Raring to go, we jumped on bus for the second day of our St Petersburg tour. This time we left the city, driving 40 minutes south, to Tsarskoye Selo or Pushkin.
The Imperial Lyceum
Our guide, Yevgenia, explained Tsarskoye Selo was renamed after the Russian poet, who was educated in its Imperial Lyceum.
Founded in 1811, by Alexander I (Grandson to Catherine the Great) the Lyceum primed aristocratic youths for roles within Imperial service.
This is reflected both in the school’s location, minutes from Catherine’s Palace, and its neoclassical design – by Vasily Stasov – which echoes the facades of the imperial estate.
From the street we admired the school, which used to host accommodation, kitchens, a hospital and admin staff residence.
Yevgenia explained the school even had anniversary fetes, in which its star student, Pushkin, would read verses he had composed for the occasions.
In adult life Pushkin had a rockier relationship with royalty, as his left-wing poems, such as Ode to Liberty, led to his exile by Tsar Alexander I of Russia.
Eventually reconciled, the poet was recognised for his innovative iambic tetrameter, as well as his colloquial language, favoured by the masses.
Now Pushkin is immortalised by his statue, sitting on a bench, which we passed as we headed to Catherine’s Palace.
Greeted by gold-gilded gates, we entered Catherine’s Palace grounds, where our eyes travelled up the marble staircase and across its baby blue façade.
As we waited in the entrance queue, we heard a tale of two Catherines. Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great, was gifted the palace in 1710. Following Peter’s death, Catherine ruled for two further years. Later their daughter, Elizabeth, became Empress and used the palace as her summer residence. In 1751 Elizabeth employed Bartolomeo Rastrelli to demolish the original building and build a Baroque styled estate.
Five tsars later, in 1762, Catherine The Great led a coup with her lover Grigory Orlov, to overthrow her husband, Peter III. They forced him to abdicate and Catherine became Empress of Russia until 1796.
In the 1770s, Catherine hired Yuri Velten to convert the Palace’s south facade from one-storey into four-storey Zubov and Chapel Annexes. Velten’s designs were later complemented by Scots/German architect Charles Cameron, who brought further Neo Classical influence to the Palace.
Starting in the Baroque era, we climbed the State Staircase, complete with red carpet, marble cupids and gold embellishments.
Following the decedent design, we entered the beautiful ballroom of the Great Hall. Built to resonate light, the Hall’s feature windows, mirrors and crystal chandeliers highlighted its fabulous fresco, entitled The Triumph of Russia.
Moving from dancing to dinner, we entered the White Dining Room, with golden accents and sumptuous stuccos. The room features a surprisingly traditional blue-and-white tiled stove in the corner, which Yevgenia explained was for heating.
Then our palates were refreshed with the Amber Room, featuring fiery precious stones, gilded carving and mirrors. Originally comprising of 450kg of amber, our guide said the room was dismantled for safe-keeping during WWII, before being recreated in 1982, taking 20 years over $12 million to complete.
Colour themes continued as we visited the private apartments of the Green Dining Room, and Blue Drawing Room, both designed by Charles Cameron, Catherine the Great’s favourite architect.
Once outside, the Scot’s work reappeared in the form of Cameron’s Gallery and Cold Bathhouse.
Obsessed with Neoclassical design, and discovering Cameron’s Roman research, in 1779 Catherine invited Cameron to build a bathhouse adjacent to the Palace.
The Cold Bathhouse was based on the ruins of Rome’s Constantine Baths, and today its remains can be seen in the Park, with temporary exhibits still showing in its Agate Rooms.
In better repair is Cameron’s Gallery, which sits to the east wing of the Catherine Palace, with 44 classical columns and bronze busts.
Designed for ‘strolling and philosophical discussion’, the building offers unrivalled views of the Great Pond and park. Nowadays the Gallery is used to house temporary art exhibitions.
Art can also be found at the exit’s gift stalls, where Matryoshka nestling dolls join eastern shawls and tourist trinkets. I managed to secure a scarf before we hustled back to the bus.
Travelling 50 minutes North West of Pushkin, we passed motorways, high-rise flats and dachas– before arriving at Peter the Great’s summer retreat, Peterhof Palace.
The Palace was first built modestly, with two storeys, until Peter was inspired by a trip to Versailles Palace and decided to emulate its grandeur.
Between 1714 and 1725 he employed architects J.F. Braunstein, as well as garden landscapers J. B. Le Blond, and N. Michetti to transform the estate.
Years later, Empress Elizabeth continued the expansion, from 1747 to 1756, again using Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the architect who had renovated Catherine’s Palace.
Now Peterhof Palace stretches almost 300 meters and its grounds are recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site, famed for its fantastic fountains.
Keen to see it ourselves, we skirted the palace to reach the Grand Cascade, a stairway of 64 fountains, complete with golden statues, which border the Morskoy Kanal out to the Gulf of Finland.
Seafarers were intended to spy the Kanal and follow its source to the magnificent fountain of Peterhof Palace, making their first impression of Russia a lasting one.
Closer inspection of the fountain again reinforced the power of Peter’s Russia, with The Samson feature showing the biblical hero tearing apart the jaws of a lion. Here Samsung represents Peter the Great, the Lion symbolises Sweden’s sovereign Charles XII, and their struggle represents the Great Northern War.
Our guide, Yevgenia, explained that Russia’s wars and rulers were heavily linked those of Europe; so Russian children learn European history from primary school.
Many Russians children are also bilingual, Yevgenia said, due to family connections in ex-USSR countries. She explained that she could speak Ukrainian, as well as being fluent in English and Russian.
Back on the bus we quizzed Yevgenia about Russian life, discovering that high-rise flats were the most common accommodation, accompanied by a dacha – if you were wealthy enough.
Other surprising revelations were that Russians passionately oppose pension reform, and have only recently accepted beer as alcohol, before 2011 it was deemed foodstuff.
Lunch on our minds, we stopped at a restaurant for soup, stew and side of vodka; before I purchased yet more vodka at a near-by gift-shop.
Swag in tow, we journeyed back to St Petersburg for our final stop.
Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood
Hopping off the bus at Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, we admired its ravishing Russian Med Evil domes. Spring green, sky blue and sunny yellow enamel led to the golden cross spires of the cool cathedral.
Contrasting with St Petersburg’s majority Baroque and Neoclassical churches, The Spilt Blood Cathedral was designed to reinforce traditional Russian values.
The Cathedral’s commissioner Alexander III revised some of the liberal reforms of his father Alexander II. Ironically, Alexander II was assassinated by the left wing People’s Will group – who felt his democratic reform had not gone far enough.
In 1881, a member of the People’s Will group had thrown an explosive at the tsar, leading to his fatal injury on the spot in which the cathedral now stands.
Yevgenia explained that, despite opposition by the People’s Will group, Alexander II was a great reformer, having brought about one of the biggest changes in Russian history – the abolition of serfdom. This change came in 1861, four years before America’s abolition of slavery – demonstrating Alexander II’s pioneering nature.
Testimony to the great deeds of Alexander II can be been found inside the Cathedral, where 7500 square meters of mosaic relate the tsar’s murder to the crucifixion.
The interior also contains a shrine to the tsar with jasper columns, as well as brightly coloured icons, showcasing the cathedral’s 4.6 million Ruble renovation, complete in 1997.
Bedazzled, we headed back to the bus to share top tips on visiting Russia…Bring an umbrella and comfy footwear, pay extra for a thorough tour, and charge your camera and wallet, because you’ll want momentos of these milestone moments.