A beautiful day to visit Peterhof Palace (aka: The Summer Palace).
Everyone dreams of having a holiday home by the sea right? Turns out Peter the Great did, so in 1725 he built Peterhof Palace right on the shores of the Bay of Finland. More commonly known as the Summer Palace, this 102 acre estate was the summer home of the Romonov family and was our first stop of the day. It was a gloriously sunny 21C day in St Petersburg today, and as the bus drove us the 50km out to the Summer Palace, we saw some of the more modern parts of the city -including the requisite blocks of apartments from the Soviet era. Even in these outer suburb areas the differences between Moscow and St Petersburg were very apparent with the buildings being generally in better repair, the sidewalks being clean and all the parks and grassy strips being mowed and well maintained. A much more pleasant city to drive through, though Russian driving seems to be consistently crazy everywhere!
It took us about an hour to get out to the Summer Palace and when we arrived we were flabbergasted by the number of buses already there. Tatyana our guide told us that the Summer Palace was the most popular tourist destination in St Petersburg in summer and that on any given day during the peak tourist months of July and August there would be 12 or more cruise ships in town, each carrying 2,000-4,000 passengers! In addition, there are at least 4 trains arriving every day from China full of tourists. That’s a lot of visitors! No wonder the Summer Palace was so busy.
The Grand Cascade was especially busy, packed with tourists snapping their photos of the golden statues and marble staircase. This is the main set of 22 fountains laid out in front of palace itself, modelled on those at the Chateau de Marly in France. All of the fountains operate without the use of pumps – it’s all done by harnessing the power of basic fluid mechanics. Water is supplied from natural springs and collects in reservoirs in the Upper Gardens, 27m higher in elevation than the fountains. The elevation difference creates the pressure that drives most of the fountains of the Lower Gardens, including the Grand Cascade.
The centre-piece of the Grand Cascade is the Samson Fountain which depicts the moment when Samson tears open the jaws of a lion, representing Russia’s victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War. It is doubly symbolic as the lion is an element of the Swedish coat of arms, and the war was won on St Samson’s Day. From the lion’s mouth shoots a 20-metre-high vertical jet of water, the highest in all of Peterhof.
Luckily, with over 100 acres of parklands to stroll through, we quickly lost most of the crowds. It was so nice to spend a few hours enjoying the quieter parts of the gardens with our little group of 12 people. There are many flowerbeds and manicured sections in the garden, but much of it has been left pretty well untouched – green forests carpeted in grass and moss with rivulets and streams winding their way through to the sea. Interestingly most of the Summer Palace and Gardens have only been restored and rebuilt in recent years as they were all sacked and mostly destroyed during the Siege of Leningrad* of WWII, when German forces surrounded the city and held it under siege for almost 3 years.
(*A note about the name of this city: Turns out St Petersburg has had a few different names in its time. Originally, when it was part of the Swedish Empire, it was called Nyen; then, when Russia won the Great Northern War and it became Russian, the town was called St Petersburg. In 1914, following war with Germany, the name was changed to Petrograd to remove the German-sounding “-burg”; following the death of Lenin in 1924, its name was changed to Leningrad. Finally, in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a referendum was held and the city’s citizens voted to change the city’s name back to St Petersburg. A complicated history that reflects the city’s strategic importance.)
There were a number of pavilions, marble statues and fountains spread out around the gardens, providing us with an excuse to stop and take a few photos. Several fountains are designed with the specific purpose of soaking visitors (apparently Peter the Great had a sense of humour too – can you imagine those ladies in their giant, ornate 18th century dresses strolling through the gardens, only to be wet by a “joke fountains”?). There were heaps of kids running through these fountains, happily getting soaked. We restrained ourselves… only just! It was just a little bit too chilly to contemplate spending the rest of the day with wet jeans.
We walked all the way through the gardens to the end of the Grand Canal where we caught a hydrofoil back to St Petersburg city. Hydrofoils are cool – it went so fast and didn’t even feel like you were in a boat at all.
We had lunch together as a group once we were back in town at a local restaurant; they served us a hearty, 3-course Russian meal of vodka (as an entree I guess), borscht (translation = beetroot soup), beef stroganoff (translation = beef and mushroom stew) with veggies, and for dessert some blini (translation = sweet Russian pancakes) and berries. As with all the food we’ve eaten in Russia, it was great; very tasty and oh so filling. We really needed a nap after a lunch like that, but no such luck!
Next site to visit was the Church of Spilled Blood, a wonder of Russian architecture and artistry built in 1883 at the site of Alexander II’s murder in his memory. The Church contains over 7500 square metres of mosaics; the exterior surfaces and interior walls and ceilings are completely covered in intricately detailed mosaics of biblical scenes with very fine patterned borders setting off each picture. Even with all the wonders we’ve seen in St Petersburg over the past couple of days, this was still beyond anything we had seen before and left us both speechless with wonder. The skill of the artists involved and the cost to build it must have been extraordinary. There was an elaborate shrine marking the exact spot where Alexander II’s assassination took place, covered in semi-precious stones. The floor of the shrine are the actual cobblestones where his blood was spilt. A rather dramatic testament to the violence of his death.
In a rather typical Russian-style juxtaposition, this sombre, awe-inspiring trip was followed by a visit to the Russian Vodka Museum, complete with shots of different vodkas to try and traditional Russian snacks such as giant gherkins, smoked salmon on dark rye bread, and pelmeni(translation = small meat-filled pasties). It was sooooo touristy and the special vodka museum guide spoke terrible English, with a thick accent that would have been perfect for a Dracula movie. I guess every holiday needs a bit of cheesy touristy trash and boy did we get some today! It was fun though, in a naff kind of way, and the difference between the “basic” vodka and the “gold”, “platinum” and “imperial” grades was remarkable.
Some interesting factoids about vodka that we learnt today:
- Vodka is made up of water and ethanol. That’s it.
- The word “vodka” is a diminutive of the Slavic word for water (voda), and therefore literally means “little water”.
- Vodka can be made from potatoes or grains, with rye, wheat and sorghum being preferred traditional starting materials.
- Traditional Russian vodka is standardised to 40% ethanol (80 proof), whereas in the rest of the world it is usually 30-37.5%.
- Vodka is traditionally drunk neat, in one hit.
- The first records detailing methods of production of vodka in Russia are from the 9th century.
- Russians drink 12L of vodka per capita per year – that’s 1L per month for every man, woman and child in this vast country!
- Mikhail Gorbachov tried to curb Russians’ enthusiasm for this beverage while he was President with a public health campaign that encouraged people not to drink before 10:00am. The campaign was a failure. These Russians are crazy!
So that, ladies and gentlemen, was our brief tour of Russia. Tomorrow we are back on our own (no more tour group) and on a train to Helsinki. What a day – what a week!
Are all the gold coloured statues in the Summer Palace real gold? Cannot get over the overwhelming ostentateousness (is there such a word?) of everything…. & we’re not even there to really see it all in person. Wow, makes the Vatican & its churches look somewhat ordinary.