Really, how scary can a fern be? What about a ficus? A privet? Shrubs seem pretty harmless… that is, until they all band together to become a maze! Befuddling Alice in Wonderland, stumping Napoleon, and fully scaring the heck out of Hitler, hedge mazes have been around for centuries, delighting and frightening European nobility. Although there aren’t many left, a few of these original mazes still remain and are open to the public. Bring some breadcrumbs, a compass, or a directionally savvy friend – these hedges have some confusing edges.
1. Villa Pisani Labirinto, Stra, Italy
The maze at Villa Pisani, located just outside Venice, is about as infamous as you can get in the cutthroat hedge maze community. Villa Pisani was built in the mid 18th century for a Venitian Doge, Alvise Pisani. The maze, aptly named “Il Labirinto,” is not some mamsy-pamsy one-trick pony, but rather a complicated design of 12 concentric rings with hedges so tall you can’t see over them. This means once you’re in the maze, you’re in it until you find your way out.
Image: Flickr/Il Signor Wolf
The only place to take a peek of the whole thing is at the very center of the maze, where a Dali-esque tower rises from the ground. The tower has two staircases, one that leads up and the other down (didn’t know there was a difference, did ya?) with a statue of Minerva, goddess of wisdom, perched on top.
The Villa Pisani itself is spectacular. With 30 gorgeous acres of land, a mini forest, and false hills, the palace is painted with murals of playful gods and trope l’oeil ceilings and walls. Napoleon must have agreed, because he seized these awesome digs in 1807. Rumor has it even Napoleon himself got totally lost when he tried to tame the maze (poor little guy).
Two other despots, Hitler and Mussolini, chose the Villa Pisani as their meeting palace during political talks in 1934, but rumor has it they didn’t even attempt to go through the maze.
Image: Flickr/Paolo Tonon
Today the maze is open to anybody who wishes to find their way through.
2. Hampton Court Palace Maze
Originally built around 1500 for a nobleman, this royal palace and elaborate garden is located on the outskirts of London. Since then, the palace has passed through a plethora of hands, including those of some famous residents like Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII, and Elizabeth I. Given its age, it’s no surprise that Hampton Court has seem some “interesting” remodels and additions, as each resident over the last few centuries has attempted to leave their own mark on the grounds.
King William III’s lasting design legacy? Along with attempting to expand the palace so it would rival Versailles [Ed note: good luck with that one buddy], Willy had the Hampton Court Maze planted in 1690. Commissioning George London and Henry Wise, the hottest 17th century garden designers, the king had a maze constructed on a third of an acre, with half a mile of pathways.
Image: Gregory Wild-Smith/Flickr
Over the years, this maze may have lost some of its edge. It’s pretty darn easy to find your way through, making it a real crowd-pleaser for the over 40, camera-round-the-neck crowd.
Image: Guess What iCott/Flickr
3. Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna
When their over-the-top Hofburg Palace grew tiring in the summer months, the who’s-who of the Hapsburgs could simply scurry across Vienna to the Schonbrunn Palace, or the Hapsburg Summer Palace. The Schonbrunn Palace is a massive, grandiose, and beautiful piece of real estate, but the palace’s “backyard” is what really takes the figurative cake [Ed note: Strudel? I kid, I kid].
Alongside the world’s oldest zoo, a stunning gloriette, French gardens, English gardens, and botanical gardens, a surprisingly tough maze was planted in 1695.
Called Irrgarten (or “lost garden”), this maze was used by summering royalty for almost 200 years. Sadly, the powers-that-be were clearly anti-summer lovin’, because in 1892 the maze was demolished. Turns out naughty courtiers were *cough cough* intentionally “getting lost” together in the maze, and the “secret garden” had become a bit of an embarrassment for the royal family. Instead of disciplining their amorous court, the Hapsburgs just did away with their maze altogether.
Image: Flickr/Tania Ho
Luckily for modern day visitors to the palace, the maze has been rebuilt from the exact plans of the original. With all the tourists swarming the Schonbrunn Palace and its grounds, we double-dog-dare you to get “lost” in the maze this summer!
Stone Labyrinth, Zayastsky Island, Russia
Just short of the Arctic Circle in Russia’s White Sea lies a very mysterious archipelago named the Solovetsky Islands. In recent history, we know that two Orthodox monks found one of the islands while they were looking for a remote place to worship in solidarity. After setting up camp in 1429 and building a modest monastery, the spot became a place of religious worship, and home to a thriving monastic community.
Image: Flickr/Radik Ondra
All was well for half a millennium, until Lenin chose the islands — and some of the monastic buildings themselves — as the home for a few of the Russian Revolution’s despicable Gulags. Nicknamed “The Gulag Archipelago,” the monks were kicked out of the Solovetsky Islands and the land was quickly changed from an austere place of worship and beauty into a cruel work-till-death camp.
So back to mazes! Along with holy worship and political torture, these islands have one more oddity: 35 neolithic labyrinths formed with boulders set in rows of twisted spirals.
Who built these? Nobody knows! How did ancient people get all the way out there and why did they go? Beats me! Why did they make them? Your guess is as good as mine! Even though they aren’t very “hard” (hey, what do you expect…they were built in 200-300 BCE) they sure are pretty neat and add to the beautiful and tragic history of the islands.
If you want to visit, boat rides to the islands launch from the Solovki Museum.
Featured Image: Flickr/Il Signor Wolf