In Flanders Fields, the poppies grow but here in this meadow, blood and honeysuckle flows.
I arrived in Bad Ischl hot and euphoric.
Splattered in mud and a sweet salty “glow,” I’d just completed day three of a six day cycle across the Salzkammergut in Austria as part of my #30ActiveDays challenge.
Cafes spilled their frill and finesse onto the streets and geraniums tumbled over windowsills. Coffee came thick and black among clattering saucers, while trombone-wielding men in lederhosen made music and the most of the scented summer vibe.
As for me, well, a mud-splattered cyclist stood out like a man wearing lederhosen on the London Underground, I suppose.
My room felt crushingly hot after hours of exercise and the swelter of the midsummer heat wave, so I showered as fast as I could and rejoined the crowds in a more respectable state.
A water park beckoned, only footsteps ahead, yet to the right lay the entrance to a former Royal Park.
The dull sense of duty led me towards the historic gate.
Once on the other side, a long driveway curled past grassy knolls and speckled flowerbeds to a buttercup-yellow grand house behind ivy-clad columns.
A joyless woman warned me that tours were only in German and only took place at pre-arranged times.
Defeated, I sat on the bench outside, where surprisingly, the wifi flowed warmly even if the reception did not.
Thus, strangely, it was through cyber world that I caught up on the treasures that lay behind me and behind the closed door.
This Royal Palace – or Kaiservilla – once belonged to a man and woman called Franz-Josef and Elisabeth.
You may not know the names. But you certainly know the chain of events that began behind these closed and ivy-guarded doors.
On 28th July 1914, Franz-Josef signed the declaration of war against Serbia.
It was the start of the First World War.
When I first heard this, fury gathered beneath my fingernails and spread along my arm.
Here I sat amid honeysuckle Eden, just inches away from the man and act who condemned more than 17 million to death, and who then lived his days out in the same kind of beauty I expect I saw now.
I didn’t mean to but my teeth clenched. My knuckles turned white. Then I lost my certainty. I googled a few more things and reached for my notes.
I was thinking of the wrong Kaiser.
I was thinking of Kaiser Wilhelm, tempestuous leader of the German Empire who entered the war in support of Austro-Hungary and lived out his life comfortably in exile in Holland.
This Kaiser, the head of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was different.
While he did sign that fateful declaration, the events of his life leading up to it put things into different perspective.
I sat on the bench, suffocating in scent of the flowers, and read.
Franz-Josef described Bad Ischl and his summer house as “heaven on earth,” receiving it as a wedding present on his marriage to his Bavarian teen cousin Elisabeth, known as “Sisi.”
The couple had wealth, power, beauty, and prestige.
They also had a calling card for tragedy.
Their first daughter died during a state visit, leading to reduced contact for Sisi and other children.
Elisabeth’s brother in law was executed in Mexico following a rebellion against him, leaving his wife to descend into madness and die incarcerated in a gloomy castle outside Brussels.
Elisabeth’s cousin, “mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria died under mysterious circumstances after being deposed by the Bavarian government.
In 1889, the couple’s only son murdered his 17 year old mistress before killing himself with a shotgun.
And then Elisabeth herself was murdered by an Italian anarchist as she visited Geneva.
With a background of a life like this, it is no wonder that Franz-Josef described his securely guarded summer retreat in Bad Ischl as a “heaven on earth.”
And then came the final tragedy that led to the biggest of all: the assassination of the heir to the throne, his nephew Franz Ferdinand in Serbia.
It reminded me of one of the earliest pieces I wrote for this blog, about a wealthy factory owner during the height of the Industrial Revolution who lost his children at an even younger age
“Not even wealth and privilege can protect us from the scourge of death.”
Records reveal that the Emperor was surprised at the severity of the ultimatum drawn up by his ministers to give to Serbia and expressed concern that Russia would not stand idly by.
Yet, sign he did.
As I sit on the bench, pondering the heat and the vortex of flowers, a Korean couple pose for photographs. My mind drifts back to the words of Billy Bragg at the Nuremberg Festival. He talked of the naïve enthusiasm for war by the younger generations but that clearly cannot have been the case for this man, who had ruled by then for 65 years.
Franz-Josef died in 1916 in Vienna, half way through the First World War. He was the third longest reigning monarch in Europe and his favourite spot in Bad Ischl had been associated with the Habsburg Imperial dynasty for at least 700 years.
The monarchy ended with the defeat in 1918, although his ancestors still live on in the summer palace of Bad Ischl.
Perhaps these royals are those who won the best deal in the end: inherited luxury but without the public duties and press intrusion.
Or perhaps the whole story of this place is unremittingly heavy and sad.
And with that thought, I leave the gardens behind and head back to the 21st century world, and the simpler, purer world of me, my bike and the road.
I travelled to Bad Ischl with Headwater Holidays as part of the #30ActiveDays project. Headwater arrange independent guided cycling holidays (and walking holidays) where they provide you with a map, notes, bike, flights, transfers and accommodation and then leave you to your own devices. I’ve worked with them many times, now, and would definitely recommend them. However, I always keep the right to write what I like, otherwise there’s just no point
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