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Festetics Palace (Keszthely, Hungary)

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Address: Helikon Kastélymúzeum / 8360 Keszthely / Kastély u. 1 / Hungary / Tel: 06 83 314 194

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      04.08.2011 11:20
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      Beautiful palace in western Hungary that needs a guided tour to do it justice

      I have no idea when I became aware of the Festetics Palace but when we were deciding which places on Lake Balaton we wanted to visit during our May 2011 trip, I knew I definitely wanted to visit Keszthely on the far western tip of the lake in order to visit the palace. Lake Balaton is very much a seasonal destination with many businesses only opening at the end of May and closing in early September. The first time I visited Balaton was in mid September back in 2003 when many restaurants, bars and guest houses had closed down for the off season. Keszthely is fortunate in having the palace (and the Balaton Museum) because it does drag out the tourism season for the town.

      The palace is one of the three largest country houses in Hungary (since this fact appears in all the tourist literature relating to the palace and to the west Balaton region in general, I feel duty bound to repeat it here). Its name comes from the wealthy family that commissioned the building of the palace in 1745 and who contributed so much to the town and the wider region. The Festetics counts were progressive men: Kristof Festetics was the founder of a hospital, Pal Festetics established a school in the Keszthely and, in 1797, Count Gyorgy Festetics opened an Agricultural University, Europe's first agricultural college, the Georgikon (this has now moved premises but there is a museum dedicated to the college in Keszthely).

      The palace is situated, not on the edge of the lake as I had imagined it might be, but in the town itself at the end of what is now Keszthely's pedestrianised main street, behind an elaborate wrought iron gate. It is set in magnificent grounds which have been laid out in what is generally referred to as the English style. There is an admission charge to visit the palace museum but it is possible to explore the gardens free of charge.

      We had arrived in Keszthely at midday on a Sunday and, after finding some accommodation and a reasonably priced lunch, remembered that the palace would more than likely be closed the following day and decided that we'd better cram in a visit in what was left of the afternoon. As the tours aren't guided (and we could find no information relating to a guided tour, or even an audio tour) you can turn up when you want and view the rooms that are open to the public. There are one hundred and one rooms but only about ten (in the Baroque southern wing) are part of the museum; other rooms are given over to public use (there is a room that is used for concerts, as well as a public library and a conference centre in the nineteenth century northern wing) but we saw only those that make up the museum.

      It's quite a traditional palace with lots of little turrets and domes and towers as well as lots of statures embellishing the roofline. There are elements from from French chateaux, English country houses and the Austro-Hungarian era: it's a mixed bag but it's pleasing on the eye.

      The ticket office is in the little building that joins the two wings of the palace. From here you can also access the coffee shop, a book/gift-shop or simply pass straight through to the rest of the gardens. We bought tickets and the lady in the box office gestured to the door opposite where we should start the tour. Just inside, a young man pointed to a box of shoe covers and we each dutifully tied on a pair over our walking shoes; it was a task they should have included on the Krypton Factor, as there were so many different ways of tying on these bizarre felty slippers and yet there seemed no way of making them stay on. We were later incensed when we spotted a slipperless Japanese couple canoodling outside the library, not because of the shock of seeing such a public display of affection from a stereotypically reserved race but because we wanted to know why they had not been made to go through the same ordeal that we had suffered.

      Before climbing the grand marble staircase to where the tour begins I asked the slipper supervisor where I might find a toilet. He spoke neither English nor German (nor Slovene which I cheekily tried as we weren't so far from the border) but seemed to understand my question and pointed upstairs and so I kept looking for the toilets as we made our way round. Unfortunately a combination of being absolutely desperate to go to the toilet and there being almost no information about the rooms and their contents, as well as our having left our visit until quite late in the afternoon, meant that we didn't give the palace the attention it really warrants.

      Only in the magnificent Helikon library was there any written information. In the library there are over 90,000 volumes in beautiful oak shelves over two levels. Among the many important pieces are manuscripts by the likes of Haydn and Goldmark. Many of the features of the palace were the work of local craftsmen and the floor to ceiling, wall to wall shelves were made by Janos Kerbl.

      A Rococo room with many mirrors and exquisite chandeliers looked to be intended for dances. It had a lovely wooden floor inlaid with intricate marquetry and the ceiling was decorated with gilded Rococo swags and swirls. Later that day I was told by someone we met in the town that when the tourist season is in full swing, there are concerts every day in this room. I was also taken with the little family chapel which was hidden away behind the most colourful stained glass windows that featured Celtic designs. You entered the chapel on one level but the floor of the chapel was actually almost a floor below so you were effectively looking down into it from a balcony. The pilasters (fake columns) were topped with gilded doric (I think) capitals and the whole chapel was a tribute to marble of different kinds.

      Each room is a different colour and each one is crammed with wonderful furniture, paintings and ceramic pieces. The Festetics must have liked Meissen wares because there were several fabulous Meissen vases that were decorated with colourful little tropical birds and trails of ivy. Being a Meissen fan I spotted it a mile off and wondered how I could sneak one out of the palace and into my rucksack. Another little gem was a small vase decorated with beautifully painted butterflies, hidden away on the lower shelf of a little side table in the library but I was also quite charmed by a little piece placed quite modestly on a mantelpiece and flanked by two colourful (perhaps Japanese) vases: it was a little sculpture of a lady reclining on a chaise longue and the piece was made from some white material, I couldn't get close enough to see exactly what.

      If there's an English feeling to some of the rooms it's probably because one of the Festetics counts married Lady Mary Hamilton (of Lanarkshire but who was clearly influenced by English fashions of the time at least in terms of interior design) and she oversaw some of the renovations and alterations made to the palace. Although the palace was built in 1745, there was major work undertaken one hundred and fifty years later and the palace that stands today is approximately three times as large as the original. One of the paintings you can see in the palace is one of Lady Hamilton's father in full highland dress.

      Mary Hamilton played a major part in the redesign of the gardens which were partly landscaped by the English garden designer EH Miller. The gardens in front of the house are laid out quite formally with straight paths connecting different parts of a semi-circular park and a main path leading to an elegant fountain. It's the less formal rear garden with its shady nooks among centuries old trees that is the work of Miller. The gardens contain many examples of rare and exotic species such as Turkish hazel and black pines, and a number of pretty Japanese acers. Had it been sunnier we'd have probably spent longer in the gardens and sat a while to take it all in. Visitors to the palace really should factor in time to explore the grounds as well as the interior.

      Elsewhere in the grounds there's a museum of coaches and carriages housed in the former stable block. It's possible to buy a joint ticket which reduces the cost if you want to visit this museum as well as the palace. I can't say it was something that really appealed to me.

      I never did find those toilets. As we explored the grounds I asked just inside the coach museum but there wasn't one there either. In the end we walked back into town and went to a pub. I'd have asked in the tea room at the palace but it looked quite posh and not the sort of place where you'd just walk in to use the loos.

      The Festetics Palace is certainly a sight worth seeing but it's a shame that there was nothing available to enhance our understanding of what we were seeing. I do visit this kind of attraction quite regularly on my travels and have an interest in art and ceramics so I could fill in some of the blanks myself but there were pieces that I would have liked to know more about and the room attendants (those I could find) spoke limited English (most did not speak English at all) though one nice lady did indulge my attempts to ask in German about a curved doorway in the library that I suspected hid a lift - it was actually a little set of stairs.

      The thing is, in Hungarian terms, a visit to the Festetics Palace is expensive (approximately £7 each I think). Not expensive perhaps in comparison with prices in western Europe and the UK but certainly one of the most expensive visitor attractions in Hungary by all accounts. Had there been more information or a guided tour I'd have felt the price was justified but this place brings in a lot of money from conferences and other events and that should perhaps subsidise the rest. There's a lot to enjoy in the palace and the grounds but it is overpriced.

      The palace is open daily except for Monday. In the summer months the opening hours are slightly longer but it would be wise to check with tourist information first.

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