Life in Imperial Ischl
From the very beginning the Kaiservilla was designed to be a private home for the Emperor and his family, somewhere they could relax in peace away from the stress of the imperial court in Vienna. The intimate family atmosphere was jealously preserved. No state guest, however distinguished, was ever accommodated in the Villa, but always down in the town, mostly in the Hotel Kaiserin Elisabeth or in the now demolished Hotel Bauer. Only the ladies in waiting and the personal valets and chambermaids, who travelled everywhere with the imperial family, lived in the Villa itself. Administrative, domestic and other personnel lived in flats in the stables complex or in the office building down by the river, which also housed the kitchens, since no cooking was done in the Villa itself. In keeping with the private nature of the house, very few large receptions and similar functions were held in the limited space of the Villa, but usually in the more extensive facilities elsewhere in Ischl, above all in the large Kurhaus, built in 1875, which now houses Bad Ischl’s theatre and conference centre. Thus the boundaries of the imperial residence in reality encompassed the entire town, which to the present day is known as the Kaiserstadt Ischl.
Franz Josef declared repeatedly that, for him, Ischl was “heaven on earth”. He naturally had to spend some of his time there on affairs of state, but his life in Ischl was not simply a round of formal engagements. His main pastime was hunting, the only recreation he allowed himself. The Emperor was ascetic and undemanding in his personal life, as can be seen from his extremely modest apartments in the Villa. The simple iron bed he used was the standard issue for junior officers in the army barracks. His usual daily routine began with a bath at 3.30 in the morning, followed by some hours of work on the state documents that were brought to Ischl by couriers every day. If there were no official visits on his programme he would consult the barometers in his study, and if the weather was suitable he would depart with his retainers for the Zimnitz, Offensee or Langbathsee hunting grounds, sometimes well before dawn.
He was too conservative to make personal use of most of the new technologies of the age, but he made an exception for the telegraph, which he used for communication between the Imperial Villa and the government ministries in Vienna to such an extent that a special telegraph office had to be opened in Ischl to cope with the traffic. A visiting Tsar of Russia was able to persuade him to accept the electric cigar lighter that still stands on his desk in the Villa, but King Edward of Britain failed to convince him that the age of the motor vehicle had arrived, even in Ischl.
Later in his life, after the death of Elisabeth in 1898, there were only two sources of pleasure in Franz Josef’s life. One was his grandchildren, especially the family of his youngest daughter, Marie Valerie, whom he adored. His other source of pleasure in his later years was his “soul friend”, the actress Katharina Schratt, who for many years rented the Villa Felicitas just outside the town on the Salzburg road. During the Ischl season it was a daily ritual for Franz Josef to walk or ride over to have breakfast with Frau Schratt early in the morning – alone, but under discreet observation by his security personnel.
Empress Elisabeth arrived in the Kaiservilla as a 16-year-old bride. She was, of course, also involved in state visits, when she would play host to the wives and consorts of the leading statesmen and crowned heads while their husbands were occupied with Franz Josef in matters of high diplomacy. Unlike her husband, Elisabeth was dedicated to sports and physical fitness. She had a room in the house fitted out as a gymnasium (it is now a family bedroom), but when there were no official visits she also had gymnastic apparatus erected in the Red Salon between large oval mirrors on the opposite end walls, and performed her regular exercises there. Her adolescent passion for riding, encouraged by her father, could be given full rein at the Imperial Villa with its stabling for 50 horses and its coach house for horse-drawn vehicles.
Her lengthy walking tours at a brisk pace were notorious among her ladies in waiting, especially since they regularly involved climbing the steep, 834 metres (2,736 feet) high Jainzen hill in the Imperial Park before breakfast in their voluminous skirts. She wandered for days on end in the hills around Aussee, and even in her mid-fifties she took her daughter Marie Valerie on long expeditions in the Tauern Alps, on routes at over 3,000 metres altitude that are still a challenge to climbers with modern equipment. In good weather she also used to do her gymnastic exercises unobserved in a small level clearing on the lower slopes of the Jainzen. The teenage Elisabeth called the Jainzen her “magic mountain”, and she never lost her fascination with it in later life. In a little wooden shelter on its summit, with its fabulous long-distance view to the mountains, she read, wrote, drew and painted.
Elisabeth’s poems, which have since been published in book form, were to a great extent composed in Ischl, either in her boudoir in the Villa or in her Cottage. Here she could be together with her children, her family and other more personal visitors. From here they could take the high-level walk around the park and admire the stunning view over Ischl to the peaks and glaciers of the Dachstein and the surrounding mountains from one or other of the little pavilions in the park. Elisabeth also collected photographs of family members, as can be seen from the selection displayed in her boudoir, in which photos of Marie Valerie predominate. After her first child, Sophie, died at the age of two, the next ones to arrive – Gisela and Crown Prince Rudolf – were brought up under the dominating influence of her mother-in-law. Elisabeth was therefore all the more determined to hold Marie Valerie close and to keep her upbringing in her own hands. Sisi’s favourite daughter, with roots deep down in Ischl, where her splendid wedding took place, eventually inherited the Imperial Villa and passed it on to her heirs.
Although not particularly sociable by nature, the imperial family represented a fixed element in the life of Ischl. Their presence was expected at innumerable local social events, and they were naturally often seen while shopping or on some other informal business in the town. They wandered through the streets and mixed with the local people with no bodyguards or other overt protection. The Emperor and other family members were regularly seen at the town theatre. Ischl was inevitably drawn into innumerable state occasions, which invariably meant large court functions in the town – receptions, balls and ceremonies of all kinds for the hundreds of leading statesmen and crowned heads of the world who over the years would come to visit the ruler of the great power Austria. Protocol demanded the appropriate military ceremonial, and there would also be some kind of gala performance at the Ischl theatre in the presence of the Emperor and his exalted guests.
In the hothouse atmosphere of 19th-century high diplomacy Franz Josef received visits in Ischl by ambassadors from all the major countries, by heads of state and government like Chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Prussia or President Ulysses S. Grant of the USA. The reigning monarchs of Europe were seen regularly at the Imperial Villa. Some of these occasions were highly exotic, for example when King Chulalongkorn of Siam, “Lord of the White Elephant”, paid a week’s visit to Ischl in June 1897. A special gala performance of Johann Strauss’s operetta Die Fledermaus was given in his honour at the Ischl theatre, with the composer himself conducting. After the performance, the king invested Strauss with the Order of the White Elephant. That visit was commemorated by the Thai royal family in another ceremony and an exhibition in the Imperial Villa a century later, in 1997.
After the death of Crown Prince Rudolf on 31 January 1889, and the subsequent upheaval, the family fled to the Villa two months earlier than usual, in order to escape the oppressive atmosphere of Vienna. To compensate, however, the next year saw the greatest celebration ever to be staged in imperial Ischl. On 31 July 1890, Franz Josef’s and Elisabeth’s youngest daughter, Marie Valerie, married her Habsburg cousin Franz Salvator in the court parish church of St. Nicholas. The festivities, with the participation of the entire population of Ischl, lasted for almost a week in brilliant weather. The Salvator Habsburgs are still in residence in the Kaiservilla.
The aura of the imperial presence transformed Ischl into a major outpost of Viennese cultural life. Indeed, when the court was in residence, Ischl undoubtedly eclipsed the imperial capital - above all as regards music, and operetta in particular. Uncountable world-famous musical, artistic and literary masterpieces were created in the town. Everyone of rank and name sooner or later had to be seen in Ischl, which by now was a flourishing and world-famous spa. Elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen exchanged courtesies with gallant officers in the colourful dress uniforms of the imperial armed forces, while promenading through the meticulously groomed gardens of the Kurpark to the music of an orchestra playing in the pavilion under the baton of Johann Strauss in person. The far-famed intellectual and cultural life of Vienna around the year 1900 migrated en masse to the salons and cafés of Ischl during the months when the court was in residence there. Life proceeded in this manner for decades on end throughout that glorious Indian summer of imperial Austria. Undisturbed by the growing social and political pressures with which Vienna was beset during the same period, and unconscious of any “end-of-an-era” atmosphere, the Ischl social season continued year after year. God was in his heaven, the Emperor was on the throne, and all was well with the world. Until the shots of Sarajevo brutally interrupted the idyll.