Prince Eugene’s Secret Schloss
Baroque gardens influenced by Thomas Jefferson - one of Austria’s loveliest estates, hidden in the valley between Vienna and Bratislava
Schloss Hof, with its dramatic stage of Baroque grandeur, is the largest palace complex in the Austrian countryside. A mere forty-minute drive east of the capital through the flat farmland of the Marchfeld – Vienna’s vegetable garden – it lies just across the March River from the back suburbs of Bratislava. A setting of extraordinary grace and understated elegance unique in Austria and rare in Europe, its gardens can perhaps best be described as a small version of Versailles or Sanssouci in Potsdam. But neither of those grand tourist drawing cards will ever have the hushed authenticity and beautiful charm that Schloss Hof offers today.
The Schloss was built in the mid-1720s, as the summer and hunting palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy. Prince Eugene was one of the richest and most powerful men of his time, an unbelievably successful general, who during his career managed to increase the Habsburg Empire by two thirds of its size and reap riches beyond any before.
The palace was the joy of his final years, where he spent much of the last decade leading up to his death in 1736. His niece and sole heir then squandered much of her vast inheritance, or let her husband do so – five million gulden, at a time when an entire palace, complete with furnishings, could be had for 100,000. Her profligacy forced the sale of the Schloss to Empress Maria Theresia in 1755, who bought it as a gift for her husband, Franz Stephan.
The palace then experienced a final decade of grand parties until Franz Stephan’s death in 1765. Neglected by the royal family for the next century, the palace, manor house and outbuildings became a military training center for the Habsburg army at the end of the 19th century, under whose administration the buildings suffered another hundred years of damage and indifference. After a ten-year occupation by the Red Army following WWII, very little was left; the palace’s former magnificence was lost and forgotten.
It took another fifty years for Schloss Hof to be awakened finally from its two-centuries of stony sleep. In 2002, a revitalization project was begun, and in 2005, under the directorship of Kurt Farasin, Schloss Hof reopened to visitors. His careful hand has led to visionary results, and a team of archeologists, architects, historians, art historians and restorers, historical garden specialists, and a small army of gardeners have given a gentle kiss to rouse the Sleeping Beauty. It has been a treasure hunt of grand proportions, a waking dream of long-lost splendor.
Former director for family programming at the ORF (Austrian Broadcasting Company), Farasin had overseen numerous programs about tourism and culture. Then in 2004, following passage of a new law allowing government property to be renovated and run by a private company, Farasin was asked to take over. He approached the monumental task with a simple idea:
"To give the palace back its history and dignity." With his uncompromising love of the palace, the revitalization has been enormously successful. For a visitor, it is almost impossible not to speak in superlatives.
The concept is completely new in Austria: There is not a speck of asphalt, no condescending historical guides with masses of text, no little electric trains rolling by on rubber wheels. We are transported back to the serenity of a quieter time, with truly the only sounds the voices of people and those of birds, including the screech of a peacock and the strange cluck of the stork. The only blight is the view of the Slovakian public housing blocks across the river: may the trees grow tall enough to hide them.
The work brought some joyful discoveries. Despite over a century of occupation by the military, the layout of the seven-terraced Baroque garden had never been changed.
Despite riding rings, tennis courts, and asphalt covering the entire third terrace directly in front of the palace (as is still the case, alas, in front of Palais Schwarzenberg in Vienna), most of the garden had merely been left to itself and the weeds.
Sleuthing turned up other finds: Plans to the gardens were discovered in a Tyrolean attic, in 2005; three bird’s eye views of the palace painted by Canaletto around 1760 gave further details, and were examined inch by inch with a magnifying glass. A cache of 800 letters written by an envoy from the Saxon Duchy reporting on the goings-on at Prince Eugene’s estate were found in Weimar.
Old auction catalogues were scrupulously examined for traces of lost statues known only through a handful of contemporaneous drawings in a collection in Wurzburg.
When Schloss Hof was handed over to the military, Emperor Franz Josef was circumspect enough to have over 1500 objects – chairs, tables, chests, fire grates, chandeliers, oil paintings – transported from Schloss Hof to Vienna. These later found their way into Austrian museums or became furnishings for public buildings and embassies. Luckily, a meticulous inventory was kept, and slowly these pieces are being reacquired, restored and brought back to their original home.
The first phase of the restoration took two years and some 26 million Euros. Now, eight years and twice that sum later, the restoration of the complex is 85% finished. But there are still major projects ahead.
Everything has been restored as far as possible using authentic materials and building processes. With certain important exceptions: the fountains no longer rely on a reservoir three kilometers away. In Prince Eugene’s day, the water was pumped to the palace by ten horses walking in circles, or a windmill if the breeze was strong enough, which provided enough pressure for two hours of flowing water, long enough to impress his guests. Nevertheless, the wooden Baroque pipes have been found, as have lists of the original 600 workers who laid out the gardens and built the walls.
To reconstruct the Baroque gardens, Farasin also went as far as the New World to find the expertise he needed, contacting Mark Laird at the University of Toronto, a specialist for historic gardens. Laird’s extensive knowledge – as landscape architect, garden conservator and historian – provided first guidelines for the gardeners, from layout and plants to combinations of color and form.
The second New World authority was a little farther afield:
"I consulted Thomas Jefferson," Farasin said, laughing. Before becoming the third president of the newly-formed United States, Jefferson traveled throughout Europe from 1784–89. In addition to being Minister to France, this polymath also traveled as a horticulturist, collecting seeds.
The gardens of Monticello, Jefferson’s estate in Virginia, were and are a botanic showpiece of rare plants from all over the world. Monticello’s gardens today preserve the undeveloped flora of his time, plants that have not undergone hybridization. With simple, single blossoms, these plants are leggier than modern forms and give a more wildflower effect.
Jefferson’s seeds have formed a basis for the plantings in Schloss Hof. The flowers in the formal "broderie" beds are also refreshingly unrefined, despite their carefully laid out arrangement and the 30,000 little boxwood plants forming low hedges that contain the spiraling shapes. The embroidery-like patterns of these beds were also planned with the intention of being seen from the upper windows of the palace.
As in the Baroque period, the gardens at Schloss Hof are given a different color scheme each year. Foxgloves, columbines, larkspurs, calendula, sweet William, Johnny jump-ups, hollyhocks, sunflowers, sweet peas, stattice, alyssum; and yes, geraniums (red) and delphiniums (blue). Although never perfectly symmetrical, the flower beds have a rhythmical repetition, undulating waves of color, number, form and size.
Curling around the manor buildings are still more gardens, of kitchen and medicinal herbs, vegetables, and fruits for conserves – strawberries, currents, boysenberries, raspberries, rhubarb; picking is allowed! – a "nasch" garden of things to nibble, a rose garden, and a children’s garden, with willow-branch teepees, a water pump for making mud pies, a hollow tree trunk for hiding.
The two orangeries are among the largest and oldest in Europe. The first, renovated in 2006, is still heated with its original Baroque warm-air system. The second, still being restored, will have a small vineyard in front, with historical grape varieties only recently rediscovered, and offer rare wines for tasting.
On the death of Prince Eugene, an exact inventory was made of the orangery’s extensive collection, and today’s gardens reflect the prince’s taste. Figs and hundred-year-old pomegranate trees, kumquats and loquats, rare species of orange and lemon, brought from historical collections in Italy. In the prince’s time, no tree could be taller than two meters: a small man, he wanted to be able to sniff the blossoms in the top branches.
Schloss Hof is also home to a menagerie of exotic animals, including camels (a gift from a sheikh), white peacocks, llamas and Lipizzaner horses, as well as humble domestics that are now rare in Austrian farmyards: work horses, wooly pigs, four-horned goats and Salm hens. Also white donkeys are being bred at Schloss Hof, an endangered species of which only fifty are known to be still alive.
Exhausted from exploring all this, how pleasant it is to find a shady and much-needed rest in a hammock chair hanging in a huge old plane tree nearby!
Any part of the complex that is clearly a modern necessity – the restaurant and the café, the restrooms – has been designed following a simple and elegant plan: gentle reminders of Baroque lines, but no overdone kitsch. The restrooms are outfitted with fixtures by Philippe Starck, timeless and discrete.
A children’s petting zoo has been set up just below the terrace of the restaurant, so parents can relax while looking down on their little ones romping with fluffy lambs and baby goats. The difference in height keeps the "natural aroma" from mingling with the taste of the risotto or apple strudel.
Schloss Hof is open every day from April through October. Interspersed through the season are special events such as concerts, family picnic days, photography at dawn, or a kite-flying festival.
In mid-May the horse chestnut trees are exploding with their orchid-like panicles of blooms, the sweet-scented lilacs are heavy on the bushes, the last of the tulips are still standing. I wonder what this year’s new color scheme will be. We’ll know soon enough; the summer planting has just begun.
Open daily, 10:00 - 18:00, through Nov. 1
Garden and palace tours daily
Shuttle bus on weekends and holidays
(01) 798 29 00