Why live like a King when you can live like an Emperor? We flew to the Austrian capital Vienna to spend a night being treated like Royalty at Schönbrunn Palace, the fairytale former home of Emperor Franz Joseph
The Butler did it. Silver salver in hand, immaculate in tailcoat, and etiquette incarnate, he was the proof we needed that we weren’t dreaming. Yes, we were actually living in a palace. The Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, to be precise. The former residence of Emperor Franz Joseph.
And while millions of people can say they’ve been there and have the postcards to prove it, very, very few of them will have had the privilege of spending the night there in the sort of splendour that is only usually available to Presidents, potentates and blue-blooded Royalty.
As someone who was married at The Ritz and honeymooned at the Hermitage in Monaco, I’m not entirely unaccustomed to opulence.
But spending a night in a palace was a first. And although being treated like Royalty wasn’t (they’re very good at that at The Ritz, you know), being treated like Royalty in a place where Royalty used to be treated certainly was.
I can see why the Emperor liked it so much. Grander, larger and with almost twice as many rooms as Bucking-ham Palace (the one that the Queen of England has to make do with), Schönbrunn Palace is not only a World Heritage Site but the most dazzling jewel in Vienna’s imperial crown.
Perhaps, like us, the Emperor arrived at Schönbrunn Palace by horse-drawn carriage and decided, as we did, to go for a trot around the grounds first.
Even glimpsed over the rear end of a horse, Schönbrunn Palace is a vision to behold.
Stretching so far in each direction that you can’t take it all in without swivelling your head like a spectator at Wimbledon’s Centre Court, it was clearly intended to impress Franz Joseph’s friends (if he had any) and to demoralise his enemies (which it almost certainly did).
I don’t know what the German for “Wow!” is, but it was probably coined right here in front of Schönbrunn Palace. Set in 500 acres, the home of the Habsburgs is a Baroque masterpiece whose red and yellow palette is as familiar to Austrians as the Eiffel Tower is to the French and the clock tower of Big Ben is to the English.
The vast courtyard is heaving with tourists as we arrive, their chatter accompanied by the ‘clip-clip’ of hooves on cobbles from the horse-drawn carriages, but we are met by a charming young woman in uniform and whisked past the queues of visitors towards an anonymous-looking door that leads into the parts of the palace that the tourists never get to see.
We puff our way up numerous flights of stairs to find our suitcases have miraculously arrived before us.
A gold-tasseled key-ring is produced with a flourish, the huge wooden door opens, and we get our first glimpse of what living in a palace is like.
We enter a red and white panelled corridor with parquet flooring, wowing all the way as we open door after door to discover one delight after another. There are two bedrooms – one with a dreamy four-poster – plus a dressing room, two bathrooms, a kitchen, a dining room, and a sitting room.
Everywhere we look lies opulence, from the pineapple damask panelling and soft furnishings to the gilded headboards, mirrors and writing desks. It’s only when we stand at one of the many windows that we realise why people are prepared to pay quite so handsomely for the pleasure of staying in a palace rather than merely visiting it as a tourist.
Gaze down at the courtyard and you see Lilliputians milling among the formal flower beds and the statuary, while way up on the hill stands the Gloriette, a magnificent structure that the previous occupants of our suite used as a breakfast room from which to look down on their subjects and the city.
Having been one of the millers-around at many a palace, I can assure you that being inside a palace looking out is infinitely better than the other way around. And I suspect that staying in one for too long could easily bring on a bout of imperiousness, with even our vocabulary beginning to become more old-fashioned as the evening progressed.
Instead of merely going to bed, we retired for the night, and snacks gave way to tiffin. With our teenaged daughter decanted to her own gilded bedroom down the corridor, my wife and I were able to relax in our four-poster and have an uninterrupted view of the floodlit Gloriette as darkness fell.
It disappeared at 10 pm when the lights went out (not sure what the Emperor would have thought of that) but the memory of the view is something that will stay with us forever. Emperors, I suppose, may eventually suffer from palace-fatigue, but we were in no danger of that.
Living in a palace trumps even the grandest of grand hotels anywhere in the world in no danger of that. We loved every moment of the experience and were surprised (though perhaps we shouldn’t have been) to wander into the kitchen in the morning and find a chef in his whites preparing our breakfast with his assistant. No idea how he got in there, but that’s palaces for you, I suppose.