“ Address: Pilsrundale / Bauska 3921 / Latvia „
Ernst Johann Biron was a bit of a lad. He came from lowly origins; his grandfather had been a mere groom in the stables of the Duke of Courland. He never completed his education, being chucked out of Königsberg Academy for riotous conduct. Despite this unpromising start, his charm and audacity helped him rise to become the most influential courtier at the Russian Imperial court. Ultimately he even acquired the title of Duke of Courland for himself when the previous line died out, together with vast estates in that province, now part of Latvia.
Like those of most adventurers, Ernst Biron's career had its ups and downs. In his case, the most profitable ups and downs took place in the bedchamber of the Tsarina Anna Ivanovna, who ruled Russia from 1730 to 1740. To judge from his portrait, Ernst didn't look the answer to every Tsarina's prayer, but who can account for the prayers of women, let alone of empresses? Her favour gave him rank and power, and power brought him wealth. Typically for a successful upstart, Ernst sought to display his new-found wealth and power by having his own palace built, a palace of the utmost ostentation and magnificence.
That palace was Rundale.
* Arriving at the palace *
Rundale Palace sits in open country quite close to the Lithuanian border. The surrounding landscape, mixed arable and woodland, is easy enough on the eye but rather featureless. You wouldn't go there just for the scenery.
From the car park the tree-lined path takes you past former stables and outbuildings to cross a bridge over a moat-like canal, its water now green with algae. On the far side are two gatehouses flanking the path, like twin pavilions, with clusters of columns at their corners and tall ornate windows, gleaming white against vermilion walls.
Beyond the gatehouses you can see across an open gravelled area of impressive magnitude to the palace itself. Facing you, two encircling wings embrace a courtyard, access to which is gained through a further ornate gateway, supported by two more clusters of columns, each capped with a heraldic lion, the symbol Ernst Biron adopted as his ducal emblem. Apparently, in a typically questionable stroke, he copied his coat of arms from that of a French aristocratic family of similar name but no genetic connection.
Before entering the palace itself, there is a ticket office to be visited in one of the gatehouses. "Bonjour, Madame," was my wife's instinctive greeting to the attendant, and it wasn't until some minutes later that I paused to wonder why she had spoken French, so complete was our shared illusion that we had somehow stumbled upon a 'grand chateau' despite being in the depths of Latvia. It is not only the heraldry but the entire style of the place that seems to owe a debt to France.
* The palace exterior *
The French impression is odd, since there was no French involvement in Rundale 's design or construction. Externally, it is the work of Rastrelli, a Russian architect of Italian ancestry, who was also responsible for the Winter Palace at St Petersburg. He is widely regarded as the foremost exponent of the late Baroque style.
The palace is supremely symmetrical. To each side of the gateway, the frontages of the two wings are perfectly balanced, nine windows across two main storeys on each side. Below grey slate roofs, the exterior walls are pastel yellow, with window surrounds and all embellishments, of which there are many, picked out in white. Stepping through the gate onto the granite cobbles of the central courtyard, you again note the cohesive balance of the building that now surrounds you.
Even the chimney-stacks follow a set pattern, and the single one that does not conform exactly is prevented from doing so only by the stork's nest that sits on top of it. The white stork is regarded as the national bird of Latvia, which accounts perhaps for why this nest has not been dislodged. Seeing the great bird descend to feed its young certainly adds to the visit. Swallows and swifts, incidentally, are also resident beneath the eaves and can be seen swirling over the rooftops.
Later, when you walk round the outside of the Palace, you will see that the symmetry is maintained on every side. The south side, at the rear facing the gardens, is particularly elegant, with what might otherwise be a rather monotonous elevation - across a breadth of twenty-five windows - being broken up into five sections, the central and two outer ones standing slightly proud of the rest, and capped with well-proportioned pediments. You can see the central one in the pic at the top of this page.
* The palace interior *
In 1740, before work on Rundale was complete, Ernst Biron's pet Tsarina died and he found himself distinctly out of favour, to the extent of being obliged to spend the next twenty-two years on involuntary vacation in Siberia. Only in the last ten years between Biron's return and his death was Rastrelli able to finish his work.
By then, fashions were already moving on, and for much of the interior the baroque was supplanted by the trendy new rococo style - even more ornate with intricate detail, daintier and frillier, sometimes almost frivolous. This work was entrusted to a German sculptor, Johann Graf, and two Italian painters, Martini and Zucchi by name. The results of their labours were superb and, fortunately, they have survived. Even when affairs at court also moved on, and another Tsarina, Catherine the Great, bestowed the Rundale estate on one of her lovers, Prince Zubov, further embellishments only added to, rather than replaced, their originals.
The Palace has suffered long periods of neglect over the subsequent centuries, and much of the décor is still in the process of being restored. Of Rundale 's 138 rooms, just 43 are open to the public, but these include both some outstanding examples of decorative art and others that are interesting for the human side of life in the era that they exemplify.
Particularly noteworthy, to me at least, were:
~ The Gilded Hall. So called because Martini and Zucchi really let rip with the gilt, as well as with the reds and greens, in painting Graf's moulded surrounds and cornices, not to mention the ceiling. Add chandeliers and mirrors and it all may sound a touch over over the top. It is, more than a touch, but it's splendid, and anything but gloomy, since the hall, straddling the whole east wing of the Palace, is bathed in light from windows on both sides.
~ The White Hall, or Great Ballroom. Another vast and well-lit expanse, but a complete contrast in that the lily of the moulded stucco work is left ungilded, and speaks for itself with its exquisite detail. More fine chandeliers and a beautiful polished parquet floor - just what you need in a ballroom.
~ The Rose Room. Much smaller and cosier than the great halls, this little gem contains some of the loveliest decoration, hanging strands of flowers and foliage formed from painted stucco set on pink marble panels. Rococo perfection.
~ The Duke's private apartment. A well-appointed set of rooms in the central block of the palace, conveniently adjacent to the enormous state bedchamber set aside for royal visits. His private dining-room is large and lavish enough to pass as a banqueting hall in lesser establishments. His more modest study and adjoining bathroom, however, give an insight into how he might have been when not playing the part of the grandee.
~ The Duchess's private apartment. The poor old Duchess was consigned to a distant set of rooms in the west wing, and at first sight they seem sombre, but this is mainly because they are kept in semi-darkness to preserve the frail fabrics of the furnishings. Once one's eyes adjust one sees that she didn't do too badly after all, and her boudoir in particular is splendidly decorated, with some of the most delightful stucco anywhere in the palace, the use of colour perfectly accentuating the plasterwork. The elaborate mirrored ceiling in her bathroom is also rather fun.
The private apartments have been elegantly furnished with some fine period pieces, especially sideboards, escritoires and clocks. Statuettes and candelabra too. Few of them, unfortunately, are actual Rundale originals, most of which were lost over the years, but they are perfectly in keeping and an excellent visual aid to imagining how life was lived during the Palace's heyday. Also noteworthy are the tall upright Russian style stoves, with their blue patterned ceramic facings, that provide the heating.
* The Gardens *
Gardens seem to take longer than buildings to restore, and it shows, especially in this flat country. Although woodland provides a natural boundary at the southern end of the main French-style gardens, to either side they simply fade off into farmland in a rather ill-defined way, unsuitable for a formal garden of this kind. The fountain that is evidently intended to be a centre-piece was drained and under repair when we visited, which obviously cannot have helped our overall impression.
The essential shape is in place: ornamental beds radiating out fan-like from the terrace at the rear of the palace towards avenues in the woods beyond, but the planting in the beds seemed to me to be sparse and immature. My wife, who knows much more about plants than I do, was more enthusiastic, pointing out some fine examples, especially of unusual roses and peonies, and I dare say if we returned in a few years time when they have grown a bit we would like it more. We did like a space that has been tastefully landscaped into an open air amphitheatre off to one side.
There is also a cottage in the grounds with an exhibition detailing the restoration and the influence of other grand chateau gardens in its design, which was both interesting in itself and encouraging for what will be found there in the future.
* Refreshments . *
.are readily available. There are two cafés, one among the outbuildings as you approach from the carpark, another in the basement of the palace itself. Both seemed inexpensive with a reasonable range of offerings. Discreetly hidden in the gardens we also found a stand selling drinks and some basic snacks, convenient in itself, or to supplement a picnic. Talking of which there is another corner of the gardens hidden behind a hawthorn hedge designated as a picnic area, attractively laid out with flower beds, which even has a fire-pit, presumably for barbecues.
* Getting there *
Rundale Palace is about fifty miles due south of Riga, near the town of Bauska. It has to be admitted that this is slightly off the beaten track for UK residents, though some guided tours of the Baltic States include it in their itineraries. If you are devising your own tour of the region by car, it needn't involve a great diversion, since it is only a few miles away from the Baltic Highway between Riga and Vilnius. Alternatively, if you're staying in Riga, I believe excursions are available, or you could find your way by public transport.
* Getting in *
Rundale Palace opens at 10.00 a.m. daily throughout the year, and closes at 7.00 p.m. in Summer, 6.00 p.m. in Spring and Autumn and 5.00 p.m. in winter.
Entry is LVL2.50 for adults, with concessions for families and students. If you are of a macabre disposition, an extra LVL1.00 will allow you to see the ornate family tombs in the cellar. If you are of a strictly horticultural bent and only wanted to see the garden and grounds, the opening hours stretch an extra hour morning and evening and it'll only cost you LVL0.50. The LVL exchange rate is almost exactly 1 to the GBP, so it's easy to calculate the prospective damage, which, as you can see, is modest. In fact, in my view it's outstanding value.
* Conclusion and recommendation *
As you may have gathered, I really liked Rundale. The architecture and interior décor, in their contrasting but complementary styles, are magnificent. The place is well-presented, pleasant to go round and, although grandiose enough for anyone's purposes, even Ernst Biron's, is still on a sufficiently human scale for the visitor to take in without becoming punch-drunk and exhausted. In this it contrasts with that even more grandiose baroque masterpiece, Versailles, of which readers of my recent review will know I am not an admirer. Why the difference? Well, perhaps it's all about their originators and patrons: whereas I know I would have hated Louis XIV, I have a sneaking suspicion I might have liked Ernst Biron, despicable old rogue though he doubtless was.
You may or may not share my personal prejudices, but if you like stately homes on a sumptuous scale with beautiful interiors, and you find yourself in that part of the world, I'd definitely recommend a visit to Rundale.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2007
""The Rundāle Palace is one of the most outstanding and beautiful monuments of Baroque and Rococo art in Latvia. It is built in two periods 1736-1740.""