ST. PETERSBURG – “CITY OF PALACES” or “THE VENICE OF THE NORTH”

 

It can be quite hot and humid in St. Petersburg in July; it is also peak tourist season. Barely a breeze drifts across from the Neva River, its two branches, the Malaya Neva and the Bolshaya Neva, and several canals. But we weren’t bothered by the weather, for our first destination was one of the most famous tourist spots in the world: Catherine the Great’s “Hermitage”. 

Once a place of quiet refuge within the Winter Palace, it is now a grand ensemble of rooms. Here the Tsarina housed and enjoyed her fabulous art works, collected between 1764 and 1774, and with which she also adorned her numerous palaces: thousands of paintings and drawings, carved gems, precious ornaments, clocks, silver, porcelain, and objects d’art wrought in gold and silver and studded with precious stones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                     Catherine had already added the “Small” Hermitage onto the Winter Palace, but, as her astounding collection grew, she added on the Large Hermitage between 1771 and 1787. The New Hermitage was added on later, between 1839 and 1851. Interestingly, Nicholas I opened the Large and New Hermitages to the public the year after the latter’s completion in 1852, and, after the 1917 Revolution, the Winter Palace itself was gradually opened to the public.

Hermitage: mosaic floor

Our guide Yelena led our group up one side of the double Main (Jordan) Staircase, a sweeping white marble affair heavily ornamented with gilded curlicues, muscular male and female caryatids, statuary, porcelain vases, and green marble columns, each with a gilt Corinthian (with acanthus leaves) capital. 

We were able to appreciate the splendid architecture of this impressive city during an early-morning cruise of the River Neva in a flat-bottomed tour-boat.

Yelena kept up a running commentary about the sights along the river and canals, including the history and stories behind each significant landmark. One such is the famous equestrian statue of Peter the Great, immortalised as “The Bronze Horseman” in a poem by Pushkin in 1833, and a ballet of the same name by the Russian composer Reinhold Glière in 1948-49. 

This magnificent statue, of the Tsar astride a rampant horse, was created over twelve years by the French sculptor Etienne Falconet, and unveiled in Ploshchad  Dekabristov (Decembrists’ Square), near the Admiralty in 1782. It was a tribute by Catherine the Great to the City’s founder, and was seen by some as her attempt to formalise her link to a throne to which she had no legitimate claim.

Also near this square stands St. Isaac’s Cathedral, one of the world’s largest churches, designed by Auguste de Montferrand in 1818. Its construction required an extraordinary feat of engineering: thousands of stout wooden piles had first to be sunk into the marshy ground beneath, in order to support its tremendous weight.

This architectural masterpiece became a museum of atheism during the Soviet era, and is still officially a museum today, delighting visitors with its rich interior and art treasures: malachite and lapis lazuli columns framing a triple-rowed iconostasis, three great doors of oak and bronze, and a ceiling painting of the celestial Virgin (1847) above which rises a great golden dome visible from most parts of the city.

                 St. Isaac’s Cathedral: interior

                                                              

 

 

 

 

St. Isaac’s Cathedral dome: interior

After a guided tour, we were able to enjoy the cathedral at leisure, preceded by a much-needed coffee and crispy croissant at a delightful little place opposite called The Home of Happiness.

The river trip takes tourists past the Chamber of Curiosities, also known as the Kunstkammer – a fine example of Russian Baroque architecture painted bright azure with white trimmings, and commissioned by Peter the Great in 1718 to house the collection of oddities that he gathered on his travels. It was completed in 1734, destroyed by fire in 1747, and almost entirely rebuilt. Today it houses the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, but still includes a room with Peter’s original collection – a truly bizarre assortment ranging from rare precious stones to preserved human organs and fetuses.

Nearby is the Field of Mars (Marsovo Pole), once a marshy expanse, but drained during the 19th century and utilised for military maneuvers and parades, fairs and other festivities. The Eternal Flame has been burning there since 1957; it commemorates the victims of the 1917 Revolution and the ensuing Civil War. Today the square is a popular park, especially during sunny spring evenings when it is filled with lilac.

Further along the river we passed Pushkin’s House, known as “the last palace in St. Petersburg”.

There are also the Imperial Stables, (both on the banks of the Moyka River), the Law School where Tchaikovsky studied jurisprudence before he turned to full-time composition, the Royal Laundry, the Naval Cadet School, and the Academy of Russian Ballet where Michail Baryshnikov trained.

Also on the river bank is the Stroganov Palace, another Baroque masterpiece, painted pink and white, which was commissioned by Count Sergey Stroganov and designed by Rastrelli in 1752-4.

 

This family became fabulously wealthy through their monopoly on salt, which they mined from their territories in northern Russia. They collected many valuable items, from Egyptian antiquities and Roman coins to precious icons and Old Masters. During the Soviet era this Palace was used as a “museum of the life of the decadent aristocracy.”

For centuries the vast majority of the Russian population had lived in desperate poverty, labouring under harsh conditions for little or nothing, bound to the land by heredity, and unable to break free and improve their lot. But all that was all to change. We know how harsh a Russian winter can be, for here in Stockholm we live at the same latitude as St. Petersburg – 60° north – where the frozen lakes and regular snowfalls keep us in winter’s dark icy grip for almost half the year. We were carefree tourists that morning, the weather bright and sunny, and the sky a glorious blue. But my reading about the Russian Revolution and the consequences thereof were fresh in my mind, particularly regarding its effects on the literature, visual arts and music. The harsh reality of Tsarist dictatorship tells an unforgettable, blood-splashed tale, still relatively recent in the pages of Russian history, and still fresh in the minds of many Russians. There was much bitter resentment among the people, for the lack of heating during the harsh winter months, the shocking working conditions for women and children as well as men, the food shortages, the illiteracy, and the squalor and filth in the slums filled by people flocking from the fields to seek a better life in the cities. These were the breeding ground for revolution, fueled by the union leaders and factory workers.

Pressure for reform mounted, but, with still no radical changes taking place, after several attempts on Alexander II’s life, he was mortally wounded on 1st March 1881 by a bomb thrown by a student member of the Naroddddnaya Volya (People’s Will) – the very day he signed a manifesto allowing the creation of a national assembly.  In 1883 his successor, Alexander III, built a church on the spot, the Church on Spilled Blood, also known as the Resurrection Church of our Saviour.

We marveled at this permanent memorial to the murdered Tsar – a multi-patterned building in the flamboyant “Russian Revival” style, crowned with brightly-coloured onion domes – some in gleaming gold, others patterned. This church displays a variety of highly decorative surfaces: glazed ceramic tiles, Norwegian granite plaques engraved with gilt letters enumerating the most outstanding events during Alexander II’s reign, carved columns of ornate Estonian marble, a mosaic tympanum and panels depicting scenes from the New Testament, and double and triple kokoshniki (tiered decorative arches), and the whole topped by a tent-roofed steeple with a multi-coloured onion dome.

This church stands in sharp contrast to the predominantly Baroque and Neo-Classical architecture in St. Petersburg,  where everything is on a vast, breath-taking scale: monumental museums, eight-lane avenues, and grand squares, each boasting a commanding statue of some significant figure, decorative palaces, picturesque bridges and magnificent theatres. The latter includes the Mariinsky Theatre, which was opened in 1860, and has long been one of the most highly revered venues for opera and ballet in the world. It was renamed the Kirov Theatre during Soviet times, after Sergey Kirov, a revolutionary who was assassinated during the first of Stalin’s purges, in 1934. The famous ballet company based there produced Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950) and Rudolf Nureyev (1938-93).

The elegant Alexandrinskiy Theatre stands in the grand Ostrovskiy Square, which was designed in the early 19th century by the Italian architect Carlo Rossi (1775-1849), and named after the great Russian dramatist Alexander Ostrovskiy (1823-86).

The Theatre itself, in the Neo-Classical style that Rossi favoured, has a portico of six Corinthian columns crowned by a magnificent bronze sculpture of Apollo in his sun-chariot drawn by four galloping horses (sculpted by Stepan Pimenov.) The park in front of the Theatre is dominated by a magnificent monument of Catherine the Great, surrounded by her favourite statesmen.  

The Alexandrinskiy Theatre, the oldest theatre in Russia, founded in 1756, was where we saw a performance of Tchaikovsky’s romantic fantasy ballet, Swan Lake.

Our group assembled in the grand foyer during the early evening, and we made our way up to our boxes, each unlocked with a special key by a smart usherette. We were seated on the second balcony, almost centre to the stage, with each gentleman seated just behind and slightly above each lady. The spacious Tsar’s box is located just beneath this level. I marveled at the gorgeous Rococo interior: crimson velvet curtains and seats, and cream surfaces with shining gilt decorations, curlicues and Classical motifs. Above our heads a massive circular chandelier glittered with myriads of tiny globes, brightly illuminating the vast interior. 

I imagined the Imperial audiences of yesteryear: ladies in gorgeous silk gowns with elegant furs draped around their shoulders, long white gloves, diamonds glittering in their hair and pearls at their throats, heady perfumes filling the air. The gentlemen, with handsome curled mustaches wore black evening suits and bow-ties, or military uniforms. I could just imagine dashing officers in scarlet jackets with gleaming medals and gold braid, shiny boots and a curved saber at each white-breachered thigh. There they watched the ballet, or Gogol’s The Inspector General, Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, or dramatizations of Pushkin’s works, after whom the Theatre was re-named during Soviet times.

I felt the usual pre-performance thrill as the orchestra tuned up, that familiar dissonant din of diverse instrumental timbres as each player searches for that perfect A. Then the conductor entered the pit, mounted the podium and bowed to the now darkened auditorium. The Overture began, and the haunting, melancholy strains of the tragic love-theme on the oboe soon stilled the restless, chocolate-rustling audience. The curtain rose, revealing a magical moonlit scene with a lake rippling eerily in background.

My fears of an inferior production laid on for philistine tourists during the summer recess proved unfounded, apart from a rather laboured Prince Siegfried (Artem Pykhachov). The dancing (with members of the Tachkin corps de ballet) was excellent, while a brilliant Odette/Odile (Anna Naymenko) accomplished thirty fouettés en tournant during the famous virtuoso solo in Act 2. Sadly the “orchestra” (the Symphony Orchestra “Congress”) was clearly a small group of disparate players still available in the city during the summer vacation. Ensemble and dynamic variation were poor, due in part to the mechanical leadership of the conductor, who had more the style of a band-master than a conductor of romantic ballet. But the harp and violin soloists were competent, the players aware that their roles are exposed during the pas de deux love-scenes with the Prince and Odette. Then I remembered the canned music (due to lack of funds) accompanying productions in Johannesburg during the last decade or so, and could not complain. Besides, a dream was at last fulfilled: I was watching Russian ballet in St. Petersburg!

On the lighter side was a Russian Folklore Show, featuring a wonderfully diverse troupe from Siberia. We were thrilled by the superb performances of the dancers and actors, the entire production enhanced by delightful music using ethnic instruments. The costumes were vibrant and exotic, each item with a different colour scheme and ingenious lighting to match.

Tsarina Alexandra, wife of Nicolas II, was unpopular with the Russian people, and her peculiar relationship with the disreputable “priest” Grigory Rasputin harmed her reputation even further. He inspired loathing and fear among the aristocracy, and in 1916, as part of a complex conspiracy, Prince Felix Yusupov shot him in the cellar salon. But it took more than bullets and a severe beating to bring him down, and, when his body was recovered from the Neva River, his lungs were found to contain water; he was still alive when thrown therein. 

Yusopov Palace: Moorish Room 

         Yusopov Palace: private theatre

Yusopov Palace: grand staircase and chandelier

 

Tsar Nicolas II was forced to abdicate on 2nd March 1917. The family was then kept under house arrest at Tsaskoye Selo (The Tsar’s Village, renamed Pushkin during Soviet times). This was where we spent a morning touring the splendors of the Catherine Palace.

This lavish Russian Baroque complex was originally a simple stone country house built by Catherine I as a surprise for her husband Peter the Great while he was away in Poland. 

                   Catherine I, the Great

When their daughter Elizabeth became Tsarina, she engaged Rastrelli to redesign the Palace after the style of Versailles, complete with formal French gardens, and named it after her mother. 

 

Again we jostled with numerous tour groups, following Yelena through a series of magnificently opulent rooms and galleries. The Great Hall is a vast glittering space in which sunlight illuminates tall gilt mirrors and heavily ornate carvings. It shines on the beautiful parquet floors over which we trod with reverence, our shoes encased with the obligatory soft covers provided for visitors.

 

The ceiling features a huge fresco, The Triumph of Russia (c.1755) by Giuseppe Valeriani. One could imagine the splendid dinner dances that took place there during Imperial times, the candles gleaming in crystal chandeliers, the fabulous ball gowns and jewelry, and romantic waltzes echoing through the decorative halls. 

The Cavaliers’ gold and white Dining Room is laid for Tsarina Elizabeth’s footmen, and in the corner stands a vast blue-and-white ceramic tiled wood-stove. 

The Picture Gallery displays works by Italian, French, Flemish and Dutch 17th and 18th century masters. Catherine II preferred the more delicate style of the Rococo, and she engaged the Scottish designer Charles Cameron to cater to her more Neo-Classical taste. This can be seen in rooms decorated later, in light green, with white Classical trimmings and motifs. 

  

 

 

 

 

 

The Amber Room is a priceless masterpiece comprised of panels inlaid with tons of amber in many different hues, mirrors and Italian mosaics.

      The Catherine Palace, the Amber Room

It was given as a gift to Peter the Great by Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia, and mounted in the Catherine Palace in 1754. In 1941 the Nazis removed the panels, and the mystery as to the whereabouts of this priceless treasure remains unsolved. In 1979 Russian craftsmen began painstaking reconstruction of the room, based on photographs and drawings; most of it was funded by a wealthy German industrialist – a gracious gesture in recompense for stolen art. It was finally completed in 2003, and is a fabulous tour de force to behold.

The Soviet authorities converted many churches into store-houses or shops, and even an ice-rink; religion was all but banned by the Communists, who believed that the only religion of the people should be loyalty to the Party.  But we rejoiced in the Renaissance of Russian Orthodoxy in Russia since the dissolution of Communism, and the diligent restoration of the beautiful churches – many with golden, coloured, or star-spangled onion domes.

En route back to the city we saw the “Stalin apartments” – miles of dull grey concrete blocks erected in haste, and today suffering “concrete cancer” – such as we have seen in Warsaw and Prague, and other Eastern European cities. Even worse are the “Khrushchev apartments”, which have no elevators or soundproofing. We saw more of the “wedding cake”-style Soviet architecture: cubist, layered, and spectacularly ugly, and “Soviet Art Deco”. There is more of that style in Moscow.

Regarding the opinion of the Russian people and the Soviet régime, of this we became aware as we interacted with the people themselves: the older generation, typically not enjoying change of any sort, believe that “things were better” during the communist era: education was better, and there was a greater degree of commonality. Middle-aged people aspire to the democracy and thinking of the West, eschewing the lack of choices, and restrictions – and certainly terrors – of the last century. As for the youth, interminably plugged into electronic devices, they have no idea of what our generation even speaks.

We heard about the lack of choices in the supermarkets during Yelena’s childhood, with products called “cheese’ (one sort) and “sausage” (one sort), and almost no meat. And how during her student days friendly bartering took place in the ladies’ cloakrooms: a notice offering a “pair of size 35 Italian shoes”, with a phone number attached, which could be swapped for “a hairdryer” – phone number also attached. It was a relief to see shopping centres with an abundance of boutiques (many with Western designer labels), food courts, supermarkets and department stores. Memories of bread queues, deprivation, and the lack of choice are still evident in the psyche of the elderly, however, and I remember my grandmother telling me of but one colour lipstick being available in GUM, the famous department store in Moscow, when she was there with my grandfather in the 1930’s.  

Nevsky Prospekt is a magnificent 8-lane avenue featuring some of the most significant and grandest buildings in the city. These include the Cathedral, Our Lady of Kazan (1811), which has two semi-circular, all-embracing colonnades, which were inspired by St. Peter’s in Rome. It was used as a museum of atheism during the Soviet régime, and services only resumed there in 1991. 

 

    Nevsky Prospekt: Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan

There are also a number of churches (the Armenian, Lutheran and Dutch Churches, and the Church of St. Catherine – the oldest Catholic church in Russia), the Aeroflot Building, the Gogol statue, the attractive  Singer House, (the sewing machine company), the Russian Library, the Baroque-style Stroganov Palace* – now part of the Russian Museum, the Belozerskiy Palace (1847-8) – formerly the headquarters of the Communist Party and now a wax works museum, and Gostinyy Dvor – a magnificent bazaar-like arcade with numerous small outlets selling everything from cosmetics and clothes to souvenirs and chocolates. It has been the epicentre of the city’s shopping since the mid-18th

 Nevsky Prospekt: Goskinyy Dvor shopping mall

Sadly the presence of (gypsy) beggars and vagrants in the streets was as prevalent as elsewhere in Europe these days – and was probably worse in days gone by.

Our favourite store on this avenue was Yelisseev’s, a magnificent emporium that opened in 1901.

We tarried here to admire the fantastic Styl Modern (Russian Art Nouveau) interior, and indulge in their famous hot chocolate and macaroons. I imagined the city’s courtiers and leading citizens once buying caviar, champagne, confectionery and glazed fruits here, and the other many expensive goods imported to satisfy the demands of the Yelisseev brothers’ privileged clientele.

  

This store is very popular with the locals, and draws tourists from near and far all the year round.

Nevsky Prospekt is the most famous shopping avenue in St. Petersburg, and we enjoyed wandering down its length, admiring the displays in the windows and comparing them with those in other European cities. But apart from the boutiques with international designer labels (Max Mara, Marina Romani), I saw nothing in the windows to tempt. Much reconstruction is taking place, the smell of dust mingling with those of sweet-scented tobacco, and overripe cherries and apricots from the Ukraine being sold at makeshift pavement stalls.

The Russian Federation is visibly catching up with Western trends – even if the men are predominantly “macho” and paternalistic, and violently anti-homosexual. The waitering staff also have much to learn from their Western European counterparts regarding polite interaction with tourists, if they have any expectations of gleaning a decent tip. The organisations relating to cultural performances and museums are well-organised, for individuals as well as large groups like ours. Little English is spoken outside of these arenas, but I discerned a great drive among the youth to learn it. National behaviour cannot be judged by generalisations; I was pleasantly surprised in Moscow when, trying to enter the metro with the wrong ticket, a gentleman in neat attire and spectacles nimbly passed his own travel card over the scanner, enabling me to enter, and offered me a box of Italian chocolates! Declining at first, I then graciously accepted. Travel certainly is full of quirky episodes – and such unexpected pleasant surprises!

I enjoyed trying to figure out the names of streets and shops with the Cyrillic alphabet, sometimes using familiar words as prompts; Макдональдс (MacDonalds) was often my “Rosetta Stone”. (Or Citybank: Ситибанк).

One “free” evening we decided to separate from the group and sample superior Russian dining à deux. Having sought tour manager Anna’s advice, we made our way to The Tsar Restaurant in Sadovaya Street, just off Nevsky Prospekt. The name alone makes visitors feel like Russian royalty: the wine we chose was from the Ukraine (traditionally the bread basket of Russia), and served in fine crystal glasses, and portraits of bygone nobles adorn the walls. The Tsar himself would have enjoyed a meal in this beautiful imperial setting. Even the toilets are dressed up like thrones, encased in leather booths. The décor is old-fashioned (19th century) Russian: heavy dark furniture, a massive marble fire place, cabinets filled with antique ornaments, and an ornate plaster ceiling with plump cherubs and Classical motifs, from which were suspended several crystal chandeliers. 

Experiencing difficulties in deciding about the rich Pozharskaya cutlet á la Pushkin that our waitress recommended, we eventually settled on the signature borsch (a thick beetroot soup with meat or vegetable stock) served with dill and sour cream, and steamed pike-perch with grilled vegetables respectively.

Some desserts are universally Western (cream caramel, carrot cake, apple strudel with vanilla ice-cream), while others are more Russian in flavour: warm chocolate pie with mint sauce, éclairs with scalded cream and chocolate, honey pie (my choice), “Napoleon”, Smetyannik (sour cream pie), almond milles feuilles with fresh raspberries, and homemade sweets. Our young waitress was attentive, charming, and fluent in English.

On one of our city tours we paused for a photo-stop across the Kryukov Canal from the beautiful blue-and-white Naval Church of St. Nicholas, a significant Russian Orthodox cathedral which can accommodate up to 5,000 people.

It was designed in 1753–1762 by Savva Chevakinsky, the main architect of the Russian Navy, in place of an earlier wooden church.  This style is known as Elizabethan or Rastrelliesque, and the church has always been associated with the Russian navy, serving as its main shrine until the Russian Revolution. In the upper church section there are numerous memorial plaques to the crews of the sunken Soviet submarines, including K-278 Komsomolets and the K-141 Kursk. The Cathedral is in the shape of a cross, and is decorated with Corinthian columns, five gilded domes, and a triple-tiered spire with a golden point.

St. Petersburg has a population of around 5 million inhabitants, 2 airports (Pulkovo-2 International and Pulkovo-2 Domestic), and a passenger terminal for the cruise ships on Vasilievsky Island.

The currency is the Ruble, easily obtained from ATM’s at the airport and in the city. However, some large department stores, souvenir shops and hotels will take Euros or US Dollars. The time zone is GMT + 3 hours, which made our 1-hour trip from Stockholm a bizarre two hours ahead of Central European Time (Swedish time).

Yelena also filled us in on more recent Russian (Soviet) history: The Bolsheviks (“Reds”) found themselves threatened by a diverse coalition of anti-revolutionary groups (the “Whites”), with the latter supported by foreign intervention. The threat of the Whites rallying support for the royal family was the ultimate reason for their execution on 16th or 17th July 1918, in the cellar of the house in Ekaterinburg in which they had been incarcerated.

In 1991 the remains of the royal family and their retainers (except two of the children, who were identified in 2008) were found and reburied by the Russian government after a state funeral. A ceremony of Christian burial was held in 1998. The bodies were laid to rest with state honors in the St. Catherine Chapel of the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg, where most other Russian monarchs since Peter the Great lie.

President Boris Yeltsin and his wife attended the funeral, along with Romanov relations such as Prince Michael of Kent. It was during our tour of the Peter and Paul Fortress, that we humbly viewed the final resting place of the last Romanov Tsar and his family, in a single large stone sarcophagus. It was a sobering moment indeed.

                 Peter and Paul Fortress

The construction of this Fortress by Peter the Great in 1703 is regarded as the foundation of St. Petersburg, which he named after his patron saint. It was here on the Baltic coast, among the warm-water ports, that this powerful Emperor decided to create his famous “Window on the West”. This area, won from Sweden during the Great Northern War (1700-21), was a boggy marsh which required regular draining. Attempts were not always successful, and the city was frequently flooded by water washed in from the Baltic Sea. This we witnessed ourselves, when storms in the Gulf of Finland raised the water levels in the canals designed to help drain the city. When flying into St. Petersburg from Stockholm, we saw sand dunes and water from the air – proof that this is a precarious city – the “Venice of the North” – in more than one sense.

A map shows that this location is, apart from Pskov, the most westerly point of old Russia (before the absorption of the Baltic and Eastern European countries into the USSR.) The Fortress has a gruesome history; apart from the hundreds of forced labourers who perished during its construction, and political prisoners held captive, Tsar Peter had his own son Aleksey tortured to death here. He had been foolish enough to contest his father’s reforms, and to ally himself with reactionary influences.

But Peter succeeded in his quest to modernise Russia; he was the first ruler to visit countries in Western Europe, and to learn about the latest technical and mechanical advances, including the building of ships, and recruited hundreds of experts into his service. He saw canals in Amsterdam and magnificent palaces in France. These he set out not simply to emulate, but to outshine, as well as encouraging Western dress and manners, and modernising the Russian alphabet and calendar.

The beautiful Baroque Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul was designed by Domenico Trazzini in 1712; it was Peter’s intention to turn away from traditional Russian Orthodox architecture. 

The interior is magnificently decorated with glittering chandeliers, pink and green Corinthian columns, a splendid, heavily gilt iconostasis, and overarching, green-striped vaults.

The 122-m gilded needle-spire, topped with an angel weathervane, was the tallest structure in the city until the 1960’s. After Peter’s death in 1725, the Cathedral became the resting place for most the Tsars.

The rest of the buildings within the Fortress include the Grand Ducal burial vault, various Bastions and Gates, a caricature sculpture of Peter himself, and the Archives of the War Ministry.

Another afternoon trip that we made out of the city, and well worth the visit, was to Peterhof, an extravagant collection of palaces, fountains and landscaped gardens situated on the Gulf of Finland.

 

Inspired by his visit to Versailles, Peter the Great commissioned a summer palace here in 1714; his intention was to rival the French chateau and its gardens. The Great Palace was designed by Jean Baptiste Le Blond in 1714-21, and transformed by Rastrelli during the reign of Tsarina Elizabeth (1741-61) into a fabulous Baroque palace.

  

We did not see the interiors, but spent much time marveling at the magnificent Grand Cascade, Samson Fountain, and other beautiful fountains, all entirely operated by gravity alone, with not a single pump in use. The Marine Canal enabled the Tsars to sail from the Gulf of Finland, a major shipping lane, right up to the Palace.

On the way to Peterhof we passed many dachas – summer holiday houses – in various states of maintenance and grandeur, and all with fruit trees and/or vegetable gardens.  Today they are privately owned, which was not the case (except for the “favourites”) during the Soviet régime. Today more than half the city’s residents own a dacha. During the last century Russia became known as “the country of waiting lists”. There are no family homes in the city, everyone lives in apartments – sometimes with three generations. After the Revolution many families shared a grand apartment which was once the splendid home of a wealthy family. For rich and poor alike, their summer houses in the country offer a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of city life.

For PART 2: MOSCOW – CITY OF SEVEN SISTERS, see here

                  Peterhof gardens: gazebo                 

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