The Habsburgs and Bad Ischl

Bad Ischl, like the other salt-mining communities of the Salzkammergut region, has a lengthy history as a centre for producing the "white gold". The name Ischl is derived from the Celtic Iscla or Iscula, which appears in a document of the year 829 as the name of the river that runs past the Imperial Villa. Salt mining has been the central economic activity from prehistoric times right to the present day. For at least three thousand years the salt was mined by hand, and then, at considerable risk to life and limb, transported in flimsy boats down the fast-flowing River Traun to Lake Traun and the Danube.

The direct association of the Habsburg dynasty with Ischl and the Salzkammergut region can be dated with certainty to the year 1282, when King Rudolf I appointed his eldest son, Albrecht, to be duke of Austria and Styria. Albrecht took a personal interest in the economically important salt industry, to the extent of building a fortification to protect it in 1284. The Rudolf Tower, which he named in honour of his father, can be seen to this day above the village of Hallstatt. After his death in 1308 his widow, Elisabeth, reorganised the salt industry into the crown monopoly that it remained right into the 20th century. This salt-producing Kammergut (crown estate), remained a mainstay of Habsburg finances for over 600 years.

franz_carl_unter_westbalkon_kv.tifA new use for Ischl's underground wealth was discovered during the early 19th century, when the therapeutic qualities of its mineral water springs transformed the sleepy and almost inaccessible little community on the Traun and its tributary, the River Ischl, into a meeting place for high society and a centre of international high diplomacy. The curative properties of the salt springs of Ischl had been known as far back as the time of Emperor Maximilian, but its rise a health resort started when Dr. Josef Götz opened his first bathing salon there in 1823. The breakthrough came when he communicated his discovery to the influential Professor Franz de Paula von Wirer of the Vienna Medical School, who was personal physician to the Emperor, and who enthusiastically adopted the new treatment for his prominent patients. This new form of patronage by the imperial family for therapeutic purposes culminated in the visit by Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I in 1835, which put the final seal on Ischl's status. A summer residence there was from now on a social "must", not merely for the greatest names of the Habsburg empire, but also for the crowned heads and nobility of Europe

The State Chancellor of Austria, Prince Clemens Metternich, was only one of the many prominent statesmen who spent summers in Ischl with their families during the early years of the now rapidly developing health resort. Metternich latterly rented a villa built in 1834 for a Viennese lawyer, Dr. Josef Eltz, overlooking the town from a magnificent situation on the other side of the River Ischl, at the foot of the steep hill called the Jainzen. This house was later to form the core of the Imperial Villa.

die_salzprinzenThen the decisive link with the imperial family was forged. The younger of Emperor Franz’s two sons, Archduke Franz Karl, and his wife Sophie, of the Bavarian Wittelsbach royal family, visited Ischl regularly from 1827 onwards. The then 19-year-old Bavarian princess had married the second son of Emperor Franz I in 1824, since when she had waited in vain for children, who would be the heirs to the Habsburg throne, because the epileptic Crown Prince Ferdinand was incapable of fathering offspring. After five unsuccessful pregnancies, court physician Dr. Wirer recommended the saline baths of Ischl as a therapeutic treatment. This apparently worked, because, after various treatments in Ischl in 1828 and 1829, Sophie bore three sons in succession, and some years later a fourth one.

On 18 August 1830 the future Emperor Franz Josef was born in Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, followed on 6 July 1831 by Ferdinand Maximilian, later a very short-lived Emperor of Mexico. In 1833 their brother Karl Ludwig saw the light of day, and then there was a full nine years before the youngest, Ludwig Viktor, was born in 1842. A daughter, Maria Anna Karolina, was born in 1835, but died four years later. Because Sophie's first three sons arrived only after she had begun taking regular health cures in Ischl, they were popularly known, even in court circles, as the "salt princes".

In the summer of 1831 Archduke Franz Karl and Archduchess Sophie brought their infant son Franz Josef to Ischl, where he celebrated his first birthday - and another 80 birthdays in the following years. To this day, the Emperor’s Birthday is commemorated in Ischl with great ceremony on 18 August every year. That baby was to succeed his childless uncle Ferdinand in 1848 as Emperor Franz Josef I and ruler over all the far-flung crown lands of the Austrian Monarchy. But almost every summer of Franz Josef’s 86 years was "a heavenly sojourn in Ischl", in his own words.