Before 1700, Rastatt was no more than a small village of farmers and winemakers. In 1700 the Margrave of Baden-Baden chose the place as his new residence and started building the palace and a new town. The baroque plan still forms the appearance of the town.
Rastatt is one of those baroque residence towns that were planned and built „on the green meadow“ by an absolutist Prince. These new residences consist of a palace with the garden or park on one side and the town on the other, all based on one geometrical master plan, which is still visible in town today. The old town and the palace were not much affected by World War II, most of the architecture is still original.
Rastatt was designed after the model of Versailles around 1700. Note the three radial streets that meet in front of the palace - this is the same structure as in the town plan of Versailles. So this is truly a „mini Versailles“.
The palace with its fully furnitured state rooms is the town's main attraction. Rastatt Palace is the oldest baroque residence on the Upper Rhine. built from 1700 to 1707. Margrave Ludwig Wilhelm von Baden-Baden, the so-called „Türkenlouis“ (Turkish Louis) because he gained fame as a general in the late 17th century wars against the Turks, founded the new residence town in 1700. Since his old residence Baden-Baden had been destroyed by French troups, he decided to build a new residence on a flat terrain in the Rhine plain instead of rebuilding the hilltop palace in Baden-Baden. The plan of palace, garden and town is based on the model of Versailles and was designed by the Italian architect Domenico Egidio Rossi. That's how fashion goes - despite the fact that the French king Louis XIV. was the enemy who had the country devastated, his court and his architecture were taken as a model.
The palace gardens extend north of the palace. They have been redesigned to give an impression of their baroque appearance. The wrought-iron gates are preserved. To be honest, though, these are not the finest baroque gardens in the country...
There is, however, more to a prince's residence than just the main palace. At least one, often more summer palaces, maisons de plaisance and hunting lodges belong to it, as well as parks, churches and the town. In the case of Rastatt, the summer palace in the countryside, named Favorite, is as well preserved as the main residence. Both are at least in parts originally decorated and furnitured. Then there is the tiny Pagodenburg, the Margravine's tea house on a terrace above the river Murg.
Practical Hints for Visitors:
Visitors can see the state apartments of the Margrave and Margravine on the Beletage (principle floor) of the palace. These magnificent rooms are fully furnitured. They can be visited with guided tours only. The right side wing hosts the Wehrgeschichtliches Museum (Military History Museum) and a commemorative site for the freedom movements in German history.
Tickets for tours of the palace can be obtained at the visitors' centre, which is located outside the courtyard next to the ramp - watch out for the sign „Kasse“. Tours usually start every hour, depending on how many visitors show up. Rastatt is an off-the-beaten-path location, there won't be crowds although the palace really deserves more attention.
Photos are only permitted in the staircase and the festival hall, the other rooms contain too many delicate items that are sensitive to light.
In addition to the 'normal' tours of the state apartments that last about one hour, the administration of the palaces and gardens in Baden-Württemberg offers Sonderführungen (special tours, in German) that present one special topic, are done by experts and last 2 hours. One of these tours takes place each Sunday at 2:30 p.m., the special tours can also be booked separately by groups. See the website for a list of the topics and dates.
The best tour I joined in Rastatt palace was the Baroque Dance Tour - a group of six people in historical costumes performed and explained baroque dances in the palace's festival hall.
Palace Church of the Holy Cross
Margravine Sibylla Augusta depicted
as Saint Helena in the ceiling fresco
Rastatt's finest, most interesting and most valuable church has to be classified as Off the beaten path because it is hardly ever open to visitors. The delicate interior is in need of restoration and is thus shut away. I once had the chance to see it during a convention of art historians that took place in the palace. Apologies for the bad quality of the interior photos - it was rather dark inside and flash was forbidden altogether because of the light-sensitive frescoes and fabrics, only extensive photoshopping made details at least visible.
Margravine Sibylla Augusta, who had the church built, was both a lively baroque princess and a devoted catholic. From time to time she withdrew from the court for a while to undergo repentance and prayer. Her palace church, which also became her burial place, was directly connected to her living quarters.
The church was designed by court architect Johann Michael Ludwig Rohrer and built in 1720-1723. The most precious materials were used for all parts of the interior. A private chapel for sacred relics and a Scala Sancta, a sacred staircase according to the model in Rome, are connected with it. The ceiling fresco of the church depicts the legend of the Finding of the Cross by Empress Helena in the 4th century - pious Sibylla Augusta had herself portrayed as Saint Helena.
The original interior is completely preserved, including the embroidered tapestries still in situ on the walls and pillars. Restoration works are in progress or at least in planning, as far as I know. Let’s hope that this baroque jewel will some day be accessible to visitors.
Market Square, Parish Church and Town Hall
The centre of the town is the rectangular market square (Marktplatz) between the town hall and the church. The town hall closes the western end of the market square, opposite of the parish church. It was built by Johann Michael Ludwig Rohrer and Johann Peter Ernst Rohrer in 1750. The gable bears the coat of arms of the town, the golden Weinleiter or locally Raste, a frame that was used to carry the grape buckets during the wine harvest. The town's name is said to derive from the word Raste, but this may be a rumour that originates in younger times.
The town's catholic parish church of St Alexander closes the eastern side of the rectangular market square. The baroque church was already planned and begun during the first planning process of palace and town in 1701/1702 but construction works were not continued until around 1740. The present church was finally completed in 1756-1765. The original interior is preserved. The church is open in the daytime.
Rastatt's Christmas market takes place here in Marktplatz in the heart of the town, between the catholic parish church and the town hall. It is not big but the atmosphere in the baroque square is cosy. The Glühwein is good, and we got excellent grilled sausages, thin, crispy and 1/2 m long. If you like hot and spicy food, try the Feuerwurst, if not, stick to Rostbratwurst. Glühwein is cheaper than in Karlsruhe!
The Christmas market opens before the first Advent weekend and closes on the fourth Advent Sunday.
Rastatt Christmas market Glühwein cup - note the design.
Even the palace looks very drunk on it...
Pagodenburg and Maria-Einsiedeln Chapel
The tiny little palace is located on a terrace above the river Murg. It was built in 1722-1724 outside the boundaries of the town. The architect Johann Michael Ludwig Rohrer designed it as a tea-house for Margravine Sibylla Augusta. It follows the model of the Pagodenburg in the park of Nymphenburg palace in Munich. Not much of it resembles a Chinese pagoda except the curved roof, but it was meant to be a building in Chinese, or better Chinoise, style. It is surrounded by a baroque garden on two levels. Together with the adjacent Einsiedeln chapel it makes a fine ensemble.
No, the huge yellow tower is not part of the palace... The water tower was erected in 1901. The concave roof adapts the form of the neighbouring Pagodenburg.
The pilgrimage chapel of Maria Einsiedeln next to Pagodenburg is a few years older. Sibylla Augusta had it built in 1715. It was designed, also by her court architect Rohrer, after the model of the chapel of mercy in Einsiedeln/Switzerland.
The interior of neither chapel nor Pagodenburg is open to visitors but the ensemble is nevertheless worth a visit.
Favorite – The Summer Palace
Favorite, located outside Rastatt near Kuppenheim, was the summer palace of the Margraves of Baden-Baden who resided in Rastatt. Margravine Sibylla Augusta, who reigned after the death of her husband as proxy for her young son, had it begun in 1710. Her „favourite“ sojourn also hosted her collections of porcelaine and other art from East Asia. The palace is surrounded by a park with some side buildings. The park has been turned into a landscape garden later on.
The palace is located in the countryside southeast of Rastatt next to the small village of Förch. Direct bus connections are not very frequent. The nearest S-Bahn stop is Kuppenheim. From there it is half an hour's walk to the palace grounds. A bicycle is useful to avoid the long walk if you have one at hand; bikes can be taken on the S-Bahn for free after 9 a.m., by the way. Or go by car if you have one (I don't).
Sibylla Augusta's summer palace was begun in 1710. Court architect Johann Michael Ludwig Rohrer created the plans. The palace became the Margravine's favourite place to live whenever she could get away from the court in Rastatt. Here she enjoyed the pleasures of a princess's life, here she kept her collections of porcelaine and other arts.
The palace is small but it has three wings which surround a small front courtyard. Two long orangerie wings reach out into the park. The backside of the palace has a large terrace which overlooks the northern part of the park and offers a view of the Black Forest hills.
The facades of the palace have a unique design. The surfaces consist of small pebbles set in plaster.
Favorite palace has never been destroyed. Most of the interior is original and well preserved. The rooms are extravagantly decorated in all abundance of the baroque arts. The interior of the palace can only be visited with guided tours.
The once baroque park has in large parts been redesigned as a landscape garden with beautiful old trees, a pond, lawns and waterflows. The wide central alley with the accompanying orangerie wings and the side alleys are remains of the baroque design.
The four little houses along the oblong axis served as accommodation for the court chevaliers (the two in the middle) and housing for the gardener and the caretaker, the latter two are still inhabited. Away from the main paths a side alley leads to the Hermitage and chapel of St Magdalena.
The park can be entered for free. Not sure if opening times are 24/7 or if it closes at night, but definitely longer than the opening hours of the palace.
A small exhibition presents the history and development of the gardens around Favorite palace. One model shows the original baroque garden, the second model shows the landscape garden as it is today, so you can compare how design and fashion have changed. The exhibition is located in the head pavillon of the eastern (right) orangerie, at the end towards the palace. Entry is free.
Baroque life had two sides - the luxurious life at court, the abundance and pleasure on one hand, the fear of death and devote piety on the other. The 'other side' was present in Sibylla Augusta's way of life, too. In a corner of Favorite park she had her spiritual retreat, the Eremitage with the chapel of St Magdalena, built in 1717. The Margravine was a pious Catholic. Now and then she would retreat from luxury for some time of repentance and prayer to atone for her sins.
Nothing against being a pious Catholic, but the good lady would exaggerate her exercises in a way that the average citizen of the 21st century will consider lunatic. She spent some days or weeks secluded in her hermitage, where she resigned from all comfort, prayed and flagellated herself and so on. She took her simple meals seated at a table together with three life-size wax figures of Mary, Joseph and young Jesus.
The interior of the Eremitage is only accessible with special tours that are offered on rare occasions. I once had the chance to see it thanks to a work commitment. Everything, including the figures, is still there. It is really really weird and almost scary. The strange atmosphere can already be felt outside the building. If ever you have the chance to go in, don't miss it.