I have a little obsession with royalty. I get giddy with excitement at the thought of a royal wedding or baby – and this isn’t confined to the British Royal Family. When Princess Madeleine of Sweden married a British financier, I pored over photos of the ladies’ fashions (those hats!) and the bachelor princes in attendance (hey, a girl can dream). I may also have done Google searches of now-defunct monarchies to see what became of the remaining members. Did you know there are still living Hapsburgs, Bourbons and Romanovs, or that the heir to the Greek throne openly calls himself Crown Prince though the monarchy was abolished in 1974? Yeah, I’m obsessed. But it’s just so romantic!
Perhaps that’s why I like visiting Europe so much. Just about every country has a royal palace, some still inhabited by the country’s reigning monarch. Hungary, once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is no exception. The Royal Palace of Gödöllő sits about 26 kilometers northeast of Budapest and makes a lovely day-trip destination.
Gödöllő Palace was originally built in 1773 for Count Antal Grassalkovich, an influential nobleman and confidant of Empress Maria Theresa. When the male line of the Grassalkovich family died out in the mid-19th century, the mansion was purchased for the royal family. Emperor Franz Joseph used the residence as a summer retreat and it soon became a favorite spot of his wife, Austrian Empress and beloved Hungarian Queen, Elisabeth. As she wrote to her mother (quote source),
“Here you can get a bit of peace, no relatives, no-one bothering you, whilst there, in Vienna, there’s the whole imperial crowd! There’s nothing to annoy or constrain me here, I can live like in a village, and I can walk or ride out on my own!”
After World War II, the Communists took over Hungary and confiscated the royal palace. The beautiful symbol of the former monarchy was used as a barracks for Soviet troops and later as a nursing home for the elderly. By the time Hungary declared independence from the USSR in 1989, Gödöllő Palace was in a terrible state of disrepair.
Restoration began almost immediately and continues to this day. Over two dozen rooms are now open to the public and include the royal suites and ceremonial hall. The splendor has been recreated in sumptuous detail. Each room has been decorated in a different rich hue, with the wall coverings, curtains and upholstery in matching silk. Gilded chandeliers hang from the intricately stuccoed ceiling and antique porcelain stoves occupy a corner of every room, once the only source of heat. The place was so stunning I could almost hear the rustling of Empress Elisabeth’s skirts as she sashayed down the hallway. Photos were sadly not allowed, but you can get a peek on the palace website.
FUN FACT: Empress Elisabeth was remarkably pretty and took great care of her appearance. But unhappy with the early signs of aging, she refused to be photographed after turning 30. Court painters therefore had no current reference point, and so she never appears to age in portraits. Even when painted with her grown children, she looks younger than they do!
The expansive park behind the palace is edged with gardens that were in full summer bloom during our visit. A gentle breeze stirred the air and the only sounds were bird chirps and the occasional buzzing bee. It’s easy to see why the Empress enjoyed walking in this peaceful space far away from the intrigues of court.
Besides the palace’s onsite cafe, which serves oppressively sweet cakes and strong coffee, you can enjoy cold beer and decent pizza at Pizza Palazzo, which is connected to the train station. The prices were reasonable and the location couldn’t be beat. A regal finish to the day!