Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Garden of the Tsars

By Kelly Raftery

I was seventeen the first time I traveled to the Soviet Union. It was the late 1980s and I had just graduated high school with a load of Russian classes under my belt. My class trip flew to West Berlin then took the train to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg.)  When we arrived, it was late June and that magical time of year they call “White Nights” was just starting. During this time of year, the sun never really sets and Russia’s Venice of the North is bathed in an ethereal glow. It was my first time abroad and predictably, I fell in love.

But I fell in love not with a boy, or even a girl, but with a place.  That love has endured for all these years and I will, unhesitatingly tell anyone who asks that my favorite place in the whole wide world is Peterhof. 

Overview of Peterhof from Chess Mountain.

Peter the Great created his Northern capital out of swampland and sheer stubbornness. Once he was done laying out the street plan and forcing his nobles to relocate, he then looked to developing sites further away from the city. In the early 1700s, Peter chose a site across the Gulf of Finland to build his Monplaisir Palace. Over the years, Peter’s ancestors continued to develop the site and today, the 250 acre grounds include multiple palaces, almost two hundred fountains and an incredible number of statues. The palace interiors are spectacular in their own right, having been lovingly recreated after the Nazis destroyed Peterhof, but my true love lies with the gardens and fountains. 

The spectacular centerpiece of the park is the Grand Cascade, which celebrates a Russian victory over the Swedes. This enormous fountain tumbles down from the Grand Palace to the Sea Canal consists of 64 different fountains and 200 statues and other decorations.  The focal point of the entire ensemble is a statue of Samson prizing open the jaws of a lion, from which a 20 foot fountain of water shoots skyward.

Topmost part of the Grand Cascade Fountain.

Detail of Samson and Lion, 
center of the Grand Cascade.
As spectacular as Samson is, I must admit that it was the trick fountains that I found the most interesting my first visit. In the older, Lower Park, trick fountains of various kinds were constructed to entertain (and soak) unsuspecting royal guests. In one fountain, water sprays out of harmless looking trees and eternally blooming flowers.  

Water sprays from fir trees, drenching passers-by.

Another fountain consists of giant umbrellas surrounded by rings of stones. When the water stops flowing over the top, people dash under cover, delighted when the water begins to fall all around them. But then, they are trapped until someone outside finds the proper stone that when depressed, will  stop the water again, enabling a dry escape. 

Umbrella fountains keep running, 
until someone finds the trick.

As I grew older, on subsequent visits, I became interested in the other fountains. I developed a certain fondness for Chess Mountain and the dragon that perches at the top. In a clash of symbols, a sun fountain competes with a pyramid not far from the Roman fountains. I learned more about all the statues that people the park, from Adam and Eve to Neptune, Bacchus and Narcissus. 

Narcissus stares at his own beauty in the water's reflection.
One of the facts I found most interesting was that all the fountains are run without a single pump. Originally built with wooden pipes, all the fountains are supplied by a gravity-based system that can operate up to ten hours a day. One very memorable late afternoon visit, I was wandering the gardens alone and hidden behind  a hedge I found a stooped old man, hunched over what looked like a large key he was screwing into the ground. As I stood there, watching him curiously, I realized that what he was doing was turning off the flow of water to the fountains, in the same way it had been done for hundreds of years. It struck me as a moment of continuity in a quickly changing world. 

Just once in your life, you must visit Peterhof during White Nights and let yourself get carried away by the magic. Permit your imagination to supply royal ladies adorned in powdered wigs and layers of petticoats flitting through the gardens. And when you are there, stand under an umbrella fountain once for me. Someone will eventually find the right stone, I promise.

A virtual walking tour of Peterhof can be found at this link:
An incredible gallery of photos can be found here:

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful adventurous places are here.
    It makes me happy.
    I saw it many times. It is great.
    And your blog make it more popular.
    it is great work.
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