Europe is the continent which invented privilege (predating the Kardashians), mastered this invention for centuries, and now places it permanently and ubiquitously on display. No where is this more apparent than in the estates left behind by past monarchs. While Gödöllő, Hungary may not be on everyone’s vacation destination list (I don’t know about you, but I only learned of it a few months after moving to Budapest), the Habsburgs called it home – at least for a few weeks during the spring and fall hunting seasons. That was all the endorsement Pat and I needed to make the day trip.
We set off one Friday in late spring by train to this village 40 minutes from Budapest. Concrete apartment structures and graffiti covered fences gave way to a denser and denser forest. After all, Gödöllő palace is a hunting lodge. In these woods not long ago, Franz Joseph strode about in full regalia with his rifle perched upon his shoulder. As dusk fell, he returned to a home comprised of eight wings, a theater, riding hall, church and green house commissioned by a confident of the empress Maria Theresa (whose most famous daughter moved to France, uttered the regretful words “let them eat cake” and lost her head over it). In a world of excess, the Habsburg ruled the roost.
In Vienna, the Habsburgs maintained their summer and winter palaces – Schonbrunn and Hofburg respectively. Schonbrunn contains 1441 rooms – enough to entertain most of the country of Austria should they pop in uninvited some warm summer evening. Towering over the Danube in Budapest is the staggeringly huge – and beautiful – palace up in the Buda castle district, passed from the kings of Hungary through Habsburg hands on its way to a modern day museum. And of course, Gödöllő, which reminds me of Schonburnn – a massive vacation palace removed from the demands of city palace life.
Gödöllő followed a circuitous route to its present day restored and extremely palatial state. Built in the 18th century and gifted to the Austro-Hungarian rulers late in the 19th, it became home of the Hungarian regent, Miklos Horty, after World War I, acted as Russian headquarters during World War II, and a state hospital for the aging during communism (that reasonably short lived burst of reactionary anti privilege). The palace was returned to Hungary with the furniture stolen and building in ruins. Renovation commenced in the late 1980s and completed in spurts with many wings only recently reopening in 2010.
The palace is hidden in the forest just across the main road from the Gödöllő HEV station. Although I expected something nice, I was surprised by the fantastically ornate baroque facade, the enormous rear gardens and the vividly colored damask walls, chandeliers and gold filigree. Other than the forested surroundings, there is no hint that this is a lodge but rather a palace which stacks up with the best of them. We spent nearly two hours touring the rooms and listening to the audio recording descriptions (sorry, no interior photos allowed).
Gödöllő was a gift from the country of Hungary to the Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife, Queen Elizabeth (aka “Sisi”) – (perhaps as a peace offering after the failed revolution of 1848 which attempted to split Hungary from the monarchy). Her fingerprints are on much of current palace. Sisi spent a good part of her adult life in their Hungarian homes, including several years at Gödöllő, escaping the stifling environment created by her domineering mother-in-law in Vienna. She loved Hungary, spoke fluent Hungarian and was virtually worshiped by this country as evidenced by bridges, squares and streets named “Erszebet” in her honor.
As you walk through her bed chambers you can peruse photos of her family and other items from her personal affects. Her rooms are now meticulously restored to her favorite color – a vivid lilac. Sisi was eventually assassinated in Genoa during those monarch unfriendly years leading up to the first World War. And while her reputation is mixed in general, Hungarians seem to have a soft spot for her. She was memorialized in the garden after her death.
After a few hours in the palace, we ate lunch at a restaurant in the park, walked through the quaint and tiny village square, and caught an afternoon train home. We arrived back in time for a nap and dinner.
It was a perfect day. Fortuitously, when you live in a former empire, a good palace is never more than a stone’s throw away.
Categories: Central/Eastern Europe