Luxurious St. Petersburg earns title of "The Russian Versailles"
St. Petersburg is known as the Venice of the North. A place dominated by water, where boats glide under bridges, giving you a spectacular view of the city founded by "Peter the Great."
If you take a 20-minute ride on a hydrofoil, you will reach the most glittering palace in St. Petersburg. Peterhof was the summer residence of Russian czars.
"Peterhof is a German name which was given to the place by Peter the Great, the Russian czar who lived in the beginning of 1700s. This word, translated into English, means 'Peter's Court'," said Channel 13 tour guide Elena. "Some of it was built during the times of Peter the Great. But Peter himself, never lived here. He preferred much smaller, cozy places."
According to the Peterhof official website, he "deliberately built his new residence by the sea as a triumphant symbol of the successful conclusion of Russia's long struggle for an outlet to the Baltic Sea."
Peterhof is now a popular place for tourists and newlyweds.
"We are taking photos here because it's one of the most beautiful places in St. Petersburg," said one bride.
The fountains at Peterhof are spectacular.
"Not everything that glitters is gold. But here, in St. Petersburg, we say that everything that shines and glitters is gold, mostly gold leaf," said Elena. "There are more than 130 fountains. It's decorated with beautiful, outstanding bronze statues. In the center pool, you can see this huge statue which represents Sampson, a biblical character who is famous for extreme strength. He's breaking the jaws of a lion. This is all symbolic to the times of northern war which Russia had against Sweden at times of Peter the Great. Sampson is symbolizing Russia, Russian state, Russian empire. And the lion is Sweden. So, this is kind of a monument to the victory of Russia in the northern war."
The gardens at Peterhof are beautiful and provide a magnificent backdrop for photos, allowing visitors to imagine what it must have been like to be a Russian czar.
"We can imagine how Peter the Great was here and all the ladies in their full long dresses and walking along the paths of this beautiful garden," said one woman.
As we walked the grounds of Peterhof, our tour guide shared stories of Russian czars.
"Czar was associated with the word father. Most Russians up to 1861, the peasants were slaves. We had serfdom in Russia. We can see the conditions of their life weren't so good. But, they associated czar with representative of god of the earth. They felt very close to the czar. And only at the end of the 19th century the situation really changed and there were different kinds of parties that started appearing in our country and there were people that didn't want any kind of monarchy at all," said Elena.
"We had absolute monarchy for almost 600 years since the 9th century was when Russian state was formed officially. That was the best way to control such a big territory that Russia represents this big multi-national country which Russia used to be."
A must-see site at Peterhof is a statue of Peter the Great. It is customary to try and flip a coin into the Peter's tall boots in order to receive good luck.
"Peter the Great was representative of Romanov dynasty, the dynasty of Russian czars who were on the throne in 1630. We are celebrating 400 years since Romanov dynasty was on the throne. So, this is a special year for our country not only for St. Petersburg," said Elena. "The name of Romanov is most often connected with St Petersburg because Peter the Great founded this great city and moved the capital from Moscow to the shores of the Baltic Sea. And, for 200 years that was the political, economic and cultural center of our big country which was Russian empire."
"Peter the Great is supposed to be the most famous Russian czars, not only for Russia but all over the world. All the tourists coming here they know Peter the Great. He was great in everything. Even in his height. He was two meters, four centimeters (approximately 6'6"). That's a basketball player. None of his relatives were the same height," said Elena. "He was very exceptional person. He was very skillful, very talented in everything. He spoke about 3 or 4 foreign languages. He traveled a lot in Europe. He brought European influence to our country and that was very positive influence. He founded not only St. Petersburg but also Russian Navy. He reformed totally Russian Army."
"Our first theatre, our first public museum was opened in the times of Peter the Great. Even European fashion came in the times of this great emperor. His younger sister Natalia was the first one to wear very fashionable European dresses and the wigs as well. Peter the Great cut the beards. He's well known as the one who made people and members of the court to shave for the European fashion. If someone didn't want to obey, he'd cut the beard himself," said Elena.
"He had many hobbies himself. In one of our first public museums, we have an interesting exhibit which is a box with 40 teeth pulled out by Peter the Great. He liked working as a dentist from time to time. He said sleeping was a waste of time. That's why he slept four hours a day and could have a meeting with his ministers at 3 o'clock at night. Nobody could refuse him," said Elena.
St. Petersburg is a city that shimmers at night and glistens under the sun, drawing people across the water to the grounds of history.
"It's a very welcoming city. It is open to everybody as it was meant. As it was created by Peter the Great. His idea was to make the place that would surprise and astonish everybody who comes there. And, it still does that," said Elena.