Bad Ischl: Imperial Pomp in the Salzkammergut
Wherever you go in Austria, you will encounter images of Emperor Franz-Joseph I. As much as Queen Victoria is still considered a mother of the nation in Great Britain, the Franz-Joseph, typically depicted as an elderly man, is still thought of warmly by many Austrians as something like the grandpa of the nation. How bizarrely distorting! Even the fact that you always see him as and old man is dodgy. His coronation took place in December of 1848, the year of the revolution, when Franz-Joseph was more or less a boy.
The first three years of his reign were dominated by issuing restrictive laws, taking back the liberalisations of the revolution and re-establishing himself as an absolute monarch. He emphasised the role of the Catholic church in Austria on the cost of Orthodox Christians, Protestants and Jews, vetoed against a liberal cardinal becoming Pope (this veto was a privilege of the Austrian Emperors and unique in history) and did his very best to keep the many ethnicities of his empire tightly under control. In short: Franz-Joseph I was not a mild grandpa, but a bloody reactionary - with bad taste in architecture.
Nevertheless, the Austrians love him. Why is that? Probably because his reign was the time of the ultimate cultural, economic and intellectual bloom of Austria and particularly Vienna. Furthermore, the Emperor was married to Europe′s most beautiful woman, Empress Elisabeth - who is a similarly romanticised and a similarly controversial figure. Thus, as far as logics go, everybody has to love Franz-Joseph. What does all that have to do with Bad Ischl and the Salzkammergut?
Imperial Tourism Industry at its Best
Well, only few places in Austria pimp out the imperial heritage as excessively as this little spa town in the very heart of the Salzkammergut. A prosperous trading centre for salt for centuries, a local doctor named Josef Görz discovered in the early 19th century that the saline from the nearby mines helped to treat and even cure rheumatic disorders. The news spread quickly, probably accelerated through the pan-European craze about spas of these days (think of King George′s Bath in England) and quickly the Viennese aristocracy developed a keen interest in the salty waters of Bad Ischl.
Prince Metternich was said to get the saltwater delivered to Vienna. Other top-notch nobility followed his example and soon the "low" aristocracy followed. Composers like Lehar, Strauss, Bruckner and Brahms discovered their passion for Bad Ischl - Lehar even moved there. Think of the romantic, melodic aspects that the music of these four composers have in common and you can anticipate the spirit of Bad Ischl.
When Archduchess Sophie, Franz-Joseph′s mother, became pregnant after a "Sommerfrische" (a wonderfully anachronistic term for summer vacation), she thought it was due to the omnipotent properties of the Ischl water. From then on, she would bring her children to Bad Ischl every summer - soon little Franz-Joseph was nick-named "Salzprinz" ("salt prince").