Never in my wildest dreams had it occurred to me that I would one day live in Budapest. Little old me, a girl from Minnesota, living in Hungary? A former Communist country? Eastern Europe?
What a remarkable and beautiful city Budapest is. What fascinating history. I have fallen in love with it all. It just so happens that my favorite royal fell in love with this country as well. The Empress learned the language, considered to be the second most difficult language in the world, and was so loved by the Hungarians, she became a historical icon. They built a summer palace for her just outside Budapest. One can find any number of statues bearing her likeness throughout the city, and one of the bridges crossing the Danube that connects Buda to Pest is named after her.
Who was this woman? She was Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837-1898), nicknamed Sisi. Considered the most beautiful woman in the world during her time, she married Emperor Franz Josef, her cousin, when she was barely sixteen. His domineering mother had arranged a meeting between the young emperor and Sisi’s older sister for the purpose of marriage, but one look at fifteen-year-old Sisi and the twenty-three-year-old emperor told his mother if he couldn’t have Sisi, he wouldn’t marry at all. For him, it was love at first sight.
Sisi, one of ten children born in Munich, was raised in the wilds of Bavaria after her father, an eccentric duke, bought a castle located far enough from court to avoid his duties. He played and ran free, and so did his children. Sisi could out-shoot, out-ride and out-curse any man, much to her father’s delight. Like him, she eschewed court rules and rebelled at every turn. She was an accomplished equestrian, and was obsessed with diet and exercise. Sisi worked out daily. Every palace or castle she resided in was equipped with a gymnasium. Wherever she traveled, a portable gym went with her. At 5’8”, she was a tall, willowy woman who adored fashion. In order to maintain her sixteen inch waist, she ate sparingly, often existing for weeks on a mixture of milk and raw eggs. There is speculation she may have been anorexic. In time, health issues arose because of her stringent diet and exercise programs.
Some say it was her stubborn, controlling mother-in-law who may have instigated Sisi’s health-related problems. The woman took Sisi’s children away from her and raised them at court according to the mother-in-law’s stern dictates. She refused to allow Sisi to breast feed, and except for the last child, Sisi never saw much of her children. Having been raised in a large, loving, and carefree family, she wanted the same for her offspring. It broke her heart when she lost her children to a hard-hearted mother-in-law.
Sisi loved Hungary, and the Magyars loved her—with a passion so great, she chose to have her fourth and last child in Budapest. Sisi’s daughter, named Marie Valerie, was raised a Hungarian. The Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 created a double monarchy, and Sisi was crowned queen of Hungary and Croatia. She developed a close friendship with the dashing count Gyula Andrassy, the first Hungarian prime minister. A handsome man in his younger years, Sisi called him her closest friend. Others referred to him as her lover. Their relationship thrived until his death in 1890. Rumors still abound that he was actually the father of her last child (my friends and I thought the paintings and photographs we’ve seen of Marie Valerie bear a striking resemblance to Andrassy).
Last August, in the heat of summer, I visited Sisi’s summer palace at Godollo, about twenty miles outside Budapest. I can see why she loved the place. Even though the temperatures were in the 90’s on the day of my visit, once inside, I forgot about the heat. All the windows, and the many doors to various balconies, had been flung open and a cooling breeze flowed through a light-filled and airy structure. I’ve visited many palaces and castles while living abroad, but Sisi’s homey summer palace is one of my favorites. The vast grounds where she rode her horses have been left intact (thank God, the Communists didn’t ruin them), and the palace is in remarkable shape.
Sadly, Sisi was assassinated in 1898 by an Italian anarchist. You can read about her in books and on the internet, you can view her summer castle and her home in Corfu on YouTube, and there are movies about her life. But for me, nothing compares to a self-guided tour through her summer palace, or walking the streets of beautiful, amazing Budapest, where one can easily gaze upon the many reminders of the love the Magyars held in their hearts for her.