Peter the Great’s summer residence: Versailles on the Baltic
“I have conquered an empire but I have not been able to conquer myself.”
Peter the Great. The Tsar was 6’ 7” tall, and would drink a bottle and a half of pepper brandy at a sitting. He was famous for his licentious habits. He built one huge palace after another, many on the bones of his terrorized subjects. The wild extravagance of Peterhof expresses the character of a man who had everything, but never had enough of anything.
While the center of St. Petersburg is one large open-air Museum, nothing quite prepares you for your arrival at Peterhof, known in Soviet times as Petrodvorets, 29 km west of the city along the Gulf of Finland. This was the official summer residence of Peter the Great, built over many years, starting in 1714. Approaching from the sea on a hydrofoil from St Petersburg, you are confronted by a majestic panorama. The most prominent landmark is the Great Palace towering at the edge of a natural, sixteen meter-high terrace. The Great Cascade glistens with its gilded sculpture and silvery water-jets. In the center of the pool, in front of the cascade, the powerful jet of the Samson Fountain spurts upwards. Further on, water streams towards the gulf along the Sea Canal, which is as straight as an arrow and constitutes the north-south axis of the layout of the site.
Most European rulers had at least one Versailles, and Peter the Great was no exception. He built a series of palaces on the site, the focus of which is now the Grand Palace, enlarged for Empress Elizabeth and later remodelled by Catherine. Beneath the Grand Palace is the Grand Cascade and Water Avenue. This is a symphony of 176 fountains, set amongst woodland and canals, much of which were engineered by Peter himself. There are four cascades and numerous gilded statues of ancient gods and heroes, remarkable collections of sculpture, making Peterhof, often called "Capital of Fountains," unique.
In the gardens, next to the sea, stands Peter's original villa, Monplaisir. It has bright and airy galleries facing out to the Gulf of Finland. It is easy to see why it was his favorite place to stay. Apart from the fountains, the gardens are dotted with charming pavilions and summer houses, including the ultimate in private dining rooms: the selfcontained and moated Hermitage.
This is one of the most magnificent European palace-and-park complexes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and its juxtaposition of sea and parkland makes it unique.
After 1917 the Peterhof ensemble was taken into state custody and turned into an architecture and art museum. The parkand- palace complex became national property. On 18 May 1918, a large party of workers – Peterhof's first museum visitors – arrived from Petrograd for a tour of the Great Palace. This was the beginning of a new life for the former residence of the tsars.
With the outbreak of war with Germany in 1941, pictures, statues, and many thousands of objects of applied art were taken to Leningrad or to distant parts of the country. Many marble and bronze sculptures were buried in the ground or stowed in secret caches. For twenty-eight months, from 21 September 1941 to 19 January 1944, Peterhof was in enemy-occupied territory. Many statues were stolen by the invaders. The whole complex was heavily bombed by both sides in WWII; what you see today is largely a reconstruction from photographs, drawings and anecdotes. In 1944, immediately after the liberation of Peterhof, work began on removing the mines and clearing up the park. On 17 June 1945 the Lower Park was opened to the public and on 25 August of 1946 year the water-jets of the fountains began to play once more. September 1947 saw a powerful column of water once more soaring up over the group of Samson Rending Open the Jaws of the Lion, now reproduced by Vasily Simonov.
Today, Peterhof is restored to its former glory and once again attracting thousands of visitors, Russian and foreign, every year. It is one of the jewels of Russia’s north-west.
All the fountains function from May to mid October, daily, 11:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. The fastest and most exiting way to travel to Peterhof from St. Petersburg is by hydrofoil from the jetty outside the State Hermitage Museum (former Winter Palace).
- Take an electric commuter train from Baltiyskiy Station to Novyi Peterhof. Then take buses No. 350, 351, 352, and 356 to the park. Get off at the fifth station.
- Take a speedboat from the Hermitage or Naberezhnaya Makarova.
- Take shuttle bus No. 424 or 300 from Avtovo Metro.
- Take shuttle bus No. 420 or 103 from Leninskiy Prospekt Metro.
- Take shuttle bus No. 404 from Baltiyskaya Metro.