Ghost stories and juicy bits of the most beautiful palace in Latvia

Rundāle Palace is a magnificent baroque palace, originally the residence of the Dukes of Courland.

Its name comes from the German Ruhenthal, which translates as Valley of Peace. Alas, the beautiful edifice’s history was anything but peaceful. It started with a manor that had stood where Rundāle Palace now stands. The mention of that manor can be found in the lists of Livonian castles, and those lists date back to 1555. Then there was the first medieval castle. Its fragments, stones, and bricks were used in the construction of the new palace.

In 1735 Duke of Courland Ernst Johann von Biron bought a vast estate in Rundāle. His plan was to build a summer residence here. When the construction of the Duke’s summer house had begun, the old castle was demolished. The new Rundāle Palace was not to resemble the sombre and harsh walls of medieval towers. Its purpose wasn’t to protect its residence after all. Its main aim was to create a pleasant atmosphere for balls, walks, and open-air entertainment for the high society.

The Duke’s summer residence was designed by legendary Bartolomeo Rastrelli. The very man whose impressive portfolio boasts such amazing examples of architecture as the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg and the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo. Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli (1700 – 1771), an Italian architect whose most significant works are mainly in Russia, is a founder of the Late Baroque style. Its main features are extravaganza and decoration opulence.

The construction works started in 1736, but then, as it often happened in those times, von Biron fell from royal grace and was sent to exile. For more than two decades, from 1740 until 1762, Rundāle Palace remained abandoned, crumbling down under the forces of nature. But in 1762 von Biron returned to Courland.  Bartolomeo Rastrelli soon joined him to finish the work.

Finally, in 1768 Rundāle Palace stood completed in all its glory.

Duke of Courland Ernst Johann von Biron deeply loved the palace it took such a long time to erect. He moved in right after the works were completed. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to enjoy more than a few summers in his lovely summer residence. He died in 1772. The palace was inherited by his widow Duchess Benigna Gottlieb, and while she was the mistress of the beautiful place, the orchards were set up around it. Nowadays, the park is the main tourist attraction where they spend more time than wandering the carefully renovated luxurious rooms of the palace.

In 1795 the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia became a part of the Russian Empire. Catherine the Great gifted Rundāle Palace to Count Valerian Zubov. He died in 1804 and Rundāle became the property of his brother Prince Platon Zubov.

This is where the story of the palace takes a rather juicy turn.

Prince Platon Zubov was the last lover of Catherine the Great. Zubov was a man of many talents, none of which was knowledge- or practice-based. When he was introduced to the Empress, he managed to use this unique opportunity to his advantage.

Prince Zubov was 22. Catherine the Great was 60. He became her last favourite, and she made him one of the wealthiest and most influential men in the Russian Empire.

It might be argued what feelings – if any – young and ambitious Zubov had for the almighty Catherine. What we know thanks to the written evidence left by people who knew him, is that he was devastated by the Empress’s death. He spent days shut down in his rooms.

After his benefactress’s death, Zubov got involved in a nasty conspiracy again the new Emperor, and although he retained his fortune and estates, he withdrew from the court and spent the rest of his life away from the capital.

Zubov had settled in Rundāle and spent his time between his estates in Courland. His sultanic ways were known widely in the area. Rumour had it that he made regular voyages to Vilnius to find a new beauty when he got tired of his current concubine. During one such trip, he met a Polish nobleman’s daughter. He fell madly in love with a beautiful “Polish fairy”.

At first, he tried to follow the usual pattern. He offered the girl’s parents a lot of money for a chance to take her to his palace and enjoy the pleasure of her society. But this time, his lustful aspirations stumbled upon an impenetrable wall. The girl’s mother. An old wise dodger realised at once that you don’t get such a chance twice. She knew that her family could get way more than the amount Zubov had offered for her daughter’s temporary amorous services. The woman vehemently refused the prince’s indecorous offer, hoping that his passion would force him to offer marriage. And that’s exactly what happened. “Polish fairy” didn’t suffer the fate of other Zubov’s lovers.

Thekla Walentinowicz was barely 20. Prince Zubov was 54. Alas, the couple’s marital bliss was short! Barely a year after a sumptuous wedding, Zubov died in his bed. It’s not surprising that many believed his young wife killed him. Rumours went even further. There were talks that the very meeting of Zubov and Thekla wasn’t accidental. People said that it was staged by the Russian Emperor himself. He was afraid of the powerful man who played a significant role in the assassination of his predecessor.

It’s clear that we won’t find out the truth. What we know is that beautiful Thekla remarried, having charmed another Russian nobleman, and spent her life in the high society. She was described as kind, warm, and extremely beautiful. She wasn’t overly intelligent and her manners weren’t polished enough. But high society respected her for the traits those born into wealth and influence often lacked. One lady wrote in her diary that although Thekla had three lovers at the same time, she treated them all with incredible kindness. Probably that was at least one of the reasons why the woman got away with many things that could have otherwise spoilt her life.

Thekla inherited all of Zubov’s huge wealth. He hadn’t left the last will, and the court declined the claims his other relatives submitted to dispute the young widow’s rights. There were rumours that the young widow charmed the elderly judge, leading him into believing she would marry him after the inheritance proceedings were over and she would legally become a very rich woman.

The 20th century was a time of hardships for Rundāle Palace. During World War I it served as a German army commandant’s office and an infirmary. But in 1919 the beautiful palace was demolished by the Bermondt-Avalov army. Later, after Latvia gained its independence, the palace was partially renovated and some of its rooms were used as the primary school. In the 1930s the Board of Monuments took charge of it and continued the restoration. In 1938 the palace was given to the State Historical Museum. There were plans to adapt it for the needs of church art and decorative art museum. The renovated rooms remained open to the general public even in the years of World War II. But after it, it was closed to visitors and beautiful halls were used as grain storage.

Only decades later, in 1972 Rundāle Palace Museum was founded. Its main aim was to restore the palace so that it looked like it did when it was at the peak of its splendour, that is during the second part of the 18th century. It was an almost impossible task, for the palace had suffered too much damage. It took a decade until the first restored rooms were opened to the public. Restoration works of the palace as well as the surrounding park and grounds were finished only in 2014.

Rundāle Palace is not only the most luxurious castle in Latvia. It is also the most haunted.

The whole bunch of ghosts resides on its premises, and witnesses keep telling new stories about their encounters with the supernatural in the ornate corridors.

The White Lady, the Black Lady, and a guy, who was so evil that his main activity during long winter months was to order to immure servants into the walls, are the only permanent residents of Rundāle Palace now. Their restless spirits wander the empty corridors of the castle when the night falls and tourists leave.

The White Lady was a girl who died too young. She was the daughter of the doctor who lived in the palace and served its owners. Her death at 18 was so sudden that her father was overcome with shock. He told everyone that she went away to visit some relatives. While in reality he took her body to the basement and performed tests desperately trying to find the reason for her unexpected demise. The girl was a local beauty, and her father thought that one of the girl’s many suitors might have poisoned her. The poor man died of grief unable to determine why his only daughter died so young.

The White Lady is often seen on the first floor. She disappears when she ascends the stairs. The doctor’s suspicions probably weren’t ungrounded, for the White Lady isn’t a quiet, modest wraith. When massive restorations of the Rundāle Palace started in the 70s, historians and workers were so terrified by her wicked laughter and soul-chilling cries that they invited a priest to exorcise the palace.

Another famous Rundāle Palace ghost is the Black Lady. It is believed that she was a victim of jealousy and power. At the times when Catherine the Great still lived and the palace belonged to Prince Zubov’s brother, the prince couldn’t resist the temptation of a young girl’s love. When the formidable ruler found out about her lover’s infidelity, she ordered to kill the girl and bring her head on a plate to her. Zubov couldn’t do that. No, he wasn’t kind. He ordered to behead another girl in his lover’s place. Since then, the ghost known as the Black Lady roams through some of the palace’s rooms. She favours the billiard room. Those who saw her say that she stands in front of a portrait of a woman and two little girls. After staring at the painting for some time, she walks through the dining room, descends the stairs, and vanishes.

Nowadays Rundāle Palace is full of life and activity. Tourists from all over the world come here to enjoy its park, intricate interior and the Rose Garden with thousands of flowers. In 2016 the palace even turned into a filming location. BBC filmed some scenes of its “War and Peace” adaptation here. For example, Anna Pavlovna Scherer’s soirée was filmed in the Golden Room of the Palace.

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