Where’s the priceless amber treasure the Nazis looted from Russia’s Catherine Palace?
The lost Amber Room at Catherine Palace is one of the greatest mysteries bedeviling historians today. It’s a fascinating tale of untold riches, greed, evil, loss – and man’s ability to resurrect beauty from the ashes.
The “whipped cream” Catherine Palace
But to understand it, we must first travel back in time to 1717 in St. Petersburg.
That’s when Peter the Great gave his wife Catherine (and, no, not Catherine the Great – she came later) a parcel of swampy land outside the great imperial city he’d created on the banks of the Neva River. Catherine had a summer abode – Catherine Palace – built in what became known as the Tsars’ Village.
But it’s her daughter, the Empress Elizabeth, who turned the palace into what we marvel at today.
Possessing far more lavish tastes than her mother (Elizabeth owned an astonishing 18,000 dresses during her lifetime), she expanded and rebuilt the palace in an over-the-top Rococo style. Some 200 pounds of 24-carat gold were used to gild the baby blue exterior and five onion-shaped domes on top of the chapel.
Catherine Palace interior
Inside, the walls of the palace’s vast white rooms that we walk through today were also festooned with thousands of gold figurines and curlicues (which have to be regilded every year to maintain their lustrous shine). Ornate gold-framed mirrors and banks of glass windows were installed to catch the sunlight, adding to the glittering effect.
Floors were inlaid with exotic rosewood and mahogany – to protect them, we have to wear disposable slippers over our shoes before entering the palace.
Catherine Palace Amber Room – the “Eighth Wonder of the World”
Perhaps the most magnificent room in Catherine Palace was (and is) the Amber Room.
Standing inside its shimmering honey-and gold-colored walls today takes our breath away.
The “room” had originally been given as a present by Prussia’s Friedrich Wilhelm I to Elizabeth’s father, Peter the Great. Elizabeth arranged for the half million pieces of amber to be combined in a mosaic-like style to create the walls and ceiling of her Amber Room at Catherine Palace.
Tables and clocks were made of amber too. Even pictures were created out of amber and lapis lazuli, then framed in amber and gold. Gold ornaments were used to decorate the room.
Elizabeth wanted to overwhelm the European world with the palace’s opulence – she succeeded. The Amber Room at Catherine Palace became known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
The palace was a little too much for Elizabeth’s daughter, Catherine the Great, however. She dissed its design as “whipped cream.”
Over the centuries, the Tsars continued to spend their summers living it up St. Petersburg’s Catherine Palace with its beautiful formal gardens until 1917 and the Bolshevik Revolution, when the palace was turned into a museum.
Mystery of the Amber Room
Fast forward to 1941 during WWII.
The Nazis have invaded St. Petersburg. They loot the amber from the Amber Room at Catherine Palace and cart it off to Koenigsberg (now Russia’s Baltic enclave, Kalingrad). Then in 1944, when they retreat from St. Petersburg after besieging it for three years, they commit one more terrible deed – the Nazis firebomb the palace and almost burn it to the ground.
Which leads us to the present question – where is the amber now?
None of this priceless treasure (valued at up to $500 million USD) has ever been found.
Catherine Palace restoration
After the war, artisans and crafts people got to work to painstakingly restore Catherine Palace (some rooms still need to be restored). We see an inspiring gallery of black-and-white photos of the devastation after the palace was burned and the crafts people involved in the finicky restoration work.
With donations from Germany, the Amber Room was also reconstructed using real amber. (We learn that amber, created from fossilized tree resin, is becoming more and more valuable, as there are very few of the ancient, amber-producing pine trees left in the world.)
Then in 2003, the Amber Room at Catherine Palace was officially opened for the public again during St. Petersburg’s 300th anniversary.
We’re not the only ones wowed by the Amber Room and Catherine Palace. Bill Clinton, Queen Elizabeth II, Liza Minnelli and other celebs and royalty have all visited (Elton John even gave an exclusive concert in the palace’s Grand Hall).
No doubt they too wondered about the mystery of the magnificent missing amber…
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How to visit Catherine Palace
Cruising to St. Petersburg:
We visited St. Petersburg and the Catherine Palace Amber Room while on a Baltic cruise on the all-veranda Viking Star (a beautiful ship, hailed as the “world’s best new cruise” – see our review).
The 14-night “Viking Homelands” itinerary includes two full days in port in St. Petersburg. Cruise rates include a free shore excursion in each port – in St. Petersburg, the included excursion is a 3-hour panoramic coach tour of the gilded city. (One reason we really like Viking Cruises is because of all the extras thrown in, like complimentary shore excursions, WiFi and lots of great wines.)
A guided Catherine Palace tour is an optional excursion (4.5 hours; extra charge).
A visa is needed to visit Russia. The cruise line arranges visas for guests who book St. Petersburg excursions through the ship.
You can’t take photos of the Amber Room, but you can take pics (without flash) elsewhere in the palace.
Is it worth visiting St. Petersburg’s Catherine Palace?
It’s mind boggling to see how lavishly the imperial Tsars lived. (Along with the Hermitage Museum and Winter Palace, touring the Catherine Palace is one of the best things to do in St. Petersburg.) The palace’s gardens are also beautiful. If it’s a sunny day, as it was for us, you’ll enjoy strolling through the large gardens as well. The palace’s tumultuous history (from creation to destruction to resurrection) – combined with the mystery of the missing Amber Room – adds to its allure.
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We’re Janice and George Mucalov, professional award-winning travel writers, sharing tales of luxury travel with a twist of adventure.