Minus 21 degrees Celsius, 27 acres of gardens surrounding the largest castle of Latvia and in it: two tourists. Us! We were the only two tourists the whole time we were there, a unique visit that ended with a secret waltz in a snow white ballroom…
Riga is very much worth exploring, even at minus 15° degrees (actually minus 21° if you count the chilly wind). As soon as we had decided to go to Riga, we put one place on top of our ‘to see list’ : Rundāles Pils. It’s the largest castle palace of Latvia, about 70 kilometers south of Riga, the capital. (Pils means castle in Latvian, Rundāle is the name of the municipality where the castle is located). An additional factor that fueled our curiosity was the architect of the castle: Francesco Rastrelli, the same man responsible for the world famous Winter Palace of Peter the Great in St. Petersburg. You can see the similarities in the colors of the walls. All in all, Rastrelli wanted the baroque palace in Rundāle to look more like the castle of Versailles than the Winter Palace.
How to get from Riga to Rundāle
Unless you sign up for a trip with a local travel agency, you have to get to Rundāle on your own, like us. The Riga bus station is right next to the train station and comfortable buses depart every other hour to Bauska. In Bauska (there’s only one major stop – ask the bus driver for the ‘Rundāle bus stop’ to be sure) you get off and take the next bus to Rundāle. According to a brochure that we managed to find at the station, our stop is called ‘Pilsrundale’. So far: easy! However, don’t look for any further instructions once you get out of the bus, because there aren’t any. Here’s how I see it: if you think you are lost, you’re right on track!
After getting off the bus (the Pilsrundale bus stop is nothing more than a slippery road in the middle of nowhere), we make a random right turn, and a few minutes later the eary silence is broken by three men laughing. They’re playing some sort of stickless ice-hockey on a frozen brook. Or how would you call kicking stones in a sewer?
We follow the frozen brook and then there it finally is: the Rundāle Palace elegantly protruding above the snow. We walk through the large gates to the entrance stairs and before we can open the doors, an older, classy lady asks us for our tickets. As a reaction to our dazed look she points to the renovated stables outside of the main gates. Back to square one! We go to the stables where another lady gives us our reasonably priced tickets and return to the castle entrance where the first lady has been waiting by the door for us the whole time. We enter the castle and then it hits us: we’re the only two visitors!
The whole castle to ourselves…
Our whole visit felt like a big movie scene. The same lady who opened the door and inspected our tickets, takes us around for a tour through the castle. With every move we make, she’s a few steps ahead of us to switch on the lights in the various hallways and rooms. Every time we enter a new room, she discretely sits down on a chair, waiting for our sign to continue the tour. Whenever we’re ready, she puts on the lights in the next room and turns off the lights in the previous one. Sometimes there’s even jingling keys involved to open or close a door… This is how the story goes for the whole tour. A few highlights are the Golden Hall, formerly know as the throne room, and the great banquet hall where huge feast were given back in the days. There’s 138 rooms in total but not all of them are open for public due to renovations. Interesting fact: the renovations have been going on for forty years now! This is how big the castle is (or how small the funds… )
Waltzing in the ballroom
What would you do if you had a whole castle to yourself? As soon as we enter the White Hall, the most beautiful room in the whole palace, we can only think of dancing. What’s better to do in a ballroom? The key lady noticed how enchanted we are by the whole sight of and leaves her chair to go do something else. I put my camera on a chair cushion and let the timer do its work while we waltz around in front of it – quite the fairytale setting if you ignore our blue museum slippers! Right in the middle of our second photo attempt, the key lady walks back in the room. Slightly amused, she lets us have our moment on the creaky wooden floor. I wish I had taken a photo of her as well!
According to a legend, we weren’t the only ghosts around! The daughter of the family doctor that was also living in the castle many years ago, died here in mysterious ways. The doctor kept it a secret: he wanted to investigate the cause of his daughter’s death so he decided to hide her body in the basement of the palace. But before he got the chance to examine her body, he died himself… He had told no one about his daughter’s death, so she was never buried. Her ghost restlessly continues to wander about the castle…
Here’s a summer impression of the palalce, made by the local tourism office: