After a restful afternoon back onboard, we ventured out once again Thursday evening for a visit to Catherine Palace in Pushkin just outside of St. Petersburg. Originally Peter the Great’s manor house, it was expanded in 1717 for his mistress-turned-wife Catherine I as her summer palace. However, Catherine II (known as Catherine the Great) is most associated with this incredible complex, as she had it re-designed to its current Rococo style in the 1760s.
Our tour began in the historical building of the former Imperial Duty Stables, which was built in 1824. Here, there were various ancient carriages used in the 1700s and 1800s for coronation ceremonies of the Russian Imperial court.
We then entered the gardens of Catherine Palace and were greeted by a brass band playing lively Russian tunes. The palace facade is beyond grand with more than 100 kilograms of gilded accents! Our tour was after-hours, so we had the entire palace and its grounds to ourselves (a group of about 60 people).
Our tour guide, Svetlana (seriously, that was her name) warned us multiple times to stay together for the duration due to the enormity of the palace and how easily one could get lost. She specifically called out over-eager photographers. Oh sweet Svetlana, rules aren’t really made for me, are they? I immediately knew I would be chastised at least once during our time together.
Once inside, we toured several rooms of this grand place, including the famous Amber Room composed of walls, baseboards, and furniture made up of thousands of pieces of amber. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Think the Palace of Versailles, only more opulent – if that’s even possible. (This is a re-creation of the original room, which was discovered and dismantled by the Nazis during WWII and taken to Germany.)
We also passed through Portrait Hall, complemented by a solo flutist, and the Green Dining Room, before making our way to the lavishly beautiful and aptly named Grand Ballroom, featuring massive walls of windows on both sides adorned with gilded trim candelabras. Here, we were treated to a lovely glass of champagne and a short concert by an incredible string quartet. The Tsar and Queen made appearances, as did other noble guests who demonstrated dances of their time.
Afterward, we retreated to the gardens outside and made our way to the main front gates, and to the palace’s front buildings for our dinner celebration. There, we were greeted by traditional Russian musicians, shots of cold Vodka, followed by toast with caviar. Na Zdorovie!
Dinner included a cabbage salad, a savory mushroom custard (that was incredible), and a grilled salmon entrée. Dessert was fresh raspberry ice – tasty! We enjoyed a wonderful evening with friends, old and new. In fact, of all the people on the tour, we ended up at a table with two other couples from the U.S. Long story short, three of them were Georgia grads – what a small world! Needless to say, I had an immediate kinship to them, and we were all four thankful we hadn’t ended up at the table with the one blowhard Bama fan. Oh, no one could miss him; he was yelling “Roll Tide” everywhere he went. Not kidding. And he didn’t even go to Bama (we overheard him telling people). Typical. But I digress!
A remarkable end to a remarkable first day in St. Petersburg!