Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Vienna: Schönbrunn Palace, spectacular summer residence for Habsburg rulers

Today we took the Metro a few kilometres west of Vienna's city centre to the spectacular Schönbrunn Palace, which was built in the early 18th century in a beautiful park-like setting and remains one of Austria's leading attractions. The palace's history, however, goes back further, to 1569 when Emperor Maximilian II acquired a small summer palace in a converted mill on this site. After the glorious victory over the Turks in 1683, Emperor Leopold I commissioned an Imperial palace on the site of what was then known as the Palace of Klatterburg that he hoped would rival the Palace of Versailles. Instead, the more modest Schönbrunn Palace with its 1,441 rooms and apartments was built and soon after converted into a residence for Maria Theresa, the only female Habsburg ruler.

While only 40 of the Schönbrunn Palace's 1,441 rooms are open to the public, they were enough to provide us with a sense of just how magnificent a place it really was. We visited the Palace's West Wing, home to the sumptuous Apartments of Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Elisabeth (or Sisi). Richly furnished in 19th-century style, the rooms include the Emperor's Audience Chamber and the Walnut Room, named after its rich walnut paneling from 1766, a highlight of which is the candelabra carved out of wood and covered in gold. Another highlight is Franz Joseph's Bedroom with the simple soldier's bed in which the Emperor died on November 21st, 1916, after a reign of 68 years. Also of note here is Empress Elisabeth's Salon with its pastel portraits of her children.

Maria Theresa’s rooms were richly furnished. There were pictures of her eleven girls including Marie Antoinette. Highlights included Marie Antoinette's Room where Napoleon stayed and the Breakfast Room with its fine floral paintings thought be the work of the Empress' daughters. The Great Gallery was once home to glittering Imperial banquets under ornate ceiling paintings. The long table was laden with gold as if a banquet was about to take place. Etiquette required that you only spoke to your neighbour's on either side. Sometimes you could hardly see across the table with all the centre pieces and candelabra. The Million Room, Maria Theresa's private salon was  panelled with precious rosewood, ornamented with gilt carvings, and home to some 260 Indian and Persian miniatures. Finally, the Hall of Mirrors with its crystal mirrors in gilded Rococo frames was very impressive.

This was a long tour and we were quite relieved to visit the adjacent cafe for a much needed coffee. It was quite warm and we sat outside watching the sparrows. I sprinkled some sugar crumbs but one sparrow swooped in and scooped the whole sugar cube and flew off with it. Perhaps the surroundings weren't as sumptuous as inside the palace but it was a lovely place to stop.

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