The Accidental Empress Itinerary in Austria


the-accidental-empress-9781476790220_lgI first heard about Allison Pataki’s book The Accidental Empress from Barbara Rinella, a Chicago area friend and “book dramatist.” If you’ve never seen Barbara perform, check out her website, she’s a real tour de force. Hilarious and salty, Barbara dresses up like the character from a book — Marie Antoinette, Camille Monet, John Adams, to name a few — and gives a highly entertaining book review, as only a former high school English teacher could. She’ll be reviewing Accidental Empress and performing as Empress Sisi starting in the fall of 2015. You can catch her throughout Chicagoland, maybe on a cruise ship, and if you’re lucky, in a town near you.


I have a special interest in Empress Sisi after reading Accidental Empress and touring through Austria this summer. Sisi seemed to pop up everywhere on our travels. My husband finally asked, “Who is this Cissy anyway?” I answered: “It’s ‘Sisi.‘ She was  Empress Elisabeth of Austria, but so tragic, the Princess Diana of her time.” He gave me that look — you know, the ones husbands give when they realize they’re getting dragged into another museum.

Such is life with a history major.

The first stop on our Accidental Empress itinerary was the town of Bad Ischl, just an hour or so east of Salzburg in the Salzkammergut region of Austria. Bad Ischl was the summer playground of the Austrian aristocracy. As readers of the book know, this is where Elisabeth of Bavaria first met Emperor Franz Josef of Austria. Elisabeth was just 15 years old at the time, invited to Bad Ischl as a member of her older sister’s bridal party. Allison Pitaki’s book is perhaps the most fun when we see the (prettier, spunkier, more athletic) little sister steal the (older, quieter, bookish) sister’s betrothed. Wedding plans are quickly swapped out and “Sisi” becomes the accidental Empress of Austria.

Sisi’s mother-in-law bought a beautiful villa in Bad Ischl to give to Sisi and Franz Josef as a wedding gift. Over the next few years Franz Josef had it made into the beautiful Kaiservilla that still stands today. The palace, its beautiful grounds and Sisi’s little Tudor tea cottage are open to the public. It would make a great day trip from Salzburg or a good stop for lunch and a tour on the scenic route from Salzburg to Vienna.



After buying a ticket to the Kaiservilla you walk across the Kaiserbrücke, a  lovely steel arch bridge over the Ischl River. The stream is fast moving and fresh, just like it must have been in Sissi’s day.


A view of the front of the Kaiservilla in Bad Ischl. It is painted an imperial yellow similar to the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna.


The front of the Kaiservilla with the fountain in front.

The gravel driveway brings you into a lovely symmetrical plaza in front of the Kaiservilla. If you’re lucky you won’t have too long to wait before your timed guided tour of the villa begins.

A charming  huntsman statue, “The Listener” stands in the lawn in front of the grounds and gardens across from the villa. Emperor Frank Josef was a big hunter. The inside of the villa (no photos allowed) contains many hunting trophies, including antlers and deer heads.

This hunting statue called “The Listener” stands in the lawn in front of the grounds and gardens across from the villa. Emperor Frank Josef was a big hunter. The inside of the villa (no photos allowed) contains many hunting trophies, including antlers and deer heads.



Your first glimpse of Elisabeth’s Tea Cottage as you walk up the pebbled path from the palace. It reminds me a little bit of Marie Antoinette’s Hamlet at Versailles (although on a much smaller, less crazy scale). It must have offered a welcome feminine retreat away from the uber-masculine trophy hunter vibe of the main palace.


The beautiful front door of the Tea Cottage

Tea Cottage Interior


Tea Cottage’s wrap-around porch with iron railings and vines


All around the exterior of the Tea Cottage you can read signs and see photographs from Elisabeth’s time at Kaiservilla. She was considered quite the beauty.

This sign (in English and German) tells about the “imperial betrothal” at Bad Ischl.

After a couple-few hours in Bad Ischl there would be time to grab a quick bite and head back to Salzburg or to continue to drive on to Vienna, as we did.

In Vienna, you won’t want to miss the Imperial Apartments and the Sisi Museum at the Hofburg Palace, where Elisabeth and her husband Franz Josef lived (but not necessarily very happily) from 1854 until her death in 1898.

Hapsburg Palace in Vienna

Hofburg Palace in Vienna. You can buy tickets to visit the Imperial Apartments and the Sisi Museum. Highly recommended!



An original portrait of Elisabeth and her extraordinarily long hair hangs in the Imperial Apartments above a desk.



And of course, no itinerary is complete without a stop at the gift shop. The Sisi Museum Gift Shop offers every souvenir you can imagine, and then some. No, I didn’t buy a Sisi Fan, but I did pick up a few postcards to toss into my scrapbook.

I recently heard that Allison Pataki is currently writing a sequel to Accidental Empress, which I can’t wait to read. Maybe you’ll have time to plan your own Empress Elisabeth Itinerary in time for the next book!




Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki: Recommended





The Lady in Gold’s Footsteps in Vienna

Have you ever take a trip because of a book? I just did.

I’d always wanted to go to Vienna, but every time I got as far as Munich or Salzburg, it seemed I always had a reason to head elsewhere or hurry home. This time it would be different. I wanted to walk in the footsteps of The Lady in Gold by Anne Marie O’Connor.


I enjoyed the movie The Woman in Gold (I enjoyed Helen Mirren’s witty little quips), but it didn’t come close to covering the breadth and depth of the book.

From O’Connor’s book you get the whole story. You learn all about Gustav Klimt, his background, his rise to fame, and his women. About Adele Bloch-Bauer, her affluent Jewish family and her sophisticated intellectual circle. We learn how Klimt came to paint Adele’s famous portrait and how it became the Mona Lisa of fin de siècle Austria.

We don’t just learn what  became of The Lady in Gold after the Germans took over in 1938, we see how the entire Bloch-Bauer family suffered under Nazi rule. The Gestapo terrorized and extorted wealthy Viennese families to gain access to their factories, valuables and bank accounts which would be used to fuel their war machine. The story is much, much bigger than the story of one painting.

The losses of this extended family are staggering. Adele’s widowed husband Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer gave up his home and valuables in Vienna (with The Lady in Gold still inside) and escaped to his castle in Prague until that too was overtaken by the Nazis. Ferdinand lived until 1945, when he would die impoverished and alone in Switzerland. Adele’s nephew Leopold was arrested by the Gestapo and held until he promised to turn over the stock to the family sugar company. (Interesting sidebar: in 2005, Leopold’s heirs would receive $21 million in restitution for the theft of the sugar company, made possible by the collaboration of Swiss banks. Read more here.)

Adele’s niece Maria (played in the movie by Helen Mirren) and her new husband Fritz Altmann were able to sneak out of Vienna to England, thanks to the cash and connections of her father-in-law who owned a factory in Liverpool. Adele’s other niece, the Baroness Luise Gutmann, became trapped in Yugoslavia with her husband Viktor and her children. Viktor was arrested and killed by the Nazis, but Luise and the children survived. The remaining members of the Bloch-Bauer, Altmann and Gutmann families emigrated to Los Angeles and Vancouver after the war, living in close connection with other Austrians.

O’Connor even came upon a fascinating true story about how a different kind of “gay marriage” saved Jewish lives in Vienna. Gay culture had in fact flourished in artistic circles before the Nazis arrived. An underground network of eligible “Aryan bachelors” offered to marry Jewish women and get them out of Austria. A Bloch-Bauer in-law, Ada Stern, found a gay Dutch man who did exactly that.

Not surprisingly, the movie just scrapes the surface of all this tragic and important history of wartime Vienna. The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor is a must-read whether or not you have seen the movie. And once you’ve read it, you too will probably want to visit Vienna and walk in the footsteps of Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer.

First on my Lady in Gold literary tour was a walk to Adele Bloch-Bauer’s home near the Vienna Opera on Elisabethstrasse.



Standing in front of 18 Elisabethstrasse, the home of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer. They moved into this four-story palatial townhouse across from the Academy of Fine Art in 1919. In 1925, Adele died here, leaving the will instructing her husband to leave her two Klimt portraits to the Austrian Gallery after his death.

18 Elisabethstrasse, where Adele Bloch-Bauer would hold Saturday salons with her artistic and progressive circle of friends, including Alma Mahler, Richard Strauss and Karl Renner, the former chancellor of Austria. (Renner was also Adele’s lover – Adele’s maid had to quietly remove his love letters from her nightstand upon Adele’s death.)

Adele Bloch-Bauer’s lovely and sophisticated neighborhood. She lived across the street from Schillerpark and the Vienna Academy of Art. (The same academy that would reject Adolf Hitler’s application in 1907 after he flunked the drawing exam.) As Anne-Marie O’Connor says in The Lady in Gold: “If Adele had passed Hitler on the street in Vienna in those days, carrying his pants and pastels, she would have seen only an unfortunate young man, lacking in confidence. She probably would have felt sorry for him.”


The Secession Building in Vienna: Gustav Klimt's Beethoven Frieze

The Secession Building in Vienna, 12 Friedrichstrasse: A must-see for Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze. Klimt created the frieze in 1902 for the XIVth Secessionist Exhibit. The frieze stayed in place until 1903, the year that Klimt would begin his portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. If you’re following in my own footsteps, this building is just a couple of blocks from 18 Elisabethstrasse on the other side of the Academy of Fine Arts.

The Secession Building: Unfortunately photos aren’t allowed inside, so you’ll either have to visit for yourself or check out the photos on their website, Klimt made a stunning use of gold leaf and displayed a highly modern sensibility with a great deal of nudity. Adele would have had no illusions about what kind of portrait she would be sitting for.                                                                          By the way, there is litigation over the Beethoven Frieze as well. Heirs of Erich Lederer, the owner of the frieze at the time of its “Aryanization,” have sued the Austrian government for its return. Although Lederer was paid $750,000 for the frieze in in 1973, it was far below its fair market value. The Austrian government and the Secession Building are fighting for the right to keep it. Read Anne-Marie O’Connor’s Huffington Post article here.


A visit to Vienna wouldn't be complete without a trip to the Belvedere Palace, which was once home to the Lady in Gold.

A visit to Vienna wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Belvedere Palace, 27 Prinz Eugen-Strasse, which is just a short scenic walk from the Secession Building. This art museum might not be the home to the Lady in Gold anymore, but it still holds The Kiss, and plenty of other fabulous works of art.

The view from the inside of the Belvedere.

The view from the inside of the Belvedere.

A terrace of the Belvedere

A terrace of the Upper Belvedere looking through the gardens toward the Lower Belvedere.

Picture Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds right here.

Picture Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds walking in the gardens of the Belvedere.

 I just had to go find the Jewish Memorial that Ryan Reynolds visited at the end of the movie. It's located in the Judenplatz, over in the older area of Vienna. Definitely worth the longer walk from the other sites.

I just had to go find the Jewish Holocaust Memorial that Ryan Reynolds visited at the end of the movie. It’s located in the Judenplatz, over in the older area of Vienna. It is named Silent Library and was designed to resemble book with their spines turned inward, which represents all the life stories that will never be known. Definitely worth the longer walk from the other sites.



The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor: Very highly recommended


For further reading:

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig. I read this haunting autobiography-memoir while I was visiting Salzburg and Vienna this summer. One of the best book and travel pairings I’ve ever made. Set in Vienna, Salzburg, Paris and much of Europe, it was published after Zweig’s exile to Brazil and his subsequent suicide. It is a beautifully told story about the lost world of old world Vienna and the horror of a world in the midst of war. Fun fact (as revealed in The Lady in Gold): Stefan Zweig was a friend of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Very highly recommended.

world of yesterday












The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey. The story of Gustave Klimt and his long-time companion, partner and muse Emilie Flöge, the subject of The Kiss.












The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund DeWaal. Read my prior posts here: Vienna Sites, and Paris Sites.






Freud’s Mistress by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman (historical fiction set in turn-of-the-century Vienna).


The Hare with Amber Eyes in Vienna


9780312569372I’ve been a fan of The Hare with Amber Eyes for years. I wrote about this book and its Paris connections back in 2011 (Art, Books, Paris: The Hare with Amber Eyes), and it has been with me ever since.

On recent travels to Austria, I remembered there was a Vienna connection to this book and I was determined to track it down. The Ephrussi family had owned a palace on the Ringstrasse. The last members of the Ephrussi family to live in it were Viktor, his wife Emma and their four children. You might remember from The Hare with Amber Eyes that Emma kept the family netsuke collection in a lacquered black cabinet in her dressing room.

After the Anchluss in 1938, the Nazis “Aryanized” the Ephrussi Palace and most of its contents. Viktor, Emma and their children made it out of the country alive, but both Viktor and Emma would die before the end of the war. What became of the palace after it was seized by the Nazis? Would it still be there? Who currently owns it?

I didn’t have to look far. A simple Google search took me to a Wikipedia page for Palais Ephrussi. It was there I learned that the palace survived World War II, although one wing had been destroyed. The building was in the American Sector of Vienna during the Occupation and housed the American Legal Council Property Control.

The Germans who occupied the building from 1938-1945 used much of the Ephrussi family furniture, as did the Americans during the Occupation, but “artistic and high-quality pieces that [were] unsuitable for office purposes” went to various museums in Vienna, including the Kunsthistorische Museum, the Naturhistorische Museum and the “Depot of Movables”. The Depot of Movables was used to furnish various museums and government offices in Vienna.

The surviving members of the Ephrussi family had to go to court to regain title to the building and its contents (reminding us of the litigation that was at the heart of Lady in Gold). By 1950, the palace and much of its contents were returned to the Ephrussi heirs. As we know, a maid smuggled the netsukes out of the house and hid them under a mattress. She made sure they were returned to the family after the war.

Unfortunately, Vienna had bad memories for the surviving members of Ephrussi family, so they chose to sell the palace. The building only sold for $50,000 (today’s dollars) due to its poor condition and Vienna’s economy at the time. For many years the building was owned by Casinos Austria.

Sadly, this palace now houses a Starbucks and a McDonald’s. It can be found at the corner of Schottengasse and Molker Basei, across the street from the University of Vienna. In the first photo below you can see the Votivkirche in the background.







One more interesting note about the Ephrussi family. I came upon a website that shows there were some additional pieces of Ephrussi family property that were discovered in the “Depot of Moveables” as recently as 2000 that are still available for restitution.

Austria has certainly taken a long time to remedy the wrongs of the holocaust.


Bronze table. Taken from the 'aryanised' apartment of Viktor Ephrussi Held ready for restitution since 1999

Bronze table.
Taken from the ‘aryanised’ apartment of Viktor Ephrussi
Held ready for restitution since 1999