When Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg at the beginning of the 18th century, he was inspired by the great capitals of Western Europe. Today, the elegant city is reminiscent of Paris, with its broad embankments, golden spires and gilded domes. I visited 3 of St. Petersburg’s imperial palaces, each painted in a different pastel hue. In a way, each shared characteristics with the lavish French palaces of Versailles and the Louvre. But the pastel palaces have been shaped by a harsh climate and a political history that is distinctly Russian. If the palaces of France are like an effervescent sip of champagne, the palaces of St. Petersburg are more like a chilled shot of really good vodka.
Peterhof was St. Petersburg’s first imperial estate, and it is also its most elaborate. The butter-colored Grand Palace rises high above manicured gardens. But the palace itself seems merely a backdrop for the estate’s most stunning feature, the collection of fountains known as the Grand Cascade.
Astonishingly, all the fountains of Peterhof operate without the use of pumps. Spring water is collected in reservoirs in the upper elevations of the estate, and pressure from the elevation difference drives the fountains as water flows down through special aqueducts and pipe systems.
The Grand Cascade showcases 64 fountains and over 200 statues and other decorative features arranged in a stair-step fashion leading toward a semicircular pond.
The gilded Samson Fountain is the centerpiece of the pond. It depicts the Old Testament figure Samson tearing open the jaws of a lion, representing Russia’s victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War. The highest jet of water in the Grand Cascade shoots from the mouth of the vanquished lion.
Victory over Sweden was a key event in Russian history, because when Peter the Great gained ground in Sweden’s north-eastern provinces he secured access to the Baltic Sea. St. Petersburg is strategically located on the Gulf of Finland leading into the Baltic Sea. And the imperial estate of Peterhof is linked to the Gulf of Finland by the Marine Canal, which connects with the Grand Cascade along a broad garden walkway. So, from Peterhof, Peter the Great could come and go from Europe.
The Grand Palace of Peterhof, along with its Grand Cascade and Marine Canal, are both decorative and practical.
Catherine Palace is a sky-blue palace on an estate near St. Petersburg called Tsarskoye Selo. It was named after Peter the Great’s wife, Catherine I, but it was designed primarily by his daughter, Empress Elizabeth. During the mid-18th century, Elizabeth hired a string of architects and builders to transform Catherine Palace into a complex to rival Versailles.
From the outside, the palace shines brilliantly against the Russian sky.
The manicured gardens beyond the palace are the setting for more sky-blue buildings on an approachable scale.
But the interior of Catherine Palace is its claim to fame. The palace is home to the legendary Amber Room. Assembled using over 6 tons of amber mosaic panels, the room was deemed too fragile to disassemble prior to the siege of St. Petersburg during WWII. When the Nazis occupied Catherine Palace, they looted the Amber Room and its ultimate fate was lost to history. Today, the chamber has been restored to its former glory, but you’ll have to trust me on that because photographs are not allowed!
Photographs are allowed in other rooms, however, and I snapped several of my favorite palace feature: the Delft blue tile stoves used for heat during the severe Russian winters.
The stoves are a decorative reminder that although Catherine Palace was inspired by the style of Versailles, it is a long way from the relatively mild climate of France.
The Winter Palace
The last Russian imperial palace I visited is also St. Petersburg’s most famous building. The Winter Palace is a pistachio-colored complex in the heart of the city. Despite its cool color and elaborate exterior decoration, it is an imposing structure. Local planning regulations restrict new buildings in the city center from rising taller that the Winter Palace.
On one side, the Winter Palace dominates Palace Square, the site of the infamous 1905 Bloody Sunday Massacre in which Russian imperial troops fired on striking workers gathered in peaceful protest. On the other side, the road alongside the Neva River runs right by the stately façade.
Like Catherine Palace, the Winter Palace was largely designed and built under the direction of Empress Elizabeth in the mid-18th century. Later, in 1764, Catherine the Great began purchasing art that she stored and displayed at the palace, and her successors continued the practice of acquisition. During the 1920s, many private art collections were nationalized and moved to the Winter Palace by the Soviets, and the collection has continued to grow. Today, the Winter Palace is home to the State Hermitage Museum, and it holds over 3 million items.
The highlight of the Winter Palace interior is the Jordan Staircase and Hall, which retains its original 18th century style.
Many of the gallery rooms in the palace have views of a quiet, interior courtyard.
The sheer volume of priceless art displayed in the galleries seems almost unwieldy – as if there is just too much to display and behold. In one room, I saw a rare Leonardo da Vinci painting, “The Benois Madonna,” hanging on a portable panel in a sunny alcove. An accompanying sign warned that flash photography was prohibited, but that didn’t jive with the fact that the priceless masterpiece was sitting next to an open window in the bright sunshine. I couldn’t help thinking that the same thing would never happen at the Louvre!
Like Peterhof and Catherine Palace, the Winter Palace represents art and power in equal measure. The double-headed golden eagle, long the symbol of imperial Russia, adorns the gate of the Winter Palace. The eagle looks both East and West, recognizing that although St. Petersburg and its palaces were inspired by Europe, they remain most emphatically Russian.