FRANCESCA von Hapsburg is married to Archduke Karl von Hapsburg, the grandson of the last emperor of Austria and king of Hungary and Bohemia. This provides an unusual instance of a happy marital pun because the archduchess was famed for her unconventional Bohemian ways long before the couple met seven years ago in a trench during the war in Croatia. As Francesca Thyssen, daughter of Baron Heini Thyssen - a Swiss art collector so wealthy he once said, 'I have ?50 million a year to spend, 30 on my paintings and 20 on me' - she delighted many a weary gossip columnist on the London party circuit by adopting punk habits and hanging out with dubious musicians. Now she is the mother of two children, is expecting a third and has set up ARCH, which stands for Art Restoration for Cultural Heritage. ARCH wants to preserve certain cultural sites around the world and How-man Wong, of the China Exploration and Research Society, recently invited her on a trip to southwest China to have a look at potential projects there. She was still enthusing about this jaunt, and the beauties of Lijiang ('You think every single town in China is hideous and then there's this jewel'), when we met one morning for coffee at the Grand Hyatt. Let me be frank. Before this meeting, I harboured a suspicion that the archduchess - who had spent the late 1970s and 1980s dabbling in a succession of unlikely professions, such as acting, modelling and writing - might be planning her next career move as, say, an astronaut. That she would be capable of launching herself into outer space is beyond doubt, her energy and courage being remarkable, but it was the depth of her commitment to ARCH (already, in the circumstances, a jokey sort of acronym) which faintly concerned me. After five minutes in her company, however, I began to feel ashamed of entertaining such reservations. She is, for a start, immensely likeable, being neither gushy nor condescending. I could see why the thespian career mightn't have taken off because she didn't appear to be the sort of woman who puts on an act. When we went up to her room to see the children, Eleonore, four, and Ferdinand, one, she evidently didn't mind that a journalist and photographer would glimpse the turmoil of unmade beds and half-packed cases. She has no side: what you see is what you get. This makes her a refreshing interview because she declares what she thinks. Perhaps this is a result of her red hair (in America, she's frequently mistaken for the Duchess of York) and matching temper. If she doesn't like someone, she lets that person, and everyone else within a sizeable radius, know it. Her number one bugbear at the moment is UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Apparently the feeling is mutual. 'There's a lot of animosity towards me,' said the archduchess, matter-of-factly. 'They don't want to be seen to be ineffective and inactive when there's this little individual getting down and getting things done. They've often tried to block my activities.' She told a story to illustrate this: she was in Croatia and wanted an official list of the cultural monuments in the occupied zone so the European monitors could keep an eye on them, but the UNESCO representative said that was impossible, the computers were down ... 'So I called the mayor of Osiek, which is next to Vukovar. He was a friend of ours, he considered Karl and me pretty heroic figures for having been there. And I said that I wanted a printout and two hours later, I had 14 pages faxed to me. It was really fun getting round that UNESCO woman, it was a challenge.' Doesn't it cause trouble? 'Not yet. I'm waiting. I do wonder, if one's endlessly diplomatic, where it gets you. The world I see and experience is harsh. I've sat in Srebenica with 8,000 widows and heard them wail and that was the most gutting experience I've ever had in my whole life. I'd gone back with Queen Noor of Jordan to support the women but, basically, it was a charade put together by the Americans. People who are, quote, diplomatic and politically correct, have proven they can only be inefficient.' Her cultural crusade truly began in 1991. 'Before then I was a complete tearaway. I went to St Martins School of Art in London the first year the Sex Pistols played in the basement, and I was there, so I became a bit of a punk. Well, a lot of a punk. I thought I was creative but I discovered I wasn't that talented, and I felt I was spinning around in the same circle ... So I moved back to Switzerland in 1989 and started working for the family foundation.' She had grown up surrounded by some of the world's best art but it was only on a visit to the former Soviet Union with the Dalai Lama (she mentions such names with the genuine insouciance with which she treated her chaotic hotel room) that she realised the true value of objects to people. 'I had a strong experience which is the basis of my personal commitment. It was at a three-day ceremony in a sports stadium with 50,000 Kalmuks, a Mongol people who had been absolutely forbidden to have any contact with their traditions and religion. They'd all brought with them any sacred images they'd been able to hide during the oppression, to be consecrated by His Holiness. And I caught myself trying to evaluate them - you know, the treasure-hunting spirit we all have - until I began to question the value of that piece to that person. That's when I started looking at the value of every single piece of art, every monument, in its context to a society, to a people's past, present and future.' Now she has lists of global sites which are threatened by war, pollution and looting. She is currently looking for sponsors (those who sign up are promised 'Francesca von Hapsburg as spokesperson for selected corporate and/or joint projects'). Does it help to pull rank? 'The most important thing about being privileged is to take advantage of that status and do what you can,' she replied briskly. 'I never, ever liked fund-raising for balls and things. That was society-orientated and I'm results-orientated. It didn't happen overnight - it takes a long time to form opinions and to get confidence - but this is something I can do and I've got the rest of my life to do it.'