Diadem of the Attersee

Staying at Villa Paulick, Gustav Klimt’s summertime residence

Klimt's house

Klimt, Flöge and cohorts resided in this time capsule of a bed and breakfast | Photo: Gina Lee Falco

Climbing the footpath that winds up the hill from the promenade of Lake Atter – the Attersee – you enter the verdant grounds of the Villa Paulick through a carved, wooden gate. The lofty towers and spires cast deep shade, stretching down to the clear waters of the Attersee. The villa is a masterpiece of its kind, fashioned with carved stones hauled all the way from the Vienna workshop of K. u. K. Hoftischler Frederick Paulick in 1877. With its wrought-iron, dragon head water spouts and intricate cornices carved from mountain timbers, it remains the epitome of Salzkammergut lake architecture of the period.

Today, Villa Paulick is a guest house, lovingly run in the family tradition by Frau Erika Messner. On the afternoon we arrived, she was out on the stone patio, tin watering can in hand, releasing a fine spray over the romantic gardens below of roses and lilacs. She was wearing a long robe of boldly-patterned, full-cut cloth of a fin-de-siècle feminist style, although perhaps a little more sensual and languorous than the Emilie Flöge’s Reformkleider. But the effect is similar, capturing the free-flowing style of the Flöge sisters’ Vienna fashion atelier, during the time the Villa Paulick was a haunt of Viennese artists and intellectuals in summer.

 

What these walls have seen

As then, velvet lines the walls of the villa salon, under an opulent, coffered ceiling ornamented in black and gold, built by Paulick in the neo-Renaissance style with elements of his Emperor Pavilion from the 1873 Vienna World Exposition. Guest books lie about on the grand piano, covered with signatures, scribbles and drawings from artists and cultural figures: Richard Teschner, Peter Altenberg, Gustav Mahler, Carl Moll, Josef Hoffmann, Kolo Moser, and socialite Alma Werfel, née Schindler. In a cabinet turned from fine woods crystal Wiener Werkstätte glasses designed by Josef Hoffmann catch the light.

With her brother married to Paulick’s daughter, Emilie Flöge and her life companion, the painter Gustav Klimt, were frequent summer visitors from 1900-1916, their activities preserved in a handful of remarkable photographs that capture characteristic moments. Several show Klimt with his telescope framing views for his paintings from the dock, across the glittering water. In others, Klimt and Flöge pose in the wooden rowboat, still varnished and docked inside the villa boathouse. And when the mood is right, Frau Messner has been known to grant permission to one of her bed and breakfast guests to venture out on the lake.

Erika Messner was born into an ethnic German family in Kronstadt, near Saint Petersberg and deported in 1945 as a forced labourer deeper into Russia. She survived, was released after two years, and married Jakob Messner in 1950 in Upper Austria.

The early 50s were hard years in Austria; resources were few and many lived on the edge of starvation. The Messners were barely managing to eke out a living transporting potatoes for a nearby farmer, when one day, a woman asked Jakob if she could buy some potatoes. “No,” he said, “I can’t sell them to you because they are not mine. But I can give you some.” The woman was Gertrude Flöge, Emilie’s niece, and so began a deep friendship, built on a shared love of literature and an alliance over the maintenance of the Villa Paulick, which she willed to the Messners at her death in 1971.

 

Frozen in time

Today, Frau Messner manages the estate with her son Robert and daughter Sabine, renting rooms to guests and taking care to preserve the house and grounds, with the many surrounding terraces, porches, loggias, balconies and bay windows. The villa remains relatively unchanged, out of respect for its heritage, and the modest resources and lifestyle of the family – which the fortunate guests have a chance to share.

As the day waned, we joined the other guests on the terrace, some reclining on wooden lounge chairs, others dining al fresco with Sekt and laughter abounding, while a few were taking a last swim from the dock into the clear waters of the Attersee. A glass of chilled wine in hand, we gazed out on the lake, as sailboats swoop past each other like broad-winged birds. Off to the right nearer the shore, a couple of fishermen floated quietly along, turning their heads, it seemed, to catch the fragrant scent of roses and blooms of linden trees in the gardens of the Villa Paulick, as the afternoon sun sends lengthening shadows along the waves ever lapping before it.

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