This suburb of St. Petersburg is much older than the city itself. In 1499, it was just a small village called Hotchino and its inhabitants were people from Novgorod. Then it was occupied by Livonia and then by Sweden. In 1721, after the war between Russia and Sweden, Gatchina became a Russian settlement again. The Empress Catherine II gave it to her favorite Orlov, for whom the palace was built under the direction of architect Rinaldi. In the 19th century, Gatchina received the status of a city, and after the October Revolution a museum was opened inside the palace. Gatchina is worth visiting not just for the impressive palace, but also for the romantic park and small priory palace.
The palace is the only palace-fortress in the St. Petersburg region. After Orlov’s death, it became the residence of Catherine II’s son; the future emperor Paul I. Completed in 1781 in an early classical style, the original design of distinguished Italian architect Rinaldi was twice altered: once in an expansion by Vincenzo Brenna in the late eighteenth century and again when Roman Kuzmin reconstructed the palace between 1845 and 1860. During the Great Patriotic War, the palace and other sights of this city suffered greatly, but they were restored and are now open to tourists. Look out for the artificial grotto at the end of the palace’s corridor, one of the remnants of Rinaldi’s original design.
The park, created at the end of the eighteenth century, covers over 700 hectares. Like many imperial parks in the St. Petersburg region, the park was meant as an imitation of nature, and has nothing in common with the pristine gardens of, say, Versailles (though some of those geometric, manicured gardens were added later). It is notable that Catherine II was influential in the park’s construction. The park is dotted with ponds and islands, created courtesy of serf labour; its other features include the Silvia Gate, Venus Pavillion, Karpin Bridge, and the Birch House.
In the nineteenth century, the palace stood more or less empty, and during the Soviet period, it served as a meeting hall for pioneers, amongst other things. As per all the palaces in the suburbs, Gatchina was completely destroyed by the Nazis and was torched almost to the grounds. Restoration began in 1970 and was reopened as a museum in 1985. There is a great exhibition in the palace, which tells the history of the palace and its owners.
The palace’s attraction lies in its modesty, which is a welcome break from the sombreness of the imperial palace, and its picturesque location.