For fans of fixer-upper home shows, the Gatchina Palace outside Saint Petersburg has got to be the ultimate renovation challenge.
Two hundred bedrooms give or take, with ornate plaster work and inlaid hardwood floors everywhere and plenty of lavish party space, not to mention expansive grounds with lakes and follies. Pity about the fire those obnoxious Nazis set when they left.
For visitors who haven’t seen them before, the must-do attractions on a visit to Saint Petersburg are the Big Three: the Summer Palace, Catherine the Great’s palace and the Winter Palace with its imperial Hermitage museum.
But having seem them before and coming to the city aboard a cruise on the Crystal Symphony, one of the unexpected tour options the ship offered was a remarkable palace I didn’t even think was open to the public. Unlike other attractions around the Russian capital of culture, you can visit Gatchina and think you have the place to yourself.
Just 29 miles south of Saint Petersburg, it’s an example of how nice it is to have a really great Mom. The expansive castle on a vast rolling estate was built in the 1760s by Count Grigori Orlov (a lover of Catherine the Great who led the coup that overthrew Catherine’s husband Peter III of Russia, and installed Catherine as Empress).
When the Count died, the estate was bought by Catherine as a gift for her son, the future Emperor Paul I, who spent the next 18 years expanding the palace into a magnificent showplace with décor in the latest opulent European styles.
Gatchina became a favorite cottage country private retreat for the Russian imperial family (and probably on summer weekends a few hundred of their friends) but understandably it went into decline after there was no royal family to keep up the maintenance.
Even worse, it was in a strategic location that the invading Germans decided to use as a headquarters for the devastating 900-day siege of Leningrad during the war. When they left, they torched the place and it sat boarded up for years.
Fortunately, the Russians have become experts at restoration and while there’s still a long way to go, a wing of the palace has been gorgeously restored, with work in progress on rebuilding more. And you can visit here as though you were the owner, compared to the throngs you have to share rooms with in the other palaces around Saint Petersburg.
Visitors have to put on plastic booties to keep from scratching the intricate, inlaid wood floors and you can look but have to resist the instinct to touch the rich, antique tapestries that cover the walls of some of the bedrooms.
Only 13 public rooms and 12 residence rooms of the hundreds in the palace have so far been fully restored but they are magnificent. Renovations are continuing and there are hopes that a future generation will see all the gorgeous rooms in Gatchina returned to their original grandeur.
A major attraction for families who do day trips from Saint Petersburg is the vast park that’s behind the estate. Paul I had it done in an “English style” with bridges over streams, ornate gates, and lavishly decorated pavilions with names like the The Isle of Love and The Private Garden. They must have been ideal places for aristocrats to get away for a tryst or discuss state secrets.
One of the most intriguing follies is the Birch House, a building that looks like a rustic log cabin on the outside. Its interior is a jaw-dropping surprise: a grandly baroque reception hall lined with mirrors and gilded plaster work. At the far end is a private bedroom whose mirrored walls must have seen some interesting romantic encounters over the centuries.
The expansive gardens are now a major draw for Russian families in the summer, with vistas that are worthy of picture postcards. There are forests of mature trees, pristine lakes where families rent row boats and streams where well-behaved children feed ducks with the crusts from picnic lunches.
A visit to Gatchina is a fascinating snapshot of Russian society past and present that should be better known.