Peterhof (or Peter's Court in German) served as Peter the Great’s personal landing during the later part of his reign as Tsar of Russia. A cluster of breathtaking palaces, the biggest overlooking a lush French formal garden with numerous fountains (all gravity-fed), the locale has been described as the “Russian Versailles.”
Situated on a 16-meter (55-foot) bluff overlooking Kotlin Island (today’s Kronstadt naval base), the site was selected by Peter in 1705 as a landing for ships that would take him on state excursions into Europe. St. Petersburg was hardly two years old, many of its buildings were just barely under construction, and the Great Northern War was ongoing with Sweden. The harbor for the new city was still on the planning table. However, the waters off the palace site were sufficiently deep to allow the site to serve as a state reception manor.
After Peter defeated King Charles of Sweden at Poltava (within present Ukraine), he began construction in his new capital in earnest, and broke ground for his summer palace, the “Monplaisir” or “My Pleasure,” in 1714. Through the intervening 11 years, this earliest of the Peterhof palaces was erected. It was initially designed by Braunstein, but was later modified by Jean-Baptiste LeBlonde and then Niccolo Michetti into a Baroque-structure that still stands near the shore. After Peter’s death, the palace was preserved as a private museum dedicated to the late Tsar. Although it was badly damaged during the German occupation during the Siege of Leningrad, it has been restored to its mostly original state.
The Marly Palace, a Russian replica of the French Château de Marly at Marly le Roi, likewise served as a repository for Tsar Peter’s many collections. It was originally placed on a poor foundation, which settled so much that by 1899, the building had to be lifted and its foundation reconstructed. However, as with much of Peterhof, the original building was destroyed by the Nazis in their siege. It took until 1982 before the building could again house exhibits, and today it is temporarily under repairs. However, it still serves an important purpose of protecting the Upper Gardens from the winds coming off the Gulf of Finland.
The Grand Palace was built by Peter’s daughter, Elizabeth, who brought Bartolomeo Rastrelli in to create a new extravagant baroque building between 1747 and 1752. During the siege of Leningrad, the palace was left mostly destroyed; it was first burned during the opening days of the siege, and then bombed by the Germans when they vacated the building. It wasn’t until after the Stalin era that its restoration was begun. In 1964, after eight years of work, the building was opened for public viewing.
A similar fate was suffered by the Samson Fountain, depicting the Greek hero tearing apart the mouth of a lion. Depicting a representation of the defeat of the Swedes (which used the lion as its emblem), the statue was badly damaged by the retreating Germans. Its restoration, though, came about much quicker, with the restored 1735 work unveiled in 1947.
Of course, the greatest fountain at Peterhof is the Grand Cascade. As with the Marly Palace, this work of art was modeled on an existing French fountain. It extends downward from the Samson Fountain toward the Baltic Sea. The artistic achievement of the Peterhof is a must-see attraction of St. Petersburg, and seeing this monument to Russian history can easily take the better part of a day.