Anyone who lives in a big city knows how important it is to be able to escape the hustle and bustle, the heat (in summer), the cramped and dusty streets and the air pollution and take a walk in nature and more often than not it is to Pavlovsk that we, St Petersburger citizens go.
In 1777, in an unusually warm gesture, Catherine the Great gave 607 hectares of land along the river Slavyanka to her son, the future Tsar Paul, to reward him for the birth of a grandson who would continue the dynasty.
This area of virgin forest, used by the tsars for hunting, was named Pavlovsk, after Paul (Pavel in Russian) and is one of the largest landscapes parks in the world, festooned with pavilions, mausoleums, follies, statues, towers and ornamental bridges, just waiting to be discovered around the next corner.
With the completion of Russia's first railway line, from St Petersburg to Pavlovsk, it became one of the most popular day-trips from the capital.
Pavlovsk Park is one of the largest in Europe and covers an area of 600 ha. The famous Russian architectural historian Vladimir Kurbatov, author of books on St Petersburg, Pavlovsk and Gatchina, as well as the monumental labour Gardens and Parks of the World, wrote in 1911 in his Pavlovsk guidebook: “No matter how beautiful Pavlovsk Palace is, no matter how precious its collections, it cannot be compared to Pavlovsk Park.”
Pavlovsk Park has indeed long enjoyed the fame as one of the finest landscape parks in Europe. Poetic and endlessly diverse, it corresponds, in the words of the early nineteenth century French writer Saint-Moret, “to all tastes and to all states of the soul”. “Each new step brings a new picture to the eyes” was how Russian poet Vasily Zhukovsky described a walk through the Pavlovsk Park. Analyzing the reasons for the attraction of the park, the main contribution is often regarded as being the wonderful proportionality of the natural landscape and the architectural structures, which stand in complete harmony with the world of man in regard to the relationship with the surrounding environment.
From the terrace behind the Great Palace, you can stand and survey the sweep of the Slavyanka Valley and will see, high up on the far bank, The Apollo Colonnade which has been left a picturesque ruin after first being struck by lightning and then damaged by a landslide during a storm.
Down to the right, steps descend to the Centaur Bridge, guarded by four centaurs, leading to a derelict Cold Bath with a superb view uphill to the Palace. Downstream are the Humpback Bridge and the Black Bridge - with a monumental staircase running down from the Palace and just beyond, by a sharp bend in the river, stands a most eye-catching Pavilion, the circular Temple of Friendship, commissioned as a diplomatic gesture to cement the somewhat shaky relationship between Maria, Paul'swife and Catherine the Great.
Walking through the halls and along the avenues of the Pavlovsk Palace and park complex, one cannot help feeling an admiration for the versatile talent and inexhaustible imagination that are embodied in the surrounding landscape and architecture. Nature and the daring creative effort of man, the solemn grandeur and the heartfelt simplicity – all this is Pavlovsk.
The Great Palace
Home to Paul and Maria Fyodorovna, the palace was originally erected by Charles Cameron, the architect responsible for Catherine's Palace at Pushkin. But it was Vincenzo Brenna who extended it into the larger more elaborate complex you see today and some of the best architects in St Petersburg were recruited to decorate its interior, Quarenghi, Rossi and Voronikhin among many others.
The most striking thing about the rooms to be seen here, is their relative human scale, you could almost imagine living here yourself, they are much more intimate than the palaces of Peterhof or Pushkin.
Forming a single architectural and artistic whole with the park, the Pavlovsk Palace employs in its design such relationships of architectural volumes and masses that, despite its rather small dimensions, the palace’s building produces the impression of a majestic monumental edifice which, at the same time, is organically set in the surrounding landscape.
Erected on a hill, the palace takes in the earliest and the latest rays of the sun. The rising sun is reflected in the mirrors of the halls and the palace seems to be lit from within like a precious stone. The suites of Pavlovsk Palace belong to the best achievements of Russian architecture. The round, oval, octagonal, rectangular and square halls and rooms of the palace are faced with artificial marble or coloured stucco and covered with paintings or moulded ornaments. The strict articulation of the smooth walls is enlivened by a delicate range of the rosy, greenish, golden, white and lilac hues of the interior finish and decor.
The play of colour is enhanced by the well-planned illumination of the palace. While the flood of light streams into the Italian Hall through the glazed part of the dome, it penetrates the Grecian Hall through the tall windows, and also flows in through the windows of the adjacent Halls of War and Peace. The Picture and Church Galleries have rows of windows on both sides. Light also contributes to the charming atmosphere of the Little Lantern study.
A few of the highlights to be seen within its walls.
The Egyptian Vestibule, lined with pharaonic statues and zodiac medallions.
The domed Italian Hall, intended to invoke a Roman bathhouse.
Paul's Study and The Hall of War, an explosion of gilded objects de guerre, where even the candelabras symbolize war spoils, although you will hear that Paul himself never saw any military action.
Contrasting with Maria's Library and The Hall of Peace, as gilt-ridden as the war hall but garnished with floral motifs, musical instruments and symbols of fecundity.
The Grecian Hall, resembling a Greek temple and the most ornate room in the palace, featuring exquisite jasper urns and eagle winged divans.
After the Palace it will be time to head out across its beautifully airy courtyard and explore the wonders of the grounds.