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!