It is quite some time since Mama went to Tsaritsyno Park in Moscow, and while she wasn’t paying attention they have built a full-sized imperial palace in its environs.
And a whole bunch of royal outbuildings.
Tarted up some bridges and the like.
And replumbed a cascading water fountain.
Which was all a bit of a shock.
Tsaritsyno references the Tsarina Catherine the Great who first saw the area, liked it, had it washed and brought to her, and decided to construct a nice new palace for herself there. Of course, at this time the capital of Russia was, and was to remain, St Petersburg. And Tsaritsyno was some way outside of Moscow proper at the time. But you can never have too many palaces, can you? And presumably there was something wrong with the Kolomenskoye royal estate, which is just down the road.
Anyway, the Empress’s dwelling was duly constructed, and unusually was designed and built by a Russian architect, Vasily Bazhenov, who deliberately set out to incorporate a certain amount of traditional Russian styling into the basically gothic sensibility of the place.
They certainly make gingerbread which looks a lot like this in Russia says Mama brightly. Thank you, Mama for your informed opinion about architecture.
You are, or perhaps were because the occasional careless jumble of stones suggests that they haven’t quite recreated the exact floor plan of the original, supposed to view the collection of buildings as one whole. The idea was that as you moved around the complex, each structure would work in combination with the others, forming and reforming different pleasing ensembles. A bit like the work of Capability Brown, the English garden designer, but with fewer artfully natural-looking lakes, cunningly places spinneys and the ha ha keeping the sheep off the centuries-old lawn, and more red brick.
Sometime as it was nearing completion, Catherine turned up to see how it was getting on and hated it.
Not because the Russo-gothic style was a bit much, but because the rooms were too small.
(The. Rooms. Were. Too. Small. Yes, Mama is howling with laughter as we type this).
So they fired Vasily and got his apprentice Matvey Kazakov to try and sort out the lack of largeness a bit by building a huge new palace in amongst the gingerbread gothic ones. Has a certain Disney châteaux aesthetic around the towers, donchathink? Not surprising as Catherine was famous for being a big fan of the enlightenment, a pen pal of Voltaire’s, and German. Very continental.
It didn’t help though; Tsaritsyno palace was never occupied for real. As a result, it soon fell into a state of disrepair and for a long time, including when Mama last visited, it was a picturesque ruin you could go and picnic around, paint a watercolour of, climb over and get your self engraved next to or have your photograph taken with. Depending on the era.
And then in 2005 they decided to rebuild it. Well, it’s very difficult to have a heritage tourist industry if you used to build everything out of wood and had a revolution. If you don’t do a bit of creative reconstruction, you will be stuck with flat museums of great Soviet writers and churches forever more, and nobody wants that.
Certainly my family decided it was worth having a look inside. The entrance is underground, and you can buy tickets for individual buildings separately – and there are quite a few of them, the territory is quite large – or for a number of buildings at once. We opted for the combined main palace and Bread House, mainly because Mama was quite curious about whether she was right about the architectural style after all.
We decided to put off finding out, and look at the main palace building first.
Now you may be wondering if they have redone the interiors to match the exteriors the answer would be, largely, no. There are a couple of Catherine-esque rooms though, including a giant gold covered reception room.
The thing about wandering through an ornate reconstruction of a room is how bright, gaudy and slightly fake it looks to someone who has been a National Trust member for years and expects such places to be faded with 400 years of patina all over everything inside. And yet, presumably, this is what all those stately homes looked like when they were actually lived in by the people we go and learn about, give or take a few square metres of gold leaf. It’s quite an eye opener really, because Mama finds it fairly tacky when new.
Except the chandeliers which are always fabulous.
The room also demonstrated the wisdom of asking docents what they think we should be interested in, because they directed us to admire the floor. Hand laid parquet, of many different shades from different types of wood, all fitted together in pleasingly symmetrical design. Cool. Give it 100 years or so and even Mama will coo over it.
Some other rooms have been left semi restored so you can compare the then and now and also find out more about the history of the palace and how they went about fixing Tsaritsyno up.
But mainly they have contented themselves with making the rooms look blandly pleasant and then filling them with art exhibitions.
Which lean towards the arts and crafts side of artistic expression. So in the basement, as well as a room full of things which were dug up during the restoration work (coins, mostly), there is an extensive display of silver and crystal work.
Russian cuisine leans heavily on salads, and crystal bowls of this type are an absolutely essential part of a celebratory table here. The silver lobster is, generally, optional.
There was also quite a lot of porcelain and ceramic art. Some of this was pre-revolution, some from the big factories in the Soviet era, both folk-inspired and revolutionary themed, and some were individual works of decorative artists from the last 100 years regardless of political affiliation. Mama really enjoyed it, and as she allowed a fairly brisk pace, so did we.
There was also a whole floor given over to recreating the interiors Tsarskoye Selo, which is not actually anything to do with Moscow at all, but the suburban palace of the imperial family from turn of the 20th Century, Nicholas II, his wife and children. Mama took this at a brisk pace too, even when we wanted to linger round full-sized Christmas tree! Not sure why she looked a bit uncomfortable when they showed us little clips of the children at play and the like. Probably because you weren’t supposed to take photos, which always makes Mama cross, although the number 1917 appeared in such giant letters at the end of the series of rooms that I feel that this may also be significant.
As if in compensation for thwarting Mama’s hobbies, they have interactive photography opportunities on the next few floors. Mama was particularly delighted to find that you can hire costumes and parade around in them for your friends and family to snap you looking sharp! Although my Fashionable Big Brother didn’t get a look in as there were no outfits for boys she could see on a casual glance. Mama considers this a shame, as 18th century menswear was particularly fabulous.
If you don’t want to have a go at this, there are 18th century themed cut outs for you to pose with on the top floor near the cafe.
The cafe, ah yes. There are in fact, not one but TWO cafes inside Tsaritsyno palace, one at the top and one at the bottom of the building, which Mama considers very sensible positioning. She suspects the one at the top is less well-known about because it is much quieter. But it’s definitely worth searching out as next to the dining area is a display of cake design. We towed Mama over and pointed out the ones we want for our birthdays. Mama is totally going to be able to reproduce five stories of lifelike replica birds with a bit of fondant icing, yeah?
If for some reason you don’t fancy either cafe, the warmer months see stalls of food sellers popping up all over the park, and there is also some kind of restaurant down by the fountain too. For once your visit to an attraction is Moscow is not likely to be blighted by finding eateries unavailable!
Anyway, after some refreshment it was time to finally go and find out what the Bread House was.
Well, there’s a covered atrium, which was very pleasant, and then it is full of animal themed ceramic displays.
No, we don’t know what that has to do with bread either, but as there was also animal themed crafting, we did not complain. And neither did Mama because since we now owned a new paper pet, we trotted disinterestedly past the shop at the exit and had renewed enthusiasm for gamboling around in the grounds before we made our way home.
Mama was more enthralled by the intergenerational volleyball matches in the casual volleyball court area, the very popular chess meet and the over seventies outdoor disco we wandered past, where if you assumed they would be playing sedate waltzes you would be very very wrong.
Tsaritsyno clearly has it all and a boating lake to boot. Definitely worth a trip if you are bored of the usual Moscow sights.
The park’s website (in English).
This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about how to make a gingerbread house.
Address: 1 Dolskaya St., Moscow 115569
Opening: Tuesdays to Fridays: 11:00–18:00, Saturdays: 11:00–20:00, Sundays: 11:00–19:00, Mondays: CLOSED.
Admission: It varies depending on which building or combination of buildings you want to visit, but the combined Grand Palace and Bread House ticket we had costs 350 roubles for an adult, 100 roubles for school children and anyone under seven goes free. You can get an all in one ticket valid for one month for 680 roubles if you are really keen.
Getting there: If you get off at Tsaritsyno metro station (green line), don’t expect much help from street signage about which way to go after that. It’s not that difficult though, even if you don’t have your smart phone plugged in – just head under the railway tracks and there you are right next to the cascading fountain. A much more obvious entrance is in from the next station out from the centre, Orekhovo, and then you cut through the wooded area down to the palace. Although there isn’t much to tell you which way to go then either (go forward and left. Or left and then forward). To ensure full coverage and not missing the fountain, you can do what we did and enter one way and go out the other.
Don’t ask Mama about cars and car parking – she doesn’t know.
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