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Andrew L. Urban was disconcerted to unexpectedly come face to face with Australia's ex PM, Kevin Rudd, in this Royal Palace - even if only on a large plasma screen - in a room where Hungary's beloved Queen 'Sisi' Elizabeth (wife of Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef (1830 - 1916) once walked, over a hundred years ago.

Rudd, wearing his important, earnest look, is seen jostling with fellow political heavies at the 2011 meeting of the Asia-Europe Foreign Ministers Meeting, of which Hungary was the Chair, held in the spacious baroque palace at Gödöllő, second in size only to Versailles and celebrating the 280th anniversary of its ‘birth’ in 2015 (a year filled with concerts and theatre performances).

It will catch you off guard as you walk into the small 'show off' room at the end of the general tour. But by then my guide has so seduced me with her passion for the place (Boglárka Tüske has worked there over 18 years, currently as marketing manager), that I find myself turning my gaze away from the screen to other treasures with relative ease.

Outside the window overlooking the inner courtyard, a group of children are mucking about, having completed their tour.

Older students are being led through the rooms once variously the bedrooms and study of The Emperor and his Empress (in Austria). The Palace, built in the 18th century (construction began 280 years ago in 1735) by distinguished Hungarian nobleman Antal Grassalkovich I. In 1867 The Palace was acquired and renovated by the Hungarian state, which made of it a coronation gift to the Hapsburgs. It became Queen Sisi's preferred residence, especially in the summer.

The Palace from the air

Her husband, always a soldier, would rise at 6 am in keeping with his military routine, and sit at his large desk in the study to attend to business of state, even here at their summer ‘holiday house’ or hold casual meetings at the table nearby. The King would often sleep like a soldier, too, on a foldout military bed. Apparently, this did not displease Sisi.

With her famed ankle length hair (which took a daily routine of three hours to manage) Sisi occupies a special place in the hearts of Hungarians (whom she loved) and (now, but not in her lifetime) of Austrians, the latter proudly showing her off in Vienna's fabulous Schönbrunn palace, just 280 kms from Gödöllö. But it's here that in the Queen Elizabeth Memorial Exhibition, you can see the more relaxed 'holiday' settings and almost touch parts of her private suite. For example, the most valuable Biedermeier painting has been restored and hung, above the pale lilac sofa, which was part of the room's original furnishing.

A young woman of modern sensibilities, she thought marriage was overrated, possibly because she was married off at 16 for political reasons. She disliked formality and loved the arts, horses and beauty.

Her senseless assassination in Geneva on September 10, 1898 at age 61, by Lucini, an Italian anarchist, ensured her glorification as a popular royal.

The meticulous renovations at Gödöllö have returned the furniture items to their former glory, covered with beautiful fabrics as close as possible to the original. A few items of furniture are the originals, including a splendid tiled wood burning stove, the chez lounge in Lady in Waiting Maria Valeria's salon, Sisi's original vanity dresser with mirror, and her dressing room desk but many of the items are reproductions. History has not been kind to this place since the Royal owners left or died.

For casual royal meetings

A base for Russian soldiers during the war, then appropriated in its dilapidated state by the then Communist Government after the war and turned into an old people's home, the Palace was decaying, until serious renovations began in 1992, completed in 1996. Now it is in splendid condition, with some 80 staff looking after it - and the visitors.

But that's not enough for the town's Mayor, Dr. George Gémesi, who is planning to develop a resort style thermal spa on the land opposite the Palace, to be ready, he hopes, before the end of the decade. The thermal water is there... All it needs is the spa resort, which would help to retain the tourists who now come and fly through the place (and the Palace) without engaging with the local community ... Or local commerce. They add barely 10% to the town's economy.

Of the 160,000 visitors who visit the Palace every year, less than an hour by train or coach from Budapest, only about 25% are foreigners. The upside is that the Hungarians embracing their culture and history ... Of which there is more than 900 years, if anyone is counting.

Some of that history is captured through items in the souvenir shop, which sells a vast variety of goods (none tacky, pleased to say) ranging from famous Herendi hand painted porcelain, including some in the distinctive Gödöllö style with its signature red motifs: you can snare yourself a fabulous cup and saucer set for around $590. The beautiful, slim bottle of apricot brandy is cheaper, as are the dolls in traditional costumes, jewellery. I even saw a few hand crafted porcelain goose eggs for around $31 each.

There was Royal fun here, too, with a miniature but perfectly proportioned baroque family theatre, which boasts unique staging facilities and an orchestra 'pit' on the mezzanine, behind the Royal Gallery. Downstairs, and still waiting to be fully renovated, there is a cellar where the men would retire to taste wines, brandy and cigars. The stone walls and exposed timber offer great atmosphere.

It's down the stairs from the theatre and not far from the expansive stables, where Sisi would oversee her beloved horses. It's the old stables that now house the conference facilities, some might say appropriately enough, given all the horse trading that tends to go on at such events.

Published April 2, 2015

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Portrait of Elizabeth ‘Sisi’ by Court painter Franz Winterhalter

Sisi's writing desk

Opening times:

Daily from 10am, until 6pm in summer (April 1 - Oct 26) 4pm in winter

Permanent exhibition
(Royal apartments, The Era of the Grassalkovich, Queen Elisabeth memorial exhibition , “Centuries, Inhabitants, Stories” – the 20th century history of the palace) Adult 2.200,- HUF Student 1.100,- HUF Family ticket 4.600,- HUF (two adults and children under 18.)

AUD$1 = 200 HUF (approx.)

Getting there:
By car:
- 30 km from Budapest on M3 motorway
- on road No. 3. from Budapest, Őrs vezér tér

By public transport: - By HÉV (green suburban railway) from Budapest, Örs vezér tere to Gödöllő Szabadság tér station (50 min.)

- By bus from Budapest Stadion VOLÁN bus station

- By train from Budapest Keleti railway station (on line Hatvan-Füzesabony-Miskolc)

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