For centuries St. Petersburg’s prime coastline along the Gulf of Finland was reserved for the elite. The southern stretch was the realm of the imperial court, while the captains of industry could be found to the north. War and revolution destroyed many of the old estates and palaces, but the most prominent with a royal past among them are the three below, all of which were rebuilt after World War II.
In Pushskin The Catherine Palace, one of two official imperial summer residences outside St. Petersburg, is in Pushkin, 15 miles south of the city. Quite removed from the other major palaces on the gulf, it is best reached by taxi, rental car, or tour bus. Construction first began in 1717, but the grand structure is recognized by its Russian Baroque façade—built by Empress Elizabeth in 1741—and is perhaps most famous for its legendary Amber Room, which has been resurrected after being destroyed during World War II (see "Restoring the Amber Room"). The most spectacular site here, though, is the sumptuous Throne Room, a mesmerizing display of gold leaf and massive mirrors. In the post-Soviet era this room is once again a favorite venue for private balls and parties, and guests have included Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, who celebrated his birthday here with 350 friends in August 2001.
In Peterhof The czars’ other official summer retreat, Peterhof Palace, is about 20 miles southwest of St. Petersburg, on its eponymous state reserve. It was the first palace built by Peter the Great after he conquered this territory and founded his city in the early 1700s. The structure was enlarged by each successive czar. It is still undergoing reconstruction and access to the interior is limited (ironically, it was the Soviets who destroyed the place, trying to force out the invading Nazis in 1944), but the grounds alone are worth the trip. While it can easily reached by car, bus, or train, the most dramatic way to arrive is by the hydrofoil Meteor.
This small, powerful ship runs every half hour from the embankment in front of the Hermitage museum. The ride across the gulf takes about 40 minutes and the $14 charge gets you right to the entrance of the Peterhof’s extensive gardens, which teem with spectacular fountains (there are dozens) that give the palace its nickname, the Capital of Fountains.
In Strelna: Konstantin Palace, in the neighboring town of Strelna, has had a mixed fate. This was where Peter the Great originally envisioned his summer home, but the grounds proved unsuitable for fountains—the reason he turned his attention to Peterhof. It wasn’t until the turn of the 19th century that his plans were seen through by Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich. After being occupied by the German navy during World War I, it served a variety of unglamorous purposes (it was briefly a sanitarium). However, in 2001 Vladimir Putin decided to save the site and create a presidential residence. One of the greatest reconstructions in the country’s history—at some $230 million—the project proceeded at breakneck speed. It was completed in May 2003, in time for celebrations of St. Peterburg’s 300th anniversary, which Putin personally presided over, with 50 heads of state in attendance.
Today the Konstantin complex is a government residence called the State Palace of Congresses. Besides a museum, it boasts the charming Baltic Star hotel and a village for visiting diplomats. When not being used for state functions, the 18 high-security cottages of the Consulate Village, which comfortably house up to ten, can be rented; each is equipped with a stateroom, gym, private chef, and high security, but access is limited. An Exeter tour guide ought to be able to arrange a stay, should you wish it (exeterinternational.com).
Restoring the Amber Room
One might argue that making an entire room disappear is a difficult feat. But that’s exactly what happened when the Nazi army took over the Catherine Palace during the siege of St. Petersburg. Not only did some 200,000 Russians die during the blockade but also countless works of art were destroyed or looted, including those of the legendary Amber Room.
Originally given to Peter the Great by Prussia’s Frederick William, the early-18th-century room consisted of 22 masterfully carved oak panels inlaid with six tons of precious amber. Crafted by German artisans using the finest Baltic samples for the floral patterns, busts, and several Prussian coats of arms, the space was a source of great pride to Russia’s royals.
In the summer of 1941, Nazi soldiers plundered the palace and removed the panels, which have since disappeared. The search has reached an almost Holy Grail status, with new hunters and theories about their whereabouts popping up every year.
In 1979 a full-scale reproduction was begun, and after almost 25 years and a total cost of $11 million the room was finally completed in 2003. The 1,100-square-foot replica—as precise as could be achieved using old photos, drawings, and eyewitness accounts—is now open to visitors daily, except Monday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.