by Kathleen Bittner Roth
Never in my wildest dreams had it ever occurred to me that I would one day reside in Budapest. Hungary? A former Communist country? Eastern Europe?
Although I don’t know how long I might remain here, and even though the circumstances that brought me here were downright sad, I felt compelled to commit to a year of remaining here alone. That one-year date passed October 5th, and here I am, still waiting for things to sort out in the other country I had lived in for four years—Croatia—another former Communist country.
What a city Budapest has turned out to be. What a country. What history. I have fallen in love! And it just so happens that my favorite historical royal fell in love with this country as well—and with a passion so great, she chose to have her fourth and last child here. She raised this daughter as a Hungarian, learned the language (the second hardest language in the world), and spent as much time as possible in her summer palace twenty miles outside the city.
Who was this woman? Empress Elizabeth of Austria (1837-1898), nicknamed Sissi (Original spelling was Sisi) who became a historical icon. Considered the most beautiful woman in the world during her time, she married Emperor Franz Josef, her cousin, when she was barely sixteen. His domineering mother had arranged a meeting between the young emperor and Sissi’s older sister for the purpose of marriage, but one look at fifteen-year-old Sissi and the twenty-three-year-old emperor told his mother if he couldn’t have Sissi, he wouldn’t marry at all. For him, it was love at first sight.
Sissi, one of ten children born in Munich to an eccentric duke, was raised in the wilds of Bavaria when her father ran off and bought a castle far enough away from court protocol to avoid his duties. He played and ran free, and so did his children. Sissi could out-shoot, out-ride and out-curse any man, much to her father’s delight. Like him, she eschewed court rules, and even though she was shy, she rebelled at every turn. Wherever she traveled, a portable gym went with her. Every palace or castle had a gym installed, and Sissi worked out every day. She ate sparingly in order to keep her sixteen inch waist and some say she may have been anorexic in her later years.
It was her stubborn, controlling mother-in-law who likely was responsible for Sissi’s health issues. The woman took Sissi’s children away from her to be raised at court according to the mother-in-law’s demands, refused to allow Sissi to breast feed, and except for the last child, the daughter, born in Hungary, Sissi never saw much of her children.
Last August, in the heat of the summer, I had the privilege of visiting her summer palace. I can see why she loved her home at Godollo. Even though the temperature was in the 90’s the day of my visit, I forgot about the heat once inside the building. All the windows and the many doors to various balconies had been flung open and a breeze flowed through an already light and airy structure. I’ve visited many palaces and castles while living abroad, but Sissi’s summer palace at Godollo is my favorite (it’s the second largest baroque palace in the world). The vast grounds have been left intact (thank God, the Communists didn’t ruin it), and the palace is in remarkable shape.
Sadly, Sissi was assassinated in 1898 by an Italian anarchist. You can read all about her on sites like Wikipedia, you can watch the films made about her life, and even view her summer castle and her home in Corfu on YouTube, but for me, nothing compares to the impact of walking through the summer palace where her footsteps once tread, or hiking the streets of beautiful, amazing Budapest, and seeing the love people had for her in the form of bridges, statues, cafes and parks named after her.
While I may have landed in Budapest under dire circumstances, I have made the most of my stay, and lately, I actually feel blessed to be here, in a land my favorite royal loved. Below are a few sites that may be of interest to you:
Wikipedia history of Sissi: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisabeth_in_Bavaria
Godollo Palace: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uCQFVGrPFTw&feature=related
Hello Budapest: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RqwFvU5vBrA
You can visit Kathleen’s website at www.kathleenbittnerroth.com where she writes about the history of Hungary and her life in Budapest on her blog.