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!
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.
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.
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!
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?