This final year of the World War I centenary is as good a time as any to travel back into that history, when the last 100 tumultuous years still lay in a hopeful future. And as good a place as any are the private houses of the Habsburgs, which now are open to the public. They embody what Henry James called "the palpable, imaginable, visitable past" — in this case, la belle époque as if frozen in amber. But, like all well-loved homes, they also speak volumes, in finely drawn character studies, about the individual inhabitants.
"Franz Ferdinand's estate might give us some ideas for the dream house you always talk about," I had teased my wife over Viennese coffee in Prague's Cafe Louvre. It was my attempt at enticing her to join me on a day trip into the Czech countryside. This was Pat's first trip to the Czech Republic, and every moment of the short stay was precious.
The day we decided to visit Konopiste was one of the Czech Republic's many national holidays, so the train to the village of Benesov, 30 miles outside Prague, was packed — not just with people but with their bikes. From the station stop, the mile-and-a-half walk to the estate wasn't at all daunting but, rather, an opportunity to beat yesterday's step count on Pat's new smartphone fitness app. The more steps, the less guilt eating a chocolate torte that evening.
By the time (around noon) we reached the pastoral setting of the 555-acre estate, we had already worked up an appetite for lunch. Near a swan-dotted lake, a restaurant beckoned. Right across from the outdoor dining area was a fenced-in park with grazing sika deer. "How cute!" Pat said. The many venison dishes on the menu became less appetizing.
Once inside the 13th-century castle, a few minutes' stroll from the restaurant, even more deer greeted us — only now as mounted heads and antlers, hundreds of them. In Franz Ferdinand's day, hunting was an aristocratic sport; but for him, it seemed an obsession. His hunting trophies form a leitmotif throughout the residence, which had been transformed into a Baroque style chateau in the 1700s and then modernized by the Archduke from 1887 to 1894. His then-new bathroom was among Europe's first with hot and cold running water.
From the various portraits of the dour-faced, seemingly haughty archduke sprinkled throughout the residence, it was understandable why so many popular histories have branded him unlikeable. At the same time, he was considered more intelligently liberal-minded than his uncle, Franz Joseph I, whom he would have succeeded as leader of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Franz Ferdinand's governing plans were to turn the multiethnic empire into a federation (not unlike today's European Union). That he was killed by a Slav who shared similar views on ethnic autonomy is one of history's endless, tragic ironies.
But it was on a personal level that Pat and I, as a married couple, felt the tragedy most poignantly. "Sophie, Sophie, don't die! Live for the children." Those were Franz Ferdinand's last words as he, shot in the neck, cradled his wife in the back seat of a car in Sarajevo. But she, shot in the chest, was already dead. He would die a few minutes later. Of their three children — ages 14, 12, and 10 at the time of the assassination — two would end up in Hitler's concentration camps.
Our pilgrimage to Konopiste and its world of what-ifs put a lot of things in perspective — from the political divisiveness back home in America to the petty, logistical concerns of travel itineraries. Pat was taking a plane the next day to Dulles International Airport. Younger than I and not yet retired, she had a job to get back to. I was staying in Europe another week or so to spend some time with my daughter Emmy in the Austrian and Slovenian Alps.
So it happened that just a few days later I found myself in Bad Ischl, Austria, at the country retreat of Franz Ferdinand's uncle. I say "found myself" because it was not a travel destination I had planned. Emmy flew into Munich, I rented a car in Prague and we met in Salzburg. The idea was then to drive east toward Ljubljana with serendipity as our guide.
For our trip's first leg, we got as far as the Saltzkammergut village of Gmunden, which we liked so much that we spent two days there. On the last day, following an invigorating swim in the Traunsee, I realized that only a 30-minute drive away was the very place where World War I formally began with the manifesto of July 28, 1914, in which Franz Joseph I called "My Peoples" to war against Serbia. (Because Austria-Hungary was a multiethnic empire, "people" became "peoples.")
I wanted to see where he wrote that declaration. Built in the Biedermeier period of the 19th century, his summer residence was a wedding gift from his mother, which he then expanded and remodeled with neoclassical columns and tympana. Set in an English-style park at the edge of the spa town, it became known as the Kaiservilla. There, in his private, upstairs study, sat the actual writing desk, complete with a copy of his "An meine Völker!" war declaration.
In a nearby room was the private study of his wife, Empress Elisabeth, with her own desk, at which she wrote poems. They would be read, she hoped, by "future souls," which now included Emmy and me. Known affectionately throughout Europe as Sisi, leading a life independent of her husband, the beautiful empress has been called the "Princess Di of her time." Contemporary chroniclers breathlessly reported on Sisi's latest excursions, equestrian feats, extreme diet and exercise regimens, and her reputed 19-inch waist.
In the villa's gift shop, Emmy and I were tempted to buy at least one of the Sisi tchotchkes. But they seemed silly in the context of the deep sense of tragedy that hung heavy over Kaiservilla, even on the sunniest of days as when Emmy and I visited.
In 1867, Franz Joseph's younger brother, Maximilian, would be executed by firing squad in Mexico. He had his own castle, called Miramare, near Trieste, Italy — which is open to the public. Two decades later, in 1889, Crown Prince Rudolf, the only son of Sisi and Franz Joseph I, would die in a suicide pact with his mistress at Mayerling hunting lodge outside Vienna. In 1898, Sisi was stabbed in the heart by an Italian anarchist in Geneva. Not long before her death, she had created her own private retreat on the Greek isle of Corfu; called Achilleion, it is also open to the public.
Only Franz Joseph I would die of natural causes — in 1916, at age 86, in the midst of the war that would dissolve his empire, a war made inevitable by his hand at a polished wooden writing desk.
More from Travel:
If you go
Konopiste 1, 256 01 Benesov, Czech Republic
From Prague, Franz Ferdinand's Konopiste is a short day trip of about 30 miles, easily traversed by car or train. Hours are seasonal: May, Tue.-Sun., 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; June-Aug., Tue.-Sun., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sept., Tue.-Sun., 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Oct., Tue-Sun., 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and Nov., Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed Dec.-April. The basic price for an English-language guided tour in a group is about $13.50 per person.
Jainzen 38, Bad Ischl 4820, Austria
The summer residence of Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife, Sisi, is about 32 miles from Salzburg. Hours are seasonal: Jan.-March, open Wed., 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; April-Sept., open daily, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Oct., open daily, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Nov., closed; Dec., open Advent weekends, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The $18 admission includes access to the surrounding park.
Gastouri 491 00, Corfu, Greece
Empress Sisi created her own private retreat on the Ionian island of Corfu, designed in the manner of an ancient Greek palace. She called it Achilleion in honor of her hero, Achilles. After her assassination in 1898, it was purchased by the German kaiser. The palace is open 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily in winter months and 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the summer. Admission: about $9.
Viale Miramare, 34151 Trieste, Italy
With its crenelated tower perched on an Adriatic promontory just outside Trieste, Miramare castle was designed to the sea-loving specifications of Franz Joseph's younger brother, Maximilian, who became briefly (and tragically) the emperor of Mexico. Open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, except on Christmas Day and New Year's Day. Admission: about $12.50.