The Wasserspiele – A Bishop & His Bad Jokes

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Just 20 minutes southeast of Salzburg, the square  yellow  baroque  palace  of  Schloss Hellbrunn  was  built  as  a  summer  retreat for the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg back in the early 17th century. Being the Prince-Archbishop  of  Salzburg  was  a  very  important job—and certainly Markus Sittikus was an  adept  politician  and  power  broker.  But after  a  walk  through  the  gardens  of  Hellbrunn, we will forever think of him as one of history’s most incorrigible practical jokers.

We hurried through the audioguide tour of the 18th-century interior, keen to get on to  the  palace  garden,  one  of  the  oldest baroque formal gardens in Europe. A tour guide leads the garden tours, for reasons that soon became clear: You need a human being  to  push  buttons  to  activate  the water-powered  automata  and  so-called “water  jokes.”  These  were  high-tech  status symbols in the early 17th century, but only Hellbrunn’s have survived.

Passing through the gardens, you’ll see water-powered  mechanical  scenes  set  in small  grottoes,  and  a  truly  remarkable mechanical  theater  of  an  entire  baroque city,   with   some   250   moving   figures. There’s  a  grotto  where  the  walls,  ceiling, and  even  floors  are  covered  with  seashells; in the Neptune Grotto an immense leering mask sticks out his tongue repeatedly  at  you.  And  just  when  you  least expect  it,  you  get  drawn  into  the  action. Lean  over  to  peer  closer  at  a  statue  in  a grotto?  You  get  a  spurt  of  water  in  your eye. Walk down a staircase between a pair of stately stone urns? You get pelted with spray  from  both  sides.  There’s  even  a stone  dining  table  set  out  in  the  garden where  all  but  one  of  the  stone  seats  are rigged with a water jet; sitting safely upon the   blank   seat,   the   Prince-Archbishop could nod to a servant and have a spurt of water sent up the backside of any guest he chose to torment. Fooled again!