The Tsars had several summer palaces outside St Petersburg. Peterhof is perhaps the most famous now, and is one of the best maintained and oft-visited. It is one of Russia’s unqiue museum reserves, a whole estate that has been turned into a museum with protected
The following are two experiences that SRAS students have had – both focusing on the fountains of Peterhof.
The Opening of the Fountains in Peterhof
For the small city of Peterhof located less than 20 miles outside of Russia’s “northern capital” of St. Petersburg, the third Saturday of every May is a day of unrivalled festivities. This is the day that more than 150 fountains of the Lower Park (Нижний парк) and, most famously, the Big Cascade with the fountain of Sampson (Большой каскад с фонтаном «Сампсон») located on the sprawling palace grounds are officially and festively opened. Put more simply, this is the day the former summer getaway of the tsar, which is also known as the “capital of fountains” (столица фонтанов), is inundated with trigger happy, camera toting tourists – myself included.
However, before we get to the festivities, our first order of business is of course how to get there. Note that most students on SRAS’ regular study abroad programs held while Peterhof is open have a trip there included with their cultural program. As I am here as an independent traveler, having just completed an academic year abroad in Vladivostok and taking advantage of an intentionally long layover to see more of Russia, I decided to take care of my travel plans myself (although SRAS is also able to help with this if students request it).
Having just landed in a local apartment-turned-hostel with a great location and even better value for a couple days stay, I asked one of the residents for some tips on how to best get to Peterhof from our place in the center of the city. After a small debate ensued, I was told to hop on the metro and get off at the station Avtovo (станция Автово). From there, all that remained was to cross the street (проспект Стачек) and board one of the smaller buses with a big “Peterhof” («Петергоф») plastered over its front windshield.
Here I’d like to note one of the differences I’ve noticed traveling outside of Vladivostok, where I’ve just completed an academic year of study abroad. As opposed to the system I had become accustomed to, buses in other cities often ask you to pay the fare upon boarding rather than exiting. Some of the buses in Artyom even worked in the older fashion with a conductor (кондуктор) who walked around the bus collecting fares from the passengers. Keeping this in mind, I made sure I had some change at the ready, paid the 60 ruble fee and arrived at my destination in less than an hour’s time. Getting back was just as easy as I found a bus with “Metro” («метро») written somewhere on it at the entry to the grounds and was back in St. Petersburg in just as much time.
I should note that you also have the option of purchasing tickets for an excursion that shuttles you to and from Peterhof and includes a guided tour around the premises. I would highly recommend that you save your money and go by bus. Most of the excursions I encountered that day looked lost and confused as they tried to follow their guides through the throngs of visitors. Perhaps excursions are better if not held on the crowded day of the fountain’s openings. The crowds also meant, I should add, a long line waiting for the bus. So if you want to beat the multitudes and have a good spot for the hour-long celebration, get out there early.
Although I arrived a bit later than intended (with just 30 minutes to spare), a pair of sharp elbows and my not insignificant height allowed me to get a fairly good view of the festivities preceding the opening of the golden figurine-encrusted Big Cascade. A short recap via loudspeaker of some of the significant dates in the history of the palace was interspersed by dramatic orchestral and operatic numbers and dance performances of various styles. This reached its crescendo in a firework emblazoned display as the fountains spewed forth and water poured down the stone steps of the cascade.
As the weather was particularly warm for this time of the year, I spent the next five hours wandering the grounds, napping on the shore of the Bay of Finland (Финский залив), napping on park benches, against trees and just flat on the ground. While travel exhaustion was obviously weighing on me, I can’t count out the effect of the overwhelming natural beauty that everywhere encircled me.
While I in no way regret being a part of this celebration, I would also like to stroll the grounds of the Lower Park when they are a little less populated. This, of course, is based on personal taste. I should also note that although this may have been the official opening, the grounds, park and even most of the fountains had already been functioning and open to the public for some weeks. So if you are in the city during the summer, late spring or early fall, do yourself a favor and set aside an afternoon to spend in the luxurious and peaceful surrounding of Peterhof.
Peterhof: Closing of the Fountains Spectacular
The first summer palace that I was able to visit was Peterhof and during my visit I was able to watch an amazing Spectacular. This show was celebrating the closing of the fountains for the winter season.
Peterhof (Russian: Петергоф) is a large area of land that contains several palaces and spacious gardens. You can get to Peterhof by land (bus or train) or you can take a boat, which leaves from the Neva River near the Winter Palace in the heart of St. Petersburg. It was built by Tsar Peter I (known as Peter the Great) and was expanded by his successors to its present day layout. The thing that impressed me most about Peterhof besides the beautiful designs of the palaces was the many gardens and the fountains. It seemed like the garden was one giant maze and since I went during the evening, it was exciting to explore the various paths while the sun was setting. Another wonderful sight was walking towards the Gulf of Finland and watching the sun set over the water. Even though the evening was bringing cooler temperatures, the atmosphere was very warm.
In Russia, 2015 is dedicated to celebrating the great historic tradition of Russian literature and the Specular featured ballet, opera scenes, and music that were influenced by Russian literary works. As a Russian musicologist, I was once again impressed by how important Russian musical history is to Russian present day culture. The show lasted about two hours and I took great pleasure in watching the reaction of the audience around me. The crowd was full of families and it made me smile watching children sit on their fathers’ shoulders and mothers dancing with their children to the music. During the show, we were able to experience the music and literary history from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. I was thrilled to see many of my favorite opera scenes live on stage and to be introduced to Russian classical music and ballet that I never heard or seen before. The highlight of the show was the usage of light. A huge projector turned the Grand Palace, which is located behind the Grande Cascade; into a movie screen and at various points in the show it turned into a bookcase that contained popular works by Russian authors. Throughout the Spectacular, there was a firework show that added to beauty of the show.
During my studies of Russian music, literature, and culture, I knew that celebrations of various kinds were a big aspect of the Russian tradition and it was great to experience one in person. I went to Peterhof with two girls I met in the International Dorm at UNICON, one from Germany and one from France, and it was great to discuss our opinion about the Spectacular and the overall impression of Peterhof. I cannot wait to visit Peterhof during the day, even if the fountains are closed for the season.