Peterhof; Peter the Great’s Summer Palace


After the storm the previous night, we awake to a fine day.  Now, Peter the Great built his Summer Palace, Peterhof, as a response to the French palace at Versailles; he was determined to make this its equal.  It cost more lives than Versailles did to construct, but it is truly magnificent and helped put St Petersburg firmly on the map of the great European courts.  We saved our visit there for our last day in town and decided to take the hydrofoil boat out there.  As we travel out of the mouth of the Neva river we can see Alisha’s apartment building and the foreshore in front of it.  It seems strange to see this view from the other side now. 

The shadows of the now scattering clouds cover blue and green stretches of the calm sea; forming glistening marbled patterns that stretch to the horizon.  As we draw close to the dock we have our first glimpse of the canal cutting through the gently sloping land that leads up towards the palace itself; with the central group of fountains visible in the distance.  The canal was originally the place where the Tsar’s boat would be manoeuvred and secured when visiting the palace grounds.  I can imagine the sheer spectacle this would have made for visiting dignitaries almost three hundred years ago and appreciate its grand style.  The Grand Cascade draws you in and up the paths either side of the central canal, beckoning with fingers of water sprays and sunlight.

The centrepiece now is the statue of Samson wrestling a lion that was added long after Peter’s death.  The water jet from this fountain is the highest in the park, pushing water high above the magnificent statue and into the blue sky above.  The multiple waterfall cascades and rows of golden statues of women become shrouded in the mist of water sprays from the numerous fountain jets.  Rainbows form and fade constantly in the mottled sunlight from the dappled clouds hanging in the sky.  As you walk near and past the cascade, the rainbows jump from place to place as thought they’re playing in the water.  The whole spectacle is apparently powered only by the water cascading down the hill from the upper gardens, there are no water towers or pumps to be seen or heard anywhere.  I feel immediately calm and relaxed here, even surrounded by throngs of people, families surging in different directions; you can’t help but feel peace in the Summer Palace water gardens.

We drift through them for hours, there are so many different areas with different types of gardens and fountains nestled within them.  From ordered hedges housing golden statues from Greek mythology to the Grand Cascade directly in front of the palace; the place is a wonder of landscaping.  In a central grove, surrounded and shaded by tall, broad leafed trees, is a strange artificial tree with fountains and sprays of water spreading in all directions.  In front of it, a bench seat is placed such that anyone sitting there, or standing nearby, will be showered with short bursts of water as part of a cycle.  Children run back and forward in front of it risking a sudden dousing.  Each time someone gets caught, laughter fills the air as everyone shares the moment of surprise and shock.  It’s another warm, sunny day in Russia and the cooling effect of the water sprays filling the air leave us all in the mood to frolic.

The trick fountain frolics

I had wanted to see the pyramid fountain since I’d heard of it from a friend who visited these gardens.  It doesn’t take me long to find the track to the small grove that houses it.  We pass by a huge statue of Peter mounted on a rectangular base about two and a half metres high.  It’s surrounded by a crowd of people trying to flick coins up onto the small flat surface of the base near his feet.  If the coin rests on the statue somewhere, you make a wish.  This proves to be no mean feat, as I try a number of times with all the coins in my pocket.  I only succeed once.  I think the real winners are the small children swarming around near the base, recovering fallen coins and trying to land one on the statue themselves.  I’m sure we paid for their ice-creams that day.  I could see myself bringing my family here on just such a day to wander and play around without a care in the world. 

We continue down a long pathway with a row of tall trees either side that meet in the middle to provide a welcome mottled shade from the early afternoon sun.  I pause to try and get a photograph capturing the pathway stretching into the distance, when I notice there seems to something more than simple daylight at the end of this green tunnel.  As I move down the path, it slowly reveals to me that the daylight at the end is moving.  As I cover the last thirty metres or so, it resolves into a beautiful pyramid made only of white, bubbling water.  Water pipes laid in concentric squares are pumping water at different pressures to create the effect.  I want to approach and feel my hands play into the streams of water, but fencing and severe signs suggest this isn’t a good idea.  I decide the view is enough and drift slowly back to the seashore.

The three of us sit down for a beer and discuss if we’re going to make it to the upper gardens and inside the great palace itself.  None of us really care by now, it’s the fountains and garden that drew us here and walking inside any building seems somehow a poor second option.  We climb the stairs past the dragon fountain when Don notices an empty statue base.  He thrusts his camera towards me then scales it like a spidermonkey to stand on top looking particularly regal.  We laugh at Don exercising his inner dictator and then turn to admire the view of the open gardens below. 

Apparently the Dragon fountain is in this picture somewhere

Someone wearing a jester outfit is playing a violin to bemused children.  Couples walk hand in hand betwixt the tree covered pathways; enmeshed in rays of soft sunlight caught in the gentle mists of the fountain spray.  An old man sits placidly on a bench watching his grandchildren run and play around a fountain.  Occasionally they run to him with news of their adventures and he listens before sending them on their way with a few words.  We move across to the huge open walkway between the great palace and the top of the Great Cascade.  A wedding party poses repeatedly in front of the golden statues, the photographer abuzz trying to capture individuals and the whole group against the majestic background.  A light wind gust carries the spray mist over them and the bride suddenly has tiny droplets of water covering her raised veil, creating jewels that sparkle in the golden sunlight.  I pause to watch other couples spaced around the top of the cascade kissing each other gently as they enjoy the view.

We end up heading back to the dock to catch the last hydrofoil back to the city.  This also gives us one more chance to practice the Russian summer sport of queuing and sweating.  There is one person selling tickets for the hydrofoil from one small wooden ticket box placed near the edge of the jetty.  When we join the queue there are already dozens of people in front of us, but this has no effect on the serving woman.  She seems to enjoy a bit of a chat with every person and moves with the sure speed of a diseased tortoise.  I’m particularly impressed by the way she has to check the roll of tickets every time she picks one to make sure they haven’t turned into something different in the intervening ten seconds.  I see she is a consummate professional of the sport and wonder if there’s any way we can beat her. 

Don volunteering to refill this pond

The boat arrives and we all become more agitated as we know this is our last chance to get on it and we feel sure it will leave just as we reach the front of the queue.  The tension mounts as we check we have enough small change and prepare the right money. I notice a second ticket box with someone inside it waiting.  Nobody is paying them the slightest attention and I wonder if we have a short path to take so we can win the event.  I read the signs on the box repeatedly; they speak of other boat trips, but not of the hydrofoil.  Apparently out here on the dock at Peterhof I can buy a tour of the city canals.  There’s only five more people to go before the fateful moment of our interaction and it seems moments before Lari ends up taking the first ticket.  She strolls off towards the boat as I acquire my own.  I suddenly feel the urge to shove the whole box into the sea, jump on top of it and row the damn thing back to the city using a plank from the roof while this useless creature within struggles and complains the whole way.  I decide the hydrofoil will be quicker, if less satisfying, and follow Lari onboard with Don shortly behind us.  Only another ten people make it on after us and we feel relieved as the boat pulls away; knowing our queuing skills could probably do with more practice.

Everyone takes a picture

I decide to head home to attempt to get some sleep in the early evening to make the sleepless night sitting on a train easier to cope with.  Don and Lari stay to explore the city a little more.  Alisha returns with them after ten and they’re looking at what food we have left.  Don waves his hand at the pile of vegetables and meat and tells me to do something clever with it.  The times we’ve shared houses together saw me cooking for him fairly often as I dodged as much of the cleaning duties as was feasibly possible.  I manage to cook up everything in the fridge to create a lightly spiced stir fry dish with noodles.  It is surprisingly good and filling enough to cushion my system for the long night ahead.

Don is trying to copy all his pictures onto Alisha’s computer so she can see what we’ve been up to and how she looks in all of them.  It isn’t working so well and he asks me to figure it out for him.  My ten years working in the IT industry are of some use and I manage to affect the transfer of his pictures. I then attach my camera and copy my own across for her.  I retrieve the scarf my family gave me and get a picture with Alisha wearing it along with her Georgian man hat.  She says she needs a cigarette to complete the picture and lights one instantly to pose again.  Her slow, warm smile glows at me and I give her a huge bear hug to farewell her properly.  As the picture copying process finishes we all leave Alisha the gifts we’ve brought along.  Lari has some scented soaps handmade by a friend of hers back home which form the start of our love package.  I choose a stubbie holder with an Australian aboriginal colour painting on it, a shot glass with Perth’s city skyline on it, a yellow diamond sign warning about emus and also a stuffed kangaroo.  Don adds some koala fridge magnets and some Australia stickers and we present it all to Alisha to thank her again for being so magnificent.  She looks terribly shy, but she likes the crazy array of presents and gives us all another hug.  We make our final farewells and take our luggage out the door in plenty of time to make it to the train station.


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