Hellbrunn, Austria. Summer 2004.
The trick is finding the place to stand.
Hellbrunn Palace is definitive proof that people have always had a wicked sense of humor, that laughing at the harmless misfortune of others was not invented by Ashton Kutcher, that it isn't jaded modern cynicism that perfected the prank.
The water games at Hellbrunn Palace are not the oldest jokes in the book, but they might be my favorite.
It's an uncharacteristically hot Austrian day. There are few trees casting shadows over the gravel pathways winding around the palace, and we are sweating. Profusely. Some of us gather around a fountain, dipping our fingers into the water and dripping it across our foreheads and the backs of our necks. It's too sun-warmed to do much in the way of cooling, but that doesn't stop us.
The guide sneaks up behind us, sunglasses on her head and smiling like she knows something. "Welcome to Hellbrunn!" she says brightly. We groan at her enthusiasm and fan ourselves with our fingers.
Our first stop is a long stone table sat in front of a reflecting pool. The guide invites the group to come sit at the carved stone stools surrounding the table, and there's a small rush to be the first to sit down (I hang back - it's too hot to run fast). One girl squeals when her bare thighs hit the stone. "It's so hot!" she says, tugging the fabric of her shorts as far down as it will decently go. Our guide describes the former Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg Markus Stittkus von Hohenems, the man who built the palace and designed its water garden. "Visitors are only ever meant to be here during the day," she says. "So there are no bedrooms in the palace." Not that it matters much, she goes on to say, because Mr. Markus liked to entertain his guests outside as much as possible. "And who could blame them?" she asks. "Look at the beautiful view."
And as our heads turn to look at the reflection of the palace in the in the pool, the guide drops her hand behind the column she's been resting on. The guests at the table shriek when the water rockets up their backs, shooting up from the holes in their seats. The rest of us throw our arms over our heads to shield ourselves from the jets of water arcing over our heads. "Let the Water Games begin!" our guide cackles. I bet this never gets old.
(Allegedly, there's one spot at all of these water features that never gets wet. Mr. Markus himself would stand in that spot, celebrating his dryness while his guests got soaked. The tour guides stand there now - I suppose it's only fair.)
I was quick - I managed to escape the water mostly unscathed, and I've already dried in the sun. The girl from before has a dark wet line up her back, and she squeezes water from the bottom of her t-shirt.
When the guide parks us in front of the tall tower, those at the front of the pack move to stand as far away from it as possible. I'm at the back of the herd, which leaves me among those closest to the tower. I can't avoid getting wet this time. The guide presses a button, and we all flinch instinctively. To our surprise, there's no water. Music plays as the little men and women positioned in and around the tower twist and turn. It would be beautiful, charming even, if it weren't for the fact that one of those cute little figures is ten seconds away from squirting me in the eye.
When the tiny figure at the top of the tower begins to spin, we grit our teeth and grasp hands, bracing ourselves. It's coming, and we know it's coming, and our eyes are fixed on that tiny statue, just waiting for it to squirt water out of it's mouth.
There's a shriek from the back of the group, and a quiet panicked stampede to get away from the water coming up from the ground behind them. There's a lot of Wet Butt at the back of the group, which serves them right for being such smarty-pants at the beginning. I'm a little damp around the ankles, but I'm much better off than the rest. I've won out this time, but now I have no idea where to stand as we follow the guide to the next attraction, shoes squelching all the way.
Those aren't all the tricks Mr. Markus and Hellbrunn have up their sleeves, but I'm not going to tell you about them. You're going to visit the palace some day, and I doing want to ruin the punch line.