Reminiscing with Royalty

Sleeping with Franz Josef, Waltzing with Elisabeth

First Impressions is a Prague Wandering series that chronicles the early days of expatriate life for young Americans studying in Prague. The series is intended to capture the shock and awe that many foreigners experience when venturing outside their comfort zone.

 

By Celine Sidani

“This bed would be mine,” my friend Gabrielle said eagerly, pointing to a velvet king-sized bed on display behind a glass wall.

The Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna boasts 1,441 rooms.  Photo courtesy of Celine Sidani

The Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna boasts 1,441 rooms. Photo courtesy of Celine Sidani

The bed’s intricate, golden stitches appeared over a velvety, deep red cloth, and mimicked the embroidery patterns on each of the wall panels that surrounded it. My eyes skimmed the plaque that hung on the glass wall and landed on two words: Rich Bedroom.

I wouldn’t mind sleeping on the hardwood floor if I got to say that I slept in Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa’s bedroom, I thought. I slipped my camera out of my purse to sneak a quick picture of what I later learned was the only surviving bed of state from the Hapsburg monarchy.

My picture taking was met by the snarls and shaking heads of at least three security guards dressed in all black, who I had honestly mistaken for a few out of the thousand of tourists surrounding me.

After almost five minutes of pressing our noses to the glass to get a better view of the pillows and arguing about who would claim the royal bed, as if there were some sort of potential that we would be guests at the palace-turned-museum, my four friends and I finally began to make our way towards the next mystery room.

“I could not help but envision the emperor and empress dressed from head to toe in the most expensive laces and linens, stuffing their faces with Wiener schnitzel and beef goulash, their silky white bibs dripping with sauce.”

The Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria is made up of an overwhelming 1,441 rooms, less than 50 of which the public is permitted to visit.

I would have been more than satisfied with seeing just one room in the 18th-century, crystal-chandelier-lined imperial heaven. Let me make that a little bit clearer—I would be ecstatic just seeing the tiny, wooden bathroom that once belonged to Emperor of Austria Franz Joseph I until his death in 1916.

Walking past the emperor’s bathroom, I learned that as a strict Catholic, Franz Joseph I began his days promptly at 4 a.m. by performing his morning ablutions and praying on his praying-stool.

Why would I be so excited about a dead empress’ bed sheets and an emperor’s ancient toilet seat? Walking through the Schönbrunn Palace was like rereading the pages of my high school history textbook. Except this history lesson was a lot more colorful, and certainly did not end with an unplanned nap mid-lesson. I would also choose a British audio tour guide over an American teacher with a monotone voice any day.

Located four miles from the center of Vienna, both the physical Rococo-style palace and its extensive, colorful gardens and mazes take up over 400 acres of space. Before it became state owned at the end of the Hapsburg rule in 1918, the Schönbrunn Palace was the summer residence of the imperial Hapsburg family, which included Empress Maria Theresa, her husband, Frances I, Holy Roman Emperor, and their 16 children.

I pressed play on my audio guide and turned the corner to find a rectangular dining room table covered in a sleek, white cloth and surrounded by red and gold chairs. A series of additional chairs lined the room’s perimeter, presumably for court dinners, in which Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife, Empress Elisabeth, hosted formal evenings for members of the court.

“While gourmet French dishes were served at formal events, the imperial family enjoyed traditional Viennese meals during their more casual family dinners,” my audio tour guide informed me, as if he could hear my stomach begging for some Viennese spätzle.

I could not help but envision the emperor and empress dressed from head to toe in the most expensive laces and linens, stuffing their faces with Wiener schnitzel and beef goulash, their silky white bibs dripping with sauce.

The Emperor himself went around the dining room table before dinners to determine the seating arrangement, according to my audio guide. In terms of etiquette, conversation was usually permitted across the table unless it was a court dinner, where diners could only chat quietly with their immediate neighbors.

The table was decorated with an abundance of white Viennese porcelain plates, bowls, and dessert platters, all outlined with shimmering gold swirls. The lines on the porcelain were similar to the curved, golden moldings covering the dining room’s white walls. The repetition of gold gave the entire room a majestic feel and made me feel slightly self-conscious in my baggy ripped jeans and dirty combat boots.

A crystal-chandelier-lined imperial heaven. Photo by Celine Sidani.

A crystal chandelier reflects the grandeur of the royal rooms. Photo by Celine Sidani.

Before each plate stood three crystal glasses, which I imagined filled to the brim with expensive wines and champagnes, being clinked together by white-gloved members of the Viennese court.

“Does each guest really need three crystal glasses to themselves?” my friend Ty wondered.

We all laughed and joked about which of the five of us would look the most ridiculous hosting a dinner party in the dining room mid-19th century. We unanimously agreed that each of us would end up breaking a glass or butchering the simplest rule of etiquette before having the chance to take a bite of the first course.

Our next stop was a massive room bedecked with illuminating chandeliers and wall-lights.

Each chandelier required 70 candles before the palace was electrified in 1901. Today in the 21st century, the chandeliers that were once candle-lit are juxtaposed with bright green exit signs.

The Great Gallery’s spacious and vacant interior called for a dance party, I thought, immediately having the urge to take my boots off and glide across the room’s polished floors.

“Guys, if I paid you $100, would you start a dance party in this room?” I asked my friends, secretly hoping that one of them would take me up on the offer.

“I would do it for free,” Sarah said as she pretended to initiate a leap.

It turns out that my urge to dance was valid; the Great Gallery was once used for royal court functions such as balls, banquets, and receptions. What really surprised me, however, was the fact that the 1961 Vienna Summit, the infamous meeting between American President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, took place in the Great Gallery.

Aids on all sides said Kruschev verbally trounced Kennedy in Vienna, leaving the Russian leader with the impression that Kennedy was very weak, and precipitating the Cuban Missile Crisis. As the New York Times wrote in 2008 “And while there were many factors that led to the missile crisis, it is no exaggeration to say that the impression Khrushchev formed at Vienna — of Kennedy as ineffective — was among them.”

The gallery might have been good luck for Kennedy, but for visitors today, it resonates with awe and import.

Even with electricity and stampedes of tourists, the Schönbrunn Palace still has its majestic charm. Though schnitzel is no longer being served on ornamented porcelain plates in the Marie Antoinette Room, and though I will never be invited to waltz across the chandelier-lined Great Gallery with Emperor Franz Joseph in a voluminous ball gown, I would come back any afternoon, just to pretend that everything is once how it was—just to lose myself in an imperial daze.

Celine Sidani is in the NYU College of Arts and Science Class of 2016. Her hometown is South Brunswick, New Jersey.

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Categories: Fall 2014 Issue Number 2, First Impressions

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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