The Summer Palace of Catherine the Great
The shore excursion to the summer palace of Catherine the Great took us by surprise on day two of our Waterways of the Tsars cruise with Viking River.
Maybe further along in the cruise, when we would have already experienced the opulence of Russia’s Tsars, we would have been more prepared for such a level of autocratic flamboyance.
We started to grasp the immensity of it when we first arrived, in a slight drizzle, at the property. And we appreciated the musicians who kept us entertained as we waited briefly in line.
The palace – properly referred to as Tsarskoye Selo – but we don’t plan to become proper now – had its 300th anniversary in 2010. As Americans, realizing that it predated our country by some 60 years showed how closely we missed out on having a fabulously ostentatious autocracy of our own (at least so far – stay tuned).
The bones of the summer palace of Catherine the Great were previously the summer residence of Peter the Great’s wife and Catherine (to us) added on to it after she was named “the true Sovereign” of Russia. Apparently she believed her own nickname and press as she employed numerous world-class European architects and designers.
The Great Hall
She must not have been one to have clutched at her purse strings as evidenced by the pretty ruble it took to create The Great Hall (they used “great” like Donald Trump uses “HUUUGE”).
The Great Hall (which doubled as the ballroom) displays the decorative genius of the Italian Bartolomeo Rastrelli. He wanted the room to be seen as an integral whole so he concealed, behind mirrored glass, the stoves needed to heat it . The impression of a huge expanse is further helped by two-tiered windows throughout (not shown in lousy picture).
And then there’s the gilding, the gilded carvings, the ceiling painting The Triumph of Russia and the decorative inlaid parquet floors. It would almost be enough to leave after just seeing this room (if for no reason other than to recover from the shock of seeing yourself in so many mirrors).
The anterooms of the summer palace of Catherine the Great
Rastrelli didn’t get noticeably more subdued when he created the Baroque anterooms. The first anteroom was arranged for theater and court performances and small-scale balls (refraining from joke).
The Amber Room
The Summer Palace of Catherine the Great also houses the storied Amber Room. So what’s that story you say? The Amber Room was built for Peter the Great in the 1700s and packed with amber, gold and precious jewels. It was stolen by the Nazis and mysteriously disappeared at the end of the Second World War. People have been searching for it ever since. As you may have surmised, the present day Amber Room is a recreation.
Actually, most of the palace and its many buildings are recreations as it was bombed heavily during World War II. The detail and magnitude of the restoration cost the Russian government a fortune – we were told it was more than twenty million dollars which sounds like a low ball estimate – and took decades.
Interestingly, our Viking River guide told us that his mother played in the rubble of the castle as a young girl after World War II.
Sample dining room in the summer palace of Catherine the Great
The palace does not have any shortage of dining rooms. If Catherine had wanted to throw multiple dinner parties on the same night it’s safe to assume that the guests at each wouldn’t have known about the others. The (this is its real name) Dining Room for Cavaliers-in-Attendance had yet more golden decor, matching china (joke) and painted hunting scenes.
The Green Room
The Green Dining Room provided some relief from gold. It has a decor of Roman motifs. When you have so many rooms it must be quite the task to come up with enough motifs. Shockingly this room used a lot of plastic molding to achieve its effects (long before Dustin Hoffman was told to go into plastics).
The parks (well, a glimpse)
In addition to the palace is Catherine Park also designed by Rastrelli (we hoped he charged by the hour not the project). He created mirror ponds, walkways designed for leisurely strolls and ones for ceremonial processions. Between the time we spent in the palace and the unencouraging weather we didn’t manage to tour the park so you’ll have to content yourself with a peek through the gates as we did.
Catherine the Great was an impressive ruler with large appetites for the arts, lovers, legacy and governing. Her summer palace turned out to be a good starting place for us to begin to contemplate her sheer magnitude.
What a broad for the ages!
Disclosure: We were the guests of Viking River Cruises on The Waterways of the Tsars but, amazingly, they in no way attempt to influence what we write about them. They seem to know better.