Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis
St Petersburg Russia
Highlights of a Visit
Excursions to the outskirts of Petersburg will take you to some of the most exquisite monumental palaces and parks of the Czars.
The following story covers the two most important day trips to Czarist residences, which in each case have been meticulously restored to their original glory. One can only marvel at the lavishness of the ruling classes and the artistic mastery that has been able to reconstruct this lifestyle for us to experience. Most of these buildings were ransacked during WWII by the Nazis and anything of value not hidden away was stolen. Afterwards they were partially or totally destroyed in a spiteful disregard for the history of the country. After the war and the disregard during the Communist era, they were in such desperate condition it was thought that restoration was impossible. Thanks to the foresight of the Russian people many of the treasures were hidden away before the siege, and those artifacts, along with photographs and sketches of what the rooms looked like before the war, were the blueprint upon which the buildings and rooms were scrupulously and painstakingly restored or reproduced. Thanks to the work of hundreds of talented artisans, the restoration of these historical buildings is a gift to the world.
The absolute definitive excursion outside of the city should be to visit Peter the Great’s Summer Palace, Peterhof. Peterhof was built to be a symbol of Russia’s power after Peter’s victory over the Swedes in 1709. This victory gave him his coveted access to the Baltic which allowed Peter to commission a navy and thrust Russia into a position of power never before possible. But Peter was a simple man and liked working with his hands. During the construction of his summer palace, he lived in a modest building close to the Gulf of Finland where he could see the water from his bed. Regardless of his personal preferences, politically he needed to build an imposing complex. So Peter summoned the world’s best architects from Italy, Nicolo Michette, from France, Jean-Baptiste LeBlond, from Germany, Johann Friedrich Braunstein, and from Russia, Zemtsov - and Russia’s first hydraulic engineer VasilyTuvolkov, to design a magnificent palace and gardens that would impress all with Russia’s new world status. Stylistically he wanted the palace fashioned after Versailles, but took advantage of the natural rise in the land to have his architects build the palace on the hill giving it an elevation Versailles lacked. He instructed his engineers to build a cascade of fountains, which he personally helped to lay out, and a channel that led to the sea, an obvious reference to Russia’s gaining access to the Baltic. Over 4,000 workers struggled in the marshy area to carve out the channel and gardens. The Great Cascade contains 66 fountains, 17 waterfalls, 142 water jets, and 39 life size or larger, gilded statues, all having allegorical significance. The center statue is of Sampson holding open the jaws of a lion from which a jet of water shoots 65 feet into the air as a symbol of Russia’s victory.
We boarded a hydrofoil that docks on the pier directly in front of Peterhof, affording a stunning view of the palace as you walk along the central Marine Canal towards this imposing construct. Unfortunately it was a cloudy, rainy morning when we left St Petersburg so the normally scenic ride was mostly gray, but by the time we arrived, the weather was clearing and at 11 A.M. sharp, the Russian National Anthem blared from speakers lining the waterway and the fountains majestically sprang to life. It was an awesome sight and of course the cameras all came out snapping away. Soon the sun was out and we were able to stroll in the walkways and gardens and visit a few of the outlying buildings including Peter’s simple home Monplaisir (my pleasure) and fountain displays, many of which Peter himself designed. A word of caution! There are trick fountains hidden along some of the paths especially at the Little Umbrella and the Little Oak Fountains, also beware of the Three Fir Trees, for they all hold a dowsing for those who are unsuspecting.
It was hard to leave behind the gardens to visit the palace but we wanted to enter before the lines started forming. You would expect the palace to be decorated with the finest art and artifacts and so it is; silk walls with matching hand-made fabrics on couches and chairs (some of it original), rare carpets, crystal chandeliers, gilded ceilings, parquet floors of rare woods, porcelains and clocks, paintings, such exquisite objets d’art as dreams are made of. By the time we exited, the lines were very long, so it’s best to arrive before 11 and be there when the fountains are turned on, then head for the palace soon afterwards, to beat the crowds. Expect to have a late lunch but there is a self-service café and the Orangerie on the grounds that serves good Russian food; a reservation is needed for the restaurant. Your guide can arrange that.
Luckily we were able to see the newly restored royal family chapel which was just opened to the public. Different local priests are invited to officiate and the chapel once more rings with the soaring sounds of sacred chanting.
CATHERINE PALACE AT TSARSKOYE SELO (CZAR’S VILLAGE)
Another must see monumental complex requires a short ride into Petersburg’s suburb by car, bus or train, to Tsarskoye Selo or the Czar’s Village. After Peter the Great’s victory over the Swedes in the Northern War, he presented the recovered lands to his first wife, Catherine I, who in 1724 commissioned a modest two story palace and gardens. Their daughter, Empress Elizabeth, enlarged the palace turning it into a masterpiece of baroque architecture and making it the longest (980 feet) and arguably most opulent in the world. Catherine the Great further enhanced the palace by adding neo-classical buildings and gardens.
Today the spectacular blue and white palace adorned with 140 kilograms of pure gold is breath-taking from the outside, but it is only a tease for what awaits within. As you wander from stunningly beautiful room to a more stunningly beautiful room along the golden walkway, pause to admire the repeating gold motif that covers each doorway for the length of the hallway. We were allowed to enter the newly opened Arabesque Hall with its delicate wall painting and blue silk couches. But the most opulent and famous room in the palace is the Amber Room. The original amber panels were a gift from Prussian King Friederich Wilhelm I, to Peter the Great. Eventually Catherine the Great had them installed at Tsarskoye Selo where they remained until removed by the Nazis in WWII. The original panels were never retrieved and it took 20 years and more then 500,000 pieces of amber, at a cost of over $11 million, to reconstruct the room from surviving photographs.
Afterwards, we were given the rare treat of viewing the reconstruction of the opulent Red Agate (Jasper from the Ural Mountains) Room in Catherine’s Bath House. This was one of the few buildings in the complex not seriously damaged by the war and much of the restoration is on the original structure. The work should be completed and open to the public by 2013. The bath house was a favorite retreat of Catherine’s and she spent a great deal of time at the spa enjoying the hanging gardens on the roof that led through an arbor to the bucolic gardens and pools below.
ALEXANDER PALACE AND THE LAST OF THE ROMANOVS
A short walk from Catherine’s Palace is the Alexander Palace, built by Catherine for her grandson, the future Alexander I and presented to him when he married. It was from this palace that the last of the Romanov Czars, Nicholas II and his family took refuge after his abdication in 1917, and from were the family was taken and within a year murdered by the Bolsheviks. The palace is currently undergoing a three-year, eighty-million dollar restoration, to convert it to a modern museum. We had the great privilege of being guided through the palace by Director Olga V. Taratynova who spoke enthusiastically about her plans for the future museum, especially its child-friendly and interactive aspects. Unfortunately, there is still much work to be done and it will not be opened to the public until 2014.
BIP CASTLE RESTAURANT
We took a well deserved lunch break from the eye-numbing glitter and glamour of palace suites and gardens to dine at Bip Castle. The actual castle with turrets and a moat was originally built at the order of Czar Paul I in 1796. The real life castle restoration is currently a restaurant serving typical Russia food, complete with pickled vegetables, mushrooms in cream sauce, Borsch (beet soup) with sour cream, stuffed cabbage and the like, with carafes of Vodka constantly being refreshed to wash down the hearty peasant food. It has only recently been restored and opened as a restaurant having been almost totally demolished during the war.
PAUL’S PALACE AT PAVLOVSK
Back on the historic trail, our next stop was a smaller, more intimate palace built for Catherine’s son Paul, not far from her enormous complex. Paul hated the lifestyle of his Mother and insisted on his own home away from flamboyant court life. Paul and his wife Maria Fyodorovna spent 14 months touring Europe (under the pseudonym the Count and Countess Severny) purchasing furniture and decorative articles for their new home. Along the way they visited the court of King Louis XVI where Marie Antoinette gifted them with a Sèvres toilet set decorated with her crest. Thanks to the safe sequestering of art and artifacts during the war, the original is on display in Maria’s bedroom at Pavlovsk, which was modeled after one of her favorite bedrooms at Versailles. This exquisite gem of a palace has many of its original French artifacts, including a large collection of Sèvres porcelain that the royal couple purchased during their European trip. Maria lived at Pavlovsk for over 40 years, long after the murder of her husband, and had the Temple of Friendship built in the large garden to signify her warm relationship with her Mother-in-Law, Catherine. Her gardens are among the finest of the royal gardens and well worth a visit, weather permitting.
In general, tour guides are required to tour palaces and museums and coats and bags must be checked (no charge). Shoes must be covered with little blue wrappers supplied at entrances and deposited at exists. Sometimes multiple fees are charged for visiting the main building and then each additional building on the property, gardens are usually free. Photography is prohibited in some places like Peterhof but allowed for a fee elsewhere.
SAS (Scandinavia Airlines www.flysas.com ) direct service to Stockholm.
St. Peter Line offers overnight ferry service to St Petersburg from Stockholm or Helsinki, for a maximum 72 hour stay without requiring a visa, a saving of time and money. Options include taking the St. Peter Line back to either city. St. Peter Line can also provide hotel reservations; excellent English speaking guides - a necessity for negotiating Petersburg’s highlights on a three-day visit; VIP entrance tickets; ballet and opera tickets; and restaurant reservations. www.stpeterline.com
© December 2011 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.