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Sisi and the Summer Palace


Duchess Elisabeth of Bavaria was never intended to be the Empress of Austria. Her mother had taken her and her older sister Helene to Austria to meet their distant relative Franz Josef who at 23 was already the Emperor of Austria. Helene was eighteen and the right age for marriage and Elisabeth, called Sisi by her family and friends, was fifteen. It was Sisi, however, who caught the Emperor’s eye and they were married a year later in 1854.

It would be nice to relate that it was a fairytale marriage but in fact hers was a marriage filled with sadness and alienation. She did keep her end of the bargain by delivering three children in 1855, 1856 and 1858. The first two were girls and the third was the male heir Crown Prince Rudolph but more on him later.

Early in the marriage she took her two daughters to Hungary on vacation even thought they were both ill at the time and her first born died while the second oldest survived. This filled her with guilt and also put a strain on the marriage that even the birth of Rudolph could not mitigate.

Seeking solace she traveled frequently to warmer climes particularly Madeira and Corfu. In 1867 the resentment of the Hungarian population caused Sisi and Franz Joseph to reconcile and take the additional titles of King and Queen of Hungary and Croatia and is so doing created the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Although she was born in Bavaria, Hungary was her favorite destination in the Empire and she spent more time there than in Austria. It was in 1867 that the crown bought the former Grassalkovich Palace in the town of Godollo for use as the Hapsburg Summer Palace and it was here that Sisi (sometimes spelled the French way, Sissi) spent some of her happiest times since she liked the Hungarians and they liked her.

The palace was built in the mid 1700’s and is situated about twenty miles from Budapest on the Pest side of the river. In those days it was a carriage ride away but today it is the last stop on a modern subway.

 When the court was in residence the city came alive and Sisi dedicated herself to enhancing her looks and following fashion. She often shopped at Antal Alter which was a major Budapest fashion house, its successor store Alter es Kiss is still going strong and is an anchor on the very chic Vaci Street.

Sisi enjoyed her summers at Godollo and today many of the rooms have been restored as they were at the time of her residence. There is a theatre in the Palace where concerts are often held supplemented by alfresco concerts in the summer months. During the summer months riding exhibitions also take place in the Palace’s gardens, named in her honor after her death.

 In 1889 tragedy struck again as the Crown prince and his young lover Baroness Vetsera died in a murder-suicide at Rudolph’s hunting lodge called Mayerling. Nine years later while walking on the pier in Geneva to board a ferry to Montreux on Lake Geneva, Sisi was stabbed by an anarchist and died.

Given both the glamour and the tragedy in her life it is not surprising that her story has been told in both plays and movies but in visiting Godollo you have the chance to experience what was, for her, the place where she was  happiest.