Here in Texas, we are deep in the dog days of summer. Most days the temperature soars over 100 degrees, the grass is brown, and the water in the swimming pools is same temperature as a hot bath. I’m originally from the north, so I’m always ready for the fall weather to move in (usually by the first of July). There is one place I was lucky enough to visit that is almost always cool and refreshing.
Nearly everyone knows about Versailles in France, but have you ever heard of Peterhof, the Russian Versailles? Peterhof was founded by Peter the Great in the early 1700s. Peter visited Versailles while in France and was so impressed he envisioned his own palace and fountain complex, but on a much grander scale.
Russia was involved in the Northern War with Sweden from 1700 to 1721, and in 1709 there was a decisive battle near Poltava in the Ukraine which was a brilliant victory for the Russians and the turning point of the war. To commemorate the victory, Peter dedicated the Peterhof complex to the victory over Karl XII of Sweden. Many talented architects worked on Peterhof, creating a magnificent ensemble that includes several palaces and three parks.
The main attraction in Peterhof is its beautiful Lower Park with 150 fountains and four cascades. The Great Cascade is situated in front of the Great Imperial Palace, which was the summer imperial residence for 200 years – from 1714 until the October Revolution.
The Great Cascade was planned by Peter the Great. It consists of several fountains, the central and most luxurious of which is the Samson fountain. Samson symbolizes Russia defeating Sweden – the lion. The Great Cascade is decorated with gilded statues of ancient Greek and Roman gods and heroes, which all are allegories of different events of the Northern War.
The Marine Canal, one of the oldest features of Peterhof, begins in the harbor on the Gulf of Finland and ends at the base of the Great Cascade. The canal is the official approach to Peterhof. During the spring and autumn, and even during rainy summers, it was much more difficult to reach Peterhof along the muddy roads from St. Petersburg than by sea. Even today, the fastest way to get to Peterhof is to take the hydrofoil from the Neva River in St. Petersburg.
The Triton fountain sits in the center of the Conservatory Garden. It depicts Triton forcing apart the jaws of a sea monster. During World War II, the Nazi’s destroyed the fountain and reportedly shipped the sculpture to Germany. Efforts to locate it were unsuccessful, so in 1956, sculptor Alexei Gurzhy reconstructed the original fountain from a drawing in an 18th century album.
The Samson Fountain is the largest fountain in the Lower Park. It stands at the center of a bowl in front of the Great Cascade. The sculpture weighed more than five tons, so the Russians were unable to save it from the German invasion in 1941. It was taken by the Nazis and according to several accounts, was melted down for military purposes. In 1947, Leningrad sculptor Vassily Simonov recreated Samson from pre-war drawing and photographs.
The Adam and Eve fountains are identical fountains built in the Lower Park. The statues were copies of the well-known works by Antonio Rizzi which still adorn the Doge’s Palace in Venice, and were commissioned from the sculptor Giovanni Bonazza in 1717 by Peter the Great. In the early days of the Nazi invasion, the Adam and Eve statues were buried in the Lower Park and descaped destruction. The fountains were restored to working order in 1948 and today they are all that remains of the original sculptures from the time of Peter the Great.
It is an unforgettable pleasure to wander among trees, flowers, bushes, palaces, bridges, fountains and pavilions of Peterhof on a beautiful summer day. The cool breeze from the Gulf of Finland keeps the temperture perfect, and you just might come across something unexpected, just as we did.