The final port of call on our Viking river cruise “The Waterways of the Tsars” was St. Petersburg, a truly fitting ending in the city that Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great) designed as his imperial capital. Peter wanted to make a statement that Russia was leaving its isolation and taking its place on the global stage.
Beginning in 1703, at the marshy lowlands at the edge of the Neva River, Peter shaped a city into a series of 44 islands criss-crossed by canals. What he began, his daughter Empress Elizabeth I continued, paving the way for Catherine the Great’s 34-year reign that ushered in St. Petersburg’s golden age of art and science, fulfilling Peter’s dream of rivaling the great capitals of Europe.
Thanks to their efforts, St. Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and it would literally take days to cover just the most renowned palaces, museums, churches, and gardens. But no visit would be complete without taking in the monumental palaces and parks beyond the city limits, showcasing the lavish lifestyle of the Romanovs.
Peter the Great’s Peterhof
You can reach Peterhof by a short drive from Petersburg or by hydrofoil, which conveniently docks at the pier facing the palace. This option affords a stunning view past the central Marine Canal and the extensive gardens leading to the palace. At precisely 11 a.m., the Russian national anthem blares from speakers lining the waterway and the Great Cascade of 66 fountains, 17 waterfalls, 142 water jets, and 39 life-size gilded statues majestically spring to life.
The imposing center statue of Samson holding open the jaws of a lion from which a water jet shoots 65 feet into the air symbolizes Russia’s victory over the Swedes in 1709. This victory gave Peter his coveted access to the Baltic, allowing him to commission a navy, making Russia a world power.
Stylistically Peterhof is fashioned after Versailles, with the added dramatic effect of using the natural rise in the land to achieve an elevation, which Versailles lacked. The height allowed for the magnificent cascade of fountains triumphantly ending in the channel that symbolically leads to the sea.
The impressive exterior of the palace is dwarfed by its breathtaking interior, from gilded hallways and ceilings to parquet floors of rare woods in intricate designs, massive crystal chandeliers, porcelains and clocks, paintings, and exquisite objets d’art—the list goes on and on. Standouts include the Throne Room and the eye-popping Chinese Cabinets.
The gardens are magical, replete with pools that have quacking mechanical ducks and trick fountains programmed to catch unaware royal and not-so-royal guests with a refreshing douse of water.
Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo (Tsar’s Village)
Catherine the Great referred to her summer residence as “whipped cream” architecture. One glance at the massive blue and white edifice, whose golden domes crown the site with over 220 pounds of pure gold, and you may be inclined to agree. As you wander from room to room, pause to admire the repeating gold motif that covers each doorway for the length of the enormous hallway.
While the Great Hall is grandiose and the White Dining Room is awesome, it is the Amber Room that will amaze. The original six tons of carved amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors were a gift from Prussian King Friederich Wilhelm I to Peter the Great. Eventually, Catherine had the precious panels installed in her palace. Sadly, the panels were stolen by the Nazis in WWII and never retrieved, but in 1903 the room was reconstructed from photographs at a cost of over $12 million.
The complex consists of several stand-alone buildings including Catherine’s bathhouse with its hanging gardens from the roof and bucolic gardens and pools beneath.
Paul’s Palace at Pavlovsk
Nearby, Catherine II built her son Paul an intimate palace more suited to his preferred lifestyle away from flamboyant court life. Paul and his wife Maria Fyodorovna spent 14 months touring Europe (under the pseudonym Count and Countess Severny) purchasing furniture and decorative arts for their new home. They visited the court of King Louis XVI where Marie Antoinette gifted them with a Sèvres toilet set decorated with her crest. The original is on display in Maria’s bedroom, which was modelled after one of her favorite rooms at Versailles.
Alexander Palace and the last of the Romanovs
Also close by is the palace Catherine II built for her grandson, the future Alexander I. It was from this palace that the last of the Romanov Tzars, Nicholas II and his family, took refuge after his abdication in 1917 and from which the family was taken and murdered by the Bolsheviks, thus ending the second and final Russian royal dynasty.
Barbara Angelakis is a seasoned international traveler and award-winning writer based in the New York City area. To read more of her articles and adventures visit LuxuryWeb Magazine at www.luxuryweb.com