It may surprise you to know that after visiting Riga in December of 1991, the editor of this publication swore he would never return to the place where the military police robbed tourists at gunpoint, street thugs jumped foreigners for no apparent reason and real toilet paper was incredibly scarce. But for some reason, two years later we were back in the Latvian capital for the summer. Not much had changed and public toilets were still just as abominable as they had been and the cops in their jeeps were just as dodgy, but something had changed. A feeling of optimism had swept over the ancient Hanseatic city and many people were in the mood to celebrate. Not ones to pass up a glass of vodka or a bottle of beer, we wholeheartedly embraced the spirit (and spirits) of the times.
Many Latvian interim roubles, or Repšes as they were known, were left at the handful of bars and clubs that had sprouted up over the city, and the rest of the cash we had was squandered.
Unfortunately, as the summer drew to a close a friend pointed out that although we had become experts on the local nightlife scene we really hadn’t seen anything apart from beautiful girls, incredibly strong screwdrivers and the couches of various apartments where we’d spent the day sleeping. What will friends and family say when we return to the States with only a dozen out-of-focus pictures of dark nightclubs to show for our cultural experience in the land of our father’s fathers?
You might ask what’s this got to do with Rundāle Palace or Bauska Castle and we promise to get to that in moment. So we hastily hopped in a car and drove out to the nation’s top sights including all of the caves, ruins, castles (and bars) that Sigulda had to offer. But someone suggested that a trip to Rundāle would be a must see, so we headed toward the Lithuanian border to see Latvia’s most magnificent Baroque wonder. To be honest, although the façade was impressive, the years of destruction by angry revolutionaries, drunken soldiers and typical Soviet neglect had really taken a toll on the once lavish interior of the building which was very slowly being restored. Unfortunately, our sad attempt to be cultural or cultured ultimately failed as we appeared in all of the developed photos wearing the same clothes. Needless to say, no one was fooled back in the USA. They realised it was a desperate attempt to justify two months of carousing in a foreign city.
Although things have changed over the past 15 - 20 years, and we’re now required to go to museums quite often and even to the opera on occasion, we hadn’t returned to old Rundāle since that ancient road trip of our wasted youth. So when a recently visiting relative (we’re man enough to admit it was our mother) suggested that we take a drive to the Rastrelli-designed edifice, we jumped at the chance to prove that we had indeed turned over a new leaf and were eager to explore any cultural endeavour.
What we witnessed was nothing less than one of the nation’s best tourist attractions. Put aside the fact that nearly the entire building has been painstakingly renovated with period furniture, paintings and other 18th-century comforts, it was also amazingly tourist-friendly. Parking was ample for the hundreds of visitors it hosts each day, walking paths were clearly signposted and decent toilets were available all over the place. An outdoor café, a beer garden in the rose garden and a restaurant serving good food were also available and it seemed that the only old-school affectation was the insistence that all visitors had to wear plastic covers like the ones surgeons wear on TV over their shoes. It protects the original parquet floors and you don’t mind looking like an extra on Grey’s Anatomy because everyone has to wear them. In short, we were shocked and amazed that this mini-Versailles had escaped our attention for so long.
But enough of our stroll down memory lane. Here are some things you might want to know about this fantastic place, a little over an hour’s drive from Riga.
A brief history of Rundāle Although the German Grotthus family had owned Ruhental (Rundāle) since at least the beginning of the 16th century, today’s beautiful palace is largely the product of two incredibly ambitious people: Ernst Johann Biron, a well-born, yet financially-challenged Courland noble and the widow of the Duke of Courland, Anna Ivanovna who would later become Empress of Russia from 1730 - 1740. Daughter of Ivan V, half-brother of Tsar Peter I AKA the Great, Anna immediately made her friend and confidant from the Mitau (Jelgava) court her chamberlain in St. Petersburg. It is said that he wielded considerable influence over the empress, which is why he already employed Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli to draw up plans for a massive palace at his newly acquired estate at Rundāle before he had even become Duke of Courland, a feat he later achieved in 1737.
But one palace wasn’t enough so he instructed his posh Italian architect to build yet another one at Jelgava. Busy man that Biron was, he hardly ever set foot in either of his palaces but gave detailed instructions from St. Petersburg. The Jelgava Palace is even larger and is now home to the Latvian Agriculture University, a museum and the crypt of the dukes and duchesses of Courland.
Sadly for Biron, his patron and political backer Empress Anna died in 1740 appointing him regent for her infant nephew who she had named her successor. Within a month he was arrested by an opposing faction that brought Peter the Great’s bloodline back to throne. Luckily for him, he escaped a horrible execution and was exiled to Siberia and later to Yaroslavl. All work stopped on both of his palaces and for a time it looked like they would never be completed.
But the exiled duke’s fortune’s changed in 1762 when Empress Elizabeth Petrovna died and a struggle ensued for the throne. Eventually Catherine II prevailed and Biron’s titles and estates were restored. Over 20 years had taken their toll on the two unfinished palaces, but faithful Rastrelli was up to the task and made quite a few changes to the original plans as the first designs were considered to be out of date. The aging duke eventually ceded his estate to his son but continued to visit a completed Rundāle each summer until his death in 1772.
Rundāle would change hands over the coming centuries becoming the property of the Zubovs in 1795. The palace was looted by Napoleon’s Grand Armée in 1812 and was finally passed on to the Shuvalov family who owned the historic mansion until it was nationalised by the Latvian government in 1920. Unfortunately, the palace was severely damaged during WWI and proper renovations only began in the 1930s. Amazingly, the building didn’t suffer any damage during WWII, but the Soviets used its grand rooms and cellars for grain storage and its luxurious halls as gymnasiums ruining the parquet floors.
Restoration work began again in 1972 and finally concluded in 2014 with the help of the government and private donors such as the wealthy Teterev family who pledged €711,000 to complete work on Latvia’s most spectacular Baroque palace.
Getting there Rundāle is best reached by car. Just take the A7 motorway to Bauska and follow signs 10km to the palace. You can also take a bus to Bauska and then take a taxi to Rundāle. Riga travel agencies also organise trips to Rundāle and other attractions in the area like Mežotne Manor and Bauska Castle. When you arrive follow signs to the palace. Visitors first cross a small bridge over a moat of sorts and then pass the red stables to the main gate, which is topped with lions on either side. Buy tickets inside. Depending on which tour you take, the long or the abridged, take the stairs up one floor and prepare to be impressed, but don’t forget to take a stroll through the manicured garden behind the palace.
Rundāles pils Pilsrundāle, tel. (+371) 63 96 22 74, www.rundale.net. Open Nov - April 10:00 - 17:00, May - Oct 10:00 - 18:00. Admission: €4 - 6, children €2 - 3.50, children under 7 free.
Where to eat Rundāle offers two restaurants and even a beer garden in the summer. The main restaurant in the palace is more elegant and correspondingly expensive. Call tel. (+371) 29 22 73 69 for reservations. Open 10:00 - 18:00.
Bauska Castle Although Rundāle is the undisputed highlight of a trip to southern Latvia, most people also make a pit stop at the impressive castle at Bauska, as you have to pass it anyway to get there. The castle has two sections, the ruins of a massive old fortification that dates back to 1443 and the Duke of Courland’s residence, which was completed in 1596. Although originally built by the Livonian Order, a Teutonic military monastic order not unlike the Templars, it eventually became the residence of Gotthard Kettler, the first and founding duke of the Duchy of Courland.
Kettler was no fool. He realised that both the Russians to the east and the Lithuanians to the south were becoming too powerful to keep at bay, so he made a deal with King Sigismund II of Poland promising his loyalty and became the Duke of Courland, an area of land which basically comprises the present day Latvian regions of Kurzeme and Zemgale. The order that subjugated the tribes of Latvia and that brought Christianity to its shores ceased to exist, but its knights retained their vast estates in what became Polish Livonia.
After the duke’s death his son Friedrich succeeded him and it was during his reign that the residence was completed, around 1596. The castle and residence were substantially upgraded during the golden age of the Duchy of Courland under the guidance of its most illustrious ruler, Duke Jacob (James), godson of King James I of England and daughter of the Princess of Prussia Sofie Hohenzollern. His mini-empire included a fleet of ships and colonies in Africa and Tobago in the Caribbean.
But even the wealth of the duchy couldn’t protect it from the Russian and Swedish empires that were fighting over control of the Baltic Sea and its shores. The Swedes controlled Bauska Castle for a time but it fell to the armies of the Russian tsar during the Great Northern War. Peter the Great ordered the castle to be destroyed in 1706 and it lay in ruins until its restoration began centuries later. Today you can climb up to the top of the tower for great views, visit the museum in the restored residence or have a medieval feast in the castle tavern - Varlāves krogs. During the summer you can also shoot a real cross under the supervision of a professional.
Bauska Castle (Bauskas pils) Pilskalns, Bauska, (+371) 63 92 22 80, www.bauskaspils.lv. Open May - Sept 09:00 - 19:00, Oct 09:00 - 18:00, Nov - April 11:00 - 17:00. Closed Mon; the ruins are closed for the entire winter period). Admission: all-inclusive tickets €4 - 5, children €2 - 2.50, children under 7 free.