Located on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland, on the easternmost point of the Baltic Sea, lies St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad. It, and its environs, is home to some of the most opulent palaces that were ever built, complete with formal gardens that rival their gilded interiors. Peterhof, built for Peter the Great and the favorite summer residence of Tzar Nicholas I, is one such palace. Inside, the walls gleam brightly with gold; murals, carvings, and mirrors adorn what space there is left on the walls, and even the tremendously high ceilings are covered in intricate paintings. Through the tall windows one can see the gardens, which stretch from the palace all the way down to the Baltic Sea.
The gardens are significant, and one could spend the better part of a day there. The Upper Gardens, the part that most visitors see first, consist of about 37 acres of formal plantings, tile work, and fountains. Designed by Jean Leblond and Nichola Michetti and completed in 1724, they showcase what can be done in a climate that can be quite forbidding. Being on the sea, they are subject to winds and salt water, and the steep incline means there are many different microclimates to contend with. The incline was turned into an asset, however, when the Grand Cascade and other fountains were added. Underground springs fill reservoirs at the top of the hill, and the pressure from the water running downhill feeds the fountains, so no pumps are necessary to propel jets of water many feet into the air. As with the inside of the palace, everything that can be covered in gold, is, including a three tier fountain of Neptune and his trident with his escorts, and another of Samson ripping open the jaws of the lion, symbolizing Russia’s victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War. And that is only the beginning. The effect is bright, and opulent, and completely over the top.
To rest your eyes from such splendor, you only have to look to the left or the right, where peaceful lawns lined with colorful annuals , and ornate patterns in the grass made of different colored stones offer a more sedate view. Called the “Versailles of the North”, the layout is extremely formal, with a grand allee running down the center, and the water from the fountains flowing into a long pool which runs all the way to the sea, some considerable distance away. To either side there are orchards, pools, bridges, and acre upon acre of parkland to be discovered.
If in the St. Petersburg area, the Peterhof gardens should not be missed. Try to visit in the morning when the crowds are less dense, and prepare to be impressed.