Two palace gardens we visited in the Baltic area were unusual, to our eyes anyway, in that the parterre gardens beside the buildings – there were extensive parks surrounding the ‘home’ gardens – used ground covers made from coloured, crushed material. We’re more used to seeing plant-filled parterres so this is a distinct style.
Kadriorg Palace and terrace garden in Tallinn, Estonia. Parterre gardens are made to be viewed from above to appreciate the patterns. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Kadriorg Park in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, covers about 70ha and was constructed from 1718 on the orders of Russian tsar Peter I (Peter the Great who founded St Petersburg further up the coast in 1703 and won this area from the Swedes in 1710). These days, the summer retreat he built for his wife, Catherine – Kadriorg means ‘Catherine’s valley’ – is an art museum.
Peter realised his family wouldn’t make great use of the palace and ordered that the park and its carefully crafted gardens be open to the public (he was great, after all).
After Peter died in 1725, Russian royalty lost interest holidaying in far-off Tallinn, but wealthy families began to construct villas nearby (the Presidential Palace was built in 1938) and the area remains “a cut above”.
Wikipedia reports that “the gardener Ilya Surmin” was responsible for the flower garden, but gives no more clues to the life of this man.
Another view of Kadriorg’s garden – with the surrounding park in the background. Photo: Sandra Simpson
The garden’s paths are a sand-fine gravel mix, while the red material within the garden spaces is crushed brick. The edge gardens are lined with box hedging, while the interior beds are lined with metal ‘boxing’! The beds are planted with annuals such as bedding begonias, which makes sense, given the climate – long winters and short, concentrated growing periods.
The Catherine Palace (named for the same Catherine as Kadriorg) near St Petersburg, also uses crushed materials, but only grass and topiary, for its ‘parterre’ gardens – crushed brick, coal, glass and sand of different shades were typical features of this palace’s 18th century gardens.
The Catherine Palace parterre uses sand and brick and crushed coal, as well as grass, to create its patterns that resemble the parquet floors inside the palace. Photo: Sandra Simpson
The palace was created as an official summer residence after Peter the Great presented a farm, and farmhouse, on a hill to his future wife Catherine I in 1710. She began improving and extending from 1712-24, including planting an orchard, but things really took off when Catherine and Peter’s daughter, Tsarina Elizabeth (who ruled in her own right), extended the building, didn’t like it and in 1752 gave Italy-born architect Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli creative freedom. He turned to Versailles for inspiration and gave us what we see today – a palace with a 300m breadth.
Elizabeth enjoyed hunting here and having picnics – her hobby, our guide Irina told us, was to “change gowns”. After her death in 1762 15,000 dresses were found, two trunks of silk stockings, 200 pairs of unworn shoes – and the state treasury was empty!
Catherine II (Catherine the Great, and granddaughter-in-law to Peter the Great) sent architects to England to study and then had them remodel the grounds, while in 1771 English gardener Joseph Bush came to supervise work on the 70ha park. The arrival route brought visitors through an English-style park, over a small canal with a pair of Chinese figures holding lanterns and to the palace’s porte cochere (covered entry).
One of the pair of Chinese lantern figures on the bridge from the English park to the Catherine Palace itself. Photo: Sandra Simpson
Catherine was notorious both as a spender and a miser! Irina said of several projects, “she rejected to pay for it”. But she spent up large to build St Petersburg’s Hermitage art gallery and fill it with treasures, and she kept this palace up.
The first railway line in Russia was built in 1837 and ran the 17km from St Petersburg to Tsarskoye Selo, the village that grew up around the several royal residences here (since 1937 called Pushkin). The trip took 35 minutes and in 1838 there were five passenger trains a day.
Although Alexander II and his family used the Catherine Palace, Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, moved permanently to the nearby Alexander Palace where he could keep hidden his son’s hemophilia – after his abdication the family was held prisoner in the building from March-August, 1917.
The reconstructed Amber Room – the band at the top that runs up to the ceiling is trompe l’oeil work. The rest real! Image: Wikipedia
The highlight of a visit to the Catherine Palace must be the reconstructed Amber Room, created in 1750 but stolen by the Nazis in 1942 and “disappearing” in 1945. The re-creation project, which ran from 1979 to 2003, received a $US3.5 million donation from a West German company. In all 5.7 tonnes of amber, including waste, was used to re-create, using old photos, the mosaics that cover the walls of the small room. It’s an almost overwhelming effect.