Story and Photo by Celine Sidani
“This one would be mine,” my friend said eagerly, pointing to a velvet-covered king-sized bed protected behind glass. It was covered in intricate, golden stitches across a deep red cloth that mimicked the embroidery patterns on the surrounding walls. My eyes skimmed the plaque that hung on the glass and landed on two words: Rich Bedroom. I wouldn’t mind sleeping on the hardwood floor if I got to say that I slept in Empress Maria Theresa’s bedroom, I thought. I slipped my camera out of my purse to sneak a quick picture of what I later learned was the only surviving bed of the Habsburg Monarchy. My attempt at photography was met with snarls and shaking heads from at least three security guards dressed in black whom I had mistaken for a few of the hundreds of tourists surrounding me.
After almost five minutes of pressing our noses to the glass to get a better view of the pillows, my friends and I finally began to make our way towards the next of the 50 rooms that are open to the public out of the 1,441 that make up Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace. I would have been more than satisfied with seeing only one room in the 18th-century, crystal-chandelier-dotted imperial heaven, even just the tiny bathroom that once belonged to Emperor of Austria Franz Joseph I until his death in 1916. Walking past the emperor’s bathroom, I learned that as a strict Catholic, Franz Joseph I began his days promptly at 4 a.m. by performing his morning ablutions and praying on his prayer stool. Walking through the Schönbrunn Palace was like reading a more colorful version of my high school history textbook.
Located less than five miles from the center of Vienna, the Baroque-style palace and its extensive, colorful gardens and mazes span over 400 acres. Before it became state-owned at the end of the Habsburg rule in 1918, the Schönbrunn Palace was the summer residence of the imperial Habsburg family, which included Empress Maria Theresa, her husband Francis I, the Holy Roman Emperor, and their 16 children.
I pressed play on my audio guide and turned the corner to find a rectangular dining room table covered in a sleek, white cloth and surrounded by red and gold chairs. The voice through my headphones informed me that while gourmet French cuisine was served at formal dinners, the imperial family ate traditional Viennese dishes at casual meals, as if it could hear my stomach begging for some Viennese spätzle. I couldn’t help but envision the Emperor and Empress, dressed from head to toe in the most expensive laces and linens, stuffing their faces with Wiener Schnitzel and beef goulash, their silky white bibs dripping with sauce. Our next stop was a massive room adorned with chandeliers and wall sconces. The Great Gallery’s spacious and vacant interior called for a dance party, and I had the urge to take my boots off and glide across the room’s polished floors. It turns out that the urge to dance was valid – the Great Gallery was once used for royal balls, banquets, and receptions.
Even with electricity and stampedes of tourists, the Schönbrunn Palace still has its majestic charm. Schnitzel on ornamented porcelain plates is no longer served in the Marie Antoinette Room, and I will never be invited to waltz across the Great Gallery with Emperor Franz Joseph in a voluminous ball gown. But I would come back any afternoon, just to pretend that everything was how it once was – to lose myself in an imperial daydream.
This story appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Baedeker.