St. Petersburg is not an easy place for an independent traveler who doesn’t read Cyrillic text or know more than a few words of Russian to manage. Public transport is a tad arduous. The excellent subways are not designed for tourists and don’t serve the center well although they are excellent for suburban commuters. The trolleys are jammed like sardine tins and walking is almost always easier and more pleasant.
We wanted to visit the summer palace of Catherine the Great, but we are old and were tired after busy first visits to Vienna and Prague and negotiating apartment life in St. Petersburg, so we decided a tour was the right idea. When I tried to find an English tour, perhaps catching onto one designed for cruise ships, the price quoted was $250 for the two of us and required us to make our way to a hotel and then be herded with a group. So instead I contacted a group called ‘Tours by locals‘ and booked a private guide for this trip for $170. It turned out to be a wonderful idea. Nikolai, a graphic designer with excellent English skills who does this to supplement his income, arrived on the dot, and provided door to door service as well as expert guiding, total avoidance of a line at the Palace and found a good place for lunch after we toured the gardens. Made it easy for us without the downside of being rushed along at the pace of those with the shortest attention span. My husband really likes to look at things, so being able to go at our own pace is always important to us and why we do most things independently.
The Catherine Palace like so many pre-revolutionary Tsarist or religious sites is heavily restored. Most of the statuary is reconstructed and left in the natural beige of the casting material.
The cost of regilding all of the previously external details is prohibitive but they have provided some gold paint on some of the detail to give a sense of what it was like in its day. Here is a section of the exterior contrasting a gilded/restored section with one left in natural color.
Indoors there has been lavish restoration of the halls on the tour. Because we were there in September, still the end of the tourist season, we could not visit the imperial apartments which are only opened off season when there are few visitors. There were plenty of shiny gold rooms for us to see.
We had a pleasant cool day and parked a couple of blocks from the palace. The building is an imposing blue and white set in a pretty park which we planned to visit at the end of the tour.
Once inside we were able to check our coats and go with our guide up the main staircase. Like most old palaces the rooms are linear and you walk through one to get to the next. The first major stop was the main reception hall known as the Gallery of Lights in its day. It is jaw dropping. It was finished in the mid 18th century and has a gorgeous parquet floor of 8800 square feet. The mirrors, gilding and then at night hundreds of candles must have made it a sight to rival Versailles (Perhaps that should have been a message to the Tsars.)
As with the art of most monarchies, the royals appear in the classic murals that adorn these great halls. The paintings were destroyed in fires when the palace was torched by the Germans during the WWII — but not before they stole the Amber Room and anything else not nailed down. They have been recreated from original sketches and copies as well as fragments that were saved after the fires.
The ‘cake’ in fancy winding shapes is a facsimile of the kind of treat that was served and some of the china from the palace is displayed.
Lovely porcelain china and objects d’art made in Russia are displayed throughout the palace. In addition to several sets of porcelain china as well as ingenious butter dishes in the shape of fruits and vegetables were elegant display pieces like this.
The Green Pilaster Room was used as a pantry during the time of Catherine the Great and partitioned. When the restoration was done to repair the damage of the fire, it was restored to its original appearance as designed by palace architect Rastrelli. The original 18th century ceiling painting by Torelli titled A Resting Military Commander Harkens to the Call of the Muses was lost in the fire and is replaced by a similarly themed painting by Lednev created based on pre-war photos.
The Arabesque room created in the 18th century was used by Catherine for balls and for social evenings of cards and chess. The ceiling medallions depict virtues such as generosity, compassion, friendship and peace and they surround a ‘Judgment of Paris.’
There is a corridor down the side of the main rooms to allow passage from one great room to another. They rooms are joined by elaborate gilt doorways.
This is a photo posted at the site that shows what these doorways looked like after the destructive fires lit by the Nazis when they looted the palace.
And this is the same stretch of doorways today after the extensive restorations.
Much of the restoration work was possible because of fragments of paintings and wall decor that survived the fire and because there were photos taken of these rooms in the 1930s. This is an old photo of the Green Dining Room which was part of the private apartments before the destruction.
Here is part of the restored room today. It was designed in the late 18th century and used as a private dining room by Grand Duchess Maria Fiodorovna, the wife of Catherine’s son, the future Tzar Paul I.
The Picture Room is a state room next to the famous Amber Room. The large delft ceramic object here is one of many similar stoves throughout the house to provide heat to the palace. The pictures include portraits and classic themes as well as military adventures.
The Amber Room is the most famous room in the Catherine Palace. What exists now is a recreation of a room paneled in Amber Mosaics that was stolen by the Nazis. The original room was a smaller study given to Peter the Great by Frederick Wilhelm I of Prussia at the start of their alliance. It was apparently installed in several spots before being incorporated into the Catherine Palace by Rastrelli in 1755. The room was larger than the study in its previous location and so originally the amber panels were eked out with mirrors and painted canvas. Later new panels were created so that the walls were almost entirely made of amber mosaics.
Many of the art works were hidden prior to the invasion by Germany but it was felt the Amber Room was too fragile and so it was covered in canvas. The Germans sent art experts into palaces and museums to identify the art worth stealing. They crated up the Amber Room and sent it to Germany where it was displayed in Koenigsberg. It disappeared in the final days of WWII and its whereabouts it unknown. There was recent speculation that it might be on the missing Nazi gold train that treasure hunters claimed to have found hidden in a tunnel in Poland, but apparently that claim was false as no train has been discovered.
Prior to its loss, the Amber Room, amber panels backed by gilt and offset with mirrors, was considered the 8th wonder of the world. Perhaps my expectations were too high as a result, but I was somewhat underwhelmed by the sight. Although in retrospect, it makes no sense given the nature of amber, I had imagined the amber to be in larger more impressive slabs and the mosaics while interesting are far less beautiful than I anticipated. They sort of reminded me of the panels of mosaic wall treatment or inexpensive vinyl flooring one might find at Home Depot. Judge for yourself.
This is a study used by the Tzar Alexander I as a working office and place to receive important visitors. It is spartan compared to the opulence of the gilded state rooms although there are a number of fine antiques.
While many of the state rooms have been fully restored, some of the palace is still in poor shape and those rooms are used to display objects from the time when the Tzars reigned. One thing notable in the portraits of the Tzars and their children is that they are always shown in military garb even as small children; continuous warfare seems to have been the occupation of the noble classes.
Here is a portrait of Tzar Alexander II the tzar assassinated by revolutionaries although he had taken modernizing steps including freeing the serfs. He is the tzar whose death is memorialized at the Church on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg. Here he is with the uniform he is seen wearing in the portrait.
The Hermitage was used as a retreat from the public hustle and bustle of the palace; it was designed so that food was lifted by a movable table from the kitchen to the dining area without the need for servants to be present to serve. This allowed the Tzar and his family an area of privacy. We spotted a bride and groom leaving the Hermitage. I don’t know if the wedding took place here or if this is just a photo shoot for the bride. We find beautiful spots like this all over Europe busy with bridal photo shoots.
The Catherine Palace of Tsarskoe Selo in the little town of Pushkin is a wonderful day trip from St. Petersburg. We didn’t get to the Peterhof Palace and gardens on this trip and so hope to do that on our next trip. If you plan to make the trip we can recommend Nicolai from http://www.toursbylocals.com; he made it a great day for us and an easy trip from Petersburg.