When it comes to luxury, wealth, and extravagance, the Russian tsars are still in a league of their own, as witnessed by Catherine’s Palace and Peterhof, about an hour from St Petersburg by car
Outside the gates of the magnificent Catherine’s Palace a three-man brass band showed some nifty footwork to go with their Tchaikovsky tunes. The twinkle-toed trumpeters wowed the crowds waiting to get in with their surprising deft rendition of Dance of the Cygnets. Being part of a four-person group with Tour De Force meant no queueing at all so we swept in with alacrity.
Like most places in St Petersburg, Catherine’s Palace takes your breath away. Golden domes and crosses atop the Rococo Catherine Palace twinkle like tsars overlooking ponds, pavilions, scattered marble statues, and gravel paths linking the manicured lawns and garden alleys of the surrounding park.
This massive white, gold and turquoise edifice – just under a kilometre in circumference – is the spiritual and temporal nexus of Empress Elizabeth who named it after her mother, Catherine I, second wife of Peter the Great, who commissioned the original stone palace as a gift to her in 1717. Quick to execute anyone who annoyed him – like so many rulers – Peter spared neither expense nor lives in its erection and by 1723 an army of craftsmen had created a magnificent refuge.
Even so, it was not quite splendiferous enough for Empress Elizabeth, whose penchant for excess makes today’s richest Russian oligarchs look like cut-rate cheapskates. More than 100kg of gold just to gild the numerous statues on the roof was the least of her expenses and Bartolomeo Rastrelli, an Italian architect she hired in 1752 to take over from four predecessors, spent decades fruitlessly seeking limits to the royal family’s budget.
Elizabeth apparently had three addictions – food, men, and spending money that today’s Russian billionaires can only dream about – but the resultant baroque facades featuring elaborate atlantes, caryatids and pilasters designed by German sculptor Johann Franz Dunker, will take your breath away. And all this, just her summer residence!
Hawk-eyed, barking babushkas on guard dish out commands and cloth covers to wear over your shoes lest you sully the acres of decorative flooring and white marble Grand Staircase that you ascend like Jacob’s ladder to the heavenly Great Hall where a monumental fresco entitled The Triumph of Russia covers the entire ceiling. Two tiers of large arched gilt-framed windows along the walls offer superb views. Sunlight sparkling on the thousands of gilted mirrors amplifies the brilliance of the ornate golden carvings, and reclining marble cupids.
Room after room is lined with lapis lazuli, jasper, and malachite, such as the White Dining Room with its traditional blue porcelain stove, the Blue Drawing Room, Blue Chinese Room, and Choir Anteroom (facing the courtyard) the Portrait Hall, featuring excellent likenesses of Catherine and Elizabeth but most famous of all is the Amber Room that Rastrelli created in 1770 using 450kg of amber. In 1941, German troops dismantled the Amber Room within 36 hours, and the priceless carved panels – a gift from Frederick of Prussia to Peter the Great in 1716 – were never seen again. In 1982, the Russian authorities ordered the Amber Room’s recreation – a 20-year task at a cost of $12 million. The result is breathtaking and this time around, icy glares from the afore mentioned Babushkas seem to preclude a second theft. Even taking pictures here is strictly forbidden.
Like Catherine’s bastion, the magnificent Peterhof Palace was almost destroyed during World War II and painstaking rebuilt by the Russians.
Ahead of vast, ornate gates stretches an epic formal garden filled with golden fountains, marble statues, ponds, trees, and crowds of tourists streaming towards the Grand Palace.
Again a latter-day oligarch’s collection of helicopters and football clubs seem gauche in comparison.
Peterhof’s centerpiece, the Grand Cascade – three thundering waterfalls, 67 fountains and 37 golden statues – literally made me gasp with amazement. Rainbow-coloured spray at the centre wraps a golden statue of Samson ripping the jaws of a lion, representing Russia’s victory over Sweden in the Great North War.
In the gardens is a trick fountain that sprays unsuspecting visitors who venture close. One can imagine Peter the Great giggling like a schoolboy as noble women strolling the magnificent grounds got drenched, ran to the nearby benches to recover, only to be sprayed again. Today, laughing children set off the fountains despite the stern admonishments of their parents.
Amazingly much of Peterhof is only round 60 years old. Germans captured the palace during World War 2 and by the time it was liberated in 1944 it was in ruins. It’s claimed Stalin had Peterhof bombed to stop Hitler holding a Christmas party here during the Siege of Leningrad. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face! Even today, the meticulous restoration continues apace.
- This trip was organized by Saint Petersburg Committee for Tourism Development