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Once upon a time, the Heidelberg princes bought a small palace to use as a hunting lodge. It proved a wise investment.

The palace housed many nobles over the centuries, including the mistress of one prince who bore him 14 children. He rode his horse from Heidelberg to visit her, and the stoplight-free trip took about 30 minutes, just like nowadays in a car.

The goings-on at Schwetzingen Palace and its beautiful garden centuries ago — such as the time young Mozart and his father waited for an audience, or the times Voltaire visited and Casanova played cards — are now accessible for the first time to most Americans.

English-language tours of the baroque palace, now owned by the state of Baden-Württemberg, started this spring. They are conducted on Sundays and German holidays at 2 p.m.

The idea was to provide Americans and others who do not speak German a richer experience of the palace and gardens, now under consideration for inclusion in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites, and perhaps bring in some income, said Michael Senior, an ex-pat Englishman and perhaps the drollest of the tour guides.

The tour lasts about an hour and focuses on the palace’s golden age, from 1742 to 1799, when Carl Theodor, Prince-Elector, Count Palatine and Duke of Bavaria, and his wife, Elisabeth Auguste, whose lineage was nobler than his, used it as a summer palace. The two, although not especially fond of each other, did love the arts.

Senior’s tour of the palace, in which one silk-walled chamber opens into the next without benefit of hallways, is a fun, gossipy affair, in keeping with how the royal family and friends conducted themselves.

Carl Theodor, for example, was fond of actresses, Senior says, while Elisabeth Auguste seemed to like her sisters’ husbands.

A tourist learns, among other things: Carl Theodor slept sitting up because he and physicians of the time thought it was unhealthy to lie down; Elisabeth had 136 dresses made each year; women’s waists were corseted down to 18 inches; the white powder on wigs and hair was made from flour, necessitating "flea traps" hidden inside elaborate hairdos; baths were avoided as a health precaution; and minor nobility had a lot of spare time. They spent some of it in the 180-acre garden.

The garden, with its fountains, statues, groves and trysting spots, with nature all shaped and trimmed, is a French baroque garden surrounded by an English landscape garden and reflects the theory of royal absolutism of Carl Theodor and his time — that everything, even nature, was under the authority of the sole ruler.

Carl Theodor, not at all keen on military matters, was perhaps best known for his patronage of the arts, especially music, and he kept an orchestra on staff.

"This is where the orchestra was born," Senior said. "Diminuendo and crescendo developed here. The first German-themed opera was composed here."

He also was apparently among the first to really go crazy for Spargel, the white asparagus so loved today by Germans. Just outside the palace is a statue dedicated to the vegetable, and Schwetzingen still is famous for both its classical music festival and its Spargel festival.

If you go ...Directions: From Mannheim and the north, take A6 to B535 to Schwetzingen-Mitte. From Heidelberg, take B535 to Schwetzingen, then go left across the railway bridge into the city center. Signs to the palace are plentiful.

Times: There are English tours on Sundays and German holidays at 2 p.m. No reservations required. Groups of up to 25 are admitted. The palace is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday during the summer; open Friday through Sunday during the winter. Gardens are open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily during the summer and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the winter.

Costs: Tours, including entrance to the garden, cost 8 euros for adults, 4 euros for children and 20 euros for a family pass. Prices are reduced November through March.

Food: There are loads of cafes and restaurants nearby.

Information: School groups are also invited for tours; children are allowed to dress up in provided gowns and waistcoats and be photographed in them. For more information, or to schedule call 06221-655716. The palace’s Web site; there is an English-language option.

— Nancy Montgomery

Map of Schwetzingen

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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