The royal palace
It’s 3am and the animals of the Tiergarten Schönbrunn, Vienna’s imperial zoo, are deep in slumber. Infrared heat lamps glow from one enclosure; from another comes the soft bleating of an exotic goat. It’s just them and us, here in the 395-acre grounds of Austria’s most popular tourist attraction, the 17th-century Schönbrunn Palace. From the Tiergarten (the oldest zoo in the world, built for the emperor in 1752), we walk on — past Neoclassical statues glowing white in the moonlight, along pathways sheltered by manicured trees. Through the darkness, we make out a dovecote, a Rococo fountain; looming above us, says Lucie, my Viennese friend, is the Gloriette, the monumental Habsburg summerhouse crowning the hillside. Floodlit in front is Schönbrunn itself: the magnificent summer residence of, in turn, the Habsburg emperors, Napoleon, and now us.
Weekend getaways don’t get posher than this. The palace is home to a handful of apartments — private, except for ours: the Schönbrunn Palace Grand Suite. Open since 2014, it’s a sprawling, two-room flat, rented from the Austrian state and run as an extension of the Parkhotel Schönbrunn, just outside the palace walls.
We check in at the Parkhotel (itself no stranger to royalty, having been built as overflow palace lodgings) and are driven to Schönbrunn by a concierge and a porter, sweeping through a side gate, through the grounds (the Schlosspark) to the main entrance. We cross the atrium alongside throngs of tourists clutching audio guides; where they turn right to scan tickets, we head through an unmarked door, up five flights of stairs, and into our suite.
‘Suite’, however, is an understatement — there’s a red-carpeted entrance space, a portrait of Empress Sissi gazing coquettishly at us from the purple damask wall, and a kitchen, dining room and lounge, as well as two enormous en suite bedrooms — one overlooking the formal Crown Prince Garden, the other with a four-poster bed overlooking the Schlosspark and Gloriette — a view fit for 18th-century royalty.
It’s almost always couples here, says our concierge, but with all this space, we find it’s the ideal friends’ getaway. We walk through the grounds to dinner at the Parkhotel, feeling smug among the joggers and tourists. By the time we’ve eaten, the palace is closed — but we brandish our key and a gatekeeper emerges to open the main gate, letting us march across the floodlit courtyard in the footsteps of Empress Maria Theresa, who chose Schönbrunn as her official summer residence. The park is empty — even the Gloriette’s lights are switched off at 10pm. And in the middle of the night, we slip out, down the staircase, past locked gates and into the deserted gardens, navigating our way by the light of the moon and the smell of the Tiergarten. Perhaps, we speculate, the last person to do this was a Habsburg.
Or possibly, I realise the next day, Napoleon. After breakfast (cooked in-suite by the head chef of the Parkhotel, no less), I join the crowds visiting the royal apartments. There’s much I recognise from upstairs: the imperial ‘pineapple damask’ on the walls, the Maria Theresa chandeliers, the black lacquer touches in the Vieux-Laque Chamber, which recalls the black lacquer-painted bath in Lucie’s room (modelled, apparently, on Empress Sisi’s tub). It’s only when I’m standing in the bedroom chosen by Napoleon when he occupied Schönbrunn in 1805 that I notice a familiar view of the Gloriette and, counting the windows, I realise I’m exactly two floors below my own bedroom. Except, up there, my view is better.
How to do it: Packages at the Schönbrunn Palace Grand Suite from £540 per person, B&B. Airlines flying direct to Vienna include Austrian Airlines, British Airways, Flybe and EasyJet. vienna.info
Alternative: Taj Lake Palace, India. An 18th-century Indian royal ‘pleasure palace’ on Lake Pichola, Udaipur. Doubles from £460, room only.
Read more in the Jul/Aug 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)