Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis

St. Petersburg Peterhof

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.

St. Petersburg Peterhof Canal

PETERHOF

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.

St. Petersburg Peterhof Samson

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.

St. Petersburg Tsarkoye Selo

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.

St. Petersburg Gilded Hallway

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.

St. Petersburg Amber Room

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.

St. Petersburg Art Conservator

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. 

St. Petersburg Pavlovsk Chapel

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.

St. Petersburg Pavlovski

Notes:

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.

Getting there:

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.

 

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