Austrian castles not just for kings

Apartment dwellers share gilded grandeur of former royal palaces

Two people look down on the former imperial Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria, in June. The palace, once lived in by members of the Habsburg dynasty when it ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire, isn't just a museum. It is now home to ordinary Austrians. (Associated Press)Two people look down on the former imperial Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria, in June. The palace, once lived in by members of the Habsburg dynasty when it ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire, isn’t just a museum. It is now home to ordinary Austrians. (Associated Press)
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VIENNA, Austria | Robert Tidmarsh’s eyes light up when he talks about the sprawling park surrounding Schoenbrunn Palace, one of Austria’s most famous landmarks — and his to enjoy every time he comes home.

“My garden’s quite nice!” says the 59-year-old as he describes the calm that spreads over the impeccable lawns after the daily throngs of tourists are locked out in the evenings.

His garden? Well, sort of.

Mr. Tidmarsh lives in an apartment on the grounds of the UNESCO World Heritage palace that members of the Habsburg dynasty lived in when they ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In this Alpine nation gilded with the grandeur of what was once Europe’s most powerful royal house, several state-owned former imperial palaces aren’t just museums — they’re home for scores of lucky, ordinary people.

Under the unusual arrangement, the state makes available some of the residential wings of Habsburg palaces and surrounding buildings for rent.

Robert Tidmarsh, who lives in former servant quarters on the grounds of the Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria, shuts a window of his apartment. He has lived at Schoenbrunn for about 30 years. (Associated Press)

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In the southern German state of Bavaria, several castles also offer apartments — but they are normally reserved for people employed for upkeep or oversight.

Mr. Tidmarsh, originally from the British city of Leicester, has lived in one of Schoenbrunn’s former servant quarters since about 1981 — and couldn’t imagine moving.

“People don’t leave Schoenbrunn; people get carried out,” he said in a recent interview in his cozy 1,335 square-foot apartment filled with antique wooden closets, porcelain trinkets and old portraits — including one of a young Queen Elizabeth II.

“It’s beautiful to live here,” added Mr. Tidmarsh, who speaks German like a local. He shares the apartment with his partner, Christine, and, from time to time, his grown daughter.

Mr. Tidmarsh earns a living helping to supervise and maintain the castle’s Imperial Apartments, where Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Elisabeth, known as Sissi, once resided and which now draw droves of visitors from around the world each year. However, other Schoenbrunn residents just enjoy the privilege of living there.

The palace and other buildings in the compound contain 165 rentals that range in size, location and condition — and cost between $1,600 and $4,000 per month, according to Franz Sattlecker, one of the directors of a private company that manages the property. About a third of the apartments cost far less — between $267 and $1,067 — because they are in the hands of tenants who have passed them down over the generations. None can be bought.

“The [apartments] are kind of a mirror of the times during the monarchy,” said Mr. Sattlecker.

The more reasonable ones, such as Mr. Tidmarsh’s abode, have low ceilings and small windows. But others — redone after elderly tenants die — boast new wooden floors, modern bathrooms and huge, airy rooms flooded with natural light.

But those also come with a hefty price tag. A vacant five-room apartment in the palace proper, for example, will cost about $4,000 per month, heating excluded, once it’s refurbished, according to Mr. Sattlecker. Renovation work is paid for by the company that manages Schoenbrunn.

Although state-owned, it receives no subsidies from the government and relies solely on funds derived from entrance fees, merchandising, events and rents.

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