Imagine you’re invited to a Sunday afternoon social by the local prince, at Schloss Hellbrunn, his summer pleasure house near Salzburg, Austria. He leads you and the other guests out to the lovely pond beside the house, and you sit around a stone table, expecting a nice drink. But instead — WHOOSH — a stream of water comes shooting out of your chair, hitting you right where the sun doesn’t shine.
It sounds like something out of a movie, but that’s Schloss Hellbrunn, a quirky, mischievous place that’s part history, part fun house. If you ever wondered whether people had a sense of humour back in the 1600s, here’s your answer: some did, and some spent an amazing amount of money to indulge it.
Schloss Hellbrunn is officially a palace, but unlike most palaces, no one ever lived in it. The complex was built in 1613 by Prince-Archbishop Markus Sittikus, a powerful ruler who controlled a big part of Austria. Sittikus had immense wealth, partly from the salt trade that gave Salzburg its name, so he decided to build a palace outside town for his summer outings. He chose an area filled with natural ponds and brooks, which provided the power for what turned into his watery amusement park.
The palace lies about a half-hour outside Salzburg, and you arrive pretty much expecting the same kind of thing you’ve seen in most European palaces: grand ballrooms, classical painting, fine furniture and a few historical artifacts. And for the first few minutes, Schloss Hellbrunn doesn’t disappoint. The building is grand, though not exactly opulent, and once inside, you wander through a series of rooms that are truly impressive.
Like this one for example, painted with a panorama of street scenes from ancient Rome, beneath a ceiling that would look right at home in a decadent Roman villa.
A lot of palaces have a music room, but none have one that looks like Hellbrunn’s, with a musical score swirling up from the floor. Musicians serenade lords and lades on the walls, watched over by chubby cherubs.
There’s a room filled with oddities, like a fake unicorn, and a library with ancient maps. But it’s when you get outside that things really get interesting. In a sheltered alcove beside the palace is a garden with a lovely pool, perfect for whiling away a sleepy summer day — but that’s not what the prince-archbishop had in mind. Once his guests settled down for a drink overlooking the pond, they were in for a rude shock.
The seats, like most of the fixtures in the Schloss Hellbrunn water park, were connected to water pipes that fire water at the push of a button. These waterworks represent some of the earliest use of hydraulics, and they’re still in place and working just fine. Over the years, changes and restoration projects have added even more tricks to the palace water park.
Behind the palace is a whole series of water features designed to delight — and soak — unwary guests. First up, a realistic grotto, complete with little floating characters to delight the children. But be careful where you step as you leave: tread on the wrong flagstone and you’ll get wet.
If you do get out unscathed, don’t relax — you can get a shower from almost any direction. Statues, gargoyles, footpaths, almost anything could give you a dousing. Even a stag’s head on the wall isn’t above suspicion: the one below sprayed water from both its antlers and its nose.
Next, a little chamber with a water trick — the floating crown. Turn a hidden valve and a small crown rises up from its seat atop a little fountain and climbs all the way to the ceiling, balanced perfectly on a stream of water. According to the literature, it’s supposed to represent the fragility and uncertainty of power: cut the water stream and the crown falls back to earth.
There are also decorative touches, like this little pool with its classical-looking statues, reminiscent of ancient Rome. The architect who built Schloss Hellbrunn and the artists who decorated it were Italian, which explains the Italianate touches throughout the palace and grounds. Sittikus himself spent his early years studying in Rome, and obviously, it left an impression.
The last water trick is the most elaborate: a large, fully water-powered automaton, built in 1750, featuring a cast of 200 characters that move about and ply their business in a multi-level, Romanesque stage set. Like the glockenspiels in cities like Prague and Munich, it’s a delight not only for the show itself but for the centuries-old artistry and ingenuity. Who needed electricity and gas engines when there was genius at work?
The end of the pathway leads to the palace grounds, themselves dominated by large ponds where metre-long sturgeons swim. You could wander here for hours, among the forest paths, or walk up the hill to the nearby zoo or the Monatschlössl, a quaint little outbuilding the prince-archbishop built in a month when a guest remarked that a building on the hill would improve the view.
Schloss Hellbrunn is the kind of place you might miss on a visit to Salzburg: it’s out of town, and unless you’re in the know, it seems like just another palace. But it’s unique and wonderful, and well worth an afternoon, especially if you have kids along. The trip from town is pleasant, and buses from the city centre run right by the entrance. It’s a trip back to the fanciful past. And who knows, maybe Markus Sittikus still gets a laugh when a tourist gets a shot of water up the wazoo.