Rundale Palace was the lavish summer residence of the Dukes of Courland.
The Duchy existed from 1561 until 1795 and was located in the western half of Latvia. Its original seat of power was located in Bauska until the castle and manor house were destroyed during the Great Northern War. The new palace was built in the 1730s by Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli (better known as the architect behind the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg), and is a sumptuous display of aristocratic excess. Rundale is surrounded by manicured gardens and the ensemble is so lovely that its been nicknamed the “Versailles of Latvia.” You won’t want to miss it!
Construction of Rundale Palace 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 occupying Germans used it as a hospital during World War I. The estate suffered further abuse when the Soviets occupied Latvia following WWII.
Restoration began in 1972 when Rastrelli’s original architectural plans were unearthed. Today the rooms recall the bygone era of royal opulence. Although few of the furnishings are palace originals, they are authentic 18th and 19th century antiques.
The grandest room in the palace is the 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. 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 modern reproductions. The ceilings were painted by Francesco Martini and Carlo Zucchi, while the intricate stuccoes were created by Johann Michael Graff. In the ballroom, a piece from a real stork’s nest was used to help recreate scenes from the natural world. It reportedly took 14 years to restore the ceilings after decades of Soviet neglect.
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.
During one of my visits, a period costume stall was set up in the rose garden. Since it cost just five euros to channel my inner 18th century duchess, I could hardly refuse!
Rundale Palace is located about an hour and a half from Riga and is accessible by bus via the nearby town of Bauska. Parking is free and plentiful should you wish to drive. There are several dining options available, but I chose to pack a picnic and enjoy a leisurely afternoon in the garden. You can find entry times and ticket prices on the palace website.
Would YOU like to visit Rundale Palace in Latvia?