Gatchina is located 45 km to the southwest of St. Petersburg. The first mention of Gatchina dates back to 1499, when it was known as the village of Khotchino. In the early 18th century it belonged to Peter the Great’s sister Natalya Alekseevna, and after her death Peter founded an apothecary there. In 1765 the property was acquired by Catherine the Great, who presented it to Count Grigoriy Orlov, who shortly afterwards commissioned Antonio Rinaldi to create a huge palace and park. After Orlov’s death, Gatchina became the residence of Paul I. The new owner reconstructed the residence according to his taste. At the instance of the future Emperor, the court architect Vincenzo Brenna rebuilt the palace and made it look like a medieval fortified castle with bastions, moat and draw bridges. The meadow in front of the palace was turned into a parade-ground. The regular gardens were laid out. In 1796 Gatchina got the status of a town, and after Paul’s death was owned by his widow, Maria Fedorovna.
The next Romanov who lived most of his time in Gatchina Palace was Alexander III. Here he made his official state announcements, diplomatic receptions, theatrical performances, costumed balls and other events and entertainments. During his reign, Alexander III introduced major technological modernization in the Gatchina Palace and parks, such as electric lights, telephone network, non-freezing water pipes and modern sewage system. Nicholas II, the last Russian tsar, spent his youth in the Gatchina Palace.
The parks extending around the palace are undoubtedly beautiful, such as the Palace Park, the Silvia Park, the Priorate Park, the Menagerie Park. The Palace Park is laid out amid the complex system of intertwined rivers and lakes. The differences in height between the lakes and elevated islands allow to see the structures of the park’s places from a bird’s eye view. Below the lakes one can see beautiful shores, hills, arched bridges, terraces and observation towers. An inimitable poetic atmosphere of charm hovers over the park ensemble.
The majority of buildings and structures in Gatchina were built of Pudost stone. It was also used for facing of the Palace facades. Pudost stone possesses wonderful decorative qualities: on cloudy, overcast days the palace takes on the color of the dull sky; in sunlight it becomes a golden yellow.
The imposing Admiralty Gates – also known as “the Gates from Pudost stone by the harbor” – were the main entrance to the Palace Park. They were designed by architect Brenna to resemble the antique triumphal arch. On the triangular frontier of this 13-meter high construction is a monogram “Ï” in Cyrillic, standing for Paul.
The Admiralty Gates lead to the English landscape park, with the White and Silver Lakes being its dominant features. Not far from the shore of the White Lake lies a large granite bowl sunk into the ground – the Iordan Octagonal Well. The edges of the well are curved, like the petals of some fabulous stone flower. This composition is attributed to Rinaldi.
From the well the alley leads to mysterious subterranean 120-meter passageway leading from the Echo Grotto to the palace. The Echo Grotto was built to the design of architect Rinaldi for Count Orlov’s palace. Any word, spoken loudly in front of the Grotto vault, is repeated in the tunnel in 40 seconds, and this remarkable phenomenon occurs only if the iron gates leading to the palace are shut.
Walking further along the Silver Lake shore, you finally come to the birch area. On the hilltop one can view the Birch House and the Mask Portal. The Birch House was built with the help of the Swiss artist Violet. It differs from other country-style structures in the originality of its architectural conception. The Birch House is executed in wood, giving it the outward appearance of a pile of firewood. Behind simple outer covering, however, is an exquisite interior with sofas, mirrors, pictures, etc. In the Birch House Maria Fedorovna would treat her beloved husband and their guests with tea, fresh milk and cheese from their own farms, and fruit grown in the park orangeries.
Later, in the 1790s, architect Vincenzo Brenna added a stone gateway, the Mask Portal, before the house as a kind of screen. This majestic structure was built in strict classical style, with a colonnade of sixteen Ionic columns. From the Mask Portal a wide stone stairway leads in the direction of the White Lake to the Island of Love.
The Island of Love was a place of seclusion, romantic meetings and secret rendezvous far from others’ prying eyes. It reminded Paul and Maria Fedorovna of the happy days and pleasant journeys of their youth. The Island of Love is one of the park’s many artificial islands. Strictly speaking it is a promontory divided from the land by two straight canals. The garden of the Island of Love was planned in formal style. Paths radiated outwards with other paths intersecting them. Between them were sculptures of the antique gods of love.
The island was planned to be triangular in shape. In 1792, at the extreme end of it, surrounded on three sides by water, the Venus Pavilion was erected. The idea of the Venus Pavilion, created in imitation of antique temples, was borrowed from the park of Prince de Conde, but given a new interpretation in Russia. The entrance to the temple, on the side towards the island, is by means of an elegant doorway with Ionic columns. On the pediment of the doorway emblems of the goddess of love are displayed: a quiver containing the arrows of Cupid and a blazing torch. Inside the pavilion the ceiling is decorated by the plafond “The Triumph of Venus”, glorifying the eternally beautiful and young goddess. The pavilion plays an especially important role in the composition of the Palace Park.
Crossing the Great Stone Bridge and walking round the White Lake, we enter the Long Island. The major attractions here are the Eagle Column and Pavilion. Although they are separated by the waters of White Lake, they form a single unified composition.
The Eagle Column of white marble stands in the middle of a clearing which lies open in the direction of the lake. It has symbolic significance: the image of an eagle appears on the Orlov family coat-of-arms. The column is crowned with a sculpture of an eagle. The marble bird’s head is proudly lifted, gazing into the distance.
The Eagle Pavilion was built after the Eagle Column was erected, during the reign of Paul I, according to the design of architect Vincenzo Brenna. It is circular in shape, with a semicircular colonnade of marble columns. Formerly the colonnade was also adorned with a sculpture of an eagle, but with a tsar’s crown, and in its claws a shield with Paul’s monogram. The legend also goes that the Eagle Pavilion was created on the spot from which Paul I hit an eagle in a tree where now the Eagle Column rises.
The tour of Gatchina park will not be complete without visiting two more sights located at some distance from each other.
The Private Garden is set on a high artificial terrace immediately adjoining the Palace walls. In the center of the garden, where the paths come together, is a circular plot containing a number of marble sculptures. Around the perimeter of the garden run enclosed green corridors, or pergolas. The balcony-cum-porch in front of Paul’s private apartments is guarded by two winged sphinxes with women’s faces, carved in Pudost stone.
On the shore of the Black Lake stands the Priorate Palace, a remarkable creation by the architect Lvov. The palace was intended for the Prior of the Maltese order, hence the name (Paul I was the grandmaster of the order). However, the Priorate palace was never used for the original purpose, and stayed a reserve palace nearly throughout the 19th century. The walls of the palace are made of earth; the floors and ceilings are made of earthen bricks using the special technique of architect Lvov. The walls are plastered and painted. The combination of colors in the palace ensemble is also interesting. The white of the walls combines with the clear red of the roofs and tiles, and with the shining of the five gilded spheres at the ends of the gables. It is possible that such a combination of colors was suggested by the red and white cloaks of the knights of the Maltese order. This unique structure has been preserved throughout present times without any changes.
Directions for visiting: Take the commuter train from Baltiyskiy Railway Station to Gatchina. The trip takes about 1 hour, then another 10 minutes by foot to the palace and park. Alternatively take route taxi No. 18 from Pobedy Square.