The moment I clapped eyes on Catherine Palace, with its vast bright blue and white baroque exterior, topped with glistening gold domes, I felt I was entering an Alice in Wonderland dreamscape.
As the military band (think toy soldiers) ushers visitors through the gleaming entrance gates, the four storey block that makes up the Palace stands to attention. The gleam of gold cornicing surrounding the windows, pillars, statues and balconies makes it look like nothing so much as an over-decorated wedding cake.
It’s a perfect backdrop for the local wedding parties which were making the most of the grandstand venue with its immaculate gardens and late summer sunshine colours. The whole ‘Buckingham Place on acid’ structure is dazzling, surreal and OTT, and that’s just from a distance.
Impressive though the exterior is, what any first time visitor is unprepared for is the enormity and opulence of the interior. Immaculately restored, the Palace’s gush of gold decoration inside has to be seen to be believed. Gold leaf pillars, chandeliers, tables, chairs, mirrors, statues, paintings, and candlesticks, all set off by gold walls, wallpaper and door patterns come together to produce an elaborate spider’s web of garish 18th Century bling. Every doorway leads through to yet another gold dominated room, dripping in portraits, mirrors and embroidered wall paper.
Although magnificent, it is easy to see why the austere Catherine the Great (reign 1762-1796) dismissed it as ‘whipped cream’ architecture.
Certainly as a venue it would sit happily in a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang movie set. It has served as a party venue for Elton John among many other glitterati luvvies, including Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, Sting and Naomi Campbell.
It was designed in 1717 not as toy-town film set, but as a summer palace for the tsars. Initially built for Catherine I of Russia (reign 1725-1727), the Palace was further decorated by Empress Elizabeth who commissioned Bartolomeo Rastrelli to jazz it up in flamboyant Rococo style in 1752.
One of the most remarkable aspects is how immaculately the restoration has been carried out. Bearing in mind that the retreating German forces wrecked the place after the Siege of Leningrad (1941-44), leaving a mere building structure shell. As the contrasting 1945/2014 photos below show, it is astonishing how pinpoint accurate and precise it looks today.
Aside from the brightly lit ballrooms and never-ending corridors (which resemble mirror tunnels), personally I found the Amber Room the most extraordinary of the distinctly decorated smaller rooms. Decked from ceiling to floor in the most amazing collection of stunning fossilized tree resin (amber), the room felt trapped in time itself. Like everything in the fairy-tale that is Catherine Palace, the whole room appeared to be garishly stuck between two eras – in this case between Neolithic times (when amber was first appreciated) and to today. With foreign 2014 visitors enjoying the immaculate reconstruction (from locally sourced Kaliningrad amber) as much as the Tsar’s first foreign ambassadors did three hundred years ago.
I hope these photos, all taken when I visited earlier this month, give you a glimpse of just how impressive Catherine Palace and its surrounding gardens are.
Certainly if you have even twenty-four hours in St Petersburg it is well worth the fifteen mile trip to the south of the city. Located in the Soviet renamed town of Pushkin (originally called Tsarskoe Selo – Tsar’s Village), it is surely one of the highlights of this outlandish Baltic region.
Just don’t forget your sunglasses and Alice Through the Looking Glass film props.