ornate entrance gates to Rundale Palace with two lions overlooking the gate
Culture | Latvia | Museums

A day trip to Rundale Palace: the Versailles of Latvia

PRESS TRIP – Stepping off the bus, I imagined numerous others doing something similar upon arrival for centuries. I suspect they were able to leave their horse and carriages a lot closer to the entrance of Rundale Palace, but the sentiment is the same. A thick blanket of fog covered everything around on this crisp and rainy morning. The palace emerged from the mist as we approached. Expecting a fancy country manor, the enchanting palace shrouded in the fog before me was totally unexpected.  

While Rundale Palace might seem like a typical European palace, it is far from ordinary.

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Built for the Duke of Courland as a summer residence, Rundale is an outstanding example of Baroque architecture. It’s also one of Latvia’s grandest palaces. Located in the Latvian countryside, the palace’s yellow façade makes a striking contrast against the vast plains surrounding it. Dubbed as the Versailles of Latvia, the palace and its surrounding gardens definitely live up to the moniker.

The Duchy of Courland (originally named Duchy of Courland and Semigallia) existed from 1561 until 1795. Created after the fall and disbandment of the German order of Livonian Knights, it was a vassal state of the king of Poland.  The last Master of the Livonian Order, Gotthard Kettler, became the first Duke of Courland while other members of the order formed its nobility.

Over the years, the Duchy grew in power, gaining prosperity from ship building and establishing territories in Africa and the West Indies. As it was fashionable during that time, contesting lands was somewhat of a sport among the royals of the day. Between German, Prussian, Polish-Lithuanian and Russian interests, the Duchy of Courland eventually fell under the rule of the Russian tsars.

In 1710, Anna Ivanovna, the niece of Tsar Peter the Great, married the Duke of Courland. After his death shortly after their wedding, Anna ended up ruling Courland by herself for about 20 years. Upon Peter’s death, Anna became the Empress of Russia. Here is where things get interesting.

The story of Rundale Palace

In 1735, Ernst Johann von Biron, the new Duke of Courland and Empress Anna’s favourite, bought this property in hopes of building his new summer residence. Anna had a hand in Biron becoming the duke, although that didn’t make him well liked among the local nobility. That eventually became his downfall.

After demolishing the existing medieval manor house, construction started on what became the Rundale Palace (Rundāles Pils in Latvian). Designed by the Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the palace reflected the lavish tastes of the day. Recognizable by his Late Baroque style, Rastrelli also designed the Stroganov Palace and the Winter Palace in St Petersburg as well as the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo.

Construction slowed down when building efforts shifted towards the duke’s permanent residence at Jelgava Palace (historically Mitau Palace). It completely came to a halt in 1740, with the death of the Empress of Russia. Biron, arrested and forced into exile in Siberia after she died, barely avoided execution. As it was quite common in those days, favourites of monarchs didn’t enjoy the same affections from their successors.

As for Biron, he spent the next two decades in exile, until Catherine the Great permitted his return. Upon his arrival, the construction of Rundale Palace resumed in 1762 and completed in 1786.  Subsequently, Biron spent a lot of time there until his death in 1772.

Rundale Palace after Biron

Numerous Russian nobles, including the Shuvalov family, owned the palace over the years after Russia absorbed the Duchy of Courland. It became a hospital during Napoleon’s invasions before becoming a school. The Germans converted it once again into a hospital during the World War I occupation.

Rundale Palace suffered serious damage during the 1919 Latvian War of Independence. However, further damage and neglect occurred under the Soviet occupation after World War II. At one point, these once glorious rooms, stored grain.

Rundale Palace finally got the attention it deserved in 1972. After extensive renovations, costing over € 8 million, the palace opened to the public in 2015. That’s 43 years in the making. Today, visitors can tour approximately 40 of the palace’s 138 rooms or stroll the gardens.

It’s easy to see where the comparison to Versailles comes into place. It is not on the same scale, but definitely comparable. Magnificent French gardens and a forest surround Rundale’s 16 buildings. Overall, visitors can explore about 210 acres (85 hectares).  Looking at it today, it’s hard to imagine this stunning place used as a hospital, school or a grain storage facility.

Visiting the Rundale Palace museum

Palaces and castle are some of my favourite museums. They allow us to see how people, albeit rich ones, used to live. Wealthy people had the means to hire talented artists, architects, builders and visionaries that created for them the spectacular gems we see today. They funded the arts and by trying to outdo each other, left us places like the Rundale Palace to admire.

I love castles and palaces, grand manors and operas. While in Latvia I jumped at the opportunity to tour Rundale Palace and, unsurprisingly, loved everything about it. From the fog covered exterior to the richly decorated interior, I felt like a kid in a candy store. My excitement at being there was only topped by the fact that our tour guides were dressed in costume.

Two grand ladies and a fashionable courtier, all decked out in their 18th century finest duds greeted us at the bottom of a very fine staircase. Seemingly, they were there on behalf of the duchess, who was conveniently away. If you think this was cheesy, you are wrong. They led the tour in character and provided interesting facts about the lives of people in court. We were even treated to a dance performance that showed us how the nobles entertained themselves at parties.

Did you know that there was a secret way for the ladies to communicate with their lovers simply by using their fans? Me neither, but now I know.

Restoration

I am always amazed at all the detailed work that went into creating lavish residences of the past. When money is no object (at least for the person that commissions the work), the opportunities are endless. Even more impressive are the restoration efforts to bring back the former glory. This type of work usually takes a long time as funds are limited. Skilled craftsmen and artists are also not as readily available as in the past.

photographs of inside of Rundale Palace before the renovations
Rundale Palace before restoration

Rundale Palace underwent major restoration work. At 43 years, it took almost as long to restore it as it took to build it in the first place. That’s if you count the two decades of Biron’s exile when nothing was happening. It probably would have been easier to count the losses and move on. I’m glad that didn’t happen or there wouldn’t be Rundale Palace for me to explore.

During our visit, we visited a room that hasn’t been restored. It’s a great way to see what the restorers had to work with when they started. The contrast between the original and the restored is quite remarkable. It definitely gives you an appreciation of what they accomplished. I think Biron would approve.

Inside Rundale Palace

Rundale Palace is simply charming. As you stroll from one room to the other, you can imagine a world of a different time. Glamorous ladies and gents of the court strutting around in finery, gossiping and flirting behind their fans. Stately dinners and lavish balls in the painstakingly decorated rooms, and over-the-top garden parties set on the walkways of the French gardens.

This is the perfect place for a fancy costume party that you definitely want to attend. Personally, I can’t imagine how that would go down, but I’m sure it would be epic. Let’s just say that in my head, this is totally happening.

Now, if you can’t make to Rundale Palace any time soon, you’re in luck. There is a wonderful virtual tour that takes you inside the palace and outside of it. You can check out this link for yourself.  

Getting here + admission

The Rundale Palace and gardens are open all year round.

Hours for the palace: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Hours for French gardens: 10 a.m. – 7 p.m.

Admission: adult/child from €11/3.50

Directions

From Rīga through Bauska
Drive from Rīga – 67 km along the road A7 to Bauska, from Bauska to Pilsrundāle – 12 km along the road P103.

From Rīga through Jelgava
Drive from Rīga – 47 km along the road A8 to Jelgava, from Jelgava to Pilsrundāle – 43 km along the road A8 to Eleja and from Eleja by road P103 to Pilsrundāle.

PUBLIC TRANSPORT: Bus traffic “Rīga – Bauska”, then “Bauska – Rundāle – Svitene”, “Bauska – Jelgava” (via Eleja or Jaunsvirlauka), “Bauska – Dobele” or “Bauska – Bērstele”

Direction Rīga – Bauska – Rīga
Direction Bauska – Rundāle – Bauska

Press trip info

Our excursion to Rundale Palace was part of the Women in Travel Summit (@witsriga) and was hosted by the Latvian Tourism Board (@enjoylatvia).
The views and opinions are my own.

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    Kemi
    21 Dec 2019
    2:19am

    Oh, you went as part of WITS! So, so lucky. I love it already lol. No idea that Latvia (under the Duchy) took their slice of Africa…sigh. I wonder if it was under the Germans at the time… There’s a billiards table there? Lol.

      kasiawrites
      23 Dec 2019
      12:12pm

      Yes! WITS was fun and I really enjoyed Latvia. The Duchy was short lived (relatively) but yes, it managed to extend its reach to Africa!