There’s a talisman cropping up all over Vienna, and it’s diamond-bright. It appears in the crystal petals dripping from the chandeliers that hang inside J&L Lobmeyr, the celebrated crystal and glassware purveyor in the city’s Golden Quarter; it shows up in the sequinned stairwell of the Swarovski store on Stephansplatz; flutters incandescent in the snowy eyelashes of the Lipizzaner horses stabled at the Spanish Riding School; glows from within the ponderous light pendant affixed like a great, bejewelled ring to the ceiling of the Vienna State Opera; and – most adoringly, to be sure – twinkles in the 27 diamond starbursts gifted by Emperor Franz Joseph to his beloved wife, Empress Elisabeth (known as Sisi), to wear in her dark, lustrous hair.
“The most important customer, of course, was Sisi,” says Christoph Kochert, pinching a replica starburst between his fingers and holding it up to the light.
We’re inside A.E. Kochert, the intimate, wood-panelled jewellery salon where Sisi’s starbursts were handcrafted. It’s an old and hallowed space. Established in 1814 and renowned as the jeweller to the imperial court, the company is still run as a family business. The inspiration for Sisi’s hair-jewels came from a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream during which she noticed that the character of Titania had fairy stars sprinkled through her hair.
“She recognised herself in this woman, and so Franz Joseph gave her a box filled with 27 diamond stars,” Kochert explains.
Many a woman has imitated Sisi since. The diamond hair clips that so delighted her are still worn today, in glass or crystal imitations, or in their genuine form, studded with tiny diamonds in A.E. Kochert’s second-floor workshop on Neuer Markt.
It’s a romantic tale, and one that conjures the rich imperial history of this city and the delightful traditions that endure. But the rest of Sisi’s story is told somewhat less quixotically at the Schönbrunn Palace, which this year marks the centenary of Emperor Joseph’s death. Though the much-loved Hapsburg monarch presided over his subjects for a remarkable 68 years, it’s his restless, melancholic wife who draws my attention during a tour of the imperial apartments.
Anchoring Sisi’s quarters is her red and gold-wallpapered dressing room, where she would undergo a strict beauty regime for hours each day. On a dressing table sits a selection of hairbrushes with which she would tame her cascading, sometimes diamond-studded hair. In the corner stands the wood-framed mirror that would have reflected, as the years passed by, Sisi’s ageing face and the light disappearing from her eyes. Sisi, it is said, was obsessed with youth and beauty, and the maintenance of her slim, corset-honed body; she could barely tolerate the advancement of age.
But this reluctant empress would have found succour, surely, at the windows overlooking the palace gardens. From here she would have seen, stretching out for more than a kilometre in each direction, a confection of Baroque-styled flower beds filled with riotous blooms in spring and summer, avenues of trees, secret alcoves, and places of contemplation and repose. These now-public gardens regenerate each year so they remain just as beautiful as they once were, and are listed, together with the palace, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A carriage ride through Vienna | Peter Rigaud
It wasn’t old age that Sisi finally succumbed to; instead, she was assassinated tragically – and somewhat randomly – by an Italian anarchist while visiting Geneva in 1898, at the age of 60. In the 118 years since, the empress’s Vienna has somehow grown younger, evolving to accommodate at once both the opulence of its imperial past and a bourgeoning, thoroughly 21st-century aesthetic.
I am immersed in this dichotomy over the course of just a few hours. First, I sit down to eat at Konstantin Filippou’s eponymous, Michelin-starred restaurant, a space characterised by neutral colours and a decidedly cubist sensibility. This unfussy interior – and a menu that simply lists the three or four chief ingredients in each dish – allows me to better appreciate the edible artwork placed before me: homemade malt bread with onion butter; an amuse-bouche of duck liver pâté with blackcurrant and beetroot; deer tenderloin paired with cochayuyo (crispy seaweed from Chile), txogitxu (air-dried beef from Spain) and morel. Even the diners here are dressed in elementary black smattered with neutrals, the uniform for a new millennium.
Later, I retire to the Hotel Sacher Wien, a Viennese landmark opened in 1876 by Eduard Sacher, son of the creator of that most famous of Viennese cakes, Sacher-Torte. Though fitted with modern amenities and technologies – the mirror in my marble bathroom doubles as a television screen – the hotel has retained the warmth, charm and colour of a long-gone past. The reception is a narrow, tucked-away compartment lined with flocked crimson wallpaper and endless photos of famous guests. The lobby invites me to sink into its velvety sofas and watch as a parade of possibly well-known people wafts by. Much like those of the imperial apartments, the suites and rooms here are embellished with antique rugs and gilt-framed paintings, silk wallpaper and flowing drapes.
I’m staying in The Nutcracker Suite, named for the score written by Tchaikovsky for the ballet, The Nutcracker. It’s decorated in shades of soft butter yellow and bathed in the scent of fresh roses. It’s old, but is inhabited by someone comparatively new. And it’s suffused with that Viennese talisman I’ve come to depend on: light. For hanging from the ceiling is a voluminous chandelier – a Lobmyer, perhaps? – its teardrop petals speared floorwards, its candelabras aglow, its light bouncing bright and fresh and merry into every corner of this grand old room.