Tag Archives: Empress Elisabeth of Austria

Ludwig at Linderhof

"King Ludwig II of Bavaria," Ferdinand Piloty, 1865, Public Domain

“King Ludwig II of Bavaria,” Ferdinand Piloty, 1865, Public Domain

“Mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria was found dead in Lake Starnberg on June 13, 1886. He was 40 years old. The cause of death is still mysterious, but his death was convenient for a lot of people in Bavaria, where he had pretty much given up on the day-to-day business of governing. Government of Bavaria ground to a halt while Ludwig spent all his money (mostly his own personal fortune) on increasingly theatrical castles and palaces. He had been declared insane the previous day and was in some kind of royal “protective” custody.

After a couple of misses, I was finally able to visit Linderhof Palace, King Ludwig II’s favorite home, at a time when the grotto was open.  I was anxious to see it, especially after watching Luchino Visconti’s very fine film Ludwig, about the life and mysterious death of the notorious Bavarian king.


Ludwig built Linderhof as his own personal getaway.  In fact, it was the ultimate bachelor pad.  But he enjoyed the place in solitary splendor; he rarely if ever had visitors.  He built a special music room for his favorite composer, Richard Wagner, but Wagner never saw it. The grounds are breathtaking, and because the palace is quite small, each room looks out onto a beautiful manicured view with pristine mountains in the background.

Linderhof Palace

Linderhof Palace

In Visconti’s 1972 film Ludwig, the king is played by Visconti’s real-life romantic partner and muse, Helmut Berger.


The film shows Ludwig lounging around in his grand surroundings with hand-picked servants and a handsome young actor. Filming took place in the palace, so watching it is like having a tour personally conducted by the very strange and romantic Ludwig himself. His bedroom (intentionally) recalls the bedroom of King Louis XIV of France. This is a one-man palace; there are no guest rooms.  The help stayed in outbuildings, invisible to the king until they were needed.

It is hard to say how accurate the life story is.  But it is certain that Ludwig was an eccentric and  dreamy romantic.  His people loved him, but he was not much of a king when it was time to hang the ermine in the closet and get some work done.

One of Ludwig’s very few friends was his cousin, the Austrian Empress Elisabeth, nicknamed Sisi. She was famously married to the Emperor when she was only 15, and spent the rest of her life wanting out.  She is played by Romy Schneider (who also played Sisi in the very silly but entertaining semi-fictional series of Sissi movies).

The grotto was built up the hill behind the castle.  The entrance looks like a fort a very ambitious child might build.


But the grotto itself is as jaw-droppingly weird and beautiful as it was in Ludwig’s day.  He had Wagner’s operas performed inside for his own personal pleasure.  The water was heated, so that he could swim in it if he tired of being rowed around in his gilded shell boat.  And the lighting could change colors depending on his mood, or the mood of the opera scene.

Ludwig's Grotto

Ludwig’s Grotto

The grotto is still festooned with the floral swags that Visconti’s movie crew put up.  The film has a fantastic scene where an Austrian actor is taken into the grotto to meet Ludwig, who wants him to recite dramatic speeches 24/7.  Helmut Berger, as Ludwig, floats out of the gloom in his shell boat, wearing a dark overcoat and a black Homburg–with an enormous diamond brooch pinned to the side. He fixes the actor with an imperious, piercing stare. The actor tries hard to be Ludwig’s New Best Friend, but the friendship ends badly and Ludwig is alone again.

Nearby Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau Castles are justly famous, but they are overrun with tourists.  Armed with a Bavarian Castles Pass, I actually went to Linderhof twice during my last trip.  One day it was rainy, the next it was sunny.  I can’t say I had the place to myself, but there was time and space enough to ponder the mysterious life of Ludwig.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

A Tragic Crown Prince



When I’m missing my favorite city, Vienna, I watch a movie about it.  One of my favorites is the impossibly romantic film “The Crown Prince,” made in 2006.  The film tells the story of Rudolf, son of Emperor Franz Joseph and the fabled beauty Empress Elisabeth. Rudolf tried for years to win the respect of his autocratic father and to convince his father that the empire needed to change with the times.  Franz Joseph was immovable.  His son Rudolf was forced into a dreary arranged marriage.  The more Rudolf urged reforms, the more Franz Joseph pushed him out of the centers of power. Eventually Rudolf began an affair with an adoring and foolish young woman, Baroness Mary Vetsera.

The two lovers died in a suicide pact at Rudolf’s hunting lodge, Mayerling, in 1889. The royal family tried to cover up the truth, and details remain murky to this day.  But the heir to the empire was gone and the inevitable decline of the empire accelerated. By 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was no more.

Portrait of Crown Prince Rudolf, Public Domain

Portrait of Crown Prince Rudolf, Public Domain

The film is a leisurely 3 hours, with plenty of time to explore the gilded but stultifying court life Rudolph had to endure.  I especially like the street scenes; many parts of Vienna have not changed much in the past century. The director was Robert Dornhelm.  Max Van Thun plays Rudolph, and the lovely Vittoria Puccini plays Mary Vetsera.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Sisi, the Tragic Beauty



Empress Elisabeth of Austria has tons of followers on the tourist trail in Austria today, although in her lifetime she was seldom seen.  The Carriage Museum at Schonbrunn Palace was seldom visited until officials made it part of the “Sisi Trail.”  Now a few people out of the droves of tourists at the palace cross the courtyard to puzzle over artifacts from Sisi’s privileged but sad life.

Nobody knew quite what to make of Sisi during her lifetime, and she hardly gave anyone the chance to know her.  She’s often compared with England’s unhappy Princess Diana, but the difference is that Diana used and manipulated the media.  Sisi really just wanted to be left alone. Born to aristocrats in 1837, Sisi lived an idyllic life at her family’s Bavarian castle until she caught the eye of the young Emperor Franz Joseph, then 23 to her 15.  He was visiting Bavaria in order to propose to her older sister–a typical arranged marriage between aristocratic first cousins.  But once he saw Sisi, he had to have her and it was pretty much impossible to refuse him.

By all accounts, Sisi was fond of Franz Joseph, but she absolutely hated the restrictions of royal life.  So did he, but he was a man of duty–and he saw it as his duty to see that nothing ever changed.  After giving birth to three children in rapid succession, and having those children taken away from her for court authorities to raise “properly,” Sisi began a life of restless traveling and ceaseless physical activity. She reconciled with Franz Joseph for brief periods, but mostly she led her own life out of the public eye.


She loved horses and was a spectacular rider, spending several seasons in England fox-hunting.  There, she wore out any number of men who tried to keep up with her.  And she did all this sidesaddle, laced into specially made leather corsets that at times constricted her 20-inch waist down to 16 inches. She had to be sewn in to her dresses once the hour-long process of tightening the corset was finished.



But no one was allowed to photograph her once she turned 30.  She felt that her celebrated beauty was beginning to fade, and her beauty was all she had. Anyway, her teeth were terrible by that time. She always carried a fan, and routinely hid behind it. It seems she was obviously anorexic in a time before that term was invented. She was probably bulimic, too–she had a private staircase built from her rooms to the kitchen in one of her houses so she could eat in private, and she was known to gorge on cakes from the royal baker Demel.


The Carriage Museum at Schonbrunn Palace has a display featuring portraits of Sisi’s favorite horses.  Her everyday sidesaddle is on display, too.  It’s hard to imagine jumping hedges and ditches while perched sideways on a horse, but that was really what Sisi did best.

Join me next time for more explorations into the art, history and surprising personalities of the past in Europe!