It's hard to believe that virtually all of Peterhof and the other palaces were almost completely in ruins toward the end of World War II. Many priceless objects had been removed to safety before the Germans advanced, but a great deal was left behind and was looted. Now, after decades of painstaking work, art historians and craftspeople have used photographs and other records to return the palaces to their former splendor. Peterhof and its neighboring palaces are so vast, however, that renovation work will continue for many years to come.
The Lower Park is a formal baroque garden in the French style, adorned with statues and cascades. Peter's playful spirit is still very much in evidence here. The tsar installed "trick fountains"—hidden water sprays built into trees and tiny plazas. The fountains come to life when staff press hidden mechanisms, much to the surprise of the unsuspecting visitor and the delight of the squealing children who love to race
through the resulting showers on hot summer days. Located in the eastern half of Lower Park is the oldest building at Peterhof, Monplaisir (literally "My Pleasure"), completed in 1721. This is where Peter the Great lived while overseeing construction of the main Imperial residence. As was typical with Peter, he greatly preferred this modest Dutch-style villa to his later, more extravagant living quarters. Some of its most interesting rooms are the Lacquered Study, decorated with panels painted in the Chinese style (these are replicas; the originals were destroyed during World War II); Peter's Naval Study; and his bedroom, where some personal effects, such as his nightcap and a quilt made by his wife, are on display. Attached to Peter's villa is the so-called Catherine Wing, built by Rastrelli in the mid-18th century in a completely different style. The future Catherine the Great was staying here at the time of the coup that overthrew her husband and placed her on the throne; the space was later used mainly for balls.
In the western section of the Lower Park is another famous structure, the Hermitage, built in 1725. It may be the first of the great Imperial hermitages (the most famous, of course, still stands in St. Petersburg), or retreats, in Russia. This two-story pavilion, which was used primarily as a banquet hall for special guests, was at one time equipped with a device that would hoist the dining table area—diners and all—from the ground floor to the private dining room above. The center part of the table could be lifted out, and guests would write down their dinner preferences and then signal for their notes to be lifted away. Shortly thereafter, the separated section would be lowered, complete with the meals everyone had ordered. The only way to the Hermitage was over a drawbridge, so privacy was ensured.
Almost adjacent to the Hermitage is the Marly Palace, a modest Peter the Great construction that's more of a country retreat than a palace. As with Monplaisir, there's mostly Peter-related memorabilia on display here. The four ponds were used by Catherine the Great to stock fish.
The Great Cascade
A walk up the path through the center of the Lower Park (along the Marine Canal) leads you to the famous Great Cascade (Bolshoi Kaskad). Running down the steep ridge separating the Lower Park and the Great Palace towering above, the cascade comprises three waterfalls, 64 fountains, and 37 gilt statues. The system of waterworks has remained virtually unchanged since 1721. The ducts and pipes convey water over a distance of some 20 km (12 miles). The centerpiece of the waterfalls is a gilt Samson forcing open the jaws of a lion, out of which a jet of water spurts into the air. The statue represents the 1709 Russian victory over the Swedes at Poltava on St. Samson's day. The present figure is a meticulous replica of the original, which was carried away by the Germans during World War II. A small entrance halfway up the right-hand staircase (as you look at the palace above) leads to the grotto, where you can step out onto a terrace to get a bit closer to Samson before going inside to have a look under the waterworks.
Little remains of Peter's original two-story house, built between 1714 and 1725 under the architects Leblond, Braunstein, and Machetti and crowning the ridge above the cascade. The building was considerably altered and enlarged by Peter's daughter, Elizabeth. She entrusted the reconstruction to her favorite architect, Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who transformed the modest residence into a blend of medieval architecture and Russian baroque. Before you begin your tour of the palace interiors, pause for a moment to take in the breathtaking view from the marble terrace. From here a full view of the grounds below unfolds, stretching from the cascades to the Gulf of Finland and on to the city horizon on the shore beyond.
The lavish interiors of the main palace are primarily the work of Rastrelli, although several of the rooms were redesigned during the reign of Catherine the Great to accord with the more classical style that prevailed in her day. Of Peter's original design, only his Oak Study Room (Dubovy Kabinet) survived the numerous reconstructions. The entire room and all its furnishings are of wood, with the exception of the white-marble fireplace, above whose mantel hangs a long mirror framed in carved oak. The fine oak panels (some are originals) lining the walls were designed by the French sculptor Pineau.
The classically designed Throne Room (Tronny Zal) takes up the entire width of the building and was once the scene of receptions and ceremonies. The pale-green and dark-red decor is bathed in light, which pours in through two tiers of windows (28 in all) taking up the long sides of the room. Behind Peter the Great's throne at the eastern end of the room hangs a huge portrait of Catherine the Great. The empress, the epitome of confidence after her successful coup, is shown astride a horse, dressed in the uniform of the guard regiment that supported her bid for power.
Next to the Throne Room is the Chesma Hall (Chesmensky Zal), whose interior is dedicated entirely to the Russian naval victory over the Turks in 1770. The walls are covered with 12 huge canvases depicting the battles; they were created for Catherine by the German painter Phillip Hackert. Arguably the most dazzling of the rooms is the Audience Hall (Audients Zal). Rastrelli created the definitive baroque interior with this glittering room of white, red, and gold.
Other notable rooms include the Chinese Study Rooms (Kitaiskye Kabinety), designed by Vallin de la Mothe in the 1760s. Following the European fashion of the time, the rooms are ornately decorated with Chinese motifs. Finely carved black-lacquer panels depict various Chinese scenes. Between the two rooms of the study is the Picture Hall (Kartinny Zal), whose walls are paneled with 368 oil paintings by the Italian artist Rotari. The artist used just eight models for these paintings, which depict young women in national dress.
This symmetrical formal garden is far less imaginative than the Lower Park. Its focal point is the Neptune Fountain, made in Germany in the 17th century and bought by Paul I in 1782. During World War II this three-tier group of bronze sculptures was carried away by the Germans, but it was recovered and reinstalled in 1956.
You can reach the palace by commuter train from St. Petersburg but as long as you're visiting in the summer and there isn't too much fog, the best way to go is by hydrofoil. This way your first view is the panorama of the grand palace overlooking the sea. The lines to get into the palace can be excruciatingly long in summer, and sometimes guided tours get preferential treatment. The ticket office for foreigners is inside the palace, and although admission is more expensive than it is for Russians, the lines are significantly shorter. Some park pavilions are closed Wednesday and others on Thursday; visiting on the weekend is your best chance to see everything.
In the summer season you can see the ceremony of the Great Cascade fountains at 11 am daily.