The most beautiful among the palaces called the necklace of pearls, Pavlovsk is set in a vast park 17 miles south of the city and just a ten-minute car ride from the Catherine Palace. The land was given to the crown prince Paul and his young wife, Maria Feodorovna, in 1777 by his redoubtable mother, Catherine the Great. Over the years, as the yellow and white colonnaded residence grew and changed, all the great architects in the city had a hand in its construction, decoration, and landscaping. A place of cultural crosscurrents and innovations, it is the most brilliant example of the marriage of East and West that flourished in Russia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The interior is full of marvels: the state bedroom with its painted silk walls; a splendid collection of antiquities bought by Paul and Maria Feodorovna on a European tour in 1781; sparkling St. Petersburg crystal chandeliers; the 60-piece toilet set of jeweled Sèvres given by Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette; the Lantern Room, whose bay windows and columns seem to bring the outdoors in.
The grounds, a wonderful place to stroll and dream, were cunningly landscaped by the great set designer Gonzaga. They are full of artistic touches beloved in the 18th century: statues of centaurs and lions, an aviary, artificial ruins, and picturesque bridges. Maria Feodorovna’s favorite retreat, the Rose Pavilion, where she loved to knit with friends, can be reached by carriage. Inside there is a ballroom with garlands of silk roses and sconces decorated with white ostrich plumes that she had built for the homecoming celebration of her eldest son, Alexander I, following his victory over Napoléon.
Almost totally destroyed during World War II by the invading Nazis, the palace has miraculously risen from the ashes, having been almost completely restored over a 60-plus-year period, a project that continues today. Poignant photographs of wartime devastation that hang in all the major rooms bear dramatic witness to the palace’s heroic saga. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Friday. —Suzanne Massie is the author of Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace (Little, Brown & Co.).