Three jacks is not a bad hand to be holding in a game of high-stakes poker, but three Russian queens keeping the building and landscape designs of a luxurious summer estate out in the suburbs of St. Petersburg close to their corsets would make even Bret Maverick fold, cash in his chips and call it a night.
The trio in question is comprised of Empresses Catherine I, Elizabeth and Catherine the Great. And, the property? Tsarskoe Selo, or Tsars Village, home to Catherine Palace, a massive and opulent structure enveloped by fascinating decorative pieces of architecture that sit among extensive, well-manicured gardens.
Arriving in Pushkin, a charming suburb renamed during the Soviet era to honor Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, the country’s most famous poet and founder of modern Russian literature, our deluxe motor coach, with business class legroom seating, comes to a full stop within a short walk of a gilded entrance gate and the start of our two-hour guided tour of Catherine Palace, inside and out.
Slipping into a mandatory pair of felt footwear covers, I, a guest photojournalist invited by Insight Vacations to sample its Easy Pace Russia journey, get in step with my other 22 travel mates and Gulya, our knowledgeable St. Petersburg guide, and immediately begin buffing the floors to a high gloss as we move out.
Gulya begins her narrative by stating in our earbuds, “If any proof is needed for the extravagance of the Romanov Tsars, then it can be found right here at Catherine Palace.” She adds, “In terms of grandeur and excess, some experts say Tsarskoe Selo surpasses even Versailles.” I swear I can faintly hear a mon dieu being uttered all the way from Île-de-France.
Named after Catherine I, this prime piece of real estate started out as a modest two-story building erected in 1717 named Saarskaya and gifted by Peter the Great to his beloved empress, but its awesome grandeur and name change is credited to Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Catherine I, who chose Tsarskoe Selo as her primary summer residence.
Although reconstructed and expanded upon by a group of prominent architects, Elizabeth’s final statement-of-work required a design that would be on par with Versailles. And, that final blueprint fell to the creativity of Bartholomeo Rastrelli, Chief Architect of the Imperial Court whose building credits in the Baroque style include the Winter Palace and the reconstruction of the palace at Peterhof.
Nearly one kilometer in circumference, Catherine Palace is elaborately decorated with blue-and-white facades highlighted by gilded atlantes, caryatids and pilasters. During Empress Elizabeth’s reign, no less than 100kg of gold was employed to decorate the palace’s exterior.
Inside, Catherine Palace is no less jaw dropping. The Golden Enfilade of state rooms, all designed by Rastrelli, are a main focus on our visit, but not to be overlooked are the State Staircase, the Hall of Light, the White Dining Room, the Portrait Hall and the legendary Amber Room.
With Elizabeth and Rastrelli exiting the scene at Tsarskoe Selo and this earth, Catherine the Great, the third and final empress in our blue-blood design trio, takes over the look and feel of Catherine Palace and enlists her favorite architect, James Cameron, a Scottish designer schooled in the Neoclassical style.
The so-called Cameron Rooms mark the most noteworthy of the palace’s interiors. The Green Dining Room, the Blue Drawing Room and the flamboyant Chinese Blue Drawing Room showcase Cameron’s penchant for classical uniformity and his taste for color.
Felt footwear covers now removed, we step outside Catherine Palace to admire the sprawling Catherine Park with its formal imperial garden complimented by the more informal thematic parks.
Combining examples of French, English and Italian landscape gardening, Catherine Park features a score of exquisite structures, beginning with the Cameron Gallery. Designed by the building’s namesake, it stands perpendicular to Catherine Palace. An elegant Palladian-style colonnade structure — 44 slender Ionic columns in all — it was conceived to encourage strolling and philosophical discussions by Catherine the Great and her invited guests.
Accessible to all visitors are postcard-perfect scenics dotting the landscape, like the Great Pond, the Grotto Pavilion, the Admiralty — a Dutch-style boathouse — the charming Palladian Bridge and the Old (French) Garden’s Upper Bathhouse, just to name a few.
With Gulya back in our earbuds announcing it’s time to depart, I save my last frames for the palace’s Formal Garden. Designed by Rastrelli under Elizabeth’s reign, this well-maintained plot of land is characterized by its rigid symmetry of box-hedged paths that frame the gilded onion-shaped domes of the palace’s church in the background.
Camera batteries now spent, I, too, like Bret Maverick, fold, cash in my chips, call it a day and head for the Insight motor coach. You know, there’s really no competition when you’re dealt a poker hand with less than three queens [empresses] at Tsarskoe Selo.
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Join us tomorrow when we’ll shove off from the banks of the Moika and cruise down some of the rivers and canals that wind their way around St. Petersburg’s historic center, and then meet up in a basement bistro for more tasty Russian fare.