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The Empress and Old Vienna

A Century After Her Tragic Death, the Viennese Celebrate a Royal Beauty Who Held Her Country Spellbound

September 13, 1998|JILL KNIGHT WEINBERGER | Jill Knight Weinberger is a Connecticut-based free-lance writer

She was a shy and lovely teenager unhappily married to a powerful European royal. Criticized by the aristocracy for her common touch and alienated from a husband who shared few of her interests, she grew into a depressed, anorexic, rebellious woman--a great beauty of her day--and died violently.

This haunting plot line belongs not only to a beloved 20th century British princess but also to a mercurial 19th century monarch: Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary (1837-1898). Even before Vienna mounted its current exhibition celebrating her life, the most casual visitor could pick up on the city's infatuation with the stunning "Sisi." Reproductions of her many portraits have long graced everything from tea towels to hotel lobbies. But this year, it's impossible to escape her gaze as my husband, G.J., and I stroll through the old city. Displays of Sisi chocolates, jams and coffee stare out the window of the Julius Meinl grocery store. In pastry shops, we find her image stamped on the white chocolate medallions crowning the delectable walnut Elisabethtortes. A Vienna Tourist Board brochure lists the exclusive shops from which the empress once ordered her silks, jewelry and bed linens. And it seems that even the locals have been seduced by the 10-month-long exhibit "Elisabeth:

Eternal Beauty." Gabrielle Buchas, a guide of Elisabeth-themed walking tours for seven years, says, "Yes, foreigners are taking these tours. But many Viennese, too, especially school groups."

If any city rivals London in its attachment to its regal past, it is surely Vienna. The Viennese cling sincerely, even passionately, to traditions rooted in the distant centuries of the Hapsburg dynasty, to its glittering winter balls and horse-drawn carriages, to a fondness for titles and coffeehouse rituals. On our most recent visit, G.J. and I observe our own Vienna ritual. Though we come here every year or two, we never quite feel we have arrived until we turn the corner of one immaculate pedestrian street, Graben, and look down another, Kohlmarkt. Rising up out of the long, narrow corridor is the stately baroque faade and green dome of the Michaelertor, the St. Michael's gate entrance to the Hofburg, former royal seat of the Holy Roman and then Austro-Hungarian empires. It is a magnificent sight.

As we walk into the heart of the Altstadt, as the old city is called, I marvel at how little this neighborhood has changed in the 15 years we have known it, though at times it seems perilously close to becoming a Hapsburg theme park, with its palaces draped in patriotic red and white banners, its silly souvenir figurines of Lipizzaners and its legions of frock-coated touts hawking concert tickets, selling the music for which the city is renowned. (The programs rarely stray from the Vienna blend: a smidgen of Haydn, a little Beethoven, but mostly Mozart, and perhaps a dollop of Strauss.)

G.J. pauses in front of a stationery store and reminds me that, before the war, his father and grandfather had their calling cards made up there. We stop at Demel's, the oldest of Vienna's pastry shops, land a coveted street-side table and order our favorites: the lavishly chocolate Annatorte for me and the walnut coffeecake, called Potize, for G.J. We have arrived.

For G.J., though, spending time here is bittersweet. Seated in view of the Hofburg, he contemplates the empire that attracted his grandparents, assimilated their offspring, made them wealthy and then brutally turned them out in 1938, murdering those who did not flee. Yet Vienna still holds power over him, rooted in family--some of whom returned after the war--language and even profession. His academic career led him to a focus on Austrian literature. He feels at home here yet never entirely comfortable.

That paradox reverberates over the next few days as we devote ourselves to the exhibition marking the 100th anniversary of Sisi's death. Running through Feb. 16, 1999, it is housed in three grand Hapsburg residences: the Hofburg, Schonbrunn palace and the Hermes Villa, all homes of Sisi. Although G.J. and I have visited these major tourist attractions many times, the exhibition promises to flesh out the life story of the enigmatic empress.

During her marriage to the next-to-last Hapsburg ruler, the long-reigning (1848-1916) Franz Joseph, the Viennese venerated Elisabeth's beauty even as they censured her nonconformity. Many people here still condemn her as an outsider--a first cousin from a lesser branch of Bavarian royalty--who failed as a wife, mother and queen. Others, says G.J.'s Viennese cousin Gretl, view her as the victim of a malicious mother-in-law and an oppressive Viennese court.

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