or Catherine’s Summer Palace and Gardens are located outside of St. Petersburg. My journey began on the very efficient metro. Because SPb is built on marshland of the Neva River, the subway tunnels are VERY deep and I descended a single escalator for several minutes to arrive at the platform. For me, it was unnerving because a terrorist suicide bomb attack occurred on the SPb metro in April and while I wasn’t afraid of that, I was apprehensive of drowning in a submerged tunnel. (I blame the movie Poseidon Adventure for my irrationality on this one!) Anyway, after about 20 minutes, I stepped into the light and risked life and limb again by hailing a marshrutka. These are privately owned and operated nine passenger vans fitted out with about 18 seats and room to stand. They dart around on a fixed route that mimics the bus route but they start and stop anywhere along the way, often with a screech of brakes or peel of rubber. My van was loaded with about 25 tourists headed to the Palace about an hour before it even opened.
You can buy tickets online. And you can buy guided tours. I was unable to do either because they were sold out when I checked (about three weeks before my travels). Meaning I stood in a VERY long line just waiting for the doors to open to buy on the spot tickets. That line only got longer during my visit. It snaked through the grounds and moved at a snail’s pace. Once you got the privilege of entering, there were new queues for the ticket counters. It was a chaotic mad dash to choose the shortest line…but really there are no lines because this mass of humanity just pushed forward to the clerks. You were crumpled and pushed in a variety of languages with a minimum of courtesy.
After ticketing, you realize signage is quite horrible and I had no clue which new line to stand in. This was the beginning of my aversion to Japanese tour groups. Somehow, they are trained or told that queueing is for wimps, velvet ropes are for moving, photography not allowed signs only mean put away your selfie stick, selfies are required in each and every room, and the best way to see things is to snap a photo and another of the descriptive placard and move on…all in front of other tourists who are admiring the view. My only possible explanation for this behavior is they are given 30 minutes to see and do it all before reboarding their bus, so they really see nothing but where they’ve been in photos. It’s both sad and annoying.
Anyway, whether I was in the right or the wrong line, I saw the rooms and delights of Catherine’s Palace. Seeing the Amber Room (no photos allowed at all and they policed it) was worth everything before or after. It is amazing. Every inch of wall covered with amber mosaic or mirrors, lit by wall sconces, and glowing with golden warmth. (It is a replication of what was destroyed during WWII.) My other favorite “wing” was filled with devastating photos of the palace’s destruction, mostly by the Nazi regime, but also by Soviet nationalization and neglect. And then, quite abruptly, I ended up outside in a lovely garden, certainly the scene for engagement proposals and wedding photos. I spent more time wandering the paths and admiring the outbuildings, then retraced my journey all the way back to my home at Sky Hotel…thinking all the while that this is a place that needs to be Disneyfied for line control, signage, docents, food service, and making everyone “happy”. There are too many people to organize and yell at if you don’t. OR, I should have booked my tickets and tour six months in advance!