Europe – Russia
Pavlovsk Palace, Saint Petersburg –59.6856° N,30.4526° E
Catherine Palace, Saint Petersburg –59.7161° N,30.3957° E
Russian Royalty Spectacular Summer Houses
Whilst planning for her St Petersburg (that is Russia, not Florida USA!) adventure, 72hrJetsetterGirl’s Estonian co-worker suggested going in the summer to visit the magnificent Tsar palaces of Pavlovsk and Catherine, located a stone’s throw away from the former Russian Capital – St Petersburg, previously known as Leningrad.
As a Baltic native and fluent Russian speaker, the co-worker suggested to 72hrJetsetterGirl to organize a tour of the palaces as very little English is spoken outside of the city limits and navigating her way there might prove to be a bit of a challenge as there are no train, metro or direct bus services available. Even though 72hrJetsetterGirl is always up for a challenge, probably this is not the time to rely upon her Google translate app. As beautiful as the Cyrillic alphabet is, it may be a touch challenging to enter the characters onto a keypad of a small phone (yes you can read iPhone4 here). Taking this advice on board, a day tour was booked prior to leaving ‘Merica.
The Day had finally arrived
Whilst waiting to be collected from her apartment just off Nevsky Prospect, 72hrJetsetterGirl assumed that she was part of a small tour group to visit Catherine and Pavlovsk Palaces. You know what they say…when you assume, you make an a$$ of yourself; well this happened to 72hrJetsetterGirl. No small tour group; but her own personal tour guide, with her own personal driver in a Mercedes Benz. SWEET…As this outing occurred on 72hrJetsetterGirl’s birthday, she certainly felt like a Russian Princess for the day!
After the introductions, Alex the driver, found out that 72hrJetsetterGirl was an Aussie and had great pleasure in telling her that the Bee Gees are his all time favourite band! Therefore the music of choice for the day, was that of the British trio brothers who immigrated to Brisbane in the 60s and took the world by storm with their 3 part tight harmonies. For the rest of the day 72hrJetsetterGirl wanted to break out to John Travolta’s “Saturday Night Fever” moves and reach the vocal stratosphere of Barry Gibb’s “Stayin’ Alive” and for all concerned it would have been a “Tragedy” to witness.
The private tour headed south on the St Petersburg’s motorway for about 30 kms to the palaces located in the municipal town of Pushkin. On the way, Irina the guide, provided a very comprehensive history lesson of the Russian dynasty – the House of Romanov. 72hrJetsetterGirl’s head was spinning with Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, Catherine I, time to purchase a family tree chart.
The English Summer House in Russia
Pavlovsk Palace is located 4 kms down the road from Catherine Palace and Irina advised 72hrJetsetterGirl that it was better to go to Pavlovsk Palace before Catherine Palace, thinking to herself for historical importance. No, that was not actually the case. Irina advised, tongue in cheek, that the crowds at Catherine Palace will be lower after lunch as the river boat cruises have their excursion there in the mornings and they would have departed St Petersburg onto to their next European destination by the time we arrive in the afternoon. 72hrJetsetterGirl quickly learned that Irina was a character and certainly appreciated her eagerness to please her client on this tour.
Catherine the Great (also known as Catherine II of Russia) gave a parcel of a thousand hectares of forest along the winding Slavyanka River to her son Grand Duke Paul (Paul I) and his wife Maria Feodorovna. Pavlovsk was built in 1777 to celebrate the birth of Paul’s and Maria’s first born son (Alexander I of Russia). Getting the drift why 72hrJetsetterGirl was getting completely confused about all the titles!
Pavlovsk was initially designed by Catherine the Great’s official architect Scotsman Charles Cameron. Cameron’s concept was to design a Palace in the Palladian style. However there was some tension regarding the design style between the Scotsman and Russian Royalty owners. This tension lead to the parting of the ways in 1786 and a new architect was appointed, Italian Vincenzo Brenna. Brenna’ style reflected Paul and Maria’s preferred taste of Roman classicism.
History lesson in Russian royalty, Catherine the Great died in 1796 and Paul became Emperor. He enlarged Pavlovsk, then was murdered by his court in 1801 and his son Alexander became Emperor. Maria remained in the palace and created a shrine to her late husband. This is 72hrJetsetterGirl’s concise version of the Romanov dynasty.
Irina also advised the history of Pavlovsk Palace. After the October Revolution (1917), Pavlovsk was converted into an art and history museum and open to the public. During WWII, Pavlovsk Palace suffered tremendous damage due to the Siege of Leningrad. Fortunately, the curators of the museum were able to remove all valuable objects to a safe haven. The town of Pushkin was occupied by the Nazis, who plundered the palace, destroyed many garden pavilions and knocked down 70,000 trees before retreating and burning the palace down. Restoration and reconstruction work commenced after the war and is now close to completion.
Today, the palace and surrounding English Gardens are now a Russian State Museum and public park.
The tour begins
Upon arrival at the 18th Century Russian Imperial residence, Irina used her many years as a personal guide to skillfully navigate 72hrJetsetterGirl to the front of the line, to out wit the flag waving Chinese tour guides. Otherwise 72hrJetsetterGirl’s experience at Pavlovsk might have been many hits to the head by the Chinese welding selfie-stick users.
Once inside the Palace, 72hrJetsetterGirl’s jaw dropped. From the outside Pavlovsk, is what you might call an understated palace – no big WOW factor. As Irina guided 72hrJetsetterGirl through the 40 room palace, Brenna’s influence became very evident. The first room was the circular Italian Hall with its sky high dome, chandelier hanging from the ceiling and Roman like statues located in each of the alcoves.
Next stop in the 18th Century Russian Imperial residence was the Greek Hall with its roman columns and glass encased chandeliers – a perfect room for dancing the night away. The other key rooms in Pavlovsk Palace are the Throne room, the Chapel, library, dining room and state bedroom.
The palace has an excellent art collection in particular the painting of “Cupid Shooting a Bow” by Carle van Loo (1761). The eyes of cupid follows you around the entire room. The tour took about 90 minutes.
Understanding life under a State Run Institution
Before exploring the English Gardens of the Palace, 72hrJetsetterGirl wanted to purchase a small memento (aka a magnet) of her visit to Pavlovsk in the state run gift shop. Whilst browsing through the gift shop, 72hrJetsetterGirl mentioned to Irina, that a book in the gift shop was half the price of what she had seen in a bookshop in St Petersburg. Irina’s response, who appeared to be pro-democracy by her previous comments, stated that was one of the benefits of living under a state run government that the prices were all the same no matter where you shopped. This comment reinforced to 72hrJetsetterGirl that for a Russian coming out of a state run economy into a “free market” must have been a challenging transition.
With storm clouds threatening, 72hrJetsetterGirl and Irina were able to wander around a small portion of the thousand hectares of Pavlovsk’s English Gardens to admire its beauty.
The Adventure Continues
After exploring the gardens, Irina summoned Alex to bring the car around for the next destination on the day’s itinerary – lunch! During lunch 72hrJetsetterGirl had an opportunity to get to know Irina in a more personal way. Irina spent her early years in Germany and after WWII, her family immigrated to Russia and settled in St Petersburg. A daughter of a doctor, Irina explained her life under communist rule as she entered university to study law. Today Irina practices law as a legal aid lawyer and guides tourists around her beloved St Petersburg.
Catherine Palace – the WOW Factor
After consuming a 5 course Russian lunch, 72hrJetsetterGirl was ready for a Nanna nap, however Irina was keen to keep this adventure going and show 72hrJetsetterGirl, the piece de residence of Palaces – Catherine Palace.
Irina navigated 72hrJetsetterGirl to a side entrance of the palace to avoid the long queues and expedited a speedy arrival at the front door. This enable 72hrJetsetterGirl to witness a different side of the palace, which many tourists do not have the opportunity to witness. Throughout the day, Irina was always offering to take happy snaps of 72hrJetsetterGirl as treasured memories of her visit.
The Load-down on Catherine Palace
This 325 metre long Rococo palace located in the town of Tsarskoye Selo (Pushkin) was the summer residence of the Russian Tsars. Catherine I of Russia (no – not Catherine the Great aka Catherine II, but Catherine, the second wife of Peter the Great) hired a German architect in 1717 to construct a modest two-storey summer palace for her pleasure. The sheer grandeur of the palace can be attributed to Catherine’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth. Elizabeth chose the palace as her chief summer residence and commissioned 4 different architects during its construction. They were instructed (probably ordered) to completely redesign the building to rival France’s Versailles. Nothing like a bit of royalty competition between monarchs. To say that 72hrJetsetterGirl was totally gob-smacked when she arrived at the entrance was a complete understatement.
Irina informed that Catherine I was not very happy with Elizabeth. During Elizabeth’s reign, over 100kg of gold was used to decorate the palace exteriors. Mum, was totally deplored when she discovered the state and private funds that had been lavished on the building.
Just like Pavlovsk Palace, when the German troops retreated after the Siege of Leningrad, they intentionally destroyed the residence leaving only the hollow shell behind. Luckily, prior to WWII Soviet archivists managed to document the interior of the palace, which played a critical role in its reconstruction.
Let the Tour of Catherine Palace Begin
After slipping on their shoe covers, Irina took charge of the situation yet again to ensure that 72hrJetsetterGirl had a wonderful experience exploring Catherine Palace. Upon entry, the interior of Palace did not fail disappoint – no less spectacular that the exterior.
The State Staircase with its ornate banister and marble cupids gave 72hrJetsetterGirl a taste of what is to come. The 1,000sq metre Great Hall, also known as the Hall of Light, is absolutely magnificent with its gilded stucco decorating the walls and has superb views of the palace grounds.
Highlights of Catherine Palace
Other highlights of this Grand Enfilade include the Portrait Hall, which contains portraits of both Catherine and Elizabeth, the Picture Gallery and of course the legendary Amber Room. The Amber Room was recreated in 1982 and the process took over 20 years to complete and cost more than $12M. This restored room is truly exquisite and testament to those craft-persons who restored it. Due to this reason, no photography is allowed in the Amber Room. 72hrJetsetterGirl’s photos were taken from the doorways of the adjoining room.
After visiting the truly beautiful Catherine Palace, it was time to get some fresh air and explore Catherine Park. 72hrJetsetterGirl strolled along the garden alleys taking in the beauty of the marble statues, waterfalls, pavilions and ponds within this beautiful park.
The next adventure
After spending a fascinating day exploring the municipal town of Pushkin, it was now time to head back to St Petersburg. As the traveling trio made their way along the St Petersburg motorway, 72hrJetsetterGirl asked Irina about a colourful, also most Willy Wonker looking like church she had seen on a poster at the metro station. Irina did not need a moment to think of the name of the church, she knew exactly the church 72hrJetsetterGirl was referring to and ask Alex if it was possible to make a brief stop at that church as it was on the way back to St Petersburg. Alex had no hesitation in making a detour for 72hrJetsetterGirl.
Unbeknown to 72hrJetsetterGirl, the neo-gothic Cheseme Church was built at the direction of Catherine the Great in 1780 and like most things in St Petersburg during WW2, the church was damaged during the siege.
According to Google (Google is certainly 72hrJetsetterGirl’s go to reference guide), Church of St John the Baptist Chesme is considered the single most impressive church in St Petersburg and is a rare example of very early Gothic revival in Russian church architecture. As the church is not situated in the main tourist district of St Petersburg, it would have probably been mission impossible for 72hrJetsetterGirl to navigate her own way there. However, on this occasion the stars were aligned, or Alex and Irina were aligned to ensure 72hrJetsetterGirl had a wonderful day touring their home town.
After a very informative and enjoyable day it was time for 72hrJetsetterGirl to bid farewell to Alex and Irina in St Petersburg. However, 72hrJetsetterGirl and Irina will be reconnecting again to visit Peterhof, another royal palace in St Petersburg.
Catherine and Pavlovsk Palaces are certainly a must see for any tourist vising St Petersburg. When booking the tour back in America, 72hrJetsetterGirl did think the cost of the tour was on the high side as she thought she would be a participant on 50+ person bus tour. So with the advice from her co-worker and the very slim possibility of her returning back to Russia, she decided to make the booking even given the cost. In hindsight, it was the best decision. Private tour guide, own driver, lunch and the ability to tailor the day to her requirements was certainly USDs well spent. As 72hrJetsetterGirl was travelling solo she had the opportunity to connect with Irina in a more personal way and develop a special friendship.
Whilst wandering around St Petersburg, 72hrJetsetterGirl did see tourist operators on Nevsky Prospect promoting tours to the royal palaces, however the tours were only conducted in Russian. If you are visiting Russia and do not speak Russian, 72hrJetsetterGirl certainly recommends that you book excursions prior to leaving your home country.
The craftsmanship of the restoration work of the palaces are absolutely superb and the sheer extravagance of them are absolutely mind-blowing. A definite must been seen when visiting St Petersburg.
When have you been totally blown away by the sheer extravagance of an attraction?