The Versailles of the Baltics

  • 2008-08-27
  • By Monika Hanley

GILT: Rundale is one of the largest and most ornate castles in the Baltics.

RIGA - Rundale Palace is the Palace of Versailles of the Baltics. Well worth a day trip from Riga, the palace, designed by Rastrelli (of St. Peterburg's Winter Palace fame) is considered the most important Baroque structure in Latvia.
The residence was built for the Duke of Courland Ernst Johann Biron in 1736 as a favor from the Tsarina Anna Ivanova. However, before the palace was finished, the Tsarina died and the Duke was no longer in favor at the courts. He was sent to Siberia to return many years later, and upon his return, Rastrelli was able to finish his luxurious abode.

The palace has since had many different owners through the wars and was eventually returned to Latvia in 1920.
The walk onto the palace grounds is lined with thick old oak trees, as well as strawberry vendors in the summer and puddles in the winter. But once you turn the corner through the palace gates, you're greeted with an unforgettable sight: the majestic yellow palace rising up to greet you and the sumptuous gardens and hunting grounds that fill the air with an earthy, flowery scent that permeates the castle and perfumes the symmetrical rooms. 

Among my favorite rooms was, of course, the feminine pink rose room, complete with stucco flower garlands on the walls and embellishments in pink marble. Another favorite was the sunny Gilded Ballroom with gold, gold and more gold everywhere set off by deep reds and emerald greens. 
Renovations for the palace began in the late 1960s and continue today. The smaller rooms are still being renovated, but the grand rooms and ballrooms are open to the public along with furniture from the time and odds and ends from the royalty that lived there.

Although you're only able to see 43 of the 138 rooms, the most elegant and decorated ones are on display, along with the important rooms such as the Duke and Duchess of Courland's bedrooms and bathrooms.
Incidentally, the Duke of Courland's (Kurzeme) heir, Prince Ernst-Johann and his family, have their portraits in the palace and still reside in Germany.

Full of legend and mystery, the palace has attracted tourists since before it was even renovated. Tales of haunting are famous 's stories emerged from the inhabitants as well as restorers in the 1970s of seeing the ghostly Black Lady, who had been in love with Zubov, one of the inhabitants.  A walk through the catacombs yields an especially eerie feeling that adds to the overall grand feeling of being in the palace.
The Palace is about 79 kilometers south of Riga, just outside the town of Bauska, and is easily accessible by car, train or bus.

In the spring it's worth a trip just to see the rose garden in bloom and take a stroll among the hunting grounds to get a back view of the palace complete with storks on the chimneys.
The museum is open everyday except holidays and costs 1.80 lats (2.56 euros) for adults. The first Sunday of every month is free. Guided tours through the grounds are also available and for an extra lat, you can see the ornately embellished family tombs.