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Longer Latitude Journey behind the Ironic Curtain

Saint-Petersburg Mega-Palaces: Whatever Versailles can do ...

RUSSIAN FEDERATION | Wednesday, 23 September 2015 | Views [298]

Palace gardens, Katarine Dvorets

Palace gardens, Katarine Dvorets

Having seen the Hermitage/Winter Palace briefly at night I was keen to return during the day and take it in more thoroughly. The facade as viewed from the Alexander Monument is one huge green and gold panorama of a palace, the Hermitage is in fact a conglomeration of several buildings, the green one, Zimadvorets, being part of the whole (Tot Pustyn). The exterior of the Winter Palace is intended to impress the viewer with its sheer size and scope ... mission accomplished from first sighting!

The interior of the Winter Palace is magnificent, but my takeaway impression of all that unbridled opulence and grandeur left me thinking that very often less is more! The Museum opens on to a sublime, white marble staircase which is unfailingly packed with large hordes of visitors snapping shots of everything in sight. Absolute plethora of portraits in a long corridor of Russian generals of the Napoleonic Wars, military types in glossy uniforms with varying degrees of facial hair. Did the Russians really need this many generals to counter Napoleon? The interior apartments has the decorative style of gold and white elegance of the Louis XIV interiors, it was all so reminiscent of what I had seen six years ago at Versailles Palace. The Hermitage as a whole simply drips grandiloquence to a grotesque level of self-indulgence. Peter the Great and his successors were wholeheartedly intent in engaging in a game of 'one-upmanship' with the 18th century French court.

The Hermitage's art collection is the envy of art galleries worldwide, and makes many of the leading museums' holdings pale by comparison. Fantastic array of 17th-18th century European art works on display including Rembrandts and paintings by other Flemish/Dutch masters, a Michaelangelo sculpture and two extremely rare Da Vincis. The art works by Western old masters in the Palace range from  Rembrandts (several works), Rubens, Van Dyke, Brueghel, Titian, Veronese, Velaquez, Hals and Raphael to De Vinci and Michelangelo. Chinese, Egyptian, Prehistoric and Modern art is also represented in the Palace's collections. I was more impressed with the art on display here than with what I saw in the highly-vaunted Museo Del Prado in Madrid. The interior design can be appreciated for its high aesthetic content, variety of styles and superior quality. The ornately-decorative rooms should also not be missed - St George's Hall and Armorial Hall in particular are full of objects of refined taste and gilded beauty. Whenever you go you'll have to compete with the big crowds, processions of large group visitors tramp it's floorboards continually, but the experience & benefits are well worth it!

From the Winter Palace we ventured to the western outskirts of St Petersburg, to Peterhof, where comparisons with Versailles are even more pronounced. The grandeur of the Peterhof palace complex has earned it appellations like the "Versailles-Gorod" of Russia. Peterhof (Dut-Ger. origin, meaning "Peter's Court") in summer was crowded with visitors of course. We went primarily to see the Lower Park. Petrodvorets (the Grand Palace itself), in canary yellow and gold edging, looked a very splendid looking building, however we passed on getting tickets to go inside, partly because we didn't have the time to do it justice but also we'd heard the interior wasn't that special. Besides we still had the potentially even more exquisite Catherine's Palace to come.

From the top of the bluff (the higher level of the grounds) the Lower Gardens and multiple fountains are a great sight, adorned with numerous classical golden statues, chequerboard floor and a channel opening out into the main fountain. Similarly, glancing back up from the bottom, the sloping Grand Cascade is also an impressive vision with the Palace as backdrop. The Chessboard Cascade with its dragon motif certainly attracts the young visitor. Well worth a look also is the low, long Monplaisir Palace and the garden and fountains of the Orangery. The most celebrated sculpture of the Orangery fountains is that of the mythological Triton fighting the sea monster and turtles, deeply symbolic to the Russians as signifying Peter's victory over the Swedes in the Great Northern War.

One of the parts of Peterhof most popular with the flocking multitude is the Trick Fountains, Peter the Great's own innovation apparently, but, again borrowed from the Versailles court of the French Sun-King. Having ordered that hundreds of fountains be constructed at Peterhof and elsewhere it shouldn't be surprising that Peter the Great might get a bit bored with playing it straight and want to sabotage some of them - what a absolute card that man was! I can just imagine a bunch of nobles and boyars vociferously objecting to Peter's practical joking ... sure thing! In fact trick fountains were quite the fashion for absolute monarchs and rulers in the day. The Hohenems Prince-Archbishop of Hellbrun Palace in 17th century Salzburg got a similar kick out of seeing unsuspecting guests get doused by trick fountains, and like Peterhof, that tradition still goes on at Hellbrun today! Still, bread and circuses and all that ... I say give the people what they want, and the trick fountains are certainly a big hit, the biggest source of merriment indeed in Peterhof's Lower Gardens (and largely but not exclusively with children!). The only thing is, I suspect the element of surprise is losing traction, Peterhof's trick fountains are so well known now ... we were forewarned about it before we went there. That said, once there, you still need to be careful where you walk. Even if the idea of the trick fountain is a bit on the gimmicky side, it should be said that it does amuse (and cool down) the horde of people who gather round the gardens. What we found wasn't impressive before leaving Peterhof was the thoroughly inadequate and disgusting toilet facilities at the entrance/exit, a small row of portaloos (insufficient in number for the amount of visitors) with the nauseating stench of raw sewerage piling up. Such a first-rate tourist attraction for St Petersburg warrants facilities more commensurate with its importance and popular patronage.

From the Summer Palace of Peterhof we headed to the southern districts of St Petersburg to the suburb of Pushkin, formerly called Tsarkoye Selo ("Tsar's Village"), location of another breath-taking Romanov palace, Catherine Palace. The blue, white and gold-laden Palace we see today is the product of several 18th century reconstructions reflecting the varying tastes of empresses - from Catherine I to Elizabeth to Catherine II! The result, ultimately, is more of the same of what we saw at the Hermitage & Peterhof, tasteful Italian elegance, unrestrained extravagant luxury and over-ornate decoration, but it is every bit as magnificent as those other St Petersburg palaces - probably more so. The quadrangle-shaped building has many unbelievably beautiful rooms and gold encrusted apartments, the Picture Hall, the Amber Chamber, the Green Dining Room, and so on. Again the interior recollects the majesty of Versailles, especially with its close similarity to the Hall of Mirrors.  The grounds of Catherine Palace once again use Versailles as its inspiration (and even as a template). The manicured parks are equally as sublime as those at the Summer Palace, with their expansive relaxing areas, gardens, lakes and canals, unusual hedge patterns, etc. The Cameron Galleries with its bronze busts of famous historical figures and other sculptures is not to be missed either. In one of the lakeside buildings we heard an excellent performance of that traditional Russian standard, "the Volga Boatman" from a vocal quartet. The only disappointment at the Tsarskoye Selo palace was the limited lunch options on site, the relatively new restaurant was booked out on the day we visited, and because of the crowds at the palace we had a long wait for service at the other food outlets. 

 

 

Tags: city tour

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