No one could ever accuse the FitzGeralds of shying from a “go hard or go home” challenge. And on the day of our visit to Vienna’s most famed attraction, Schloss Schonbrunn, true to form it’s an all day marathon. We’ll just ignore the fact that one of us had to be dragged a little, towards the end.
Schloss Schonbrunn was the summer palace of Austrian royalty.Home to six generations of Habsburgs, in the 17th century it was a modest summer palace. Destroyed in the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683, it was rebuilt in the baroque style (think gold, and lots of it), then redecorated 50 years later in a rococo style (even more gold) by the then Empress Maria Theresa. It remained home to the royal family until they no longer held the seat of power, early in the 20th century.It, like many European palaces, drew inspiration from the glorious vision of King Louis’ Versailles, the gold standard for opulence and royal playgrounds.
The first hurdle is which of the many option tickets to buy: we settle for the Classic Pass Plus, which I reason, being the most expensive, offers access to all areas. Or so one would think.
Tickets to access the palace are strictly timed and with our tour not until 12.58 pm, we’re free to explore elsewhere until then.
First stop is the coach house, which I’m particularly keen to see – the coach house at Versailles has eluded us twice, running out time on both occasions. We front with our €80 tickets to find out, no, there’s no access with these, a further €20 needs to be paid. No wonder it’s empty – there’s literally not a soul in it, in a site that’s heaving with tourists. This doesn’t ring of sound business management to me – the ticket we purchased is already almost twice the price of entry for a similar ticket to Versailles. Looks like I’ll need to wait for my third visit there to satisfy the urge for a royal coach fix.
At least we can see everything else – but I think they’d be better off setting a price for a ticket with “the lot”. I don’t mind paying, but I don’t like feeling misled within non existent small print – there’s no mention of the coach house not being included in the “top” ticket.
Not to worry, the day is young and there are acres yet to explore. We make our way towards the highest point of Schonbrunn, the Glorritte. Perched atop the estate, it promises views across the estate and even greater Vienna.Along the way, way we pass precisely manicured gardensand pop into the maze to become lost for a while. You’ll need to forgive me the lack of photo – try as we might, we couldn’t navigate our way to the overview platform. After 20 minutes in the belting heat, going around in circles, I drew the conclusion that mazes perhaps aren’t my thing. I didn’t appreciate being screamed at in German for not being able to get my ticket to work the entry turnstile either – a scanning issue. Here’s a free service tip: don’t scream at your customers. It rarely pleases them.
But still, I’m determined to enjoy myself, screaming Austrian Basil Fawlty and now grumpy Himself aside.
Up hill to the Glorritte we hike. We pass Neptune’s fountain half way up, an impressive water feature which looks exceedingly tempting in the heat.You can climb behind it for a very satisfyingly cool over spray from the water jets. Bliss on a hot day.
The Glorritte is beautifuland as promised, the Panorama Terrace offers sensational views.
This is more like it – from on high we can see the extent of the grounds and all the things we’ve yet to see.Having caught our breath from the double climb, we meander down through the forest paths, lovely old tree plantings in geometric patterns.Some of the paths are restricted, due to, of all things, a poisonous caterpillar outbreak.
Tucked away every so often are water features,including this very Romanesque one.Time is inching its way towards our viewing window for the Palace – we can’t afford to be late, rendering the tickets invalid.
We’ve opted for the full 40 room tour – there’s also a 24 room option. The audio guide is very good, explaining the use of each room as we progress, and its history.
Also of interest are the snippets of royal life and personal anecdotes, woven through the tour. The palace is still furnished and this offers another level of perspective on royal life of the day.
Unfortunately, photos are forbidden throughout, which I struggle to accept. I can understand no flash photography in the interest of conservation, but no photography at all seems churlish. Himself, fancying himself a rule breaker, obliges my frustration with a few illicit pictures.
Some rooms are particularly outstanding – the family dining room is a modest, but very pretty room,while the Hall of Mirrors and the Great and Small Galleries, being formal reception rooms are studies in luxury with heavy chandeliers and opulent finishes.These surroundings came at a price though: Empress Elizabeth, married off at 16 in 1854 to Emperor Franz Josef, was known to comment that royal marriage was a form of servitude, “committing one to a lifetime contract that one didn’t understand, at 15”.
With ankle length hair, and a trim figure, she was a renowned beauty of the era. By all counts the Emperor adored her, but she rarely spent time at court, preferring instead to travel extensively. It goes to show, even a gilded cage is still a cage.We also learn of the prolific team of Emperor Franz Stephan and Empress Maria Theresa who had 16 children, 11 of whom survived to adulthood.Only one of those, her mother’s favourite, was allowed to marry for love: the others were married in political alliances, including Marie Antoinette, who at 15 was married to the French Dauphin in 1770, ending centuries of French/Austrian animosity. That marriage, as we all know, didn’t end terribly well. It started poorly too – they were both just children really. I’ve read Marie Antoinette’s letters to her mother in the early months of her marriage, full of despair and fear that she was letting her family and country down.
I’m glad we did the full 40 room tour – the Palace is well worth seeing.Post tour, we pop into the Orangerie where restorative works are currently in progress. The covered growing area is enormous, once dedicated to the propagation and nurture of exotic plants from around the world.It’s heated from underground, using Roman engineering techniques. The Orangerie’s courtyard still boasts a wide range of plants from around the world and endless varieties of citrus, most of which are completely unidentifiable to me.
A stop for drinks and a snack is well called for at this stage, before the late afternoon assault. Schonbrunn has many dining options – we settle at the one near the Zoo, our next stop.Those who know me even a little, will understand that this was the highlight for me.
The Schonbrunn Zoo, founded in 1752 is the oldest zoo in the world and touted as the best zoo in Europe. With over 700 species on display in thoughtfully designed enclosures, they also have a good track record in breeding the next generation. A tiny elephant is hiding behind the scenes, barely 5 days old and there’s a new seal pup as well.
We spend a happy few hours with the animals.We see rhinos and hippos, long legged giraffe, elephants, large cats, endless birds and insects, all manner of hoofed creatures, seals, penguins and reptiles.
Two gorgeous sleepy pandas are on display. Pandas!There are bears too, including a polar bear, but they’re all hiding from the heat. Even Australia is on show – wallabies and koalas are deeply exotic here.It’s late afternoon by this stage and Himself has had enough. After walking for 7 hours, even I’m towards the edge of my limit. But there’s still one thing left to explore – the Privy Garden to the side of the Palace.
Surrounded on three sides by a vine covered walkway, is another precise gardening masterpiece. There’s viewing platform too, all the better to admire the gardeners’ skill.All that’s left to do is drag our tired selves home for a well earned rest.
It’s not possible to do these grand places justice in a day. There was also the coach house to see, a palm house, a desert experience house and closer to the Palace, strudel making displays throughout the day, not to mention carriage rides, classical concerts and theatre performances.
It’s easy to see why Schonbrunn is the jewel in Vienna’s crown.