Hello! As this is a two-parter, I won’t spend a ton of time on an introduction. If you haven’t read my first Russian blog, you can find it here: St. Petersburg, Russia; Palaces and Vodka – Part 1. Day 1 was very hectic and jampacked, while Day 2 was more relaxed and less frantic. Both days in Russia were some of the most surreal experiences of my life, and especially within my travel experiences.
So, without further ado, here is Day 2!
Mistakenly called Catherine’s Palace, the official name is in fact, singular. This gigantic, majestic palace is really a sight to behold. It is over-whelmingly large, with the main (and largest) portion directly in front with two large wings on either side. Smaller, but not less lavish, buildings shape the front into a semi-circle, complete with a giant, over-the-top, golden front gate blocking it all off to the peasants.
Completed in 1717 at the bequest of Catherine the Great, who wanted a “summer home”, it is out in the countryside, 15 ½ miles from St. Petersburg. It is far enough to leave behind the little people in their polluted, congested, industrialized city, but close enough to rule when needed. It’s a striking sky blue, with gold trim and golden onion bubbles that you typically associate with Russia. When you’re standing right outside of it (and you will be standing outside for a while – longest line EVER), it’s just a wall of blue and gold all around you. As I’ve mentioned, it’s LARGE, with the main palace being 1066.27 feet long, roughly the length of 3 football fields.
Speaking of the line, it was, in one word, ridiculous. It was probably the longest line I’ve ever stood in, length and time wise. And to make it even better? It was raining. I mentioned in part one that Russia gets an average of 72 days of sunlight a year and we were only lucky enough to get one of them. The second day was remarkably different than the first, raining off and on all day, and pouring in the morning. It was bitterly cold as well, and Russia really doesn’t care if you have to stand in the cold rain, as there are no other line options. You just deal with it.
Other than in the entrance area and The Great Hall, you visit Catherine Palace conveyor-belt style, i.e. it’s one way, keep-the-line-moving, and you cannot wander around absentmindedly (you really can’t do that anywhere; you’re pretty much with your government-approved guide the entire time). Most of the rooms are roped off, allowing only a portion to be available for tourists to gather in, but you can see and stare at the whole room (you just can’t walk around in it). Therefore, you get a set amount of time to “ooh” and “awe” while being told the history of the room by your guide before being ushered on by a Catherine Palace employee. You also must wear little booties to help protect the floor. This was the only place we ever had to wear them.
The original main house was built by Peter the Great for his wife Catherine I, and expanded by Peter’s daughter, Empress Elizabeth, during her reign into the colossal mega mansion that it is today. The original palace had only 16 rooms (still a lot in those days), however, after Elizabeth’s expansion, it had those rooms plus 40 state apartments, and more than 100 private and service rooms. The rooms you visit are mainly: Courtiers-in-Attendance Dining Room, the White Formal Dining Room, the Portrait Gallery, the Green Dining Room, the Blue Formal Dining Room (lots of dining rooms for some reason), the Antechambers, the Cavalier’s, the Great Hall, the Crimson Room, the Golden Suite, and of course, the Amber Room.
Arguably the most famous room in all of Russia (and one of the most famous rooms in the World and in history), the Amber Room has quite the story, which includes WWII, Nazis, and restoration. During the war, the Russians desperately tried to camouflage the Amber Room by putting boring wallpaper on the walls because attempts to remove the heavy amber adornments were too difficult. Well, as you can imagine, it didn’t work, and the Nazis immediately found it and they somehow were able to remove it. I don’t know if the Russians just didn’t have the know-how, if it was time related, or if the Nazis simply didn’t care about damaging the priceless walls and brutally ripped it down like the Neanderthals they were.
Either way, they stole it and its final resting place is still one of the World’s greatest mysteries, with countless History Channel shows and specials airing periodically over the years. Originally after it was stolen, it was taken to Germany and displayed at Konigsberg Castle. Later, it vanished forever. My guess is it’s been dismantled, spread amongst many people, and either destroyed or small pieces have been passed down the family lines of former Nazis as people die. I don’t believe it’s somewhere completely intact and assembled in perfect condition, in an underground bunker that nobody knows about, or in some hut in the Black Forest in rural Germany. Perhaps some eccentric German billionaire acquired it and it’s set up in some mansion basement… but doubtful.
Since they never recovered the original Amber Room, they had no choice but to let it go, which they did, for almost 40 years. It was stolen in 1941; finally 37 years later, the decision was made to recreate the room in Catherine Palace. It took them 24 years, 40 expert craftsmen from Russia and Germany, and tons of donations from Germany, but in 2003 the recreated Amber Room was finally completed, installed, and inaugurated. However, just because it’s a reconstruction doesn’t mean it’s a fake. The new Amber Room is worth millions and real amber was used in the reconstruction. According to Wiki, the craftsmen used “… original drawings and old black-and-white photographs, every attempt was made to duplicate the original Amber Room. This included the 350 shades of amber in the original panels and fixtures that adorned the room.”
The other rooms are impressive, although not as striking as the Amber Room. Most of the rooms left me feeling very overwhelmed by how lavishly imperial Russian rulers lived, which isn’t anything new when it comes to tsars, kings, queens, emperors, or dictators… past or present. Out of all the churches and palaces we visited in St. Petersburg, Catherine Palace was by far the most grandiose, extravagant, and “holy bleep” inducing (and that’s not easy to do in Russia).
Peterhof Palace looks like it was designed by somebody who watched Alice in Wonderland one too many times, while on an acid binge. There are black and white checkered floors, dragons, ornate fountains (64 of them), flowers and trees that squirt water, and a lot of Greek-looking statutes, some regular and some gold, everywhere. All of this is on top of a gigantic palace that sits on atop of hill, overlooking all the weirdness.
Peterhof palace is your run-of-the-mill Russian palace (at least on the outside), not any more special than the other 78 palaces we already visited (and not comparable to Catherine Palace). But – this is just my opinion from the outside. We did not go inside at all. I’m unsure if inside tours weren’t operating at the time or if our specific tour only covered the grounds, but whatever the reason, we didn’t tour the inside. They do offer tours inside, however.
The most interesting part of the palace itself was that it was designed to resemble the famous Palace of Versailles, because Peter the Great was feeling kind of spicy towards King Louie XIV of France after Louie had the famous French palace built. Apparently even 19th century monarchs and tsars could not help but engage in the centuries old game of neighbor jealousy and envy. Therefore, he built Peterhof to consist of more than 30 rooms filled with gold, marble, mirrors, fireplaces, and treasures bought (or stolen) from Asia.
Construction of the original Peterhof Palace began in 1705 and it was rather mundane looking, comparatively. Between 1745 and 1755 construction began to expand it into the grand palace and garden it is today. However, like a lot of palaces and castles in Europe during WWII, the Nazis overtook Peterhof in 1941, and held onto it until 1944. Luckily, employees of the palace had enough time between the German invasion of Russia and their actual arrival at Peterhof to remove a majority of the most priceless art and artifacts. Nonetheless, the Nazis destroyed what was left of Peterhof, demolishing most of the fountains and exploding a portion of the palace, leaving it to burn.
Restoration began on the palace immediately after Russia reacquired their country, and the Lower Park (the lower gardens) was reopened to the public just a year later, in 1945. The palace and rest of the grounds were eventually rebuilt to their former glory and tours resumed.
Located at Razvodnaya Ulitsa, 2, St Petersburg, Russia, the hours are Monday to Sunday, from 10am to 5pm (with an “off hour” between 1pm and 2pm). You can reach Peterhof multiple ways, as it sits across the river from the heart of St. Petersburg. We drove in a bus to the palace, as we were already out that way due to visiting Catherine Palace earlier. However, if you’re coming straight from St. Petersburg, the fastest way is the hydrofoil across the river. It is the most expensive option, but the fastest by far. We were at Peterhof so long that our driver was able to drive all the way back and meet us on the other side of the river, so we could experience the hydrofoil. It’s… nice.
Monplaisir by the Sea
Because one palace on the grounds of Peterhof wasn’t enough for Peter the Great, he decided to build a second, smaller, more “modest” palace on the opposite end of the grounds, closest to the sea. He began construction on this mini palace about 10 years after construction began on Peterhof, and it took 9 years to complete. This would be his “summer retreat” (although he already had a summer palace – called Summer Palace of Peter the Great) because apparently Peterhof was just too big to have that “summer retreat feel”.
Most importantly though, Monplaisir gave Peter the Great a great tactical vantage and viewpoint of the sea that Peterhof could not. In the most seaward corner, his Maritime Study, he could see Kronstadt Island to the left and St. Petersburg to the right. As this was still during a time where European countries eagerly invaded each other, it makes sense.
One super bizarre thing that happened to us while visiting Peterhof Palace and Monplaisir was the tiff our government-approved guide got into with another government-approved guide. We were at one of the million statutes we learned about over the last two days and were listening to our guide, Elena, explain the legend of this statute. I can’t tell you specifics other than if you rub the foot and make a wish, your wish will come true. She showed us this and we began to take turns rubbing and wishing (gross – so pre-Covid), when suddenly, a small, very angry Russian woman came out of nowhere. She began harshly speaking (I wouldn’t call it yelling) in Russian to Elena, who calmly spoke back in Russian, and the small, angry one flashed her government-approved guide badge at Elena, getting angrier. They tiff’ed back and forth for a while with the small, angry lady furiously gesturing towards the statute multiple times. Eventually she huffed and puffed away, and the only explanation I remember was that “those from the old-school mindset have a different opinion on how tours should be given”. Or something like that.
Russian Metro System
The most Russian part of our whole Russian experience was the Russian metro. Tourists simply don’t venture down there unless their government-approved guide takes them, so it was a pretty authentic experience. I’m not sure what I expected, but I didn’t expect stepping into a relic from the Cold War.
The Russian metro is a trip. Construction began on it in 1941, but was quickly put on hold due to WWII. Then, during the subsequent Siege of Leningrad the half-constructed underground tunnels were used as bomb shelters. It finally officially opened for its intended purpose in November of 1955. The biggest takeaway from the metro? It’s very deep underground. We had to take the world’s longest and scariest escalator, which felt like it took a solid 5 minutes. In fact, St. Petersburg has one of the deepest metro systems in the world and is the deepest by average depth of all stations of any metro in the world. The deepest station is Admiralteyskaya, which is 282 feet below ground. For comparison, the deepest station in NYC is about 173 feet and the deepest in the London Tube is 191 feet.
We went to the station called На́рвская, or Narvskaya. It is 171 feet into the ground and was opened in 1955 as part of the first stage of the St. Petersburg Metro from Avtovo to Ploschad Vosstania. Before it was built, it was originally to be named Stalinskaya after the Stalin but was renamed Narvskaya when “de-Stalinization” began under Nikita Khrushchev, after the famous communist died in 1953.
What struck me the most about the metro (other than how deep it was in the earth) was how many symbols of communism were still loud and proud. Elena had told us multiple times throughout the trip that even though communism was “gone” in Russia, it wasn’t really “gone”. She said that a lot of the symbols still exist (clearly) and that many middle aged to older Russians, who grew up under communist rule, still have that mindset which is hard for many to shake. “Boomer” parents were still raising their children under the oppressive mindset they grew up under, which their children then passed down to their children. She first brought it to our attention when we encountered the coldest waitress who ever existed (more on that in a minute) and then again when the small, angry Russian lady screamed at her at Peterhof.
She brought it to our attention a third time, in the Russian metro, where absolutely nobody looks you in the eye. She said you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would, and most people will just go about their business and ignore you, because that’s the communist way. It’s not like NYC, where it’s super loud and crazy and people will mess with you while everyone else pretends that they don’t see it. I remember standing in the train, going somewhere I can’t even begin to remember, and nobody talked on the train. That’s not an exaggeration, literally nobody talked, including our group, because otherwise we would’ve been the only ones talking and it would’ve been super awkward. It was an extremely bizarre experience; to say the least.
I left the food for its own little section at the end because it deserves it. We had two meals in Russia, one each on day one and day two. Day one meal was great. I can only describe it as a ham and cheese hot pocket inside with a wonton dumpling outside. I’m sure it has a proper, and very Russian name; however, I don’t know it. I looked for it online but was unsuccessful. Either way, it was very good, and combined with the yummy vegetable soup, was the only thing I was able to eat the entire time (as well as bread and butter).
Unfortunately for me, seafood and fish are a big staple of the sea-facing St. Petersburg, and on day one I was blessed enough to have a non-fish option. On day two, not so much. The whole day I sustained myself on bread and butter, as that was literally the only thing available for me to eat at the restaurant. We went to a restaurant right outside Catherine Palace, between our visit to that and Peterhof, and our meal was part of a pre-paid meal deal with the restaurant and the tour company.
Those thinking about or preparing to take an organized tour in St. Petersburg need to be aware that you eat what they present you… or you don’t eat. There really is no time to stop (although I highly doubt they’d stop if you asked), as you are on a very strict, and very organized, time schedule. You are constantly being rushed to or from this church or that palace to this museum. If you’re like me and really loathe seafood, I strongly suggest packing a lunch or snacks before you go.
Now for the waitress. She was the most memorable thing about that lunch, as she stared at us with pure disgust the entire time. As I mentioned above, Elena explained to us that even though Russia is a “democracy”, many people are still stuck in the communist mindset, which is one of hardship and zero fun, and smiles are not the norm in these parts. Waitresses and other service workers are not taught to smile at customers, as the “customer service is number one, yippie!!!” mindset that exists in America simply does not exist here. Also, it’s just best to assume that many Russians still regard “privileged American tourists” as just that: “privileged American tourists”. So, try not to take it personally.
To wrap up, if I had to describe Russia in two words, it would be stunning and depressing. The architecture is unlike any I have ever seen, the interiors of the palaces were magnificent and beautiful, and just being in such a mysterious place that not many Americans have been was a crazy experience and one for which I am forever thankful. However, I had the feeling that the palaces now serve as more of a façade, something shiny and beautiful to distract from the grey and sadness around them. There is a big reason why independent Russian travel visas are difficult for tourists to obtain. There is a reason why they make it easier to enter through a preapproved, licensed travel agency, with preapproved, licensed guides. There is a reason you cannot wander about by yourself if you do not have a Russian travel visa. Even now, in 2021. So, while Russia has some of the most stunning architecture I’ve ever seen in my entire life, as Elena told me, their true freedom likely won’t happen until a couple of the older generations finally kick the bucket and take their communist mindsets with them.