Rundāle Palace: The Versailles of Latvia

During my recent trip to the Baltics, I was lucky enough to have a few days in Latvia. While most of my time was spent in Riga, there was one other place I was glad I had the chance to visit while en route to Lithuania.

In the south of Latvia, about 20 km from the Lithuanian border is Rundāle Palace  — an enormous 18th century baroque palace. For those that that have seen BBC’s latest adaptation of War and Peace, you will know that the miniseries is set in Moscow and St. Petersburg during the 1800s. What you may not realize is that the majority of the filming actually took place in Lithuania and Latvia, including at Rundāle Palace.

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Known as “the Versailles of Latvia,” The palace has 54 rooms, including a 1770s-era billiards room, ballroom and a library. The palace was originally built as a summer home for Ernst Johann von Biron, the Duke of Courland and Semigallia. Biron was a favorite courtier and likely lover of Anna Ioannovna, the regent of the Duchy of Courland (a state of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) and later the Empress of Russia. Biron was a powerful figure at court due to his influence over the Empress. This reached new heights when Biron convinced the Empress to name him regent of Russia when she was on her death bed.

The Throne Room
The Throne Room
The Duke's Bedchamber (featured as Pierre's room in War and Peace)
The Duke’s Bedchamber (featured as Pierre’s room in War and Peace)
Dining Room
Dining Room

It was through Biron’s position that he was able to line his pockets and build incredible homes for himself such as Rundāle Palace. Eventually Biron was usurped and exiled to Siberia. Some time later Imperial Russia absorbed Courland and Semigallia and Rundāle Palace became the property of the Russian Crown.  The estate would later be gifted by Catherine the Great to the brother of her lover. From there, it passed to a few other noble families until World War I when it was used as a hospital by the German army.

The ballroom
The ballroom
Anti-chamber off the ballroom
Anti-chamber off the ballroom
The Duke's study
The Duke’s study

From there it was used as flats for military veterans and then as a grain storehouse. When the Soviet Union took over the Baltic States after WWII, Rundāle Palace was used as a school with the Dukes private quarters being transformed into a  gymnasium. It wasn’t until the 1970s that restoration began and it was eventually turned into a museum.

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Today,  Rundāle Palace is one of Latvia’s most visited sites. The Palace itself as well as the park around it which features a French style garden complete with fountains and amphitheater  are well worth a visit.

 

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Surprises in Riga

I am thrilled to report that I am posting this from the road, as I travel through the Baltics. It has been nearly two years since my first trip to Lithuania to see my in-laws and this time it was great to be able to get out and see more of this part of the world. The first stop on my journey was Riga, the capital of Latvia. Riga is the largest city in the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia).

Located in the west of Latvia with access to a large port and situated on the Daugava River, it has been an important trading city over the centuries. Initially settled by the Baltic tribes (pagans), they were later forced into Christianity by German crusaders (little known fact, the Crusades extended to the Baltics) and taken over intermittently by the Polish-Lithuanian Empire, the Swedish Empire, Imperial Russia and finally the Soviet Union before gaining independence in 1991.

Like Vilnius, Riga’s Old Town is a designated UNESCO heritage site due to it’s beautifully preserved architecture. Neo-classical, baroque and gothic buildings line winding cobblestoned streets in this part of the city. Walking through this bit of Riga gives the impression of traveling back in time. But, then you turn a corner and see a T.G.I. Fridays and that illusion is quickly destroyed. Yes, there is a T.G.I. Fridays in Old Town along with a Tokyo Sushi, Charley Pizza and a Japanese owned Texas-style steak house called Steiku Haoss (you read that right). These chain restaurants are a reminder that Riga is a popular tourist destination. In spite of the modern distrction, the Old City is well worth a visit.

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Live music seems to come from every corner, something Riga is known for. You can hear everything from classical musicians performing on the streets to modern country music ballads being sung in the bars.  On a side note, Damien Rice was also in town to play a sold out show while we were there. We nearly bumped into him on the street and I regret not running after him to see if there was a chance to get extra tickets.  Sadly we missed out on seeing Damience Rice, but we did manage to pay a visit to Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs, one of the most accessible places in Old Town for live music and a great place to go for local Latvian beer.

The Baltics have a proud beer culture and finding the best local brew is not only an obligation for travelers, but a point of pride for many bars and restaurants. “Alus” means beer in Latvian (and Lithuanian). This term is how you can quickly identify the bars and taverns in Riga.  Sadly, we only had two days in Riga and didn’t manage to get to some of the breweries and local pubs we wanted to visit.

However, we were happy to find that Riga has a growing craft coffee scene. Rocket Bean, a local coffee roaster and cafe is one of the influential coffee companies that have opened up in Riga over the last few years. After accepting that the best we could hope for in terms of coffee was the typical Lavazza — it was a pleasant surprise to walk into Rocket Bean and get a fantastic pour over with our own choice of beans. In a country of just under 2 million, it’s easier to change how people view coffee —which is exactly what Rocket Bean is striving to do. By showcasing their quality of beans, offering everything from flat-whites to Aeropress they are already converting many locals.

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While Riga is a big city in a very small country, two days is not nearly enough time to spend there. I already have a laundry list of things I want to do the next time I go back. Until then.