In the afternoon of Wednesday 15 August 1853, a travelling coach, which has left southern Bavaria, is rolling towards the little Austrian city of Bad Ischl, in the heart of the Salzkammergut, where the exploitation of salt has given its name to Salzburg.  The Alpine summer is luminous.  The forest decor is reflected in the serene emerald of romantic lakes, and over the last thirty years, the town’s Summer visitors have been growing in number.  Around 1820, a Vienna doctor had established the therapeutic properties of the saline waters.  A symbol of commerce, salt has now been promoted to a symbol of health.  High Society goes to take the waters.  Bad Ischl has become a thermal centre, a holiday destination and a place of rendez-vous for the Gotha.

However, the travelling coach is not carrying curists.  It belongs to Maximilien, Duke in Bavaria, the head of the younger branch of the House of Wittelsbach.  Maximilien, the King of Bavaria’s uncle, is not in his coach.  As usual, he has delegated his wife, Ludovika, who is preparing for an important family meeting.  Having left from Possenhofen, her less than luxurious residence on the banks of Starnberg Lake, thirty kilometres South of Munich, the Duchess is travelling simply with two of her daughters, Helena and Elisabeth, as well as a chambermaid.  Their baggage follows in a second coach.

Helena is nineteen, with regular features and a serious air which is almost grave.  She is slim, beautiful, but langorous.  And of great piety.  She is very much her mother’s daughter.  Elisabeth, aged fifteen, tall and ravishing, exudes gaiety and love for life.  And lack of discipline.  She is truly her father’s daughter.

At the Rosenheim relay, Elisabeth had been unable to resist the urge to water the horses herself.  Familiarly addressing the coachmen, she had drawn a glacial remark from her mother.  And, having wet her feet with a falling bucket of water, she is the only one to have laughed.  For the rest of the trip, Elisabeth needs to behave and not draw attention to herself.  In the middle of this August 1853, it is not she who counts in the family, but her sister, the very demure Helena.

Helena carries the hope of a return to greater things.  Her mother, daughter of the Palatine Elector Count who was to become the first King of Bavaria, had been born Princess of Bavaria.  By her marriage to her cousin Max, she has been more or less retrograded to the rank of Duchess in Bavaria, carried by the younger ducal branch.  Ludovika has also seen her sisters contract more prestigious unions than her own.

Maximilien, Duke in Bavaria.

Her husband, the excellent Max, is not a conventional man.  He is passionate.  About freedom for a start, particularly his own.  Despite his appearances in top hat and his very great culture, he is rarely seen in Munich, where he has no official function.  Town bores him, mondanities depress him and protocol suffocates him.  He really only lives in the country, blossoming in the sharp air of the Alps.  He disappears into the forests, taken up with his hunting and his fishing.  His long hours on horseback are punctuated by halts in all the inns of southern Bavaria.  In traditional costume – leather shorts, felt jacket, hat with brush – he joyfully raises his glass with the peasants, then takes off to climb a mountain.

If he is not roaming around the Bavarian countryside, he is travelling in Greece, Turkey and Egypt.  Drunk with joy in discovering the impressive vestiges from the times of the Pharaohs half-buried in the sand, Max plays the sitar at the top of the Kheops pyramid.  And, upon his return, he publishes a Voyage in the Orient which is greatly remarked.  But his arrival in Munich is even more remarked:  he had brought back from Cairo four little black boys whom he wants to have baptised.

Comments and criticisms leave him indifferent.  When he puts on his general’s uniform – the function is mostly honorary – it’s a disagreeable obligation.  Military and public servant conversation seem very dull to this joyful traveller.  However, one would be mistaken in considering him to be a rustic peasant, fattened with delicatessen meats and litres of beer.  On the contrary, he is a clever psychologist and, at forty-five, he has a slim, very young silhouette.  He is small, racy, with a wide forehead and a sensual mouth.  His modest fortune is melting, for he disdains any idea of a budget.  He doesn’t count, he lives.

In twenty-five years of marriage, he has given eight children to Ludovika, but leaves her to raise their five daughters and three sons on her own.  He’s a fascinating father…  when he is there.  His wife feels tender indulgence for him, his children idolize him.  He knows all the secrets of Nature.  And he dresses horses to dance the quadrille in a ring that he has had built.  He shoots well, and he sings.

His favourite child is uncontestably the third one, Elisabeth, his second daughter.  She was born in Munich, on a Sunday, on Christmas Eve in 1837, at forty-three minutes past ten in the evening, in a palace in the Ludwigstrasse, very close to the royal residence.

A kingdom of fervent Catholicism, Bavaria considers this precious Christmas present as a gift from Heaven.  The child’s godmother, who is also her aunt, is Queen Elisabeth of Prussia.  She therefore receives the same first name.  She is hardly delivered, than Ludovika hears the midwife who, as is the custom, is presenting the child in the white boudoir next to her bedroom.  All are ecstatic, they cluck.  And they point out that a little tooth is already piercing the baby’s gum.  Like Napoleon…  An exceptional sign.  They underline that, born on the same night as the Saviour, the Princess will be a person of peace and happiness.

To be continued.