Tuesday, May 10, 2016

World Heritage Peterhof Palace

The trip to the palace and park at Peterhof took about an hour. We left the beautiful buildings of the city behind us and passed through endless high rise apartments in the suburbs. Many apartments were given to the owners by the state in communist times. Housing today is expensive and often grownup family members and their families share apartments while others buy very small one-room apartments in the suburbs. An average salary is around €500 a month making it difficult to buy these apartments, which cost more than €100,000. While many of the apartments have good transportation by tram or subway some of the newer apartments have very poor transportation into town.

An old tram car marked the furthest spot German troops reached during the siege of Leningrad. Seeing this made me realize just how close the Germans were to the city. Today it would be right in the middle of the suburbs. In fact Russian troops were sent to the front lines in trams.

Closer to Petersburg we passed one of Vladimir Putin's residences, essentially a small palace. Our guide seemed well aware of the astounding wealth possessed by Putin and his closest associates. It seemed to be an accepted fact. On one of our tours something came up about Crimea. Our guide was very quick to tell us that Crimea always belonged to Russia and that the people of Crimea had voted to be part of Russia. Neither of us wanted to debate this with her so we let it go.

Finally, we reached Peterhof in time for lunch in a Russian Georgian restaurant. Seamus had a cheburek, a deep-fried turnover filled with cheese and vegetables while Oxana had one filled with ground meat. I opted for an eggplant, tomato and cheese dish which was like eggplant Parmesan. I wish I had ordered what Seamus had as it was delicious. I thought the outside would be a bit greasy but it was like a very light pastry. Delicious.

Peterhof is often referred to as "the Russian Versailles", and Versailles was the inspiration for Peter the Great's desire to build an imperial palace in the suburbs of his new city.

We had some time before our tour so we were able to walk around the Upper Garden, which is quite formal with wide walkways and clipped hedges. It would have been nice to see everything in bloom in a couple of week's time.

It was time to enter the Grand Palace and don a pair of slippers to cover our shoes. Work was started on the Palace by Peter the Great and continued by his daughter Elizabeth and later Catherine the Great. Entering the palace we were confronted by Rastrelli's incredibly ornate Ceremonial Staircase, which sets the tone for what was to come with a magnificent fresco of Aurora and Genius and a multitude of gilded statues. Highlights of our tour included the richly gilded Ballroom and the splendid white-and-turquoise Throne Room, which has a particularly fine parquet floor. The Western Chinese Study was heavily Oriental, with red and green silk walls and a beautiful Chinese tea-set. The Drawing Room of the Imperial Suite was equally influenced by chinoiserie, with particularly fine silk wall hangings. The rest of the Imperial Suite, the royal family's private quarters, was furnished in grand 19th century style. Peter the Great's charmingly simple Oak Study, and the adjacent Crown Room, which was in fact the Imperial bedchamber were very interesting to see. There were staff members in each room, and these ladies made sure that people kept moving - woe betide anyone who pressed too close to the rope barriers. There was no question of trying to sneak a photo.

Like almost all St. Petersburg's suburban estates, Peterhof was ravaged by German troops during the Second World War. It was, however, one of the first to be resurrected and, thanks to the work of military engineers as well as over 1,000 volunteers, the Lower Park opened to the public in 1945 and the facades of the Grand Palace were restored in 1952. Some old photographs showed just how bad the devastation had been. The fact that the interiors had to be almost entirely reconstructed after World War ll does nothing to detract from their grandeur.

The fountains of Peterhof are one of Russia's most famous tourist attractions, drawing millions of visitors every year. The Grand Cascade, which runs from the northern facade of the Grand Palace to the Marine Canal, comprises 64 different fountains, and over 200 bronze statues, bas-reliefs, and other decorations. At the centre stands Rastrelli's spectacular statue of Samson wrestling the jaws of a lion. The vista of the golden Grand Cascade with the Grand Palace behind it, the first sight to great visitors who arrive in Peterhof by sea, is truly breathtaking. The Grotto behind the Grand Cascade, which was once used for small parties, contains the enormous pipes, originally wooden, that feed the fountains. All the fountains work by gravity and none of the water is recirculated. Looking down on the fountains from the Grand Palace and later walking closer to them was truly an unforgettable experience.

Sadly, it was time to leave. We could have spent hours just walking around the gardens and canals.

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