The main attractions of Gatchina, the most distant of St. Petersburg's palace suburbs, are an expansive park with a network of bridges for island-hopping, and a grim-looking palace—resembling a feudal English castle—that has unfortunately deteriorated over the years. Probably because Gatchina lacks the splendor that's available in excess at the other suburban palaces, it's usually not included in prearranged tours, and thus is rarely visited by foreign tourists. Because it does offer a chance to escape from the crowds for a while, however, it's worth a visit. Keep in mind that few restaurants are available, so be sure to bring along a lunch that you can enjoy on the shores of Silver Lake.
The name Gatchina is a bit of a mystery. One popular suggestion is that it comes from the Russian expression gat chinit, meaning "to repair the road." Others believe it comes from the German phrase hat schöne, meaning "it is beautiful." In its current state, both expressions could apply. Gatchina, which is the name of both the city and the park-palace complex, dates to the 15th century, when it was a small Russian village. In 1712, following the final conquest of the area by Russia, Peter I gave Gatchina to his sister, the tsarevna Natalya Alexeyevna. The land changed hands several times over the years, eventually ending up as a possession of Catherine the Great. She gave it to one of her favorites, Count Grigory Orlov, in 1765. It was during this period that the architect Antonio Rinaldi designed and built the Grand Palace and laid out the park, which was eventually decorated with obelisks and monuments in honor of the Orlovs.
In 1783 Orlov died, and Gatchina passed to Catherine's son, Paul I, and his wife. At various times, Gatchina Palace was a residence of Nicholas I, Alexander II, and Alexander III, and it bears witness to many important historic events, as well as the political and personal secrets of the Romanov dynasty.
In contrast to the pastel colors and flashiness of the palaces of Pushkin and Peterhof, Gatchina Palace has the austere look of a military institution, with a restrained limestone facade and a blocky structure with little ornamentation. The palace, which is built on a ridge, is also surrounded by a deep moat, which emphasizes the castle design of the facade. Its northern side faces a green forest stretching for some distance. The southern facade opens up to the main parade grounds, which were once used for military displays. Along the outer edge of the parade grounds runs a short bastion with parapets cut out with openings for firing weapons. The palace is also accentuated by two five-sided, five-story towers, the Clock Tower, and the Signal Tower.
Construction on the palace was carried out in three main phases. The first period began in 1766 under the guidance of Rinaldi. He built the three-story central part of the palace, as well as the service wings and the inner courtyards, known as the Kitchen Block and the Stable Block (later called the Arsenal Block). The second stage of construction began in 1783, when Brenna made the side blocks level with the galleries and installed cannons, adding to the palace's image as a feudal castle. Brenna also integrated new palatial halls, thus turning Rinaldi's chamberlike interiors into ceremonial rooms.
The third stage took place under Nicholas I. He hired the architect Roman Kuzmin to reconstruct both side blocks between 1845 and 1856. He also built a new chapel, and living rooms were arranged in the Arsenal Block. Kuzmin's work also eventually led to the restoration of the 18th-century rooms, the construction of a new main staircase in the central section, and the reshaping of the bastion wall in front of the palace.
The palace was badly damaged during World War II, and restoration is still underway. Fortunately, a collection of watercolors by the artists Luigi Premazzi and Edward Hau survived. Painted during the 1870s, these watercolors have been a helpful guide for restoring the palace to its prewar condition. Within the palace you can see some partially restored rooms and exhibits of 19th-century arms and clothing. Some rooms are now restored to the appearance they had when they belonged to the family of Alexander III.
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