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Three Days in Pavlovsk

Updated on July 11, 2011

I studied abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia for four months in the fall of 2002.

Several years earlier, I had read a fascinating book called Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace, by Suzanne Massie, and even before I arrived in Russia, I was determined to visit the historic palace and its park.

As it turned out, I managed to visit it not once, but THREE times, each wonderful in its own way.

Pavlovsk Palace with Paul I statue in the foreground. Photo by me
Pavlovsk Palace with Paul I statue in the foreground. Photo by me
Maria Feodorovna, Empress of Russia
Maria Feodorovna, Empress of Russia

A Brief History of Pavlovsk

Catherine the Great (Екатерина II Великая) gave the land of Pavlovsk (Па́вловск) to her son, Paul I (Па́вел I Петро́вич), and his wife Maria Feodorovna (Мари́я Фёдоровна), on the birth of their first child in 1777. Maria Feodorovna became the first in a long line of people to devote their lives to the park and its palace. Along with the architects and designers Charles Cameron, Vincenzo Brenna, and Andrei Voronikhin, hers is still the greatest influence on the palace's design and landscape, and after her husband's death in 1801, Pavlovsk became her primary residence.

In the mid-19th century, the park became famous for its concerts. A railway was opened between the park and St. Petersburg, and the station was used as a concert hall. Among the celebrities who performed there were Johann Strauss II, Franz Liszt, and Robert Schumann. Tchaikovsky's great ballet Swan Lake is said to have been inspired in part by one of the lakes of Pavlovsk.

Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Pavlovsk became a national museum. The palace was nearly destroyed by the Nazis in World War II. They used it as headquarters during the 900 day siege of Leningrad. Fortunately, the park's caretakers had worked around the clock to preserve as many of its treasures as they could - burying some, sending some to Siberia, and hiding some in Leningrad basements and other locations - but the Nazis looted and destroyed much of what was left, cutting down 70,000 trees in the park alone. When finally forced to retreat, they set the palace ablaze behind them.

After the war, the palace was restored nearly perfectly, a process that took decades and cost the lives of many workers who walked every inch of the park in search of mines left by the retreating Germans. Today it remains a beloved and popular retreat from city life for many Russians.

Photo by me
Photo by me

September 14, 2002

My first visit to the park took place two weeks after I arrived in Russia. It was one of the first sight-seeing trips I made. Here are excerpts of my diary account of the visit:

"I slept in a little this morning, so my host mother and sisters were already gone when I woke up and got myself breakfast. I made some phone calls to see if anyone would come to Pavlovsk with me, but unfortunately, the "maybes" of yesterday were unreachable or had turned into "nos." I really, really wanted to go, though, so in a moment of insanity, I decided to go by myself.

"I got through the metro and the train with a minimum of problems, though there was an embarrassing incident with a door, and even got off at the right station! For someone with my talent (or lack thereof) at map-reading, it was unusually well done. I even got the Russian student price to enter the park (and later the palace as well), instead of the foreign price.

"Within 30 feet of the entrance, I was hailed by the two guys behind me in line, wanting to know where I was from and what price I'd paid to get in. Sean and his friend George [names changed] turned out to be Australians who had been traveling through Russia for three months and were leaving in two days. I ended up sticking with them the whole day, which was not so good for the Russian skills but was very interesting, as both were much more experienced travelers than I, and full of stories.

"Experienced or not, we got lost almost immediately, but fortunately we could hardly have been lost in a more beautiful place. The area near the entrance clearly shows the difference between Pavlovsk and Peterhof [which I had visited the week before with another student from my group]. Peterhof is very formal and strict; Pavlovsk shows far more Romantic influence. Near the gate, Pavlovsk's park is all fir and birch forest and the contrast of the white birch bark and changing golden leaves against the dark green firs was really exquisite - perfectly romanticized Nature.

"We eventually got our bearings when we bumped into the memorial to Maria Feodorovna's parents, followed by the Old Sylvia with Apollo Belevedere and the Muses. George turned out to be Greek-Australian and we had fun discussing the many mythological references in the park."

The Centaur Bridge. Photo by me
The Centaur Bridge. Photo by me

"We headed for the palace, which is more formal and neoclassical than many other elements in the park. It is not as splendid as Versailles [which I'd visited a few years earlier with relatives] in or outside, but is a very pleasant "small" palace. Highlights included the beautiful blue Sevres toilette, now priceless, presented to Maria Feodorovna by Marie Antoinette during their European tour, and the ceiling of the throne room, which had a trompe l'oeil painting of open sky over a classical, vaguely Colleseum-like building.

"The three of us wandered around the park all afternoon. We saw the Temple of Friendship, the Pavilion of the Three Graces, the Centaur Bridge, the Apollo Collonade (from afar), and others, but we also missed a lot and I would not at all object to going back!

"Other notes:

  • there are chickadees in Russia
  • the crows here all have big gray patches on their neck and back
  • Pavlovsk has really cute, very small squirrels with tufted ears"

The Temple of Friendship. Photo by me
The Temple of Friendship. Photo by me

October 5, 2002

A few weeks later I returned to the park with another girl from my group. From my diary:

"Met Rachel at Pushkinskaya metro at 11 and headed to Pavlovsk again. I wanted to go to the White Birch area because it was one of the areas I missed last time. Rachel was willing - she likes walking and nature (she's an environmental studies major) and it was a beautiful day: cold, but not too cold, and sunny. We headed for the birches, but quickly determined that the maps I had were terrible. They did things like show a straight path that in reality was curved, and since we spent much of the day exploring parts of the park I had missed on my previous visit, we also spent much of the day completely lost.

"We stumbled entirely by accident upon the Pil Tower. From the pictures, we'd thought it might have been a working mill at some point, but once we got a close-up view, we realized that the windows were actually painted on! Soon after, attempting to refind our bearings, I pulled out my map to glower at it for the umpteenth time and was astonished when a chickadee swooped in to land on it. It quickly flew away when I jumped in surprise, nearly dropping the map, but Rachel pulled out some halva she'd brought as a snack and we both held it out in our hands. Chickadees landed on both of us within minutes, but they just looked miffed when they saw it wasn't seeds, and flew away without eating. I can't say I blame them. Halva looks suspiciously like gray dirt, though it tastes good enough.

"We got our bearings again when we came across the Rose Pavilion, and then lost them again immediately, though we didn't realize this at first. Only when we found ourselves in a long line of dachas, from which we could see some sort of industrial complex in the distance (much of Pavlovsk is Illinois-level flat) did we realize we'd left the park. Every dog in the area started barking at us.

"We returned and headed in the proper direction, where we soon found the White Birch area. It was lovely: meadows surrounded by forest, but sprinkled with little islands of trees. We took a little bunny trail into one of the islands, and when we emerged an old woman stopped us to ask if we'd found any mushrooms. We hadn't, and told her so. Rachel theorized that it was probably already too cold and the woman agreed. 'Although,' Rachel added, 'those guys look like they're hunting anyway.' There were about five guys wandering around the nearest meadow looking for something. The old woman snorted. 'Oh, they're looking for mushrooms, all right! Narcotic mushrooms!' 'Oh!' Rachel said. 'I thought they looked a little fishy.' We talked with her about ten minutes more - including the discussion of the siege that seems to be an obligatory topic for anyone older than 50 in this city - before going on our respective ways."

Photo by Lelik
Photo by Lelik

"We headed back in the direction of the palace, where Rachel got some souvenirs and we bought some pastries from the expensive and not very good cafe. We decided to start heading back to the city, as it was already 3 PM, but it was also only 3 PM, so we didn't hurry.

"We paused near the dairy, where we joined a group of people feeding the chickadees. We also looked down on the Temple of Friendship from one of Pavlovsk's few hills and decided to drop by the Old Sylvia and the ring of Muses before we left. This turned out to be the best in a long series of good ideas, because along the path, we ran into a guy with a guitar singing and doing folk dances with a group of other men and women in the woods. It was one of those magical moments you dream about when you're traveling, and I forgot to bring my camera! For a video camera, I might even have sold my soul. But seriously...

"One of the women was wearing a wreath made of golden maple leaves on her head (we saw a lot of these throughout the day) and there was a man dressed in a short, dark trenchcoat and a bowler, who looked like a very serious businessman type of the sort who wouldn't dream of cavorting in the woods, yet there he was, dancing up a storm (and very well, too.)

"Rachel whispered in my ear, "Don't you just want to get their numbers?"

"They sing! They dance! They're perfect!" I grinned back. "The one with the guitar isn't wearing a ring."

"He's the one I want to bring home in my pocket," Rachel said.

"I figured out one of the dances, although not well. By tomorrow I'll have forgotten it. [I don't know about the next day, but nearly six years later, I certainly have.] Running across them was one of the most wonderful things that's happened to me so far in Russia, though.

All in all, a marvelous day!"

December 4, 2002

The Old Sylvia. Photo by me
The Old Sylvia. Photo by me

My final visit to Pavlovsk was with the entire group of American students I studied with. The plan was to do some cross country skiing in the park, but as you'll see, this didn't really go so well.

"Met at Kazanskaya 6 and took the bus to Pavlovsk. This took considerably longer than by train.

"Skiing did not go so well. Not badly - the basic idea was good enough, I just went so much slower than I can walk, and the rental skis were complete crap. The shoe kept falling out of one, and it was impossible to enjoy the scenery when I was concentrating so hard on keeping it in, not falling down, etc. I gave up in disgust after only about 15 minutes and had to haul the skis around with me the rest of the day while my toes gradually froze from being stuck in the thin little ski shoes instead of my nice warm boots. On the upside, I was the only one who wasn't bruised from multiple falls. Emma's* host sister Masha* took a pretty spectacular fall going too fast down a hill. Dee* got what looked like basically a chair on skis, which was clever of her. It looked fun.

"Pavlovsk itself was basically one enormous Christmas card. There was already snow on the ground and more was coming down. Stunning. It was a good last trip."

* names changed

Pavlovsk, St Petersburg, Russian Federation

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    • kerryg profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from USA

      The Russian forests are every bit as beautiful as they're said to be!

      A chickadee is an American bird that I'm very fond of:

      I've since discovered that they probably weren't real chickadees, though they looked and behaved similarly, and should probably add a note to that effect in the hub. I don't know European birds at all, perhaps you might recognize this little fellow?:

    • The Indexer profile image

      John Welford 

      10 years ago from UK

      An excellent hub that gets a thumbs up from me! I visited Russia in 1977, during the Brezhnev years, and one of my best-remembered moments was getting lost in a forest on an island in the Volga River! By the way, what's a "chickadee"?


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