No expense was spared when imperial Russian rulers decided to build. Celebrated international architects, sculptors, craftsmen, and landscape designers were employed to showcase opulence and power. The attention to detail is overwhelming; they all took years of construction plus subsequent additions or improvements. Such monuments inevitably suffered during the Revolution and the Soviet era, but restoration has been careful if not to the same degree at every site.
Tsarskoe Selo is/was a town south of St Petersburg meaning "Tsar's village." Before actually seeing it, my mind was brimming with romantic Russian tales and novels―this was the magical place where generations of royal family and nobility came to the country to play. For me the words triggered imagined scenes of nineteenth century summer frolics and intrigue. For once, the image came true to life, only lacking the live, historical figures.
Two imperial palaces dominate the "village" ... the Catherine Palace and the Alexander Palace. The first was commissioned by Peter the Great for his wife Catherine in 1717 but reconstructed by Empress Elizabeth I in the mid-1700s. The second was built later by Catherine the Great for her grandson, the future Alexander I. It is not possible to see or appreciate both palaces in one day, nor indeed the full extent of even one. One, on our tour.
|On my way to the Amber Room!|
Catherine Palace, aka the Summer Palace, is the rococo architectural style. Probably the most-viewed treasure of all is the famous, unique Amber Room. Installed by 1770, the panels were fragile and had a dedicated caretaker for maintenance. In 1941 Nazi troops dismantled the room into crates that were hidden no-one knows where now. For the Tercentenary of St Petersburg in 2003, recreation of the Amber Room was completed after twenty years of labour. It was as stunning, as lush, as brilliant as the eyes could absorb.
|In 1917; Wikimedia Commons|
Also in the country, on the Gulf of Finland, the Peterhof Estate is another major tourist draw. Peter the Great began the creation of one of the world's most spectacular parklands. The renowned fountains are the most memorable features in acres where you could stroll all day, coming upon one scene after another. Peter's descendants continued to add further water features of engineering ingenuity. "Peterhof is like an encyclopedia of park design through the age of empire."
The most famous ensemble of fountains, the Grand Cascade, which runs from the northern facade of the Grand Palace to the Marine Canal, comprises 64 different fountains, and over 200 bronze statues, bas-reliefs, and other decorations. At the centre stands Rastrelli's spectacular statue of Samson wrestling the jaws of a lion. The vista of the Grand Cascade with the Grand Palace behind it, the first sight to great visitors who arrive in Peterhof by sea, is truly breathtaking. The Grotto behind the Grand Cascade, which was once used for small parties, contains the enormous pipes, originally wooden, that feed the fountains.
Elsewhere in the park, the range and diversity of fountains is astounding, from further monumental ensembles like the Chess Cascade and the Pyramid Fountain, to the ever-popular Joke Fountains, including one which sprays unwary passers-by who step on a particular paving stone.
The Winter Palace complex in St Petersburg includes the Hermitage Museum among its many buildings. Constructed in baroque design under the extravagant eye of Elizabeth I, it was Catherine the Great who added the neo-classical Hermitage and Nicholas I who opened it to the public as a museum. I visited the Hermitage only, a wonderland of art collections that it's estimated would take a person eleven years to explore each exhibit. Endless galleries represent the finest artistic masterpieces the world has seen.
Sprawling across the connected buildings of the Winter Palace, the Small Hermitage and the Old Hermitage, this vast, chaotic and incredibly rich collection is unquestionably the biggest draw for visitors to St. Petersburg. Founded by Catherine the Great who bought up artwork en masse from European aristocrats, embellished by each of her successors, and then massively enriched by Bolshevik confiscations and Red Army seizures in conquered Germany, the Hermitage collection is incredibly varied, ranging from ancient Siberian artifacts to post-impressionist masterpieces by Matisse and Picasso. Equally impressive are the lavishly decorated State Rooms of the Winter Palace, testament to the incredible wealth and extravagant tastes of the Romanov Tsars. 
What a privilege to see these historical treasures and revel in beauty while marvelling at the hubris of humankind.
 Saint-Petersburg.com (http://www.saint-petersburg.com/peterhof/fountains-peterhof/).
 Saint-Petersburg. com (http://www.saint-petersburg.com/peterhof/peterhof-park-and-gardens/).
 Saint-Petersburg.com (http://www.saint-petersburg.com/museums/hermitage-museum/winter-palace-and-main-museum-complex/).
© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman