St. Petersburg, the former capital of Imperial Russia, boasts numerous splendid palaces that used to belong to the Romanov tsars and gorgeous mansions of the former nobility. The Romanovs, being autocratic monarchs, had a habit of spending winter time and summers in different residences. Their Winter Palace is part of the world-famous Hermitage museum. The second top famous palace of the Romanov dynasty is the Catherine Palace located in Tsarskoye Selo (translated as “the village of the tsars”). Practically no St. Petersburg tour can do without the Catherine Palace and Amber Room visit. But what makes it so popular?
Catherine Palace History
The history of Tsarskoye Selo goes back to 1710, when Peter the Great, the founder of our city, presented a little farm in that area to his second wife, Catherine 1. Peter the Great and Catherine happened to be the most modest tsars in the history of Russia, so Catherine just had a small mansion – her summer retreat.
The daughter of Peter 1 and Catherine, Elizabeth, when she became the Empress of Russia, lived in extreme luxury. Her Gala dinners numbered at least 160 changes of food, her balls were arranged with great splendour and her dresses never repeated. On the orders of Elizabeth her mother’s modest summer residence was rebuilt completely. The court architect Rastrelli designed a lavish palace, suitable for the Empress. Elizabeth called it in honour of her mother, Catherine 1 – the Catherine Palace.
Later many rulers of Russia preferred this summer residence to the other palaces, and the Catherine palace and park ensemble got significantly enlarged and developed in the times of Catherine II (a.k.a. Catherine the Great) and Alexander 1.
The Catherine Palace remained the Royal residence until the revolution times, of course. After the October revolution of 1917 it was converted into a museum, showing the excessive life-style of the Romanov tsars to all the visitors. The radiance of heavily gilded rooms and splendour of exquisite furniture and porcelain never failed to impress the visitors, and many people after the tour to the Catherine Palace said: “Now we understand, why there was a revolution”.
During WWII the Catherine Palace was on the territory occupied by the Nazis, and was looted and destroyed. Since 1945 and until now, the history of the Catherine palace and park ensemble is the history of restoration, the hard and dedicated work of the world’s best restorers.
The Amber Room
The most famous room in the Catherine Palace is certainly the world renowned Amber Room. Thousands of people come to St. Petersburg just for the Amber Room visit.
Although the present-day Amber Room in the Catherine Palace isn’t authentic. The authentic Amber Room , that was created for Friedrich of Prussia in the beginning of the 18th century and then presented to Peter the Great, disappeared during WWII, stolen by the Nazis. The Amber Room we have today is a 99% precise historic recreation of the original 18th century Amber Room. And besides it’s a marvelous interior, it’s a miracle indeed, as the restorers had only black-and-white pictures and detailed descriptions and sketches of the authentic precious amber panels.
They had to follow the descriptions, deciphering the multiple amber colours hidden behind the blacks and greys of the old photography. It’s Baltic amber they used and old 18thcentury tools of amber carvers too. The works on the recreation of the most picturesque room in the Catherine Palace lasted from 1979 till 2003. By that time, I had already worked as a tour guide for 5 years, and I remember very well, how many more people streamed into the Catherine Palace (compared to the previous years). Crowds from all over the world keep coming here for the Amber Room visit, to see the 8th Wonder of the World – lost and revived.
The Catherine Palace Visit
Well, since so many people want to see the special one-of-a-kind thing, the Amber Room, there are museum rules that help to control the crowd. You see, the Catherine Palace inside is quite small. Although from outside it looks really big, but it’s just two enfilades – two strings of rooms running along the courtyard and the garden. This makes the palace look long, but it’s quite narrow. In winter time (low season) the visitors are lucky to see both enfilades during their visit. In summer time the palace is divided, and the visitors go either along one or the other enfilade.
The gallery of rooms with windows overlooking the parade courtyard is now fully restored. In the guidebooks one can frequently come across the name “Golden Gallery of Rastrelli”. It consists of a sequence of rooms decorated in lavish sparkling gilded woodcarving of the most intricate patterns. The beauty is breathtaking and the craftsmanship is striking indeed.
The second enfilade that runs along the garden has just a few rooms restored to the original design, the other rooms are whitewashed and offer visitors a temporary exhibition dedicated to the Romanov tsars, their lifestyle and habits. Both enfilades run through the magnificent ball room (the biggest hall of the palace) and, of course, the Amber Room.
The Catherine Palace and the Amber Room visit is to be planned and arranged well in advance. If you are travelling to Russia in summer, it is next to impossible to come to the Catherine Palace and get tickets on the spot: they are sold out half a month in advance. If your visit is in winter, then it’s easier, but still there are a few vacation periods, when the palace has huge crowds of Russian people from other cities and towns visiting.
Tickets and tours to the Catherine Palace and Amber room can be easily arranged through our tour company. We guarantee that your Catherine Palace and Amber room visit will become the highlight of your St. Petersburg stay.