A slice of imperial Austrian glamour preserved – Bad Ischl remembers a glamorous past.
The gracious Austrian spa town Bad Ischl was once a favoured aristocratic retreat for emperors and composers, and retains its frivolous nineteenth-century atmosphere.
Brian Johnston and the Austrian National Tourism Office
19 August, 2019
Bad Ischl is a set from an operetta, pretty in pink and yellow, elegant and theatrical, set in surrounding blue lakes and sugary mountains. It makes you think nineteenth-century thoughts of carriages and kings, bonbons and balls. You expect ladies in crinolines to swoon on its esplanade, and whiskered generals to puff cigars in its coffeehouses as they tut-tut over anarchists and ankles.
In operettas, though, you always get a happy ending. In Bad Ischl, the gilded life came crashing down in 1914, never to return. True, the architecture remains Biedermeier chic and music still drifts from concert halls. But the lead actors have packed up and gone, leaving only a nostalgic stage set. If you’re after imperial Austrian glamour preserved, this is where to find it.
Bad Ischl lies 52 kilometres east of Salzburg in the alpine Salzkammergut region, which became fashionable in the early nineteenth century. Artists and aristocratic visitors descended on Salzkammergut in search of the simple life. Bad Ischl had the perfect setting on a peninsula formed by the meeting of the Traun and Ischl rivers. The air was bracing, the scenery dramatic. Even better, the surrounding springs were rich in minerals, just the cure for wealthy travellers suffering from a surfeit of schnitzels and port.
Bad Ischl lies 52 kilometres east of Salzburg in the alpine Salzkammergut region, which became fashionable in the early nineteenth century
In 1835, Franz Joseph proposed to a Bavarian princess at the Hotel Austria
In 1821, celebrity Viennese doctor Franz Wirer extolled the curative properties of Bad Ischl’s waters. His greatest coup was to persuade Princess Sophie to come to Bad Ischl in 1828 for an infertility treatment. Soon the Hapsburg princess was pregnant with the future Emperor Franz Joseph, and the town’s reputation was made.
The Trinkhalle in the middle of town was once the centre of spa action. Though the pump room is now a cultural centre, you can still take to the baths at several spa retreats, where the reek of sulphur challenges the nose. The Trinkhalle stands on the glamorous Esplanade, lined with the former houses of wealthy salt merchants and aristocrats. Side street Pfargasse is lined with fancy boutiques, several selling top-end dirndls, which originated in this region. Many locals still wear this traditional dress, especially on Fridays for the street market and Sundays for church.
A Who’s who of European society once paraded the Esplanade in bonnets and ribbons. In 1835, Franz Joseph proposed to a Bavarian princess at the Hotel Austria. The hotel is now the town’s museum, outlining its history and imperial connections. Franz Joseph was to have a famously difficult marriage to the restless Elizabeth, nicknamed Sissi, but never gave up trying to woo her. His mother gave them a villa in Bad Ischl as a wedding present, which the emperor converted to a petite palace for his wife.
Much of the architecture of Bad Ischl was created during the heyday of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with the mustard-coloured Kaiservilla as its centrepiece. Lavish reception rooms make it more than just a country home, but modest residential quarters are cluttered with homely Hapsburg mementoes and hung with chamois antlers acquired by the hunting-mad emperor. Take a tour and you’ll be shown Franz Joseph’s study and the desk at which he signed the declaration of war on Serbia that launched the First World War.
The long-lived emperor came to Bad Ischl every summer from 1849, but 1914 was to be his last visit. The war he never wanted ended up sweeping imperial Austria away, though the emperor’s great-grandson still lives in the Kaiservilla, and occasionally emerges to conduct a guided tour himself. In the villa’s forested park, a little marble tea pavilion exhibits a collection of historical photos showing Hapsburg life in the Kaiservilla in the days before it all went horribly wrong.
Assassinations, suicides, wars and revolution plagued the later Hapsburgs, though you wouldn’t think so in Bad Ischl – particularly not in August, which sees re-enactments of imperial events. Brass bands play, an imperial couple dressed as the emperor and empress arrives by steam train, and concerts and organ music provide a light-hearted score to the festivities. On Franz Joseph’s birthday on 18 August, real Hapsburgs turn up for a procession through town.
Assassinations, suicides, wars and revolution plagued the later Hapsburgs, though you wouldn’t think so in Bad Ischl
If the waltz is the signature Bad Ischl tune, then coffee and cream cakes are surely its signature indulgence
Bad Ischl is as much about composers as courtiers. Where rich patrons went, impoverished musicians followed. Brahms composed his famous lullaby here, and Bruckner played the organ in St Nikolaus Church. The gingerbread villa where Bruckner spent his summers is now a restaurant serving Austrian specialities.
Next door is the Villa Léhar, where the Hungarian-born composer Franz Léhar lived from 1912 to his death in 1948. You can take a guided tour of the villa, which seems to sit in a time warp. A summer festival at the Kongresshaus showcases his operettas such as The Merry Widow and The Gypsy Baron. The venue is surrounded by a pretty flower-filled park where brass bands sometimes play and a statue of the composer looms. Johann Strauss the Younger was another summer regular in Bad Ischl. He directed in the theatre and frequented Ramsauer coffeehouse every day at six o’clock sharp.
If the waltz is the signature Bad Ischl tune, then coffee and cream cakes are surely its signature indulgence. You’ll find the town’s most famous coffeehouse on the Pfarrgasse. Franz Joseph used to walk from his villa to Café Zauner daily for a lemon-flavoured Guglhopf. Many visitors still enjoy lavish cream cakes at a street table in the sun, but for the full imperial experience head inside.
Chandeliers glimmer, rococo pillars twist, and pastries are displayed in glass cabinets like showroom jewellery. It’s another Bad Ischl stage set, under the gaze of Austria’s tragic old emperor, whose portrait hangs on the wall.
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