2019, Gardens of the World, Uncategorized

Armchair Travellers’ Gardens: Peterhof, St. Petersburg, Russia

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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.

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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.

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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.

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2019, Gardens of the World, Uncategorized

Armchair Travellers’ Gardens: The Vatican

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The retirement of the former Pope and his new lodgings in the Vatican Gardens had more meaning to me than it might have had a few years ago. In the summer of 2011, I was lucky enough to have been given a tour of the Vatican Gardens, and it is certainly a lovely place in which to retire.

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     Dating back to Medieval times, the gardens encompass 57 acres of Vatican City. They were enclosed by walls in 1279, and some of those walls still stand today, although the majority have been replaced in the intervening 800 years. You can see the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica from almost everywhere in the garden, except, perhaps, from the wood, a quiet, peaceful retreat peppered with statues and fountains and places to sit, some fairly modern, others very old. The walls tend to keep out the majority of  four legged marauders; wildlife seemed to be represented mainly by green parrots, which were noisily chattering overhead most of the time I was there. Their huge nests hung in the trees; “parrot condos”, as parrots apparently have family nests, rather than one nest for each couple. 

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     Apart from the wood, there were formal gardens made up of patterns of boxwood, small private gardens, grand allées and 100 year old olive trees in terra cotta pots. Not far from the largest “olive tree in a pot” that I had ever seen, was the Pope’s helicopter pad, which still managed to look like it is an inevitable part of the garden, despite its modernity. Further along the road, there were loggias, fountains, grottoes, and although there were not as many flowers as one might expect, the bourganvillia, wisteria, and trumpet vines (some 50 feet tall!) more than made up for it. The air was heavily perfumed with bay and boxwood. One could imagine the Pope walking in the gardens, getting some peace from the mob in St. Peter’s Square, and though I am not Catholic, I was in no way immune to the power of that place.

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     Although it was a blisteringly hot day, Vatican dress code  still requires covered shoulders and knees, so the many fountains provided a welcome relief. Some of the older ones were encrusted with calcium deposits and sported beards of moss, the result of which was visually cooling, and the occasional spray from an over exuberant jet was not unwelcome. 

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Trumpet Vine

 

    I imagine that there must be times at which the Pope feels something of a prisoner given his celebrity, but what a jail..