When they were small my three children, daughters all, had only one DVD. Admittedly a long one – six hours long in fact. And they watched it again and again and again.
The German classic Sissi (1957) starring Romy Schneider, tells the story of Elizabeth of Bavaria who, as a sweet fifteen year old met the Austrian emperor and within a year had become Empress. Unusually for royalty, these two actually loved each other, though this did not ensure fidelity. Fleeing from the stifling protocol that characterised Viennese court life Sissi spent much of her life travelling. She frequently visited Hungary where she enjoyed riding horses with ardent Magyar noblemen. Unfortunately the movie leaves some of the best bits out – like her love affairs and her visits to Switzerland.
Sissi first visited Zurich in January 1867. Never one for drawing attention to herself, she had travelled incognito, though arriving in her own private train must have been a dead giveaway. She booked into the best hotel in town, the Baur au Lac. In fact she booked the entire hotel! Though she might have been a simple girl at heart, her retinue of over 60 servants certainly made her conspicuous.
Hotel Baur au Lac, Zürich
The Empress could be occasionally glimpsed enjoying an ice or fruit juice at Sprungli’s chocolate store on the Paradeplatz. She occupied her time mainly with taking in the fresh air during long walks at the lakeside and visiting her sister who was living in exile in the Zürich suburb of Enge. The poor sister (well, not literally poor) and her husband, a Neopolitan prince, had been chased out of Naples by Garibaldi and the revolution that had created Italy – but that’s another story.
Two months later Sissi was back in Switzerland. She stayed in Schaffhausen, where the beauty of the Rhine combined with the luxury of the Schweizerhof Hotel so much delighted the Empress that she sent for her husband who duly and dutifully joined her. The first written description of the Rhine Falls, Europe’s biggest waterfall, by a traveller dates back to the 12th century but it wasn’t until the mid-18th century that romantics, enthralled by nature’s wildness, began to arrive in significant numbers. Goethe and Wordsworth came and saw and captured in verse. With the invention of the steam train and the construction of luxury hotels, European nobility followed poetic suit.
The Rhine Falls
In Schaffhausen, Austrian entrepreneur Franz Wegenstein had bought a modest hotel and added a fourth floor, including a loggia with an incomparable view of the Falls. He later added another wing that included a veranda restaurant. Wegenstein had a verdant walkway constructed that lead from the railway station directly to the entrance of the hotel. The entire area around the hotel was landscaped and the wealthy patrons were pampered with every conceivable luxury. Visconti’s movie, Death in Venice, gives us an idea of what life must have been like in these hotels of La Belle Epoque. The hotel no longer exits today, but the falls are still there.
When the emperor arrived Sissi was waiting for him at the station. Eyed by a small number of locals they and their retinue made their way, in a procession of open carriages, to the hotel. The fact that royalty was in town was recorded in the newspaper the following day. Although Sissi had a reputation that she mixed well with the “lower classes”, the next Sunday she couldn’t bear to attend public mass. The abbot of the Reichnau abbey across the border in Germany was hastily sent for and mass was said for her majesty in the privacy of the hotel. Always generous, Sissi rewarded the abbot with a golden cross on a golden chain. Upon his death he left the cross to the monastery in Einsiedeln where, in gratitude, a portrait of Sissi was hung in the Fürstensaal, where it hung until recently.
In 1892 Sissi returned to Switzerland, spending a night at the luxurious Baur au Lac again and a day sightseeing in Lucerne before taking Europe’s first cog-wheel train up Mount Rigi where she stayed three nights at the Hotel Bellvue at Rigi-Kaltbad. From there she travelled to Interlaken where she stayed at the Hotel Regina-Jungfraublick.
Europe's first cog-wheel train on Mount Rigi
The beauty of the mountains, (and the luxury of the hotels), kept calling her back. In 1898 she set out on what was to become her very last earthly journey. The suicides of her love sick, bi-polar disordered, syphilitic and morphine-addicted son and his mistress (the so-called Mayerling Tragedy) had left her deeply depressed. Once considered to be Europe’s most ravishing beauty, her legendary hair had become dry, her teeth had yellowed and anorexia had left her emaciated and weighing under 46 kilos. Coming from a visit to her friends, the Rothschilds, she was about to board a ship on Lake Geneva when an Italian anarchist stabbed her. Carried to the nearby Hotel Beau Rivage this regaled but ultimately lonely woman died, much as she had lived, amidst the opulence of one of Europe’s great hotels. The hotel is still open for business and Sissi’s death chamber can be reserved by those who have money and enjoy combining luxury with morbidity.