Before becoming Queen of France, Marie Antoinette was an Austrian Hapsburg princess. To learn about the region that shaped her, the American Friends of Versailles selected Vienna and Prague as destinations for this year’s benefit heritage tour.
The annual tours help raise money for restoration projects at Versailles, which promote the important Franco-American friendship. AFV has contributed close to $7 million dollars since its inception two decades ago, to restoring the Trois Fontaines Bosquet, the Pavillon Frais, and the baroque fresco ceiling of the Queen’s Guards Room.
This year’s funds will help restore the Bosquet de la Reine, a section of the Versailles parc once reserved only for Marie Antoinette.
Organizing the benefit trips are AFV founder Catharine Hamilton and Princesse Béatrice de Bourbon Deux Siciles. The Princesse, a descendent of Marie Antoinette’s sister Marie Carolina, is an AFV French Board Member.
Gathering the first Saturday evening in October we met for cocktails and then dinner among the statues, marble columns, and crystal chandeliers of the Imperial Hotel on the Ringstrasse. Originally constructed as a city residence for the Duke of Wurttenberg, it was converted into a hotel for the Vienna World’s Fair of 1873, and retains a regal character.
Assembled from Texas, California, Illinois, Florida, New York, Washington D.C., Virginia and France, some AFV members have traveled together over the years and are old friends with new acquaintances welcomed every year. This season’s group numbered around two dozen.
Our private visits to several of Vienna’s memorable palaces over the next few days began with a tour of the Hofburg Imperial Palace, the sprawling 59-acre complex in central Vienna. The seat of the Hapsburg Dynasty until 1918, it was the birthplace of Marie Antoinette and site of her proxy marriage to Louis XVI with her older brother Archduke Ferdinand standing in for the Dauphin.
A central feature of the Hofburg today is a museum dedicated to a later prominent Hapsburg, Empress Elisabeth the wife of Franz Joseph. An early devotee of physical fitness, nicknamed Sissi, she was a legendary beauty, beloved, and universally mourned after her 1898 assassination.
Later we visited Schönbrunn Palace, a Hapsburg summer residence, and also toured the Belvedere where Marie Antoinette’s marriage was celebrated with a masked ball. Afterward the 14-year-old bride left in a procession of 57 carriages, now a French royal by marriage, to arrive at Versailles and meet her husband, the ill-fated future king.
Invited to the Spanish Riding School, we attended a training session of the famed Lippizaner horses and then visited the stables to admire the horses (no mares!) up close. Each one is named for his bloodline and his mother, resulting in sleek stallions named Patrizia and Nina. Later we returned for dinner in a private room above the training ring.
Our fundraising trips are always enhanced by invitations from family and friends of Princesse Béatrice. Lorentz Comte de Gudenus guided us through Grafenegg Castle, and Princess Marie of Liechtenstein hosted a private tour of Liechtenstein Palace, which is not normally open to the public.
Presented three-course meals matched with local wines at both lunch and dinner, we dined in landmark restaurants, palaces, private homes and clubs.
Excellent guides took us to other notable sites in the city. St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Karlskirche, the Albertina. At the National Gallery we saw the world’s largest collection of Breughel works and the original painting of Klimt’s The Kiss, which is copied in souvenir shops all over Vienna. The Austrian National Library, built by Marie Antoinette’s grandfather Charles VI, is a magnificent double-height wall of books and paintings with hidden nooks for reading.
Seeing Vienna’s treasures renewed interest in our projects to help preserve Versailles. We touched on the city’s highlights and many of us hope to return soon. But after four days of non-stop meals and activities, it was time to proceed to Prague.
Stay tuned for Part 2, coming on Monday.
Photographs by Francis Hammond, Sharon King Hoge, & Michele Fieschi-Fouan.