Our next day in St. Petersburg, we had a much better guide. She told us that one of the biggest problems people facing living in St. Petersburg is finding housing. In that respect, the city area is very similar to many other cities in the world. After the communist party came to power, they converted many of the areas palaces into apartments. Housing became a government-provided benefit; but many of these apartments were so large that numerous families were assigned to live in each one. They were called ‘communal’ apartments (kommunalkas).
Then, in the 40s and 50s, the government began building large, cement, modern buildings. They had smaller apartments that were given to individual families. Many families prefered these apartments. We had a fine example of these soviet style apartment building right across from the port where our ship was docked. That is a statue of Peter the Great in front of the building.
After the communists lost power, people were given the apartments that they were living in. So everyone could now buy and sell apartments. Since there are still not enough apartments for everyone who needs one, they have become expensive. Our guide was still living at home with her parents in their apartment because she could not afford one of her own. But she was hoping to save enough money to be able to buy a room in a communal apartment soon.
Many residents of St. Petersburg also own dachas in the countryside. These country homes were allowed under the communist rule, as long as they were small, and only had small gardens, “Just enough for a family.” That restriction has been lifted, so many of these country dachas are now very nice homes. Our guide’s family owns one of these dachas in the countryside. We drove by many of them on our way to Catherine Palace.
After about a 45 minute drive through the countryside, we arrived at the Catherine Palace. It is also called the Pushkin Palace. This is because the famous Russian poet Pushkin attended a school next to the palace. Our guide kept calling it Pushkin Palace so maybe the Russians don’t like to remember Catherine and prefer that name. But everyone else seems to call it the Catherine Palace, after the Tsarinas. So I am using that name.
The residence originated in 1717, when Catherine I, Peter the Great’s wife, engaged the German architect Braunstein to construct a summer palace for her pleasure. She died before she got a chance to live in it.
In 1733, Tsarina Anna decided to expand the Catherine Palace. Tsar Elizabeth, her daughter, thought that her mother’s residence was outdated and small and in May 1752 asked her architect Rastrelli to demolish the old structure and replace it with a much grander palace in Rococo style. Construction lasted for four years, and on 30 July 1756 the architect presented the brand-new 325-meter-long palace to the Empress, her dazed courtiers, and awed foreign ambassadors.
More than 100 kilograms of gold were used to gild the sophisticated stucco facade and numerous statues. The grand entrance to the palace is flanked by two massive circumferences, also in the Rococo style. A delicate cast-iron grille gate separates the palace complex from the nearby town.
The main staircase inside the Catherine Palace is impressive, but not as ornate as the one inside the Hermitage. That is because Catherine the Great renovated it to the more classical style that she prefered.
The palace is best known for Rastrelli’s grand suit of formal rooms known as the Golden Enfilade. It starts with the ballroom, the “Grand Hall” or the “Hall of Lights”. It has a spectacular painted ceiling!
The Great Hall was intended for more important receptions such as balls, formal dinners, and masquerades.
There were many of these Delft porcelain heaters throughout the Catherine Palace. They were purely for decoration, not function, as they were never used to heat the palace.
Beyond the Great Hall is the dining room for the courtiers in attendance. The small room is lit by four windows which look out into the formal courtyard. The architect placed false windows with mirrors and mirrored glass on the opposite wall, making the hall more spacious and bright. The Catherine Palace was set up and displayed as more of a royal residence than a museum. This was a nice difference from the Hermitage.
Across from the Courtiers-in-Attendance Dining Room, on the other side of the Main Staircase, is the White Formal Dining Room. The hall was used for the empresses’ formal dinners or “evening meals”. The walls of the dining hall were decorated with the utmost extravagance with gilded carvings
The Portrait Hall is a formal apartment with large formal portraits of Tsarina Catherine I, Tsar Elizabeth, Natalya Alexeyevna, sister of Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great. There is also a dress on display that belonged to Tsar Elizabeth. The inlaid wood floors are beautiful.
There was a room with the walls covered with paintings of important events in Russian history.
The Green Dining Room is the first of the rooms in the northern wing of the Catherine Palace, which was built for the future Tsar Paul and his wife Catherine the Great.
This is the Pink Room.
The furnishing were all beautiful antiques, and selected carefully to try to replicate how the palace might have been used in Tsar Elizabeth and Catherine the great’s time.
The Amber Room is the most famous room in the Catherine Palace. It is a room decorated with amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors. It was created in the 1700s, disappeared during World War II, and was recreated in 2003. Before it was lost, the Amber Room was sometimes dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World’ due to its uniqueness and beauty. The Amber Room was constructed from 1701 to 1716 in Prussia, and then given by Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm to his ally Tsar Peter the Great of Russia. In Russia it was expanded until it covered more than 55 square meters and contained over six tons of amber. It was finally finished in 1755. The Amber Room was looted during World War II by the nazis. Knowledge of its whereabouts was lost in the chaos at the end of the war.
In 1979, efforts began to rebuild the Amber room in the Catherine Palace. In 2003, after decades of work by Russian craftsmen, financed by donations from Germany, the reconstructed Amber Room was inaugurated in the Catherine Palace.
Although the palace is associated with Catherine the Great, she actually regarded its architecture as old-fashioned. When she ascended to the throne, a number of statues in the park were being covered with gold, in accordance with the last wish of Empress Elizabeth. She had all the work suspended upon being informed about the expense. In order to gratify her passion for antique and Neoclassical art, Catherine refurbished the interior of one wing and the main staircase in the Neo-Palladian style then in vogue. She also had her personal apartments, situated to the left of the grand palace, done in this style. We could not see this section of the palace because it is still being restored.
Upon Catherine’s death in 1796, the palace was abandoned in favour of Pavlovsk Palace. Subsequent monarchs preferred to reside in the nearby Alexander Palace for their summer residence.
In front of the palace a great formal garden was laid out. It centers white Hermitage Pavilion (still under restoration so we could not go inside it) The interior of the pavilion featured dining tables with dumbwaiter mechanisms.
After we left the Catherine Palace, we went to a restaurant in a renovated and enlarged dacha for lunch.
The food was great, more Russian style than French style, and there was still vodka to drink with the lunch. So I am beginning to think that they might offer vodka with lunch in many Russian restaurants.