After 60 years in exile in Switzerland, Duchess Marie-Christine von Habsburg, 87, is living out her golden years as a tenant in two rooms of her family's vast palace in southern Poland.

"Well, isn't that funny? I live here as a tenant in my own palace" in the town of Zywiec, she says, making light of the situation.

But she insists she is "the happiest of tenants" in one of the properties of the famed Habsburg Dynasty, this one expropriated by communists after the war and which her family never tried to reclaim after the 1989 demise of communism.

"I'm delighted to be back where I was born, where I spent my childhood," says the octogenarian confined to a wheelchair and dressed in her trademark black.

A member of the House of Habsburg, a dynasty originating in what today is Austria that reigned over much of Europe from the 15th to the 20th century, she was able to return to the 19th-century palace only after the fall of communism two decades ago. Her family had been driven out by the Nazis during World War II and the communists prevented their return after 1945.

But in 2001, the town of Zywiec offered her life-time use of an apartment in what was once the palace's games room on the ground floor, allowing her to enjoy the surrounding gardens.

"When the city asked me to return to the palace, I didn't hesitate for a moment. I sold off my apartment in Switzerland and I'm here. I'm very

happy, I'm treated like a queen. A Habsburg, who is completely Polish," she told AFP, speaking in French.

"My brother lives in Sweden, my sister in Spain, they have their families there and could not come back," explains the Duchess.

"The family has never sought to recover its property and the Duchess wants the building, which houses a school, to continue to serve the people of Zywiec," Tomasz Terteka, Zywiec municipal spokesman, told AFP.

Nothing inside the palace now evokes the splendour of its golden days. No antiques, paintings or family memorabilia. Just simple new furniture, some of it in a rustic style, decorates the apartment where the duchess resides with her two cats and is cared for by two social workers.

Marie-Christine's ancestors gradually took possession of Zywiec in the early 19th century after Poland was partitioned among Russia, Prussia and Austria, when the Habsburgs ruled the vast Austro-Hungarian empire.

When Poland regained its independence in 1918, Marie-Christine's grandfather, Archduke Charles Stephen took Polish citizenship as both a patriotic gesture and in order to keep the family property. Polish monarchists even wanted him to take Poland's throne.

Like her grandfather, Marie-Christine -- a devout Roman Catholic who has been named a Lady of Honour of the Order of Malta, an ancient Catholic order of chivalry -- feels Polish: "I'm not Austrian. My mother tongue is not German, it's Polish," she insists.

When World War II erupted in 1939, her father Charles Albert, a Polish army officer, refused to declare himself a German. The family paid a high price for his decision: he was deported by the Nazis to a labour camp and the palace was confiscated.

But even this did not stop his wife from joining the Polish resistance, while his son joined the Free Polish Army in London.

At the end of the war, Poland's new communist authorities denied Polish citizenship to the Habsburgs of Zywiec, expelling them from Poland as Austrian aristocrats and nationalising their property.

But decades later, the people of Zywiec haven't lost their fondness for the aristocratic family. Each year they publicly celebrate Marie-Christine's birthday.

"The Duchess is our ambassador, she's a symbol of patriotism, of loyalty to this land and Poland, an example for us all," Zywiec mayor, Antoni Szlagor told AFP.

by Maja Czarnecka
AFP Global Edition