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Traveling In Style : Fabulous Fake : Franzenburg Is A Counterfeit Castle Built On A Man-made Island Surrounded By An Artificial Pond

March 15, 1987|NINO LO BELLO | Lo Bello is an American journalist living in Vienna.

It's doubtful that anyone has ever really counted the castles that dot Europe's real estate, but you can figure on the fingers of one hand the number of fakes. Probably the best of these is the Franzenburg, 26 miles from downtown Vienna, a "medieval" fortress built on an artificial island in an artificial pond on the grounds (real) of Laxenburg castle (today the headquarters of a research center).

Constructed in stages between 1798 and 1836 by Emperor Franz I, this royal toy quite likely out-Disneys anything the great Walt created in his amusement parks.

Franzenburg is not a shell; it is fully furnished with statues, paintings and whatnots. The collection of oils dates from the 19th Century and would bring high prices at any art auction. The moated castle was built not to be lived in but to be visited and admired as the emperor's personal, full-size, walk-in doll house. Franz even transferred many items from Klosterneuberg Abbey and brought in other valuable original pieces of Gothic furniture to stock his pet plaything. So that he could use authentic wooden ceilings and as many ancient stones as possible, the emperor dissolved two monasteries to provide true building materials that were integrated into the construction with great skill.

Even the torture chamber in the basement of the High Tower is real, at least to the extent that all of the instruments of punishment came from other castles in Austria. The medieval keep has a life-size figure of a Knight Templar in chains, which your guide manipulates by a hidden rope and so makes the poor wretch raise his manacled arms and shake his ghastly shackles in desperation. The floor of the dungeon shows the barred opening of a cistern (non-existent) into which condemned people were supposed to have been thrown.

What comes as a surprise is that the mock castle at Laxenburg is based on a real castle that existed in the 14th Century and crumbled away. No mere plaything, that one was a proper, fortified castle that disappeared with the passage of time. It was built by Duke Albrecht III for his second wife, Beatrix, in 1377.

This magnificent piece of hokum is about a five-minute walk from the main street of the sleepy town of Laxenburg. No automobiles are allowed, and the spacious palace grounds are a delight to stroll through.

But all roads lead to the small boat landing from which you cross the man-made lake that leads to the counterfeit island. Your trip across the placid waters, with a fare of only four cents, takes all of 2 minutes and 44 seconds.

The imperial whim has 27 ornate rooms, including chapel, Hungarian Coronation Room and the Lothringersaal , a room is noted for its life-size paintings of the 18 Hapsburg biggies.

It's difficult to accept the Franzenburg as an artificial castle, and you have to keep reminding yourself that it was never lived in. The chapel was used by the Hapsburg family for prayer and for Mass. And those marble statues of the royal members nobly standing in a semicircle were original works done by famous sculptors of their time.

The statue of Maria Theresa next to the doorway is considered one of the best depictions of her ever made; its value has been placed at more than $1 million, but it will never be put up for sale. She gives the royal stamp of approval to the counterfeit castle.

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