Travel to Vienna, Austria
On Sissi’s Trail in Vienna
Follow in the footsteps of Sissi, Austria’s beloved Empress Elisabeth, wife of Emporer Franz Josef. Beautiful, enigmatic, and passionate, Elisabeth’s life was captured in sumptuous Technicolor in the 1950s in a blockbuster trilogy that has become an integral part of Austrian and Viennese culture.
Meet Sissi: Empress Elisabeth of Austria
What the Sound of Music is to the English-speaking world, the Sissi trilogy is to Germanophones and Hungarians, and especially the citizens of Vienna.
The blockbuster film trilogy Sissi (1955), starred the exquisite Romy Schneider in the title role of the tragic and beautiful Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837-1898). This post-war smash hit with its stunning costumes, lavish sets, and somewhat airbrushed version of historic events went a long way to restoring a sense of national pride and consciousness for both Austria and Germany, where it is now a national tradition to watch the films on Christmas Day.
Sissi’s Real Story: Empress Elisabeth of Austria
The megawatt appeal of the plot is Empress Elisabeth’s real-life fairytale beginnings, which the Sissi franchise shamelessly deploys at the beginning of the film.
Elisabeth’s beautiful and dutiful sister, Princess Helene was earmarked to marry their cousin young Emperor, but when Franz stumbled upon the fifteen-year-old tomboy Elisabeth (known to her family as “Sisi” with only one “s” as opposed to the title of the film) playing in the woods around her home he fell instantly in love. Legend has blurred the story a bit — Franz and Sissi don’t recognize one another, making their mutual attraction more endearing. What we do know is that Franz’s love was so strong that for the first time in his life, he stood up to his formidable mother, Archduchess Sophia that he wanted to marry Sissi and not Helene. Sophia had grave reservations that the outdoorsy and impetuous fifteen-year-old Sissi would not make a suitable Empress of the rigid Austrian Court, but she was forced to capitulate and Franz and Sissi were married after she sailed down the Danube to Vienna.
This is the happy ending of the first film. The second and third films (Sissi: The Young Empress and Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress) chart Sissi’s increasing interest in Hungarian politics and her growing confidence as an Austrian Empress.
Much of the plot of the Sissi trilogy revolves around Sisi’s clashes with her mother-in-law, the aforementioned Archduchess Sophia, and how poor Franz Josef gets caught between them. The Emporer can usually talk Sisi round with an adorable, “Oh Sissi…” which my German friend informs me is part of a beloved drinking game in Germany and Austria – a shot each time Franz utters this line. When Sisi gets into Hungarian politics, you need a clear head and something in your stomach!
Learn more about Vienna's Traditions:
Hofburg Imperial Palace at night in Vienna, Austria. Photo Credit: Vlad G. via Shutterstock
Sissi and Empress Elisabeth are omnipresent at many of Vienna’s major sightseeing destinations such as the Imperial Furniture Collection, which has a dedicated “Sissi-path” through some of the furniture used in making the film. A “Sissi-ticket” offers one-time entry to the Imperial Furniture Collection, the summer residence Schoenbrunn, and the Hofburg Palace, where visitors can enjoy the exquisite and iconic Winterhalter portrait of Elisabeth with signature diamond stars in her hair.
Front of Schloss Schoenbrunn
Die-hard fans make a mandatory pilgrimage to the Hofburg’s Sisi Museum, where set designer Rolf Langenfass has mounted an exhibition charting the real life empress’s sad journey from free-spirited tomboy to a tragic, isolated, and very disturbed woman, trapped in a challenging position and complicated relationship with her husband. Some of Sisi’s iconic dresses are on display, as are many of her personal items used in the elaborate upkeep of her legendary beauty.
Sissi’s Tragic Later Life
Elisabeth and Franz Josef had three daughters and one son, the doomed Crown Prince Rudolf, who took his own life and that of his mistress, Marie Vetsera at Mayerling in 1889. After Rudolf’s death, Sisi went into deep and permanent mourning, restlessly roaming the world on her yacht the Miramar. She was assassinated in 1898 in Geneva by anarchist Luigi Lucheni, and this tragic event is often seen as the beginning of the end of an era.
Further Reading and Viewing
Learn more about Empress Elisabeth and the world she lived in with these excellent books. The Fortune Hunter is the only novel, by the author of the hit TV series Victoria and I like the way it accurately evokes the period. The Sissi Trilogy is available with English subtitles.
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Notes from the Author
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If you would like to immerse yourself in Sissi stills, please visit my Pinterest Board dedicated to the subject. Many of the images in this post come from that collection.
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