Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Peterhof and the Winter Palace, Russia

On this trip to Northern Europe to 59.58 degrees North, the sun never sets before 22.58 in the evening which is very late by our standard living on the 49 parallel to the South where the Sun in June sets around 20.00 It never becomes fully dark up here, there is always on the horizon this white light. During our stay in St-Petersburg and last night has we sailed out of the harbour and up the channel to the open sea, there were dark clouds and some rain and strong winds, so the sky was much darker but still this light in the background allowing you to see, when normally in the South you would see nothing but pitch darkness.
Former headquarters of Carl Faberge, just 2 blocks from the Winter Palace, the name is still on the building in gold letters.

Our second day in St-Petersburg started with menacing clouds and a hint that the rain was not far off. We drove out of the City first by going around the major streets around the Winter Palace and the Admiralty, passing in front of several well known buildings, like the old Faberge building where Carl Faberge for years supplied jewellery to the Tsar and his family and designed those famous Easter Eggs, until the revolution when he was forced out of Russia and his company and contents were confiscated. We also drove past the Yussoupof Palace where Rasputin was killed by a group of conspirators who were trying to protect the Imperial family from his nefarious influence. Prince Yussoupof went into exile at the time of the revolution, becoming famous in Paris after writing of that fateful night. After the revolution many Russian aristocrats we were able to flee established in France, it was common to hear of Russian Officers who had become taxi drivers, the more prominent members of the Imperial family found refuge in England, Denmark and Spain where the Royal families of those countries offered them refuge. The palace rooms and cellar where the events of that night unfolded can be visited today, it is a big draw.
 Prince Felix Youssoupoff (1887-1967) Palace in St-Petersburg, it is so big I could not fit it in my camera lense. The canal in front is where Rasputin body was dumped on 30 December 1916.
We also passed in front of other churches like the Church of Our Lady of Kazan which resembles St-Peter in Rome.

The trip to Peterhof, the summer residence of Peter the Great is about one hour by car, it very much depends on the traffic. On the way to the Palace we saw another palace called by the locals Putinhof, it is the former summer palace of Grand Duke Constantine. The Palace was badly damaged during the second world war and then abandoned, until one day when Vladimir Putin wanted to establish an official Presidential Palace in St-Petersburg and he ordered the complete rehabilitation and reconstruction of this palace which now stands in an immense park on the sea outside of the city. It is used mainly by the Russian President when he is holding official functions or when important guests of the State are visiting Russia. Amazing what political will can do.
The front of Peterhof Palace as you arrive. Partial view. 
The great cascade at the rear of the palace facing the sea with all the gold statues.

another area of the garden in Peterhof with more fountains.
the rotating sun dial fountain and pool at Peterhof used in later years by Catherine II the Great as a pool for herself of course.
Peterhof was both a Palace for the Tsar Peter and his wife Catherine I, a simple peasant girl who did good. Paintings of her shows a rather plain looking woman with intelligent eyes who was much loved by Peter and who apparently knew how to handle him when he fell into one of his darker moments.

Peter also had other smaller pavilions built in the park of the palace and a manor by the seashore copied from a Dutch manor he had seen in The Netherlands. It is known that Tsar Peter worked on the design and interior decoration which is very faithful to what you would see in Holland.
The Dutch mansion designed by Peter the Great on the seashore when he wanted to get away.
However the most spectacular aspect of Peterhof is not the buildings but the great fountains. There are four such fountains. One is the famous baroque fountain of Samson and the lion which is set like a giant staircase cascading down from the main Palace to the canal below. All the many statues at different levels of this staircase are double gilded with gold, important to remember this is not gold paint but real gold, the giant statue of Samson represents Russia and the Lion is defeated Sweden. This fountain group is a celebration of the victory of the Russian army against Sweden at Poltava a war that lasted almost 20 years and established Russia as a world power.
At 11 O'clock every day in summer only, the fountains are turned on with great fanfare majestic music. It is interesting to note that only gravity activates the fountains there are no mechanical devices, as water comes from a giant cistern situated above the site, water rushes through ever narrowing pipes and then burst forth. All the water then cascades down into canals and streams in the forested park creating a idyllic setting.

Another feature of the park is the many tricked water traps, a park bench will suddenly gush with water jets drenching anyone sitting down. Or a park pathway will suddenly spurt water on passers by from every direction or a stone path outside one of the pavilions will become a shower of water. All this was built so that Peter could have a good laugh at his unsuspecting guests. These water traps are activated by a simple lever which can be activated by a simple twist of the wrist.
Peterhof is a real delight and again the Russian government worked hard at rebuilding it after the devastation of the Second World War. All the gold statues were stored in a secret hideaway during the war, except for the giant statue of Samson which disappeared and what you see today is a copy.
We had a very nice meal in the Orangerie of the Palace and the rain did not dampen our enthusiasm for the place. One other spectacular fountain is a giant pool with a rotaring copper Sun spurting rays of water as it rotates, again activated by the force of the water and gravity. This pool is said to have been a favorite of Catherine II the Great who use to come to Peterhof to swim.

On our return to the City our next stop was the Winter Palace and the Hermitage museum. Many people confused the Winter Palace and the Hermitage not understanding that the complex is several buildings. You have the Winter Palace which was the Official City Residence of the Tsar and his family and the Hermitage which was a private museum for the Tsar dedicated to his private enjoyment, meaning not open to the public. The Hermitage as the word implies is a retreat, a secluded place for the Sovereign to enjoy quietly this vast art collection. I have difficulty imagining one person going from one vast room to another alone admiring in complete silence these numerous master pieces.
Catherine II the Great would say that only her and the mice enjoyed the Hermitage and this was literally true.
The Hermitage was a private museum to house the collections of the Tsar and Tsarina. Imagine being the ruler and wandering alone in those great rooms.

The museum contains 3 million pieces of art. The best time to visit the Hermitage is January and February when next to no one comes to St-Petersburg. Unfortunately for us we arrived at the museum with 6 buses of Chinese tourists, it felt like the entire Chinese nation had descended on the museum. A very unpleasant experience. We opted for a visit to the gallery of Flemish painters and then the private and State Rooms of the Winter Palace so to avoid the worst of the hordes of tourists. It is interesting to note that no room is like any other room, all are lavishly decorated with the most extravagant materials. The art collection is very impressive and extensive an addition to the imposing decor. We can thank Peter the Great and Catherine II the Great for most of the collection we see today, both were avid collectors and it is said they were also shrewd business people, never paying the full price.
every room in the Hermitage is more splendid than the other.

The private apartments of Tsar Nicholas and his wife Empress Alexandra where the only ones damaged and looted during the storming of the Winter Palace in February 1917. Apparently the leadership of the revolution did not want the Winter Palace damaged nor the Hermitage collection vandalized so those parts of the palace where closed off. We did see the private library of Tsar Nicholas a beautiful wood panelled room in Gothic style very similar to the style used in Ottawa in the Parliament buildings. His library was used by the Provisional Government and preserved as is. As for the other rooms used by the family today they are empty or furniture from other palaces are on display. Strangely enough a long gallery with the life sized oil portraits of all the Romanov Tsars of Russia and Grand Dukes was preserved as was another gallery containing 350 oil portraits of all the great Czarist generals, the reason in this case, they were war heroes who had liberated mother Russia from the evil invaders.
The throne room in the Winter Palace an immense room all in white marble and gold.
The detail of the room housing the giant gold peacock clock, it still keeps time to this day.
The grand staircase of the Ambassadors reserved for persons coming to meet the Tsar.
one of the many reception rooms in the Winter Palace.
I would love to return to St-Petersburg to visit the Hermitage in January without the crowds.

Finally the last stop of our visit was the Church of the Resurrection also known as the Church of the Spilled blood, this refers to the assassination on 1 March 1881 of Tsar Alexander II by a group of terrorists. The church is a monument to the life of the Tsar Liberator as Alexander II is known. Historians now believe that had the Tsar not died on that day, the revolution might have been averted in 1917 as his reforms would have led to a Constitution. It is ironic in a way that this man was assassinated given all his many important reforms and good deeds during his life.

It is often thought in mainstream history that the Tsars were awful people or tyrants, however this is not so, the entire society in Russia was failing around the 1855 Crimean War. The bureaucracy was all powerful and as a whole Russia was still a feudal system. If anything went wrong the Tsar was blamed since he was an autocrat. A case in point, Nicholas II was seen as a tyrant when in fact he was a kind affectionate man, a Russophile and well educated. However he made one tragic mistake at the beginning of the First World War, seeing how badly his troops were doing, instead of replacing inept generals who were often family members or aristocratic families who had served faithfully the Romanov dynasty, he took personal charge of the command of the war and responsibility for what was happening, despite the fact the government tried to warn him of the dangers of such a move. He soon became the target of all the criticism and this in the end caused his downfall.
the walls are covered with mosaics not paintings, the floors are intricate coloured marble designs.

The Church of the Spilled blood is remarkable, the most lavish materials were used in its building, inside the walls are covered with giant mosaics representing the life of Christ, numerous great artists worked on this project. The spot where the Tsar died in the street is preserved with the original pavement covered by a granite and marble large canopy. The day we visited someone had placed a large flower bouquet, this area in the church is a shrine and cordoned off. The Tsar gate in front of the Altar is made of gold, silver and precious stones and the floor is inlaid marble. A large amount of rhodonite was also used, the red blood colour of this stone adds to the dramatic effect. On the outside the walls of the church are covered with several large tablets in granite and gold inlaid text describing the many accomplishments of Tsar Alexander II. During the Soviet period the church was nearly blown up by the communists because of what it symbolized and the inside was use as a warehouse. Today the church has been fully restored and cleaned and it is a jewel to see. Many Russians see it as a shrine to the Motherland.
the iconostasis wall in an orthodox church is in front of the Altar separating the priest from the participants. The Tsar Gate is made of precious metals and stones. The gate is open at the moment of consecration in the mass.
The shrine inside the church marking the spot where Tsar Alexander II died on the street.

Unfortunately we only had 2 full days in St-Petersburg and this is clearly not enough, there is so much more to see and appreciate. But we are happy with our first visit and with the many beautiful things we saw. It is also to the credit of the Russian Government who since 2000 has restored faithfully many important historical buildings employing hundreds of artisans in the process. We were also impressed with how clean the city was, Russians are respectful of the sites and even at Peterhof with the large crowds, we did not see one paper on the ground or discarded item anywhere.

We did go to the University Embankment to pet the heads of the bronze Griffons below the Egyptian sphinx, it is said that if you do this you will return to St-Petersburg.


  1. How gorgeous!! Loved the pictures.


  2. can't get over how beautiful it is

  3. You did a wonderful job of showing all you saw...if I'm lucky enough to get there, your posts will be a big pays to learn something about where one travels before going!

    Thank you!