ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA — I’m a bit nervous as we enter our rickety tour bus to begin our half hour drive to Catherine Palace, just southeast of St. Petersburg. The smell of mothballs and second-hand smoke lingers in the air as we take our seats. Our bus driver, Dimitri, stares straight ahead without uttering a word, while our enthusiastic guide, Anna, eagerly greets us and welcomes us aboard. Anna’s warm smile is enough to make even the most jet-lagged of tourists feel thrilled for today’s adventure.
Before long, Dimitri turns the key and the bus rumbles into action, beginning our journey. I can’t wait to experience Catherine Palace in person and I wonder if the pictures I see online do this legendary site justice.
The drive to Catherine Palace, which was named after the wife of Peter the Great, takes us on a modern highway. It is in stark contrast to the seemingly endless expanse of dreary communist-era apartment buildings. Although they are bland on the outside, Anna tells us that they are now privately owned and quite lovely on the inside. But, after looking at them for what feels like forever, I’m beginning to wonder if Dimitri is taking us in the right direction.
This doesn’t feel like a place where you will find a fairytale palace.
Above: The sprawling Catherine Palace complex is one of the most impressive in the world.
Anna passes the time by telling us about St. Petersburg and all the rich history this city has to offer.
St. Petersburg is rightly known as the culture capital of the world and has also been called the Venice of the North, due to its numerous canals. Aside from Catherine Palace, St. Petersburg is also home to other legendary sites, including the State Hermitage Museum, Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, Grand Peterhof Palace and the Faberge Museum. It’s no wonder the second largest city in Russia draws in an estimated 15 million annual visitors.
A few keen tourists excitedly point out of the tour bus’s dirty windows, taking in the golden pillars that decorate what had been the summer residence of the Russian tsars. The legendary Catherine Palace has revealed itself at last. Anna smiles as she announces that we’re in for the experience of a lifetime. This will be a walk through history.
As I’m ushered off the bus, I’m hit with a sense of awe as I make my way past the golden gates and enter the grand courtyard. Catherine Palace looks like something taken straight out of a storybook. The blue walls of the charming palace are as vibrant as the sky itself, while the golden pillars and decor shimmer in the sunlight. The palace is truly impressive, and does not shy away from the staggering amount of wealth that had been put into its construction. The statues on the roof of Catherine Palace are covered in 100 kilograms of gold.
Above: The golden treasures inside Catherine Palace leave visitors awestruck.
Our tour group is welcomed by a marching band playing classical Russian music, making us feel like royalty as Anna leads us up the grand staircase and into the 300-year-old Catherine Palace.
We find ourselves in the palace’s main staircase, where the walls are as white as freshly fallen snow and decorated with red curtains. The floor is made up of black and white marble, making it look like a massive checkerboard. We walk up carpet-covered stairs the colour of dark red rubies.
There is no shortage of art throughout Catherine Palace, and paintings are waiting to greet visitors in every room and on every ceiling. The palace had been designed in the elaborate Rococo style, or Late Baroque, which originated in France in the 1730s.
Anna shares how the Nazis destroyed the palace during the invasion of the Soviet Union in the 1940s. The Nazis had left only a hollow shell behind, looting as many valuable possessions as they could find. Catherine Palace still undergoes reconstruction even to this day — 32 of the 58 halls that were destroyed during World War II have currently been rebuilt.
Before making our way further inside to the Grand Hall, or Ballroom, all guests are required to wear brown cloth shoe coverings.
Above: The golden domes of Catherine Palace beckon people from around the world.
This is to protect the massive decorative hardwood flooring from scratches and dirt. As I look at my reflection in mirrors upon walls of gold gilded decor, my black yoga pants, hoodie and running shoes seem to scream "inappropriate." I wonder what it would have been like to wear a ball gown and waltz away the night.
Anna tells us that the Grand Hall hosted the most important receptions, which included formal dinners and masquerade balls.
The jewel in this Russian crown is the Amber Room, where hand-crafted amber mosaic tiles were made to replicate wallpaper. The Russians then added gold leaf, gemstones, artwork and mirrors to furnish the room that was originally constructed in Prussia and then given to Peter the Great as a present in 1716. Despite attempts to hide the precious stones from the invading Nazis, it was fully looted and never to be seen again. So, a full-scale reconstruction by Russian craftsmen began, with it reopening to the public in 2003.
Pictures were forbidden of the Amber Room until February, 2020, after a surge of visitor requests. Now, guests are allowed to photograph the Amber Room on two conditions — their camera must be amateur and no flash.
After our tour of Catherine Palace comes to a close, we are free to explore the nearby Catherine Park, located south of the palace. It’s a breathtaking experience to wander around the woodlands and ponds, and to greet the friendly resident red squirrels.
It’s one thing to see pictures of this wonderful palace online, and it’s another to experience its majesty in person.
This is one adventure that I’ll never forget.
Above: Even the gigantic blue ceramic fireplaces look like pieces of art in Catherine Palace.