Catherine’s Fun House

The palace was Catherine’s pleasure dome, where she and her paramour Grigory Orlov could entertain friends, play cards, and enjoy the White Nights.

It may be the most exquisite place in the world that few have ever seen. Catherine the Great’s Chinese Palace is a dazzling Rococo jewel box on the magnificent complex of Oranienbaum, one of the many summer residences of the Russian royals. Oranienbaum, an hour’s drive south of St. Petersburg by automobile, was the setting of Catherine’s coup d’état against her husband, Peter III, whom she deposed with the help of her lover, the dashing guards officer Grigory Orlov. Once established as czarina, Catherine wanted a pleasure dome where she and Orlov could entertain friends, play cards, and enjoy the White Nights of summer.

Built starting in 1762 by the Italian architect Antonio Rinaldi, the Chinese Palace was, like the coup, very much a joint effort between the paramours. Today the structure retains much of its seductive allure, with a frivolity atypical of Russia. That is evident from the moment you see it, covered as it is in paint that has faded to a rainbow of soft hues. When the palace is reflected in the ornamental lake outside the entrance, one could easily imagine the whole thing a mirage.

The gaiety extends inside as well, where chinoiserie, then very much in vogue, runs wild. Two of the 28 rooms are devoted exclusively to the East, each designed to resemble the interior of a Chinese cabinet. Dragons cavort on the ceilings while the wall mosaics, created from 20 varieties of wood, depict a fanciful fairyland of mountainous landscapes and pagodas. The real standout, however, is the Glass Beaded Salon. A dozen panels displaying intricately embroidered scenes of birds and flowers are inlaid with two million shimmering glass bugle beads. When the light hits them just right, the panels appear to ripple like water.

Amazingly, the original decor has remained intact, a rarity for any building in Russia. As a result the Chinese Palace hasn’t had a heavy restoration, though that, too, has its downside. Decades of bureaucratic neglect has left this gem in fragile shape and it’s in serious danger of rotting away. To protect the palace from further damage, access has been limited to summer and even then only during particularly dry and sunny weather. The World Monuments Fund is trying to help save the place, but if enough isn’t done soon, Catherine’s tryst could fade into the mist. And what a shame that would be, as anyone lucky enough to discover it on a clear day will see it forever. Open 10 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, except Tuesday, from May to October.