Vienna: Imperial Carriage Museum

If it wasn’t already clear from my last post, just let me say that if you like the Habsburgs, you are going to love Vienna. To stick with the Imperial theme, after seeing the underwhelming Anker Clock and eating an exceptionally large Kaiserschmarrn with caramelised walnuts that unfortunately left me disgustingly full for the rest of the day (Kaiserschmarrn is also Imperial, having been a favourite of Franz Joseph I, hence the name, so it was in keeping with the theme), we headed out to Schonbrunn Palace. On our last visit to Vienna, although we walked around the grounds and ate that giant pretzel I mentioned in my last post, we didn’t actually pay to go inside the palace, as it was obscenely crowded. This time, we set out with the best of intentions and fully meant to see Schonbrunn, but when we got there and saw the price and the crowds and thought about how much we hated Charlottenburg and the fact that this just looked like more of the same, well, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to do it. Instead, we headed over to the much more appealing sounding Carriage Museum, which is a very short walk away from Schonbrunn, despite what the misleading signage in Schonbrunn’s gardens would have you believe.

Despite being right by Schonbrunn and containing all Habsburg stuff, it is actually run by the Kunsthistoriches Museum, so it’s not included on any Schonbrunn ticket package (not that we bought one anyway). It’s €12, and you can buy tickets at the museum – it certainly wasn’t very busy when we were there, which was extremely refreshing after the crowds at the nearby palace. I said that I would talk more about Sisi in this post, and I wasn’t lying, because even though Sisi has her own dedicated museum (which we did not visit), that is clearly not enough for the Viennese, and the Carriage Museum is also basically the Sisi show. That’s her wedding dress you can see above right.

“Who the hell is Sisi?” you may rightfully be asking if you’re not Austrian, because I certainly didn’t have a clue. Well, the museum was here to tell you, and even went so far as to bill her a 19th century Princess Diana, so apparently beloved is she by the Austrian people. Her proper name was Empress Elisabeth of Austria, wife of the comparatively unremarkable Franz Joseph I (except for his love of Kaiserschmarrn I guess), and after reading the museum’s description of her, I’m still not quite sure why she was so beloved, as she seemed incredibly vain, high maintenance, and frankly, a bit of a nut.

I mean, just look at her extraordinarily creepy mourning dress, or at least what you can see of it in the above picture. 19th century mourning dress typically included a crepe veil for women, so nobody was going to see your face anyway, but Sisi took it upon herself to have a mask made of black feathers that covered her entire face like some kind of scary bird woman, and then still wore a veil on top of it (honestly, I think it’s kind of awesome, but her obsession with mourning is really the only thing I can get behind. Well, that and the horse chapel I talk about later). She spent hours on her beauty regimen and refused to have any photographs or paintings done after the age of 32 so she would be seen as eternally beautiful, which, as a 36 year old, I honestly find kind of insulting. I’m not that decrepit yet! It also sounded like she had an eating disorder – she would go through periods of starvation followed by binge eating, and she was described as too thin by acquaintances. In fairness to her, I don’t think she had the easiest life – Franz Joseph was supposed to marry her older sister, but fell in love with the beautiful Sisi instead, who was unprepared for life at the Austrian court. She had multiple children die in tragic circumstances (including a murder-suicide), had a difficult relationship with her husband, who was cold and businesslike, and was eventually assassinated by an Italian anarchist at the age of 60. Perhaps her violent death has something to do with her exalted posthumous reputation.

But this was still a carriage museum, not exclusively the Sisi Museum, and there were lots of fabulous carriages too, most of which belonged to, you guessed it, Sisi. Or more broadly, the Habsburg family, who managed to amass quite a collection over the years. The frequent tragedies that befell the Habsburg line in the 1800s also meant that they had some fab mourning carriages painted true priest black, rather than just a very very very very very dark blue.

My favourite thing was that absolutely fabulous leopard print sleigh, shown above left, though I was less keen when I realised the leopard print was actual leopard skin. I also learned that the Habsburgs built carriages with springs under their seats for comfort, but none under the coachman’s seat, even though the coachman would be expected to sit outside for hours in all weathers driving these people around. That is just a straight-up dick move, and almost made me glad most of them were assassinated. Seriously, clearly you can afford springs, so why not give everyone springs? Because they were assholes, that’s why.

The main reason I was drawn to the Carriage Museum in the first place was because they were hosting a temporary exhibition on masks and epidemics, which, even after experiencing a pandemic, is still very much my jam. The exhibition turned out to have been put up during the first lockdown in 2020, so only incorporated artefacts that were already in the museum’s collections, and was fairly small, but still interesting. I wish I could have read the Viennese equivalent of the Bills of Mortality that was on display here, but alas, I do not speak German (all the signage here was in English as well though, so it wasn’t an issue for the bulk of the museum). I also liked Sisi’s collection of horse paintings. She apparently considered horses her only friends, and had a whole chapel decorated with horse paintings, which sounds totally bonkers. I wish it was still around, because I would have loved to have seen it.

The museum took us right up into the modern era, with a Hapsburg automobile and even a custom racing car. I loved the old auto – naturally, the Hapsburgs didn’t have anything so plebian as a license plate number, just an image of their coat of arms on the plate, and the car was decorated in Imperial colours, as were many of the carriages.

I actually enjoyed this museum quite a lot. Although I don’t think I would have liked Sisi much as a person judging by the way she treated her servants (in addition to the coachman thing, she also forced the woman who styled her hair to wear white gloves at all times and save every hair that fell out of Sisi’s head whilst styling it, and then Sisi would yell at her if she thought there were too many hairs), learning about her was interesting, and I loved all the mourning carriages and reading about what was inside each carriage, though it would have been even better if we’d actually been able to see inside them (some of them had beds and reading lamps. Luxury, though not for the poor coachmen of course). 3.5/5.

And because I’m sure you’re dying to know what happened with the giant pretzels at Schonbrunn, well…after a far too long slog around the gardens where we failed to find the pretzels I remembered, we headed over to the Easter Market set up behind the palace. They were selling giant pretzels, but they weren’t the same ones from my earlier visit, not being quite as large nor delicious looking, and unfortunately, the stall was cash only, which meant we had to find a cash machine that charged a fee to use it (I hate that scammy shit. Those machines are illegal in the UK now, so it’s sad they still have them in Europe). I mean, I still ate the pretzel, and it was a good pretzel, but not at all the heavenly item I remembered from my first visit. The market had other delicious looking foods, like Kasespaetzle, but unfortunately, because I was so damn full still from breakfast, I just couldn’t eat any, much as I wanted to, so Schonbrunn Palace was sadly mostly a bust, except for the slightly disappointing pretzel.

 

17 comments

  1. Whenever I see something that looks like leopard skin (or really is) I think of an old Bob Dylan song called “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”, which I’ve just been listening to again.

  2. I shouldn’t have read this post hungry. I had to look up what Kaiserschmarrn was and now I’m totally craving sweet pancakes!!

      1. Ha ha! There is NOTHING cooked with raisins that isn’t 100% better without them!

      2. Fortunately, they weren’t cooked in, but just scattered across the top, so I was easily able to flick them over to Marcus. I guess I could have just asked for them without, but the waitress scared me a little.

  3. They look so elegant, but were they actually a comfortable way to travel?
    Hope you had some mustard for that pretzel.

    1. Probably reasonably comfortable for the Habsburgs inside with springs, a bed, and a reading lamp, but not at all for the poor driver!
      Not a mustard fan (or a fan of any condiments, really). I just like my pretzels plain.

  4. I admit that I had no idea about Sisi’s lack of popularity in Britain – I live in France and am used to a lot of fuss being made about her, ever since the German-born French actress Romy Schneider made her debut playing her in (kitsch) movies in the 1950s!

    I personally totally skipped anything Sisi-related when I visited Vienna, as I am fed up with French people automatically associating this city with her…
    But this museum definitely looked attractive, so I’ll probably give it a try next time I go to Vienna!

    Sisi practised riding and gymnastics, walked for long hours, and followed a strict, unusual diet (alternating fast with days when she only absorbed milk, eggs, meat juice or oranges) to keep her waist circumference under 20 inches… Had she lived today, being about 5 feet 10 inches high and 7 stone (from what I read), she could as well have become a model :-).

    1. I mean, I guess she could be huge in Britain and I’d just somehow never heard of her, but neither had Marcus nor anyone else I’ve mentioned her to here. Maybe it was Romy Schneider (who I’m afraid I’ve also never heard of) that sold the French on her. Seems like it’s hard to see anything Habsburg related in Vienna and not have Sisi mentioned at some point though!

  5. I know nothing of Sisi, even though we did the Schonnbrun tour. I would have loved the carriage museum. The especially ornate carriage makes me think of Cinderella for some reason. Sucked how they treated the coachman! She does sound generally unpleasant.

    1. Weird that they didn’t mention Sisi in Schonbrunn, given how many other places we encountered her, but I think the Sisi Museum is a relatively recent development. I don’t think Cinderella was quite as nasty to her coachmen as Sisi was – I seem to remember them being her adorable rat friends in the Disney version.

  6. Ah, Sisi! Prior to this, all I knew about her was her bizarre hair regimen and assassination. But you’ve delivered the goods, as usual.
    No surprise, I know, but that mourning ensemble would’ve dropped me in my tracks had I been there. After some smelling salts though, I’d have peeked at it appreciatively through my fingers.
    Man, I’d pay good money for copies of those adorable horse paintings – particularly the super cute middle one floating in mid-air.
    So glad you visited this museum. It was a real treat to see all the carriages, which I find endlessly fascinating, and your “a very very very very very dark blue” comment made my day.

    1. I’m impressed you knew about her at all. Strange she’s done the rounds in Canada but not Britain or the US.
      Those horse paintings are pretty adorable. I definitely commented about the horse with all its legs off the ground being painted in a pre-Muybridge era. I don’t even work at the museum that had the Muybridge collection anymore, but I can’t shake the guy.
      I feel like I sneak in so many Fathed Ted references. I’m really enjoying Ardal O’Hanlon on the new series of Taskmaster. He basically is a slightly snarkier Dougal in real life.

      1. Sounds good! I’ll have to see if I can get Taskmaster here. I have a low-grade crush on Ardal O’Hanlon, though I haven’t seen him since that one cameo on Derry Girls.

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