Empress Elisabeth, or Sisi, was the oft-misunderstood Bavarian wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I, a man whose outward dedication to her was nothing short of monumental. With Vienna as the backdrop to their story, I’d often wondered, was it ever entirely true love?

Posted by Pinky

Many years ago, while on a Christmas holiday with my parents, I chanced upon an old film in our hotel room that made an impression on me.

It was about a beautiful, dark-haired girl who falls in love with a handsome prince (an emperor, actually) right before his betrothal to another.

Set in what I thought to be Germany, it was a love story that I’d often associated with Christmastime and the warm aroma of holiday spices that greeted me each time I entered the hotel we were staying in.

Eventually, I learned that it was, in fact, based on a true story. Set primarily in Austria.

And so on a recent winter trip to Vienna with my husband and kids, we followed the trail of the object of an emperor’s love,  a woman who, incidentally, was born on Christmas Eve.

And what better place to find an empress than in a palace?

Schloss Hofburg

The Imperial Palace, as Hofburg is oftentimes referred to, is located right smack in the middle of Vienna.

This was the primary home of the imperial family and where an entire section is dedicated to telling the life story of Sisi.

The Sisi Museum, set within the imperial apartments, offers a fascinating look into the inner emotional workings of a woman who, as a carefree young girl, was suddenly thrust into royal court life under the watchful eye of an unsupportive mother-in-law, her very own aunt (her mother’s sister), the Archduchess Sophie.

All accidentally (or serendipitously), I might add, as it was her older sister who was originally intended for Franz Joseph. Yet the young emperor was adamant on marrying only Sisi – or no one at all.

In the course of learning more about Sisi and Franz Joseph, however, I grew conflicted. Later on, I’ll tell you why.

Schloss Schönbrunn

This second palace is the most visited attraction in Austria and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Schönbrunn had mainly been the summer residence of the Habsburgs before Franz Joseph decided to spend all of his final years here until his death in 1916.

In fact, it was also here that he was born 86 years prior.

Sisi’s presence isn’t as evident here as much as that of the woman responsible for rebuilding the palace and the grounds that we enjoy today, the Empress Maria Theresa, mother of France’s Marie Antoinette and great-grandmother to Franz Joseph (twice removed).

But it was in Schönbrunn that Sisi spent her very first night in Vienna and what I can imagine to be many pleasant summers away from the pressures of royal court. Rare, happy moments for the beleaguered empress.

Schloss Belvedere

Though hardly a trace of Sisi can be found within this third palace complex, the Belvedere, its current main attractions make it worthy of a visit: a fantastic collection of Austrian art and the more popular Klimt collection.

In the latter, the female character is definitely at the forefront. Many of them, in fact, as Austrian artist Gustav Klimt presents his numerous subjects in a most compelling way.

Real women who, just a decade after Sisi’s death in 1898, freely agreed to be depicted in a manner that revealed their powerful and, at times, sensual nature.

Whereas Sisi, who felt trapped in her role as empress, isolated from her older children who were raised by their controlling grandmother Sophie, unsupported by her busy (philandering) husband, suffered the loss of friends (one of them Bavaria’s Ludwig II) and the suicide of her one and only son, Rudolf – coped only in whatever way she knew how.

And most of them in ways I admit to readily attributing to someone akin to an entitled and self-absorbed child.

For a Princess Diana groupie such as myself, shame on me to judge Sisi, really. But herein lay the conflict I talked about earlier.

The more I learned about Franz Joseph and Sisi, the more I realised that they didn’t particularly conform to the way of typical loveless matches that existed between royals. That would have been a good thing, right? Had their story stayed rosy, that is.

The fact that they started out actually in love with each other and yet ended up suffering the same fate as that of most arranged royal marriages was a bit of a letdown. 

True Love?

Unlike the fate of Britain’s Diana, however, I’d like to believe that Franz Joseph eventually stepped up to his role as Sisi’s champion.

What gave?

Perhaps it was the remarkable coups by the otherwise politically uninterested Sisi in resolving the age-old conflict between Austria and Hungary, which resulted in a unified Austro-Hungarian Empire, with Franz Joseph finally as King of Hungary as well (and the birth of their youngest daughter, the only child to finally be raised by Sisi herself).

Franz Joseph and Sisi crowned as King and Queen of Hungary – a great political feat by the empress.

Perhaps it was the devastating loss of their only son, Rudolf, the young man who would have been emperor.

Or perhaps it was Sisi’s own tragic death in Switzerland, during one of her many trips abroad to escape the confines of Vienna, this time driving her straight into the hands of an unlikely assassin.

Belated or otherwise, Franz Joseph did grow to be a doting grandfather and became devoted to the memory of his beloved Sisi until his death.

Finding Sisi

As I looked around me, engrossed in my attempt to capture the essence of Sisi while sipping coffee in one of her favourite haunts, Cafe Demel, located just outside the palace walls of the Hofburg, it became clear to me.

A palace is a palace is a palace. Sure, that may be the case for many. But does it really have to be that way?

For within the four walls of any room could very well lie a story or two.

Just as in my quest to find Sisi, I came face-to-face with something larger: a love story surrounded by circumstances that, granted, may not have been entirely unique to the royals of that era.

Yet it was a great human experience, nevertheless. Real, raw, painfully, emotionally, joyfully human.

And that’s what I always get a kick out of discovering wherever I go.

And Vienna is definitely no exception.