Rundale Palace: The Versailles of Latvia

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For my first excursion into the Latvian countryside, I chose Rundale Palace, the lavish summer residence of the Dukes of Courland. Built in the 1730s by Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli (better known as the architect behind the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg), Rundale Palace is a sumptuous display of aristocratic excess.

Construction of this Baroque gem was funded by Anna Ioannovna, Empress of Russia, for her court favorite, Ernst Johann von Biron. As was true of all the old European royal courts, there was much intrigue and jostling for position in 18th century Russia. Upon Anna’s death in 1740, von Biron was promptly seized by rivals and exiled to Siberia where he briefly cooled his heels until the next change of power. Rundale passed through the hands of various Russian nobles until the occupying Germans used it as a hospital during World War I. After the war, the palace was used as a school and the Duke’s former throne room as a grain warehouse. I’m sure he was rolling over in his grave!

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These storks have made themselves at home at Rundale Palace.

The Rundale Palace Museum was founded in 1972 when Rastrelli’s original architectural plans were unearthed and restoration began. Today the rooms recall the bygone era when various owners were in residence. Although few of the furnishings are palace originals, they are authentic antiques from the time period.

The grandest room in the house is the fully restored bedroom of Ernst Johann von Biron, as is only fitting for the favorite of a Russian Empress. We were told on the tour that von Biron’s bedtime was a public event and that he would often hold meetings from beneath the covers.

Several of the other rooms were decorated in the style used by von Biron’s son and heir, Duke Peter. While less ostentatious, they were still quite impressive. I was particularly fond of the rooms of Peter’s wife, Duchess Dorothea. Her boudoir was light and airy in shades of blue, with brilliantly painted stuccoes of flowers and birds and a toilet-room featuring dark woods and a mirrored ceiling. Interestingly, the ceiling is much lower than elsewhere in the palace as the maid’s quarters were located in a secret alcove above the room.

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The dining room of Duke Peter and Duchess Dorothea also saw life as a school gymnasium. Can you imagine bouncing a basketball off the marble walls?

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This room is decorated in the style of Count Valerian Zubov, who owned the palace in the early 1800s.

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The sumptuous interior of Rundale Palace is notable for two features: its ornately carved and painted ceilings, and the blue and white porcelain stoves which used to heat every room. Three of the stoves are original to the palace while the rest are recent reproductions. The ceilings were painted by Francesco Martini and Carlo Zucchi, while the intricate stuccoes were created by Johann Michael Graff. In one of my favorite pieces adorning the ballroom ceiling, a piece from a real stork’s nest was used to help recreate scenes from the natural world.

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The Duke’s lavish throne room seems like the perfect place to store some grain.

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It reportedly took 14 years to restore the beautifully painted ceiling of the banquet hall.

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How does this stove work, anyway?

While the Rundale Palace Gardens aren’t quite on par with those of Versailles, they are still incredibly beautiful. Amazingly, the gardens look largely the same as they did when the palace was first built as little of the topography was changed during the course of its history. Of course, everything was wildly overgrown and the ornamental parterre in the formal French garden had to be completely redone as it had once been used as the school playground.

At the time of our visit, a period costume stall was set up in the rose garden. Since it cost just five euros, I could hardly refuse!

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Channeling my inner 18th century duchess.

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Rundale Palace is located about an hour and a half from Riga and is accessible by bus. Parking is free and plentiful should you have your own wheels. There are several dining options available, but we chose to pack a picnic and enjoy a leisurely afternoon in the park.

Are you familiar with Rundale Palace? Is it a place you’d like to visit?

 

Heather Hall

Heather Hall

Passionate about travel, food, history and animals, Heather brings a curiosity and fun-loving attitude to most any experience that comes along. The Virginia native has lived abroad since 2011, first in Shanghai, China and now in Riga, Latvia. Follow along as she explores the cultures and cuisines of Europe on her blog, Ferreting Out the Fun!

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38 thoughts on “Rundale Palace: The Versailles of Latvia

  1. Gorgeous pictures! When inside the palace, I remember we were obliged to wear those blue, plastic shoe covers that you normally wear in hospitals. that was fun. especially to slide through the rooms. 🙂

    • Thank you! We weren’t given the blue plastic booties to wear and I feel like I missed out on some fun. (Though I did get to wear them at a spa in Jurmala, strangely enough!)

    • Actually, if you go to China, you can have a painting made of yourself for pretty cheap. I know of someone who had themselves painted in the style of Genghis Khan. Just saying 🙂

      • There are a lot of things that come to mind but a portrait as Genghis Khan is not one of them.

  2. Wow, fantastic photos! And how I love some of those details – cherubs, trees and birds atop that sitting area — just gorgeous. The ceilings – sigh, no one makes homes like this anymore… 🙂 I believe I last visited the palace in the summer of 2005, when only a part of the renovations were done. It looks absolutely stunning now that the restorations are complete! You do know that everything else you’ll see from Latvia will be far simpler, right? 😉
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    • They definitely don’t make buildings like they used to 🙂 I thought this place was even nicer than the royal palace in Hungary! The renovation work is just superb. I’m finding that attention to detail is a common Latvian trait. Even the simpler places we’ve seen, like the Liepaja Museum, have been beautifully restored. Can’t wait to see more!

  3. WOW. What a beautiful place. Hope you won’t mind going back for another visit!! The ceilings were fantastic. I’m glad you said what the blue tile things were because I would never have guessed stoves. Beautiful pictures.

  4. I’ve never heard of this palace before, but your photos remind me quite a bit of Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria. That palace, however, did NOT involve the potential to dress up in olde tyme costumes, so I would say Rundale clearly wins!
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    • I think I read that one of ceiling painters also worked on Schonbrunn Palace so that would make sense. And olde tyme costumes ALWAYS win 🙂

    • Thanks, Linda! It really is too bad you didn’t get to dress up as royalty, but I suspect you might have a few opportunities in Germany. I hope to take my mom to Neuschwanstein and will be on the lookout for photo ops!

    • Thanks, Jess! I think I may have been European royalty in another life 😉

      Actually, the servants quarters elsewhere on the property have been turned into a B&B. I’d love to spend the night next time!

  5. First of all, you are WERKING that 18th century duchess look. FIERRRRCE.

    Second, ‘Rundale’?! It sounds like a family from North Yorkshire, not nobility that resided in Latvia!

    Thirdly, this place looks like EXACTLY my kind of thing. I adored Versailles when I went there, and my jaw dropped when I was looking around the Palais du Garnier in Paris. Do you think anyone would notice if I sneaked into the maid’s quarters and just kind of, well, lived there?
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    • I bet you could get away with it for a few days, though the lack of indoor plumbing might be problematic.

      And needless to say, I did NOT want to take that costume off!

    • Isn’t it gorgeous? I’ll definitely be taking my mom when she comes to visit. Maybe she and I will both be wearing costumes in my next post! 🙂

    • I never thought of that, but they would need something to fight off those winters, especially considering they only had those stoves to keep warm!

      The costume seems to be a hit. I wonder if I can order one online… 🙂

  6. The first photo with the gates looks astonishingly like Versailles! Looks like a gorgeous place. Love that costume on you too! 🙂

  7. That is such a gorgeous palace! I am loving the painted stucco – way less crass than the gols at Versailles 😉 The blue porcelain stoves are amazing too. I’ve never seen any that big! Is is Delftware or Chinese import ceramics? Looks like you had a great visit. (I would have dressed up too in a heartbeat.) Thanks for sharing! This shows me I need to get to Latvia quick!
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    • Christina, that’s an excellent question about the ceramics. I’m not certain, but I believe the stoves were locally made. There used to be a large porcelain factory in Riga and the pieces I’ve seen in museums here are exquisite. Even now, I’ve seen pottery for sale at every market and street fair, with each region producing their own designs. When you do come to Latvia, make sure Liepaja is on your itinerary. I think you’ll be impressed with the art scene. We sure were!

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