Imperial Ischl Today
Bad Ischl, now a thriving community of 14,000 inhabitants, has succeeded in retaining its character, and to a considerable extent even its appearance. The Ischl salt mine, where the irreplaceable treasures of the Vienna Museum of Fine Art were stored for safety during the Second World War, remains in production. Austria's oldest and most internationally renowned health resort is still thriving as such, with all modern medical facilities for the treatment of breathing, heart and circulatory troubles. Above all, however, visitors come to experience the atmosphere of the Kaiserstadt Ischl – a living atmosphere that can be found nowhere else. The numerous monuments and other reminders of the Habsburg Monarchy in and around the town are all evidence of Bad Ischl’s imperial past.
Mayor Seeauer’s house on the Esplanade alongside the river, where the engagement of Franz Josef and Sisi was sealed, was restored in 1989 and opened to the public as the town museum. Tallachini’s Grand Hotel, where Sisi accepted Franz Josef’s proposal of marriage, was later renamed the Hotel Kaiserin Elisabeth and is now the Residenz Elisabeth. One can stand at the door of the parish church of St. Nicholas and visualise the scene in August 1853 when Archduchess Sophie stepped aside to allow Sisi to take precedence, and the engagement first became public knowledge. The splendidly restored Kurhaus, where innumerable imperial balls, receptions and dinners to honour visiting heads of state were held, is now a modern theatre and conference centre and is the venue for Ischl’s regular festival performances of the famous operettas.
In summer one can bathe under the windows of the Imperial Villa in what was once Empress Elisabeth’s private outdoor swimming pool. Now modernised as the Bad Ischl Parkbad, it provides a cool way of coping with a hot summer day. One can still consume the world's best pastries and coffee in the unchanged surroundings of the Café Zauner. The Café Ramsauer, Attwenger’s and the others still look much the same as when they were patronised by Strauss, Lehár, Brahms, Bruckner and the world-famous elite of the Vienna cultural scene. And the Villa Felicitas, to which Franz Josef took his early-morning walks to have breakfast with his "soul friend" Katharina, is now an up-market guest house and restaurant.
Above all, the jewel in Bad Ischl's imperial crown, the elegant Kaiservilla, enthroned in its splendid park across the bridge adjacent to the town centre, retains that fine degree of aloofness appropriate to its status. Still largely in its original condition as Franz Josef and Elisabeth knew and loved it, it remains a private Habsburg residence occupied by their direct descendants. And on 18 August every year – Kaisergeburtstag, the Emperor’s Birthday, still publicly celebrated in Bad Ischl – one can sense that this is no museum, but a piece of living history.
From 1831 onwards, with two exceptions, Franz Josef celebrated every birthday of his life in Ischl up to 1913. The first Kaisermesse was celebrated in the parish church in 1849 in the Emperor’s presence. After the completion of the Kaiservilla during the 1850s, the Kaiserpark was opened to the public every year on 18 August, and every prominent personality in Ischl and the Salzkammergut attended to offer personal congratulations. The 18th of August was also celebrated throughout the length and breadth of the Monarchy, but only Ischl could claim the presence of the Emperor in person.
Nowadays, the celebrations still centre on the historic and traditional Kaisermesse on 18 August, the Imperial High Mass in the former court parish church of St. Nicholas in the presence of members of the Habsburg family. Representative companies of the imperial regimental associations attend with their banners and historic uniforms. The service ends with the packed congregation singing the Kaiserhymne to Josef Haydn’s famous music, as they did when the young Emperor led his bride to the priest to ask for his blessing, or when he heard it for the very last time in this same church 60 years later, on his 83rd birthday in 1913. A civic reception by the Mayor of Ischl follows a parade and review of the historic regimental associations at the church, and later in front of the Imperial Villa. The festival is the highlight of the entire year in what is still the Kaiserstadt Ischl, where the Habsburg Monarchy remains to this day a conspicuous element in the life of the modern community.