Saving some of the most exceptional experiences for last, our Viking River Cruise, Waterways Of the Tsars, ended in St. Petersburg aptly called the Venice of the North.
The city was conceptualized by Peter the Great, on a marshy river delta of all places, in 1703. Though many thought he had lost his mind, the hard work of creating a city from marshy bogs was completed more or less, in 1712. Today, the city is full of canals, with the Neva River flowing through also. In St. Petersburg, you are never too far away from water, or great art, cathedrals, theatre. The State Hermitage Museum, The Faberge Museum, St. Isaacs and The Kazan Cathedrals, The Church Of The Spilled Blood, Peterhof Palace, the Peter And Paul Fortress, and the Mariinsky Theatre, are here also. But outside the city, about 25 miles is the town of Pushkin, or Tsarkoe Selo. It is here that the Catherine Palace was built, and similar to these other exceptional buildings, the Catherine Palace has a complex and often mysterious history.
The Catherine Palace is named after Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great, who ruled Russia for two years after her husband’s death. Originally, the palace was a modest two-story building commissioned by Peter, for Catherine, as she wanted a summer residence, away from the city, in the country. But what emerged in its grandiose gilded grandeur is due to Catherine’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth, a young woman who did not have the word ‘budget’ in her vocabulary.
Under her direction, in 1743, the building was reconstructed by four different architects, before Bartholomeo Rastrelli, Chief Architect of the Imperial Court, came on the scene. When he arrived, he was instructed to completely redesign the building on a scale to rival Versailles. Which he did.
The palace, completed in 1756, is an overwhelming visual experience –with elaborately decorated blue-and-white facades featuring gilded detail, decorating almost everything. In Elizabeth’s reign it took over 100kg of gold to decorate the palace exteriors, excess that was deplored by Catherine the Great when she discovered the state and private funds that had been lavished on the building. Imagine the arguments.
The interiors of the Catherine Palace have a gold reflective quality. The so-called Golden Enfilade, or series, of staterooms designed by Rastrelli, form the focus of the palace tour. We entered via the front staircase with its ornate banisters and reclining marble cupids; then, to the Great Hall, also known as the Hall of Light, that measures nearly 1,000 square meters, and occupies the full width of the Palace. The large arched windows provide enough light to reflect the gilded stucco decorating the walls, doors and cornices. The entire ceiling is covered by a huge fresco entitled The Triumph of Russia.
Then, there is the Green Dining Room, created by Charles Cameron, a Scottish Neo-Classicist designer, purported to be one of Catherine’s favorites, and in direct contrast to Elizabeth’s grand rococo/baroque Italian designers. Cameron designed many of the rooms in the palace. Again, imagine the arguments between Catherine and Elizabeth.
Other highlights of the Grand Enfilade includes the Portrait Hall, that contains portraits of both Catherine and Elizabeth, the Picture Gallery, in which almost every inch of wall space is covered with paneling comprising 17th and 18th century canvases and, of course, the legendary Amber Room.
The original history of the Amber Room was interesting, but what happened to the original panels was mysterious. Rastrelli, the original interior designer, used panels of real Amber (basically fossilized tree resin) to create Amber mosaic panels. There was 450kg of Amber in the panels, and the Amber room was completed in 1770. Because of the delicacy of the panels, a caretaker was employed to maintain and repair the amber, and three major restorations and repairs took place in the 19th century.
In 1941, when German troops took the Catherine Palace, it is said, the Amber Room was dismantled in 36 hours, and shipped to Germany, and to this day no one know where the panels are hidden. In 1982, the order was given to begin the recreation of the Amber Room, a process that took over 20 years and cost more than $12 million. It was re-opened in 2003 by President Vladimir Putin and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
When we went into the room, it was mid morning and the Amber Room reflected a golden delicacy throughout. We were told, and sternly, NOT to take pictures, but the Viking Cruise photographer managed to capture two beautiful ones. The mosaics of Amber can easily be seen, and the sense of lost history, tinged (as it often is) with a kind of wistfulness, can be felt in this room. Being here and knowing its original and the repurposed history was a memorable experience.
In a certain way, and in a certain light, the Catherine Palace reflects and refracts much of the history of Russia, that started with Peter the Great’s kind wish for a summer palace away from St Petersburg, through to the last reigning Romanov Tsar, Nicholas II and his family who lived there. In July of 1918, they were executed by Bolsheviks under Lenin, in Yekaterinburg, Russia, and with those deaths, ended three centuries of Romanov rule. Thereafter, the Palace fell into disrepair, and during World War II, the German army took it over, and became a sadly damaged reminder of what it once was.
Now, however, the Palace again has a burnished, proud stance, with gardens, fountains, and a restored Amber Room — all of which seems to say, as is often the case with great buildings with complex DNAs, what gets built, stays built.