A Twisted Fairy Tale – King Zog & Queen Geraldine: An Albanian Love Affair (Part One)

Imagine there was once a king from a small, exotic European nation that went by a strange name. The only thing stranger than the nation’s name was that of the king’s. This king had risen from tribal leader to politician and then to the most powerful person in a newly born nation. He was crafty, intelligent and utterly corrupt. His country was desperately poor. It lacked the infrastructure and institutions in which of a modern state. It was beset by feuding, capricious violence and poverty. By the mid-1930’s, the King was in his early forties, a bachelor who was looking to marry. He wanted a woman with an aristocratic background and lots of money. There were plenty of aristocratic women to choose from in interwar Europe. The aristocracy had taken quite a fall since the end of World War I. The King also needed a woman with money because of his spendthrift ways and addictive habits. He sent his sisters to Vienna and Budapest in search of a suitable match for him.

They would send him a photo of a beautiful lady taken at a dinner in Budapest. One of his sisters then invited this woman to visit the exotic nation. The woman who would be queen was elegant, attractive and came from an aristocratic background, but she was far from wealthy. Her family’s fortune had all but vanished. A meeting was arranged between the two. It was not exactly love at first sight. The King was twenty years older than the Queen and looked every bit of it. Despite each ones less than desirable characteristics, they wed not long after that first meeting and would stay together for the rest of the king’s tempestuous life. The modern fairy tale told in the preceding paragraph is the story of the first King and Queen of Albania. If the story sounds unbelievable, than it just go to proves that truth really is stranger than fiction.  The woman who became queen could certainly vouch for that.

Budapest Beauty - Geraldine Apponyi on her wedding day

Budapest Beauty – Geraldine Apponyi on her wedding day

From Countess To Queen – The Riches Of Royalty
Countess Geraldine Margit Virginia Olga Maria Apponyi de Nagy-Appony or as she was later known, Queen Geraldine of Albania, was born in Budapest during the First World War. She was the daughter of a well-connected Hungarian aristocrat, while her American mother was an heiress whose father was a leading diplomat. Countess Geraldine spent her childhood in such glamorous locales as Switzerland, the south of France, the Wienerwald in Austria and a family chateau in Czechoslovakia. It all sounds glamorous and by all accounts her childhood was a happy one, but her life was less than the stuff dreams are made of. Her father had died when she was only nine years old. After her mother remarried, Geraldine and her sisters were packed off to a boarding school in Austria. By the time she entered adulthood, her family fortune was exhausted. The Countess took up employment as a short hand typist. Her uncle, who was director of the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest, helped her procure a second job as a clerk in the museum’s gift shop selling postcards.

Geraldine ended up abandoning her two jobs to marry a man who had survived innumerable assassination attempts, pulled all-nighters at the poker table and smoked 150 cigarettes a day. Not exactly a great catch for a woman, but at least he was a king. She was also feted with outrageous sums of money. The vice-president gave her a velvet pocketbook with the equivalent of half a million dollars in it. She donated it to an Albanian charity. The couples’ wedding was a memorable occasion. The most important dignitary in attendance was the personal envoy of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Mussolini was said to be furious with Zog’s choice of Geraldine as his bride. He would have preferred that Zog marry an Italian, as Mussolini planned to incorporate Albania into his vision of a greater Italy. Another vile dictator also left his mark on the wedding. The couple drove to their honeymoon in a red Mercedes gifted to them by Adolf Hitler. It must have been quite the ride because Albania’s roads were in deplorable condition.

A Match Made In Albania - Wedding of King Zog and Geraldine Apponyi

A Match Made In Albania – Wedding of King Zog and Geraldine Apponyi

Stateless – A King & Queen Without A Country
During the 354 days of her reign spent in Albania, Queen Geraldine was given the royal treatment by King Zog. He expended a fortune to ensure that she was provided with every luxury. Much of the money Zog was wasting had been given to Albania by Italy. This was done to curry favor with the king. Mussolini hoped to use this small, primitive nation on the eastern side of the Adriatic as a stepping stone to eventually occupy Greece. Unfortunately for the Italians, Zog displayed ingratitude on a scale rarely seen before or since. He wanted their money for one reason only, to spend it as he saw fit. Italian advisers were crawling all over the Albanian government, trying to bring a sense of order and professionalism to it. Some of the funds went for infrastructure upgrades, but much of it was wasted on the King’s whims or for jewels, furs and other material items for the Queen. The Italians grew increasingly fed up with Zog’s behavior.

Heirs to the throne - Queen Geraldine & Crown Prince Leka

Heirs to the throne – Queen Geraldine & Crown Prince Leka

Just a week and a half after Geraldine had given birth to an heir, Crown Prince Leka, the royal couple fled the country. An Italian invasion made Albania a vassal state of Mussolini’s Italy. Some observers questioned why Zog had been hell bent on alienating the Italians. If his behavior had been a bit better he could likely have continued ruling the country under Italian occupation, but not as his personal fief. The king was too corrupt and cunning for the Italians to tell him what to do. Zog probably believed that the Italians would have had him murdered if he stayed in Albania. He was extremely paranoid and for good reason, Zog survived 55 assassination attempts in his life – a world record for a modern leader. There was no compelling reason for Zog to test his luck once again. Plus, Zog believed he had secreted away enough money in accounts outside of the country to allow the royal couple to live a wealthy existence for years to come. Thus, King Zog and Queen Geraldine went into exile. The King was to never see his homeland again.

In The Shadow Of Giants – Vysehrad: The Soul Of A Nation

Vysehrad gave a sensation of towering over Prague and the Vltava River. The Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul gave a sensation of towering over Vysehrad. The only thing above the Basilica apex was sky. The imposing neo-Gothic edifice of the Basilica loomed much larger than I could have possibly imagined. Its sheer verticality was impressive, an incredible imposition that dwarfed awed onlookers such as myself. Part of this was due to a set of conical towers soaring upward from the façade a full 58 meters. This was one of those buildings that causes dizziness just from looking up at it. Little wonder that Pope John Paul II deemed the structure worthy of basilica status in 1993. Conversely, smaller scale parts of the exterior were graced with touches of intimacy. Beside the main portal, topped with a tympanum of Jesus and the Apostles, was a stone with the words Basilica Minor inscribed upon it. Above those words was a royal crown with two crossed keys.

The right door of the entrance was open, but all I could see was darkness beyond it. That changed once I walked inside. The interior was flooded with light and acted as a radiant tribute to neo-Gothicism. The nave, altar, side chapels and pulpit were all given over to the neo-Gothic style. There were also touches of Baroque and even a little bit of Art Nouveau. Ornate decorative effects covered every square inch of the interior. These lavish flourishes were stunningly vibrant. A sensory experience of the spectacular. This was art at the extremity. The Basilica as seen from the exterior was intimidating, on the inside it was inspiring. I first felt humbled and then uplifted.

In The Shadow Of Giants - Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul in Vysehrad

In The Shadow Of Giants – Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul in Vysehrad

Reverential Symbolism – Creation Of A Czech Past
This was the last of several versions of the church that had been built on the grounds of Vysehrad. Earlier iterations had long since passed into history, succumbing to fire, warfare or wholesale reconstruction. Only skeletal remains of former foundations could be seen on the ground close to the current one. In the area adjacent to the church, I could not help but notice an array of sizable statues. These had been moved up to Vysehrad from their former placement decorating one of the bridges over the Vltava. It is a wonder that the bridge didn’t buckle beneath the weight of these stone behemoths. The effort it must have taken to transport these statues to their current spots would have been herculean. I knew that the statues were representative of legendary Czechs, part mythical, part historical, all sculpted in stone.

Vysehrad had been transformed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries into a pantheon promoting Czech nationalism. As such everything in the area close to the Basilica was larger than life, meant to portray strength, vigor and national greatness.  Behind the church I found a cemetery. The gate was half open, an invitation to enter. The cemetery filled with great Czech artists, intellectuals and politicians. No one else has been allowed inside. Forget soldiers or sports figures. Czech culture celebrates the life of the mind. It is an intellectual society, the antithesis of what I grew up with in America. Vysehrad was reimagined to stand above all the rest in extolling the nation’s best. The Czech national revival was a reactionary movement that sought to finally throw off the centuries old shackles of Habsburg rule. Vysehrad was key to that movement. Mythologizing the past, deifying national heroes, reconstructing medieval buildings all as reverential symbols.

More Than A Myth - Sculpture at Vysehrad

More Than A Myth – Sculpture at Vysehrad

Hard Currency & Hearsay – The Known Prague
Visiting Vysehrad brought me closer to what I would say was the true soul of the Czech nation. Everything that stood on those grounds at present was meant to be in the service of Czech nationalism.  A reminder and a sustainer. It was also the antithesis of touristic Prague. The Castle District and the Old Town were so flooded with tourists that they obscured the Czech aspects of Prague. There were times in those areas that I thought they were more Germanic, than Czech. Such thoughts would have been heretical to Czech patriots, but during much of Prague’s past Austrians had reigned supreme. In some ways this was still true today, substitute the word tourists for Austrians. That was because the only Czechs to be found in the most touristic spots of the city were shopkeepers, tour guides (with many notable exceptions) and restaurant staff.

It made me view the most popular parts of Prague as islands unto themselves, where foreigners with their mighty euros and dollars hold sway. For most tourists, their only interactions with Czechs occur when then they are handing hard currency over to them at hotels, bars or to purchase entrance tickets. I had come to Prague on hearsay and I still heard the same things spoken in English or German or Italian or Spanish. The Czech language and Czech people were obscured by throngs of vacationers.  All that changed when I came to Vysehrad. This was a world that was an afterthought to most tourists, while it was at the forefront of what it meant to be Czech.

Looking Back & Looking Forward - The View From Vysehrad

Looking Back & Looking Forward – The View From Vysehrad

The Beginning At The End – Looking Back, Looking Forward
Vysehrad may have been my last stop, but it should have been my first. It was the first time on this trip that I felt closer to the Czechs and their nation. I did not see many tourists here. Local lovers sat on benches holding one  another, wanderers strolled, a few people prayed in the basilica and everywhere life went on normally. This was both a city park and a sanctuary. I made my way to the fortress walls, at the bottom of which surged auto traffic and just beyond a riverside road flowed the Vltava. The view in both directions was stunning, the dark waters of the Vltava bisecting the valley. Looking to the south there was less development along the river bank. I could almost imagine what the scene would have looked like for the earliest ancestors of the Czech people. According to legend Vysehrad was where it all began for the Czechs and Prague. The setting was just as spectacular as the city it is said to have spawned. The Czechs could not have picked a better place to begin their story and I could not have picked a better place to end my visit in Prague.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In The Shadow Of Giants – Vysehrad: The Soul Of A Nation
Vysehrad gave a sensation of towering over Prague and the Vltava River. The Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul gave a sensation of towering over Vysehrad. The only thing above the Basilica apex was sky. The imposing neo-Gothic edifice of the Basilica loomed much larger than I could have possibly imagined. Its sheer verticality was impressive, an incredible imposition that dwarfed awed onlookers such as myself. Part of this was due to a set of conical towers soaring upward from the façade a full 58 meters. This was one of those buildings that causes dizziness just from looking up at it. Little wonder that Pope John Paul II deemed the structure worthy of basilica status in 1993. Conversely, smaller scale parts of the exterior were graced with touches of intimacy. Beside the main portal, topped with a tympanum of Jesus and the Apostles, was a stone with the words Basilica Minor inscribed upon it. Above those words was a royal crown with two crossed keys.

The right door of the entrance was open, but all I could see was darkness beyond it. That changed once I walked inside. The interior was flooded with light and acted as a radiant tribute to neo-Gothicism. The nave, altar, side chapels and pulpit were all given over to the neo-Gothic style. There were also touches of Baroque and even a little bit of Art Nouveau. Ornate decorative effects covered every square inch of the interior. These lavish flourishes were stunningly vibrant. A sensory experience of the spectacular. This was art at the extremity. The Basilica as seen from the exterior was intimidating, on the inside it was inspiring. I first felt humbled and then uplifted.

Reverential Symbolism – Creation Of A Czech Past
This was the last of several versions of the church that had been built on the grounds of Vysehrad. Earlier iterations had long since passed into history, succumbing to fire, warfare or wholesale reconstruction. Only skeletal remains of former foundations could be seen on the ground close to the current one. In the area adjacent to the church, I could not help but notice an array of sizable statues. These had been moved up to Vysehrad from their former placement decorating one of the bridges over the Vltava. It is a wonder that the bridge didn’t buckle beneath the weight of these stone behemoths. The effort it must have taken to transport these statues to their current spots would have been herculean. I knew that the statues were representative of legendary Czechs, part mythical, part historical, all sculpted in stone.

Vysehrad had been transformed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries into a pantheon promoting Czech nationalism. As such everything in the area close to the Basilica was larger than life, meant to portray strength, vigor and national greatness.  Behind the church I found a cemetery. The gate was half open, an invitation to enter. The cemetery filled with great Czech artists, intellectuals and politicians. No one else has been allowed inside. Forget soldiers or sports figures. Czech culture celebrates the life of the mind. It is an intellectual society, the antithesis of what I grew up with in America. Vysehrad was reimagined to stand above all the rest in extolling the nation’s best. The Czech national revival was a reactionary movement that sought to finally throw off the centuries old shackles of Habsburg rule. Vysehrad was key to that movement. Mythologizing the past, deifying national heroes, reconstructing medieval buildings all as reverential symbols.

Hard Currency & Hearsay – The Known Prague
Visiting Vysehrad brought me closer to what I would say was the true soul of the Czech nation. Everything that stood on those grounds at present was meant to be in the service of Czech nationalism.
A reminder and a sustainer. It was also the antithesis of touristic Prague. The Castle District and the Old Town were so flooded with tourists that they obscured the Czech aspects of Prague. There were times in those areas that I thought they were more Germanic, than Czech. Such thoughts would have been heretical to Czech patriots, but during much of Prague’s past Austrians had reigned supreme. In some ways this was still true today, substitute the word tourists for Austrians. That was because the only Czechs to be found in the most touristic spots of the city were shopkeepers, tour guides (with many notable exceptions) and restaurant staff.

t made me view the most popular parts of Prague as islands unto themselves, where foreigners with their mighty euros and dollars hold sway. For most tourists, their only interactions with Czechs occur when then they are handing hard currency over to them at hotels, bars or to purchase entrance tickets. I had come to Prague on hearsay and I still heard the same things spoken in English or German or Italian or Spanish. The Czech language and Czech people were obscured by throngs of vacationers.  All that changed when I came to Vysehrad. This was a world that was an afterthought to most tourists, while it was at the forefront of what it meant to be Czech.

The Beginning At The End – Looking Back, Looking Forward
Vysehrad may have been my last stop, but it should have been my first. It was the first time on this trip that I felt closer to the Czechs and their nation. I did not see many tourists here. Local lovers sat on benches holding one  another, wanderers strolled, a few people prayed in the basilica and everywhere life went on normally. This was both a city park and a sanctuary. I made my way to the fortress walls, at the bottom of which surged auto traffic and just beyond a riverside road flowed the Vltava. The view in both directions was stunning, the dark waters of the Vltava bisecting the valley. Looking to the south there was less development along the river bank. I could almost imagine what the scene would have looked like for the earliest ancestors of the Czech people. According to legend Vysehrad was where it all began for the Czechs and Prague. The setting was just as spectacular as the city it is said to have spawned. The Czechs could not have picked a better place to begin their story and I could not have picked a better place to end my visit in Prague.

Vysehrad, Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, Czech National Revival, Castle District Prague, Czech People, Vysehrad Narodni Kulturni Pamatka, Vysehrad National Cultural Park, High Castle Prague

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visiting Vysehrad – Myth, Mystery & History: Looking Down Upon Prague

For such a small nation the Czech Republic certainly has grand designs, nowhere more so than in Prague. It is here where Czech greatness is affirmed in architecture, culture and history. For most, the apogee takes place at Prague Castle and the surrounding Castle District (Hradcany). I must admit to being rather awestruck by Castle Hill, to me this was where a fairy tale met the massive, symbolized by such disparate structural elements as the Golden Lane and St. Vitus Cathedral. A world in miniature, a world in monumental, seamlessly integrated to the point that everything in the Castle District looks to have sprung as if by magic from a master plan. I have seen few places so impressive. It left me asking one particular question following my visit: After this, now what?

The Castle District provides all a traveler, historian or architectural buff could ever want. Everything else in Prague seems beneath it, both literally and figuratively. The thought of this depressed me. It informed a sense of hopelessness that the rest of Prague would forever fail to live up to the Castle District’s exalted standards. That feeling would turn out to be wrong, but it was not any of Prague’s most popular places (Old Town Square, Wenceslaus Square, Charles Bridge) that managed to defeat this great depression festering inside of me. Instead it was the last place I went in the city, on my final day.

Vysehrad as seen from the Vltava River

Vysehrad as seen from the Vltava River (Credit: cSJu)

Scaling The Walls – The Highest Citadel
The ancient citadel of Vysehrad or at least what’s left of it sits high above the Vltava River. This was to be my final destination in Prague as I set out on foot from the guest house. It was my last afternoon in the city and I was hoping to see something memorable. Just getting to the citadel required quite a bit of legwork as I had to make my way up to the craggy rock outcropping it sits atop. Not long thereafter I realized why Vysehrad means “High Castle”. I spent a fair amount of time huffing and puffing my way up to one of its many entrances. Geographically, Vysehrad holds a commanding position over the right bank of the Vltava. On that side of the fortress, it is almost a sheer drop down to the river. The side from which I approached it was nothing to scoff at either. I could not imagine an army trying to make this approach which required walking at a steeply inclined angle for many minutes.

Against well-armed defenders, such an approach would have been suicidal. Conversely, an approach from the riverside was impossible.  I would later discover to my surprise that the fortress was not impregnable, far from it. During the first half of the 15th century it was ransacked twice and left in ruin. The Leopold Gate was my point of entry to the Vysehrad Narodni Kulturni Pamatka (Vysehrad National Cultural Park). The fortress complex, as it stands today, is almost entirely the product of reconstruction work done during the Baroque era of the 18th century, but Vysehrad’s history goes all the way back to the earliest days of Slavic settlement in the area. Much of this time, which predates the 10th century, is shrouded in mystery and obscured by myth. The upshot, Vysehrad is rich in both folkloric and historical connotations.

A portal to a deep past - The Leopold Gate at Vysehrad

A portal to a deep past – The Leopold Gate at Vysehrad

Abundant Myths, Foundational Facts – The Royal Way
Legend says that a tribal leader by the name of Krak built a fortress in the area as early as the 7th century. One of his daughters, Libuse, envisioned that a great city would sprout from this location. Libuse went on to wed a ploughman by the name of Premysl. He then became king, while Libuse founded Prague. This was the legendary beginnings of the Premyslid Dynasty. The truth about Vysehrad is a bit more benign. It was likely settled prior to the year 1000 AD. A fortified town came to occupy the crag during the 11th century. At one point, the seat of Royal Power was moved away from Castle Hill and to Vysehrad by Vratislaus II, the first King of Bohemia. This led to a thorough reconstruction of the area, which included the development of a palatial complex. In 1140 the seat of power went back to Castle Hill where it would stay. The next major development atop Vysehrad occurred under the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. Charles was directly related to the Premyslid Dynasty on his mother’s side, as such he wanted to create a tangible connection between Vysehrad and the Czech people.

Charles decreed that the royal coronation would begin from Vysehrad and terminate three kilometers away on Castle Hill. He also expanded the fortifications, added a new gate and connected its walls with the New Town (Nove Mesto), which Charles had founded. Existing palace complexes were improved and the Gothic church of St. Peter and Paul was upgraded. This period was truly a Golden Age for Vysehrad, a period when it was part of a glorious present that maintained an integral link to a mysterious past. The abundant myths concerning its earliest history provided a foundation upon which the Czech people could stake their claim to the area. It appealed to ethnic pride and eventually to national greatness. Hardly anything from the period of Charles’ rule still stood at Vysehrad. I should have been disappointed, but the setting was so spectacular that I spent much of my visit marveling at the wonderful views.

Looking back toward the Castle District from Vysehrad

Looking back toward the Castle District from Vysehrad

Looming Threat– In The Shadow Of Castle Hill
Even after a thousand years of change it was easy to see why Vysehrad held a special place in Czech history. Impressive and intimidating were the two words which came into my mind. The views from the walls looking up and down the Vltava were quite impressive. They were also intimidating. The dark waters of the river made a wide sweep below the fortress, flowing wide and languid toward the Old Town. In the distance I could see the spires of St. Vitus Cathedral in the Castle District silhouetted beneath a bright blue, early spring sky. It was only fitting that one of Castle District’s main attractions should be seen looming in the distance. From a historical standpoint, the Castle District had been Vysehrad’s main competition for the epicenter of Prague.  The Castle District may have won that battle, but Vysehrad held its own prominent place in the Czech pantheon, nowhere more so then in and around the Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul.

Click here for: In The Shadow Of Giants – Vysehrad: The Soul Of A Nation

Tragic Destiny –The Mysterious Afterlife Of Mayerling: History For The Worse (Part Three)

The Mayerling Incident was a tabloid ready controversy filled with rampant speculation, salacious gossip, bizarre rumors of ridiculous conspiracies and mysterious cover-ups. Fact and fiction were interwoven to the point that they became inseparable. The powers that be changed their story multiple times. Something akin to an approximation of the truth slowly came to light. The press in Austria was heavily censored, but further west in France and Great Britain speculation flowed freely, some of this crossed back over the border into Austria. The entire drama threatened to undermine an already weakened and rickety monarchy that was already having enough trouble just trying to deal with social and technological changes. Someone would have to take the blame for this self-inflicted debacle and it would not be the monarchy. Rudolf’s femme fatale never stood a chance.

United by fate - Crown Prince Rudolf & Mary Vetsera

United by fate – Crown Prince Rudolf & Mary Vetsera

Obscured By Spiritualism – Underwhelmed By The Unresolved
The court of official propaganda and public opinion was not kind to Mary Vetsera. She was viewed as a willing accomplice of a mentally troubled Rudolf. Her age did not help matters. She was thirteen years younger than Rudolf, a mere teenager who lacked the emotional maturity to understand what she was getting herself into. Her mother had sought fame in the highest aristocratic social circles for a family that were newcomers on the Viennese social scene. Their background in the near east limited just how far the family might climb, but Mary would end up showing just how far they could fall. Her mother was not allowed to attend the daughter’s funeral. Mary was buried alone at a spot the Crown Prince had selected for the two of them. Instead, Rudolf ended up in the Imperial Crypt, but only after officialdom ensured that his suicide was ruled as the result of mental problems.

As for the Mayerling hunting lodge, it was transformed into a Carmelite Convent where nuns could eternally pray for Rudolf’s soul. A very odd thing to do to at a murder-suicide site. While the gesture was heartfelt – Franz Josef wept at the convent’s dedication – such a transformation was incongruous at best, insincere at worst. This was the main reason I found the Jagdschloss Karmel Mayerling to be one of the most underwhelming historical places I have visited. My suspicion was that there had been a tacit agreement to keep the exact truth of what happened obscured by spiritualism. Thus, it was decided to create something of a memorial and leave it at that. The fact that the mystery of Mayerling may or may not have been solved kept interest from visitors such as myself high. It drew me and thousands of others to the Jagdschloss Karmel Mayerling each year.  Probably not what the Habsburg authorities had in mind.

Tragic Destiny - Crown Prince after the Mayerling Incident

Tragic Destiny – Crown Prince after the Mayerling Incident (Credit Schuhmann – Bundesmobilienverwaltung MD 065518)

A Shattering Effect – From Debilitation To Destabilization
Today a very strict order of nuns resides at the Jagdschloss in relative seclusion. The chapel now stands in the spot where the main actions of the incident occurred or so I was told. The facts from the investigation of what happened that day were sealed and then destroyed by decree of Emperor Franz Joseph. His wife Elisabeth is said to have never recovered from her son’s death. The same has been said of the Emperor. The royal couple did stay married, though they grew further apart. Mayerling had a shattering effect on the future course of the Empire and the 20th century. Rudolf’s replacement as heir to the throne was none other than Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who would have his own tragic destiny.

As time passed after the murder-suicide at Mayerling, Rudolf, the once Crown Prince of Austria gained a reputation as a tragic figure whose death changed history for the worse. This was predicated on the assumption that if Rudolf had lived long enough to become emperor he would have reformed Austria-Hungary and the monarchy would have had a better chance of survival. Such an idea overlooks the fact that Rudolf’s health was already in rapid decline at the time of his suicide mainly due to venereal disease. He had contracted either gonorrhea or syphilis from his endless conquests of women. The disease only served to intensify a nervous condition that had plagued him throughout his adult life. He had also suffered from debilitating migraine headaches for several years.  Only thirty years old when he died, photos taken in the months before then showed Rudolf as a prematurely aged man.

Imperial Crypt - Crown Prince Rudolf's coffin lies to the right of his parents' coffins

Imperial Crypt – Crown Prince Rudolf’s coffin lies to the right of his parents’ coffins (Credit Bwag)

Resting On Turmoil – The Extent Of One Man’s Sorrow
The Crown Prince had been trying to alleviate his various maladies with morphine and heavy drinking. Those only served to have the opposite effect on his condition. In addition to his physical ailments, Rudolf’s marriage was a disaster. His wife, Crown Princess Stephanie of Belgium, was sterile because he had transmitted venereal disease to her. He did not find her physically or psychologically attractive, the two were a poor match. Their relationship only grew worse as the years went on. Each lived an increasingly separate existence. By the start of 1889, Rudolf was a man living on the edge. He had already tried to get Princess Stephanie involved in a lover’s suicide pact. She demurred. He did the same with one of his mistresses, an ex-singer, by the name of Mizzi Kaspar, who dutifully reported it to the police. The authorities failed to report this to either the Emperor or Empress. The upshot of all this was that Rudolf’s parents failed to realize the extent of Rudolf’s woes.

Rudolf would likely have died long before having the chance to assume the throne. Franz Josef did not die until 1916, twenty-seven years after the Mayerling incident occurred. By that time Rudolf would have been 57. There is only a very slim chance that he would have lived a quarter century longer suffering so badly from disease. Rudolf probably realized his condition would continue to deteriorate. The future for him looked bleak, both physically and politically. As for the latter, he had been frozen out of all decision making in the empire. He was considered untrustworthy, impulsive and at times had been downright subversive. Publishing his views in the liberal press under barely disguised fronts. His father would not hear of an annulment to Rudolf’s marriage. His mother, Empress Elisabeth, while close in temperament to her son, was consumed with her own mental and physical problems. It is little wonder that Rudolf ended his life, to have done it in such sensational fashion led to speculation that still continues right up through today.  Mayerling’s fame will forever rest on Rudolf’s turmoil.

Click here for: Visiting Vysehrad – Myth, Mystery & History: Looking Down Upon Prague

Uncovering The Cover-up – The Mayerling Incident: From Sin To Sanctuary (Part Two)

Once upon a trip while traveling in Europe, my wife said to me “there is something of interest in every village”. In this case she was referring to Hungary, but the same could be said of almost any other nation on the continent. That certainly includes Austria. Even the tiniest burgs have played host to many centuries of history and been home to thousands of people all with their own unique stories, some more famous than others. Mayerling was one of those places. I left Vienna behind for a hamlet that was not even the size of a village. At a glance it would seem to be a place of no importance. Such an impression would be patently false, for it was in Mayerling where an “Incident” occurred that would have vast ramifications for the 20th century. The “Incident” had carried me on a journey to the Jagdschloss Karmel Mayerling. I hoped to learn more, but the true value of this place would not be found written on any displays or outlined in the exhibits. Its power lay in an opportunity to stand in the footsteps of history.

Interior of the chapel at Mayerling

Interior of the chapel at Mayerling

Sinister Connotations – The Confines Of History
The reason why anyone visited the Jadgschloss was to see where the scandalous “Mayerling Incident” had taken place. I assumed that visitors like myself had read or been told about it beforehand. Thus, the true value of coming here was to match reality with imagination. To place one of the more infamous historical events within the confines of where it had occurred. Visitors would get to see the actual place where Crown Prince Rudolf forfeited his rights to the Habsburg throne, first by murdering a teenage mistress and then committing suicide. Those actions ensured Mayerling’s place in history. The hunting lodge where this tragedy took place would forever be associated with the death of an heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The word Mayerling had taken on a sinister connotation in the wake of what happened in the early morning hours of January 30, 1889. Nothing would ever be the same again for this remote settlement and the hunting lodge that dominated the landscape.

The museum at Mayerling was pretty much what I thought it would be, nothing special. It was small, contained the obligatory information displays and a room set up to look as it did back in the hunting lodge’s 19th century heyday. No one would have paid a single euro to see this stuff. It was in the chapel where intrigue abounded. There was an altar placed in the exact location where the bed had stood that contained the bodies of Rudolf and Mary. The setting for the Mayerling Incident was now surrounded by stained glass windows, Christian symbolism and all the trappings of religion. This was one of the more bizarre re-imaginings of a place marred by tragedy. The fact that an altar with a cross, the most venerated symbol in Christianity, was placed in the same location where adulterers spent their final moments before a murder-suicide pact was carried out managed to shock me. There was something sadistic about placing the altar in such a location. It seemed to mock what had happened. Here was spiritualism in the service of obfuscation. The devil really was in the details of what had happened. The powers that be back then had decided to transform a bloody bedroom into a sanctuary to absolve sin.

An unhappy marriage - Crown Prince Rudolf and Princess Stephanie

An unhappy marriage – Crown Prince Rudolf and Princess Stephanie (Credit: Géruzet Frères – Österreichisches Staatsarchiv)

Open To Conjecture – Disputed Details
What happened at Mayerling on a brutally cold winter night in 1889 is still open to conjecture today. The “Mayerling Incident” was said to be a murder-suicide. Since that time, countless journalists along with professional and amateur historians have weighed in with an assortment of articles and books on what might or might not have occurred. The evidence is vague and ambiguous. It is also obscured by cover-ups. A short explanation goes something like this, Crown Prince Rudolf, next in line to lead the Austro-Hungarian Empire, supposedly murdered one of his many mistresses and then committed suicide due to a pre-arranged lover’s pact. Austria-Hungary’s version of Romeo and Juliet. Rudolf’s mistress, the 17-year old Mary Vetsera, was found in the bedroom with flowers folded in her hands as she lay dead from a gunshot wound. It is believed she died during the night, but the Crown Prince was seen that morning by one of his servants before going back to his bedchambers and shooting himself. No one knows what really happened, but by morning two dead bodies were discovered. Rumors and speculation were rife from the outset.

The details of this are still disputed today, complicated by imperial secrecy and conspiratorial politics. Some believe that Rudolf arrived at Mayerling utterly distraught following an argument with his father, the Emperor Franz Josef. Father and son were said to have quarreled badly in the preceding days, though there is no first-hand documentation of this happening. The emperor would most certainly have denied Rudolf the right to divorce his wife, Crown Princess Stephanie. Rudolf had already gone behind his father’s back in writing the Vatican to request an annulment of his unhappy marriage. To further exacerbate matters, it was thought that Rudolf had been in contact with Hungarian opposition figures whom the imperial administration loathed. One prominent theory holds that there was a plot to murder Crown Prince Rudolf. This was done to ensure his liberal ideas to arrest the empire’s continual decline could never be enacted. Franz Josef did likely feel that Rudolf was not worthy to succeed him.

Femme Fatale - Mary Vetsera

Femme Fatale – Mary Vetsera

From Trigger Man To Tragic Figure – Explanatory Evidence
Theories and opinions on the true cause of the Mayerling Incident have been rampant ever since news of it broke. Gossip and hearsay informed opinions as much as truth. This was aided by the suppression of information by the imperial authorities. This vacuum was filled by those with their own theories. Some hypothesized that the incident was really part of a French plot to weaken Austria and the Habsburgs. Then there was the initial conspiracy theory that Mary had poisoned Rudolf or maybe she shot him and then herself. The authorities needed some sort of explanation for what happened. The first “official” version was that Rudolf had died of a heart attack. Unfortunately for the House of Habsburg, Rudolf was almost certainly the trigger man. A trigger man who would soon become a tragic figure.

Coming soon: Tragic Destiny –The Mysterious Afterlife Of Mayerling: History For The Worse (Part Three)

A Place Touched By Tragedy – Incidental Contact: The Road To Mayerling (Part One)

The trigger that started World War One was pulled on a street corner in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The starting gun for that incident went off much earlier, twenty-five years earlier to be exact. At least that is what some scholars believe. That is because on the night of January 29,1889, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Crown Prince Rudolf committed suicide along with his young lover at a royal hunting lodge in the tiny village of Mayerling, just 25 kilometers from Vienna. The death of the Crown Prince, only son of Emperor Franz Josef and his wife Queen Elisabeth, meant that the succession passed down to Franz Ferdinand. In effect putting him in the direct line of fire to be murdered in Sarajevo a quarter century later. What has become known as the Mayerling Incident is famous both for the geopolitical outcomes that resulted from it and the endless conjecture about what exactly happened at the hunting lodge on that fateful winter night.

Scene of the crime - Mayerling Hunting Lodge of Crown Prince Rudolf in 1889

Scene of the crime – Mayerling Hunting Lodge of Crown Prince Rudolf in 1889

Anything But Normal – Lone Passenger, Strange Journey
Sopron was a great place to stay for a day trip to Vienna since it was only an 80 minute train ride away. Thus, I availed myself of the opportunity to visit the city for the second time on this trip. After sightseeing in the city center for a few hours I decided that there was still time to visit Mayerling. It interested me for two reasons. The first was because of what had happened there. Second, it was relatively remote for an attraction in the area. There was a reason I had never met anyone who had been to Mayerling. When all the glitter, sparkle and festive atmospherics of central Vienna are in front of you, traveling out to a wooded hinterland in search of a murder-suicide site is less than appealing to most normal people. Well I never wanted to be normal, thus visiting Mayerling appealed to my ego. I would be the first in my family to visit there, as though that meant something to anyone other than me. In addition, I could come home with a story to tell bored relatives, oblivious friends and legions of coworkers who would care less what some Austrian royal light weight had done to himself and his mistress. I told myself that Mayerling would be worth the bother of getting there.

Mayerling was not that far from Vienna, but it might as well have been in another world. To get there I first had to take the metro, then a tram, followed by a bus. It only takes half an hour to drive to Mayerling from central Vienna, but by public transport it took an hour and a half. The final leg by bus was quite scenic as it winded through rolling, forested countryside. Low mountains began to appear in the distance. In these woods I imagined royal hunting parties in the autumn, everything done according to protocol. Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef was especially fond of hunting, keenly interested in all aspects. It was a sad irony that his only son would come to a tragic end in a lodge that was associated with one of the Emperor’s few passions. The former hunting lodge was to be found in a small mountain valley. I was the lone passenger to get off at Mayerling. As the bus departed I suddenly felt abandoned.

Mayerling - A Strange Journey

Mayerling – A Strange Journey

Pushed Astride – Austrian Manners
The village of Mayerling was more like a settlement or what back home in the States would be called an unincorporated community. There were some scattered residences, a guest house and the centerpiece of this otherwise forgettable hamlet, the Jagdschloss Karmel Mayerling. What had once been an Imperial hunting lodge, then a church and convent of the Discalced Nuns was now a museum. I sensed a feeling of forlorn remoteness about Mayerling. It was a blustery day with a decided bite in the air. It felt like winter had not quite left the area, after what had happened here I wondered if it ever did. Rather than repel, the forlorn nature of the area fascinated me. A fitting prelude to a place touched by tragedy. I quickly made my way toward the museum. There was a handful of others visiting the museum at the same time as me.  An Austrian family nearly ran me over when I was headed into the museum where the “Mayerling Incident” occurred.

This was not the first time I had experienced the pushiness of Austrians. Despite the neat, well ordered world that could be found throughout the country, the Austrians I encountered, while gracious and helpful, were also habitual line jumpers. This came as a complete surprise to me. I assumed, quite wrongly, that since Austrians were ethnic Germans, they would act exactly as Germans do in Germany. I soon learned just how wrong my assumption had been. For instance, while standing in line at Vienna’s central train station waiting to purchase tickets, three older men decided to walk around me and take their place at the head of the line. When I tapped one of them on the shoulder and ordered the group back behind me, the men looked positively shocked. They did not fuss or fight over position, but I could see on their faces a sudden awareness that line breaking was not to everyone’s liking.

Entrance to the chapel area of the former hunting lodge - Inside is the museum of the Mayerling Incident

Entrance to the chapel area of the former hunting lodge – Inside is the museum of the Mayerling Incident

Childish Distractions – A Rude Awakening
This was not first time I had noticed that the lines in Austria were not straight and narrow like those in Germany. This was one of several things that separate Austrians from Germans, differences of nuance rather than degree. This was never truer than when that family at Mayerling muscled me out of the way. They were going to be first, no matter what rudeness was involved. Of course, this ended up triggering the same impulse in me. I stepped right in front of them again, then made it quite apparent I was holding my place. This bit of childish chicanery distracted me for a moment. Then I turned my attention to the reason I was visiting Mayerling, to see where Crown Prince Rudolf and his teenage lover spent their final moments.

Click here for: Uncovering The Cover-up – The Mayerling Incident: From Sin To Sanctuary (Part Two)

Considerations Other Than Love – Marital Abyss: Franz Liszt & Countess von Sayn-Wittgenstein

His power to evoke passion was legendary. He could send women swooning just by running his fingers across the ivory keys of a piano. The world fell to its feet in the presence of his musical powers. He created, composed and conjured entirely new worlds of sound from multitudes of magnificent keystrokes. Females were especially prone to his mysterious musical powers. Because of this, he fell in and out of romance. In even greater numbers, he fell in and out of bed. Fathering any number of children with true loves and midnight mistresses. Because of his reputation for romances, both sweeping and fleeting, it is hard to imagine the Hungarian musical impresario, Franz Liszt, ever settling down in marriage. He never quite did, but he was willing to try. When the opportunity arose to marry a countess, Liszt was more than willing to oblige.

Franz Liszt - The photo is from three years before the attempted marriage with Countess zu Sayn-Wittgenstein

Franz Liszt – The photo is from three years before the attempted marriage with Countess zu Sayn-Wittgenstein

Reverence, Rudeness & Respect – Prestigious Possibility
Among the many personality traits of Franz Liszt, one of the more pronounced was his snobbery. Like most snobs, the one thing he could never stomach was others who thought they were better than him. There is nothing a snob abhors more than another snob. Liszt could not stand to be looked down upon due to the simple fact that he himself looked down on the world. His musical ability gave him an exalted position both socially and culturally. For Liszt, it was normal to be treated with the utmost adoration. This was not so much a privilege, as it was his right. Thus, if anyone in the aristocracy or royalty (the elite classes of Europe during the 19th century) did not show him the proper respect, Liszt would reciprocate with rudeness. Conversely, when treated with the proper reverence, Liszt could be gracious, humble and kind. One of Liszt’s great ambitions in life was to climb the social ladder. His musical talent opened the world of aristocracy up to him. He most often played for audiences filled with the finest aristocrats in Europe. During his concert tours he met large numbers of princes and princesses. It was the latter that offered him not only the romance he craved, but also the prestigious possibility of marriage into high society.

On a concert tour in 1847 Liszt met the Polish noblewoman Countess von Sayn-Wittgenstein while performing in Kiev. The Countess lived in what was then the Ukrainian part of the Russian Empire. Her wealth was beyond belief. She owned multiple estates with thousands of serfs working the land. The Countess was something of a paradox. She enjoyed elite social status while at the same time being fanatically religious. The Countess wrote long winded books on religious subjects. Her literary output was lengthy in the extreme, with works that would put War and Peace to shame for their sheer volume of words. Such traits attracted Liszt to her. The Countess’ religious fervor was matched by his own. While the Countess’ social standing appealed to Liszt’s snobbishness. The Countess though, was much more to Liszt than just one of his many mistresses. He would eventually become an abbe (Catholic clergyman) in the Catholic Church. Their kindred religious spirits led to an unlikely romance between the two. By all accounts the Countess was unattractive, homely and serious minded. A sort of uber wealthy plain jane of Russian Ukraine. Liszt hardly cared because of her aristocratic background. There was only one problem, the Countess was married.

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein in 1847 - The year she met Liszt

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein in 1847 – The year she met Liszt

Life With Liszt – A High Price To Pay
The Countess’ husband was a Russian military officer who went by the exquisite name of Prince Nikolaus zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg-Ludwigsburg. They had one child, a daughter, but the couple were soon living apart. It was a marriage for the sake of titles, prestige and wealth. Love was not a consideration. The Countess spent years trying to get a divorce from Prince Nikolaus. She began living with Liszt in Weimar a year after they met. After two face-to-face meetings with the pope, she nearly succeeded. On October 22, 1861, the Countess and Liszt were due to be married in Rome. Liszt arrived the night before the wedding fully expecting to get married for the first time. The ceremony was scheduled to take place on his 50th birthday. It would never happen. Intervention by The Countess’ husband and the Russian Tsar stopped the marriage. The Russian government had impounded her estates.

If the Countess had gone through with the marriage, she would have lost a fortune. Her lone child, a daughter by Prince Nikolaus, would have had her marriage prospects irreparably damaged. Thus, the marriage failed. The Countess and Liszt eventually grew apart. She was disgusted by his numerous affairs. He was an inveterate womanizer who took the Countess’ love for granted. She eventually grew fed up and moved to Rome. What Liszt was doing with the Countess says much more about him than it does her. Liszt longed for adulation, an aristocratic title would have been another stepping stone to greater prestige. It never happened, but it did not stop him from trying. For the Countess, Liszt was like a dream that was slowly defeated by reality. The Countess was unique though. Her religious fervor knew no bounds. She was loyal to Liszt and that loyalty came at an astronomical price. She squandered much of her riches for the pursuit of passion and a spiritual kinship.

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein with her daughter Maria in 1840

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein with her daughter Maria in 1840

Romance & Religion – Kindred Spirits
In the end, a life together for Liszt and the Countess was not meant to be. After the attempt at marriage failed, the Countess became just another woman for Liszt in an unending succession of them. A few he loved, most he did not. The love that had existed between the two of them faded. In her post-Liszt life, the Countess spent years writing religious tomes. Her magnum opus was a 24-volume work, Exterior Causes of the Interior Weakness of the Church. Not exactly a page turner. It had the added drawback that on average each volume was over a thousand pages in length. No one remembers these books. For that matter, no one remembers the Countess von Sayn-Wittgenstein except for the romance and religion she shared with the famous Franz Liszt.

Click here for: A Place Touched By Tragedy – Incidental Contact: The Road To Mayerling (Part One)

Sopron’s Superstar – Ferenc Liszt: A Precocious Passion On The Piano

There was one famous name in Sopron that could not be avoided, Ferenc Liszt or as he is known to much of the western world, Franz List. Liszt, world famous composer and pianist, grew up 30 kilometers east of Sopron in the small village of Raiding (Doberling in Hungarian) in what was then the Kingdom of Hungary and is now part of Lower Austria. As such, Liszt’s ethnic background is open to interpretation, if not question. His native language was German, but later in life he would self-identify as a Hungarian. Some scholars have went so far as theorize that Liszt was ethnically Croatian or Slovak. The literature on Liszt’s ethnicity is quite voluminous. From what I read, it sounds like he was a self-Magyarized German. Even along the peaceful and prosperous borderland of Hungary and Austria in the 21st century, it is difficult to escape the ethnic disputes that gave rise to nationalistic fervor in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Ferenc Liszt Cultural Center - Former Casino in Sopron

Ferenc Liszt Cultural Center – Former Casino in Sopron

Famous Facets –  A Prodigy & Popularity
One facet of Liszt’s life that is not disputed, he was a child prodigy who performed his first concert at what was then the Sopron Casino. Today the building is home to the Ferenc Liszt Conference and Cultural Center. This cream colored neo-classical edifice can be found on one end of Sopron’s Belvaros (Inner City). Along one side, the Cultural Center is bordered by Ferenc Liszt utca. Lending Liszt’s name to this street and building was understandable. He was as close to a superstar as Sopron can claim as its own. I came across a plaque that was attached to the Cultural Center. It noted Liszt’s performance there in October 1820. This was the first of countless numbers of concerts the budding piano virtuoso would give across Europe in a life that began and ended with concerts in casinos (casinos in the 19th century were more social establishments than gambling houses). His public performances spanned a period of six and a half decades during which time he attained great fame and name recognition.

The first concert in Sopron was particularly notable since Liszt was only nine years old at the time. To great acclaim he played a concerto by the German composer Ferdinand Ries, managing to add in an improvisation of his own. It was a precocious beginning that showcased Liszt’s otherworldly skills on the piano. In this early performance Liszt relied heavily on talent, but he was no stranger to hard work despite his age. Liszt’s father, Adam, a musician who had been employed at nearby Eszterhaza Palace working with Joseph Haydn, managed to acquire an incredible amount of music which his son eagerly devoured. Documentary evidence shows that Adam Liszt bought 8,800 pages of written music by the greatest masters. In a two-year period leading up to his first performance young Ferenc blazed through these works, many of them from such musical luminaries as Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.

Franz Liszt in 1843 - Earliest known photo

Franz Liszt in 1843 – Earliest known photo

Realizing Potential – From Gushing Praise To Near Riots
There was little doubt that Ferenc Liszt would soon be heard far beyond Sopron. Liszt’s next public performance would serve as a major stepping stone in his career. Just a month after the Sopron recital, Liszt was back in front of an audience. This time it was the political elite of Hungary. In the city of Pozsony (present day Bratislava, Slovakia), where the Hungarian Diet (Parliament) was meeting for the first time in over a decade, Liszt performed for a group of politically and culturally connected aristocrats at one of the Eszterhazy Palaces. This audience was so impressed with the young Liszt’s prodigious piano playing abilities that money was soon raised among them for Liszt to study music abroad. This led him to Vienna where his instructors included Carl Czerny, who had been tutored by Beethoven and Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s weaker rival. Both were impressed with Liszt’s talent, but knew that he would need formal training to realize his potential as one of the greatest musical forces of all time. Under Czerny and Salieri’s tutelage he grew as a musician. To the point that after his first public concert in Vienna, it was said that Beethoven was gushing in his praise. Before he hit puberty, the twelve-year old had become a known talent in the musical world of Central Europe.

His family would soon move from Vienna to Paris where a teenage Liszt would continue to cultivate his talent. It would not be long before Liszt graduated from prodigy to rock star status. He became increasingly famous, not just for his skill on the piano, but also his style. Liszt was known to dramatically toss his gloves to the floor before he began playing. With his shoulder length flowing hair, charismatic flourishes and otherworldly talent he became the most in demand musician of his time. Yet he never forgot his Hungarian roots. In one notable incident, Liszt started a near riot during his performance at the Bezeredj House at Sopron in 1832. Several women in attendance viciously fought for one of the gloves Liszt dropped to the floor. For women, Liszt’s charisma was just as irresistible as his piano playing was mesmerizing. The adulation showered upon Liszt led to many romantic trysts, some little more than one-night stands, others would last longer.

Adulation & adoration - 1839 concert by Liszt in Pest

Adulation & adoration – 1839 concert by Liszt in Pest (Credit: tacsifoto)

A Place In Hungarian Hearts – The Legacy Of Liszt
Perhaps the most enduring romance of Liszt’s life was with Hungary. He grew to prominence during an era of national revival. Hungarians saw in Liszt a representative of high culture for their homeland. He accepted their adoration and repaid it by making Budapest the centerpiece of his instructional efforts during the latter part of his life. Budapest, along with Rome and Weimar, was one of three cities he called home during this time. He would spend part of each year teaching at the Hungarian Conservatoire in Budapest. Liszt may have been master of the piano, but he was never able to attain anything other than a very low level proficiency in the Hungarian language. Yet Liszt’s efforts to try and learn the language were a sign of his endearing love for a nation that accepted him with open arms. In his life and career, Liszt moved from the Kingdom of Hungary’s western fringes near Sopron to its center in Budapest. There was always a place in Hungarian hearts for him and there still is today. In Sopron that place still exists in the building where he gave his first public performance.

Click here for: Considerations Other Than Love – Marital Abyss: Franz Liszt & Countess von Sayn-Wittgenstein

Mythical History – Sopron’s Place Names: Goats, Gaisels & German Princesses

It was one of the most ridiculous stories I had ever heard and that was what made it so wonderful. While standing in Fo ter, the epicenter of historic Sopron, I was staring at the Gothic exterior of the Goat Church. My guidebook told a tantalizing tale that made me immediately fall in love with the church. I had never heard of a church named for a goat. This was a rarity. Lambs and doves can be found scattered throughout religious iconography. Conversely, goats are almost as rare as unicorns. That was certainly not the case in the center of Sopron. My initial reaction after learning the name was one of surprise. Who would name a church after an ill-tempered animal that has become synonymous with mischievousness? That question could only be answered by delving into the story behind the name.

Goat Church & Holy Trinity Column in Sopron

Goat Church & Holy Trinity Column in Sopron (Credit: Jozsef Rozsnyai)

Improbable, If Not Impossible – An Eclectic Cast Of Characters
The Goat Church is based on an improbable, if not impossible story. Supposedly a goat dug up a buried treasure in the area. The shepherd tending this goat was thus exposed to a cache of gold. Instead of keeping the treasure for himself and foolishly spending it, he donated it for the building of the Goat Church. His incorruptible benevolence spoke volumes about the purity, grace and devotion of the common man. Like most myths the genesis of this story is lost deep in the past. The truth is much more bourgeois and benign. A wealthy family of locals, known as the Gaisels, provided funds for the church’s construction. Their coat of arms proudly portrayed a goat, thus the Goat Church name. I did not want the truth to get in the way of that wonderful shepherd’s tale so I decided to ignore the Gaisel backstory, though I was almost certain it was the truth. Historically, the Gaisels have had the story of their generosity stole right out from under them. Ironically, it was taken from them at the expense of a poor shepherd.

The Goat Church was by far the most eclectic of all the names given to buildings in Sopron. While walking around the Belvaros I soon discovered that there were many more buildings, specifically houses, graced with surnames. To name just a few, there was the Storno House, the Fabricius House, the Lackner House, Bezeredj House, Cezar House, Eggenberg House and Kossow House among many others. The Cezar and Fabricius Houses were both named after wealthy aristocrats. The Lackner House had been the home of Christoph Lackner, a humanist philosopher who went by the motto of “Thy Will Be Done” which is inscribed on his home’s façade in Latin. Lackner was also a popular mayor of Sopron during the 17th century. The Eggenberg House had been home to a German protestant princess. In fervently Catholic Sopron, Protestants were forbidden to construct churches during the counter-reformation.  The princess found a way around that problem. In an arcaded part of the house there was a built-in a pulpit looking down on the courtyard. She would invite fellow Protestants to dinner in the house’s courtyard. A sermon would then be preached to them from the pulpit while they ate and worshiped.

Esterhazy Palace in Sopron

Esterhazy Palace in Sopron (Credit: Francesco Vecchio)

Forgotten Names – The Fleetingness of Fame
Getting a house named after oneself in Sopron meant that the owner had to be one of two things, insanely wealthy and/or notable in some memorable way.  Take for instance one of Sopron’s favorite sons, Ferenc Storno. Storno was the descendent of a Swiss-Italian family whose father fled the Napoleonic Wars for nearby Eisenstadt (Kismarton). The son started out as a humble chimney sweep. He hoped to use his earnings in support of his artistic passions. He did not do too bad for himself. Eventually earning enough money to pursue what would become his life’s work. He procured work on monuments in both Vienna and Budapest, which eventually led to a commission for restoration work on the monastery of Pannonhalma, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Storno also started a private collection of furniture and ancient artifacts that can be found inside his former home.

The unspoken ghost I could not find among the surnames gracing Sopron’s historic homes was that of the Esterhazy’s. They were the most famous Hungarian family to ever inhabit the area. Not having a house, a square or even a street named after them in the city was more deliberate than coincidental. This was a product of the calamitous 20th century. The Esterhazy’s had gotten the ultimate silent treatment from the anti-aristocratic communists. Their names were difficult, but not altogether impossible to find. The Esterhazy’s presence in Sopron could still be ascertained, most notably in one of their former palaces that sits in the heart of the Belvaros. The mansion is home to two museums which stand side by side, the Central Mining Museum and Museum of Forestry. The Esterhazy’s used to own forests and mines, along with whole swathes of the land surrounding Sopron, now it is a struggle just to find their name in a city where they were revered.

Bezerédj House in Sopron

Bezerédj House in Sopron (Credit: Traumrune)

An Unforgettable Performance – Melee Moment
Names, places and stories go together, but sometimes not in the way one might imagine. Very few people have heard the name Bezeredj , many more that of Franz Liszt. Yet one story binds both names together in Sopron. The Bezeredj House is one of the finest examples of Rococo architecture in the city. More a palace than a home, it came into the ownership of a family by the same name in 1833. It was here that the great composer and pianist Franz Liszt – who was born only 30 kilometers east of Sopron – played a concert. The most noteworthy performance on this occasion did not come from that of Liszt, instead it came from the impromptu melee which ensued among a group of women spectators for one of Liszt’s gloves that he dropped on the floor. It seems that any artifact from the great maestro was worth fighting over. The details of this story are open to question, but so are the details of the goat digging up a buried treasure many centuries ago. It seems that myths are just as powerful as truths in the history of Sopron., Distinguishing between the two is almost impossible. This just goes to show that a good story is often the best substitute for history.

Click here for: Sopron’s Superstar – Ferenc Liszt: A Precocious Passion On The Piano

All That Remains  –  Sopron:  Lasting Impressions Of Brief Encounters

Sopron had so many historic buildings that I found it difficult to differentiate between them. This turned out to be as true in memory as it was at the time of my visit. The city left me with indelible impressions, but very few of these were of its most notable churches, homes and other buildings. Instead my visit to the city left me with only the vaguest memories of its historic treasures. It was a case where there were so many that it was hard to separate them in my mind. Just trying to see and understand everything was a bit withering. Of course, I relied on a guidebook at the beginning of my visit, but then instinct took over. This led to a wide range of memorable experiences which had more to do with the people of Sopron than its buildings. The city’s historic structures are now but a distant memory, while a handful of people have become central to the way I remember my visit.

A Reinforcement Of Loneliness – Going Solo
Several of these memories were related to the place where I stayed. Strangely enough I cannot recall much about what my room looked like or the evenings I spent there. What I do remember is how the hostess gave me a discount card for a restaurant just a couple of doors down from the pension. She told me the food was excellent and inquired on multiple occasions whether I had taken the opportunity to eat there. Each time my reply was negative. This elicited a look from her that spoke of disappointment, irritation and impatience. Followed by yet another mention of how wonderful the restaurant was. Her annoying pleas made me less likely to eat at there. I am always suspicious of the hard sell, especially when another country. The fact that I am not a gourmand was the main reason I did not partake of the offer. Good food and fine dining is lost on me. Traveling solo makes me less rather than more likely to sit down by myself at a restaurant. All this would do for me is reinforce my loneliness.

Despite my reticence for dining out I did have one of the most memorable meals of my life in Sopron. And like all good meals for me, it was not so much the quality of the food, as the ambiance of the restaurant. The evening after returning from Esterhaza Palace in Fertod I spent some time in Szechenyi ter (Szechenyi square), availing myself of photo opportunities at the towering statue of Istvan Szechenyi which stood at one end of this rather slender, rectangular square. From the square, I wandered down one of the nearby streets looking for a place to eat. I was searching for somewhere that was informal, any type of casual dining would do. My main hope was to avoid the type of fried fast food that is one of America’s worst exports to the rest of the world. What I needed was something relatively quick, affordable and tasty.

Szechenyi Ter - At dusk in Sopron

Szechenyi Ter – At dusk in Sopron

Lighting Up The Night  – The Happiest Chef In Sopron
As dusk began to turn to darkness I noticed a well-lit building by the name of Bella Italia Pizzeria. A small awning hung over the door, done up in the tricolors of Italy, which also happen to be the exact same three colors that can be found on the Hungarian flag. The lights inside glowed radiant and warm. I was magnetically drawn to the entrance.  Inside I found a single man at work. He was older with a big smile on his face which was very un-Hungarian. The stoicism shown strangers by most Magyars is something I had long since gotten used to. It could be said that Hungarians keep to themselves. They often meet smiles with quizzical expressions. It is my understanding that they find overt friendliness to be a symptom of both superficiality and stupidity. That feeling did not exist in this man, who greeted me with a heartfelt hello.

He was in the process of tossing dough around as though it were a football and making it spin like a basketball. He looked to be enjoying himself as much as his work. I selected a pizza and watched him immediately begin to whip the dough into shape. In less than twenty minutes, he produced a thin crust pie that was delicious. My satisfaction became all the greater when I watched him in action filling another order. He put on quite the performance for a four person family that included two young sons. Their presence made the pizza chef even more dramatic and charismatic. The two boys watched in fascination as he began tossing the dough high in the air, making it flip and flop, this way and that. He never came close to dropping the dough, but that did not stop the youngsters from gasping at his feats of aerial dough throwing. He was a dramatist hidden behind the counter of a provincial pizzeria. A true professional who had had found his calling through the art of performance. He was a chef and a showman. I have never forgotten his face or the fascination shown to him by that family. That moment did more than anything to frame my opinion of Sopron as an outstanding city.

Pizzeria Bella Italia in Sopron

Pizzeria Bella Italia in Sopron

Memory Bank – People & The Power Of Memory
I had come to Sopron, just as I had come to Gyor, Sarvar and Szombathely, looking to explore the city’s history and architecture, but it was the people I met who made the greatest impression upon me. Besides the pension proprietress and the pizza chef in Sopron, there was the young male trainee behind the front desk at my hotel in Gyor who made everything a mistake. I saw in him, so much of myself on the first week of a new job. There was also the man in his 30’s, who while standing beside me at the train station in Sarvar asked if I had a Hungarian girlfriend in town. What else would bring an American to Sarvar on a weekday morning? He was still there despite a good job in IT (he teleworked) because he needed to take care of his parents. And then there was the sports fanatic in the train station in Szombathely who had newspapers sprawled across a large desk. I did not believe that all those papers could be his, until he reminded me that they were. I had made the mistake of trying to read one. The man, like all the other people I met, made an impression on me. No mention of him or them will ever be found in a guidebook. They now exist only in my memory.

Click here for: Mythical History – Sopron’s Place Names: Goats, Gaisels & German Princesses