This morning we had an early start. The Scenic cruise offered a number of options. Some people went cycling through the streets of Vienna, others boarded a bus and went back to Bratislava in Slovakia, and the horse lovers went to the Spanish Riding School to see the Lipizzaner Stallions. We took the fourth option – a visit to Vienna’s fabulous Schönbrunn Palace, the summer home of the ruling Habsburg imperial family of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire. Following the defeat, and therefore total collapse, of the empire at the conclusion of WW1, the family’s rule came to an end and ownership of the palace was transferred to the newly formed Austrian republic.
Driving through the streets of Vienna early on a Saturday morning en route to the palace provided a good opportunity for us to admire the architectural styles of the city and make comparisons with what we’d recently seen in Prague and Budapest. Some buildings had suffered extensive damage in WWII and were faithfully restored when peace returned to Vienna. A small number of structures were clearly constructed during a time when Art Nouveau was fashionable.
We arrived before the crowds and were the first for the day to enter the impressive Great Gallery. Soon other groups caught up with us and it became quite crowded in there. It was here that festive balls and banquets were held. Room after room featured remarkable artworks, furniture, wall furnishings, light fittings, ceiling frescoes etc – each one different to the previous room. I wish, at this point, that you could scroll back up to my photos and view some interior shots of the palace, but unfortunately the taking of photos inside the palace is verboten. But you can click here to see some interior shots.
Our guide was terrific, painting a picture of life inside the palace during the reign of Maria Theresa, the empress who received the palace as a gift from her father. Maria Theresa’s famed daughter, Marie Antoinette, spent many childhood summers here. Napoleon used the palace as his headquarters for a number of years when Vienna was under French occupation. There are many more stories – the palace is literally steeped in European history.
Following the guided tour we strolled through the palace gardens. It is early spring here, and though the tulips are blooming it seems obvious that more colour and new growth is on its way. Unfortunately the great fountain that gives the palace its name (Schönbrunn is German for ‘beautiful fountain’) and is the centrepiece of the garden is not currently in operation. The hilltop Gloriette, which was constructed to celebrate the extent of the Habsburg lands, provides a great vantage point from which to view the palace and the city beyond.
Before leaving, we had to sample some genuine Viennese apfelstrudel from its place of origin. What can I say, it was superb, especially when paired with a Viennese hot chocolate with rum and whipped cream.
Back in the entry courtyard, heading towards our buses, we now found ourselves in the midst of a very busy Easter market. Most stalls were selling handmade wares which looked much more appealing than a lot of the Easter-related goods you might find in the shops back home.
I enjoyed this visit immensely. It taught me lessons about a time in history when the great empires of Europe ruled the world. It would all come crashing down amidst the chaos and destruction of the First World War, and the world would never see empires such as these exercise similar power ever again. And it was here in Vienna, that the decision to declare war on Serbia, and thus begin the war, was taken – in a building that we passed in our bus en route from the ship to the palace.