The Fountains of Peterhof

A visit to Peter the Great's summer house.

Click on any image for an enlarged view.

A view of The Great Palace.
Our first day of touristy activities, a far cry more typical after our night at The Dark Corner, included an excursion to the summer house build by Peter the Great, Peterhof.

Nino and Galina decided to hire a private taxi for the ride out of town, but first we needed to trade some dollars for rubles, or find an ATM machine. This turned out to be a chore in itself, and our driver was becoming impatient. The private citizens working as cabbies don't have running meters in their cars, so any kind of detour like this tends to irritate them.

Nino and I ended up out of the car in the middle of town, and trying several different banks and other outlets to see where we could exchange currency. After a bit of running around, with the car circling the block trying to keep up with us, we finally found a hotel lobby with an exchange office and our Uncle Sams were magically transfered into the valuable rubles.

I always felt like a lottery winner after trading dollars for rubles, since often I instantly became a millionaire. Goodby three hundred dollars, hello one point seven million rubles! Of course, a million rubles only lasts about the same amount of time as the dollars, so from a purely mathematical perspective, your spending can seem to go at an astromical rate.

The canal leading to the sea.
Peterhof is quite a ways from town; the drive took us about an hour. But it was a great chance to see some of Petersburg that surrounds the city. Much of the city is made up of interesting nineteenth century architecture, designed by architects from all over Europe, so the style and flavor of buildings sitting side by side can be very contrasting.

Making our way out of town, our car drove along winding city streets that circled buildings, waterways, shops and houses. It was a very different feel from the flat, gray monotone feeling of Moscow. Petersburg is full of color and diversity.

Once out of town we began passing the familiar Soviet style apartment buildings that I was absolutely unable to escape. After a bit longer we headed out onto a long, stretching country highway that finally took us to Peterhof.

Sampson Rending Open the Jaws of the Lion, Mikhail Kozlovsky, 1802.
Construction began in 1715 on the huge, straight canal that feeds the water from the cascading fountains out to the sea. At the same time, construction was also started on the Upper Mansion. As was typical of many of his huge projects, Peter himself sketched the original plans.

The canal was once the formal entrance to Peterhof. Visitors were treated to one amazing view as they floated slowly up the canal, between the towering trees, and finally to the palace, reaching out in both directions on either side of them. And to think I get a kick out of driving into the parking lot at Lenox Mall. Anyway, I digress...

The Samson Fountain here on the right was begun in 1735 and the owner had to give up the former use of the canal. Pity, it sure must have put visiting dignitaries in a pretty humble mood to come sailing up that thing: "You want me to sign a treaty giving up how much land and gold? You fool, didn't you see my canal and fountains? Be gone with you... here, have some nesting dolls."

The most impressive sight at Peterhof is probably The Great Cascade. Unfortunately, we arrived at Peterhof too late in the day to see all the fountains of the cascade in operation, but it's still an impressive sight, nonetheless.

In the picutre below you can see one side of the two stairways that adorn either side of the cascade. Each has seven steps with fountains lining each, and in the center is another stair with three steps leading down to the pool. The fountains are gravity fed by ponds located further up away from the sea, and the water from the fountains feed the canal and flows out to the gulf.

The Great Cascade.
Several different architects worked on the site after construction began in 1715 and continued until even after the inauguration ceremony in August 1723. Over the next sixty years the cascade and its pieces were repeatedly rebuilt. Many wooden structures were replaced with stone ones, however, deterioration of many sections of the cascade continued.

It was Emperor Paul I who resumed the repair work at Peterhof in the late 18th century. Many of the sculptures were originally made of lead, and did not stand the test of time very well. These were replaced with bronze ones.

Even the impressive Samson fountain needed repairs just ten years after its installation. Originally built in 1734, this sculpture was a monument to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the defeat of the Swedish troops near Poltava. Taking place on the feast day of St. Sampson, this was intended to be an allegorical representation of the fight between the Biblical Samson and a lion. It still stands as the most impressive of the cascade's fountains, shooting a stream of water twenty meters into the air.

View from the terrace.
World War II was especially hard on the fountains of Peterhof. Many of the original pieces could not be evacuated in time and disappeared, probably carried off by Nazis. Postwar reconstruction began in 1946 and many works were rebuilt from photographs, paintings and surviving documents from original designs.

Further renovations were completed in 1995, after a seven year rebuilding effort that included replacing much of the fountains pipe system. Today, over 150 fountains are viewed by hundreds of thousands of tourists and visitors from all over the world. And the future of Peterhof is probably on much stabler ground due to the recent changes in Russia, and a desire to remember her amazing cultural heritage.

Beyond the fountains around The Great Cascade, there are many wooded areas and gardens. We walked away from the palace, towards the sea, and found many small paths and with smaller fountains and places to relax.

I was, once again, surprised to see so many Russians at another place I assumed would be mostly a tourist attraction. Like Red Square, I found many Russians strolling the grounds, having picnics, and generally just enjoying being surrounded by a bit of their history.

The canal from the terrace.
I must admit, myself, to having a difficult time relating to exactly what I was seeing here at Peterhof. It's rather hard for me to imagine someone actually living there, walking around all those huge, incredibly ornate rooms, and acting like it was just another place to spend time. Can you imagine waking in the morning and informing a servant you'll have breakfast on the terrace, overlooking the fountains? What it must have been like to live like that. No wonder the bolsheviks got such a bug up their girdles!

Still, today Peterhof provides a great place to get away from the city, take in some incredible sights, and relax in the gardens and surrounding countryside. We ended up down by the sea and watched birds play among the rocks by the waterside. Though now it was getting past eight o'clock, the sun was still high in the sky, and I was still trying to adjust to the amazing St. Petersburg White Nights.

A guest house near the sea.
>From the waterside we made our way past small guest houses, gardens, and fountains, back towards the main palace. Before reaching back to The Great Cascade, we began heading back down towards the canal to catch a boat back to the city. We had just enough time to catch the last boat returning to Petersburg. I wondered if we missed the boat if they'd let us sleep in the palace, breakfast in the morning on the terrace? Probably not.

The pier was filling up with the day's visitors to Peterhof, all waiting for the hydrofoil to take them back to the city. While we were waiting, the arriving boat unloaded a group of business people and a couple of perhaps dignitaries who constantly chatted excitedly in about six different languages. The men all wore suits and the women short skirts and high heeled shoes that made walking on the dock impossible, but pretty amusing for the rest of us.

We boarded the boat and found a couple of seats in the front so we could watch the city come into view on our approach. The trip that took us an hour by car would now only take about twenty minutes in a straight line across the water.

As we crossed the water back towards St. Petersburg, I was again struck with an amazing sense of Russia's incredible history. Twenty minutes away from the Nevsky Prospect, where you'll find shops similar to any American city, is Peterhof, a place like nowhere else on earth. All over Moscow and St. Petersburg, it seems, in the midst of the incredible changes taking place, the rest of the world flooding into the cities, you find the most amazing pieces of history. I was beginning to wonder if I'd ever really discover 'who is Russia?'

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