Chambers at Large in the Palaces of St Petersburg, Russia.
My second day in St Petersburg was not as jam packed as the first, but it was equally as interesting, entertaining and exhausting.
The tour group left on time, but unfortunately there was a traffic jam, resulting in the coach arriving late to Pushkin Palace or St Catherine’s Palace or Tsarskoe Selo. What I love about Russia is everything has numerous names. (St Petersburg was once Leningrad during the Soviet era). Due to the tour group’s unexpected tardiness we had to wait in a queue for an hour, but this gave me the chance to admire the glorious blue and white paintwork of the façade and the wonderful golden domes of the adjoining church, not forgetting the yellow and white annex where Catherine the Great’s grandchildren stayed.
Whilst waiting we were entertained by a six piece brass band of retirees and our guide, Vadim’s stories of Russian history. Helen Mirren has recently portrayed Catherine on TV in a four part miniseries, but my impression of her was she was an intelligent, powerful woman way ahead of her time.
Once inside the palace we were asked to put on overshoes to prevent the parquet floors from being scratched and this we all did willingly and it wasn’t long before we realised why. Pushkin Palace is akin to Versailles. The palace is ablaze with mirrors, gold leaf, parquet flooring (some mirroring the ceilings), ornate columns, and blue and white delph from Holland.
Splendour, decadence and opulence do not adequately describe the rooms I walked through, some decorated with furniture, others with flowers and vases. It was a feast for the eyes. Stunning!
The rooms are all symmetrical, even the palace itself. Catherine’s favoured rooms were a little less ostentatious. She preferred the more subdued style similar to that found on Wedgewood china.
The rooms were green ornamented with white alabaster or marble bas-relief. The ceilings were plain white; unlike the other rooms where the ceilings were decorated with gods, God and emblems of eagles symbolising royalty.
The Amber Room, which I particularly wanted to see was a huge disappointment. The room is small, about 10 feet x 12 feet and the walls are decorated with oak panels inlaid with amber. Photography is forbidden as I presume as light damages the resin, which doesn’t last. It eventually decays over a short period of time. Amber doesn’t sparkle, nor does it gleam. It’s really quite unassuming and I left wondering what anyone would do in such a dark room. I asked Vadim and he said it was merely for Queen Elizabeth to show off. (QE being Peter the Great’s wife.) Well considering royalty seemed to have very little to do (the noblility in Anna Karenina spend much of the day wondering what others are thinking), I guess showing off a room to high ranking guests would pass a few minutes of the day.
On we walked through a few of Catherine the Great’s more down to earth rooms, onto the ground floor where I made the most startling discovery of all: the palace burnt down during World War II and had been completely renovated!!
This put a whole new twist on matters. The rooms had been completely reconstructed, the best of modern artisans and craftsmen having been brought in to reconstruct the building. The expense has to have been phenomenal and I hope the Russians recoup it, although with the hundreds of visitors I saw, I think they soon will.
A cloud burst as we made our way back to the bus and I overheard one guide call it “liquid sunshine”, a beautiful metaphor for warm rain, but I had to chuckle when I saw Vadim’s pleasure when he spotted small droplets of hail!
Onto Peterhof, another spectacular palace, of white and yellow. I didn’t go in, but were taken on a tour of the phenomenal gardens. Built on the bay of Finland, the gardens are symmetrical with beautiful flower beds and walkways decorated lavishly with fountains, waterfalls and a canal.
Vadim led the group around taking note of the ornamentation of the fountains, from Titan conquering aseamonster (symbolic of Russia conquering Sweden), to Adam standing holding an apple, to a dog chasing ducks.
Of course there are houses and hermitages in several areas, one where Catherine the Great was staying when she was called away and her husband killed. How involved she was in the plot to assassinate him is open to conjecture, but she ruled Russia for thirty years and, according to Vadim, did a great deal for the Russian people.
The interior décor of the palace is of linden wood, covered with gold leaf and the walkways are lined with linden trees. After Murdering the Sycamores, I will be Murdering the Lindens. Look out for the novel in the coming months. I’ve a great idea on the boil, even if I do say so myself.
On we walked around the gardens passing the grand cascade, onto the chess cascade, down to the Bay of Finland, where we could see Kronstadt on one side and St Petersburg on the other. It was glorious, the manicured gardens being reminiscent of the Tuileries and those of Hampton Court Palace. Run by thirty-four gardeners, it’s a credit to them.
We walked alongside the the Grand Cascade, the steps being 22 on the first tier, 23 on the second, 24 on the third – perfectly proportional. I have to hand it to European / Russian architects back in the day. They really did have a sense of style, which I would very much like to make a comeback.