass box on the deck of a ship during a storm that had even the sailors running for cover,
suggesting perhaps her genuine disregard for her own life.
In 1898 during an overnight stop in Geneva , her presence in the city was revealed in a newspaper, although she had been travelling under an assumed name for privacy. On September 10, as she was walking from her hotel to the ship on which she was to leave for Montreux, Elisabeth was stabbed with a sharpened file by Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni. Lucheni had come to Geneva planning to assassinate the Prince of Orléans; when he failed to arrive, Lucheni had chosen the Empress of Austria, whose presence in the city he'd learned about in the newspaper, as the next best victim available to him, unaware--and uncaring--that in fact she shared his opinions on aristocracy. The file poked a tiny hole in Elisabeth's heart; blood leaked out so slowly that at first no one was aware that she had been injured and as she was so tightly corsetted even Elisabeth was unaware of her injury believing she had simply been knocked down by the man. She made it to the ship, but shortly afterwards collapsed. Her companion at first assumed the Empress had merely fainted, and when loosening her bodice
noticed a spot of blood and a hole in her camisole. She was rushed back to the hotel, but it was too late for the doctors to do anything. Lucheni, sentenced to life in prison, hanged himself in 1910.
A letter from her daughter at the time actually states that she was glad her mother had finally got the quick easy death she had obviously wanted and hoped her mother had found what she had always been searching for. Elisabeth's tragic end ensured her legendary status and Sisi's hold on the popular imagination evidently holds sway today as Vienna is full of tourist souveniers of the Empress from replicas of her famous star hair ornaments to reproductions of her portraits on postcards, tins, bookmarks and chocolates. We left the final room of the museum, complete with its grisly relic of the murder weapon, and moved onto the Imperial apartments. Stories of the Empress Elisabeth dominate the audio tour here as well and the rooms on display include the Empress's dressing room with fitted wall bars where Elisabeth performed her daily workout. I enjoyed seeing the Emperor's audience chamber. Franz Josef would give an audience to anyone who petitioned him. He
recognised that ordinary people would not have clothes befitting an audience with the emperor so decreed that people should wear their tradional costumes to audiences. The museum has on display examples of the traditional dress of all the differnet peoples within the Austro-Hungarian empire.
We finally left the Hofburg and set off in search of the Strauss monument in Stadtpark where we planned to have our picnic. The park proved to be further away than we anticipated and we had to resort to asking for directions off a random stranger in the end (despite my sister's obvious reluctance to relinquish ownership of the map and admit that the road we were standing on simply wasn't named on the map she was holding). Still the route we ended up following took us past the impressive war memorial, and an interesting house with a model football match spread across the garden where even the round bushes were spray painted to look like footballs.... I'm going to assume it was advertising something or other, I can't think of any other reason for attacking your own front garden with spray paint! We finally found the park, walked to the nearest patch of grass and
collapsed - amazingly enough within viewing distance of the Strauss monument. We lazed in the shade of a tree and enjoyed a leisurely picnic.
In order to save our aching feet we opted to take the metro onto our last stop of the day - Karlskirche. We got off at Karlsplatz, formally a station of the Viennese Stadtbahn and apparently an example of Jugendstil architecture (which to me translates as - 'very fancy for a metro stop'). Karlskirche is only a short walk away from the station. We set off towards it and had a perfect view of the church through the trees. Once we reached the square we stopped to rest by the pond in front of the church. Lots of other people were relaxing in the peaceful settings. Indeed, even one of the many touts in period costume had put down his leaflets advertising ballets and operas and had fallen asleep next to his pint in the sun!
Karlskirche was built in 1716 and eventually completed in 1737. Charles VI, Holy Roman Emperor, pledged to build the church after the 1712 plague epidemic to honour his namesake patron saint, Charles Borromeo, who was revered as a healer for
plague sufferers. An archtectural competition was held and on winning Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach began the construction, later being replaced by his son Joseph Emanuel Fischer von Erlach after his death in 1723.
The ambitious, creative design of the Karlskirche combines architectural elements from ancient Greece (the columned portico), ancient Rome (the two Trajanesque columns), and contemporary Viennese Baroque (the dome and towers). The green copper dome rises 72 high, making it a major landmark on the Viennese skyline. The design of the church has never been imitated and it has always been regarded as something of an architectural curiosity. Personally I found it to be one of the prettiest churches I've ever seen, an opinion that was maintain as we went to explore the interior. We bought our tickets for the bagain price of 4 Euros and were told to take the lift up to the ceiling first. The four of us piled into the tiny lift which took us up to the first section of the viewing platform. From there we had wonderful views of the detailed paintings, which have recently been restored. The frescoes by Johann Michael Rottlayr cover the entire ceiling of the church -
an impressive 1,256 metres square. From the first platform a staircase gave us access to the very top of the church. Only two of us made it all the way to the top. I was less impressed by the view after my great effort as I found myself in a small very hot space which would have provided beautiful views across Vienna had it not been for the bars and cobwebs across the window. Still I saw the pretty little cherubs at the very top, over 70 metres from the floor below which I think is fairly impressive.
We returned down to the first viewing platform and spent far longer there taking photos of the paintings and just admiring the sheer beauty of the church. We were the last ones to return to the lift and were somewhat bemused to see as we walked out of the lift, a sign in front of it saying 'this lift is out of order'... not the most comforting sight after having just desecended 35 metres in it!
We stayed longer in the church, viewing the interior from the ground level, the atmosphere slightly spoiled by the lift and platform in the centre, although
I can't regret the opportunity to get so close to those amazing paintings. We eventually left just as a service was starting and took the metro home. After a relaxing break in our room we walked to a nearby restaurant. We picked an Iranian restaurant which proved to be a slightly surreal experience as an Iranian wedding party was going on at the time. The restaurant was authentically decorated, served traditional food and was full of excited wedding guests yelling in a mixture of Persian and German over the din of what was presumably the latest in Iranian pop music. The woman serving us was very apologetic at how long it took us to be served and a very cute little girl in a bridesmaid's dress took and interest in us and practically climb onto the backs of our chairs. We had an enjoyably chaotic meal and then wandered back to our hostel for our last evening.
Our flight wasn't until midday today so we had a fairly leisurely morning. After a last breakfast in the uni kitchens we emptied our room, dumped our bags in the lounge and set off to walk to a nearby church
we had seen on the way home the day before. Another beautiful church, which we unfortunately couldn't go in as the church service was just beginning, but it was still nice to have a last walk in Vienna. We returned to the lounge to use the internet (and table tennis) before being collected by our taxi, deposited at the train station, and taken directly to the airport. The flight went smoothly although when we arrived in London we were greeted with a torrential downpour. We splashed through the puddles in our woefully inadequete flipflops and arrived at the bus stop just as the bus pulled away and a loud peal of thunder echoed overhead - what a welcome home!!
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