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Catherine Palace and the mystery of the looted Amber Room

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Catherine Palace and the mystery of the looted Amber Room

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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.

Entrance gate to Catherine Palace, St. Petersburg
What lies behind this entrance gate to Catherine Palace, St. Petersburg? Glitz, gold and a monumental mystery

The “whipped cream” Catherine Palace

But to understand it, we must first travel back in time to 1717 in St. Petersburg.

Catherine Palace was originally built in 1717 for Catherine, wife of Peter the Great, in the Tsars' Village, just outside of St. Petersburg.
Catherine Palace was originally built in 1717 for Catherine, wife of Peter the Great, in the Tsars’ Village, just outside of 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.

Picture of Empress Elizabeth at Catherine Palace, St. Petersburg
Shockingly extravagant, the Empress Elizabeth never wore a dress twice and would order over 1,000 bottles of French champagne for a dinner event

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.

It was Empress Elizabeth who turned Catherine Palace into a grandiose summer palace.
It was Empress Elizabeth who turned Catherine Palace into a grandiose summer palace

Catherine Palace rooms

Gilded furniture at Catherine Palace, St. Petersburg
There's lots of dazzling gold at the Catherine Palace, St. Petersburg!
The ornate Great Hall in Catherine Palace was lined with mirrors, gilded carvings and 12 glittering chandeliers

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.

To protect the tropical wood floors, we had to wear disposable slippers over our shoes before entering Catherine Palace.
To protect the tropical wood floors, we had to wear disposable slippers over our shoes before entering Catherine Palace

Floors were inlaid with exotic rosewood and mahogany – to protect them, we have to wear disposable slippers over our shoes before entering the palace.

Oh, the poor Tsars! They had to make do with gold and silver plates before Europeans discovered the secret of making porcelain and the Tsars could eat on this china

Amber Room, Catherine Palace

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.

Walls, ceilings, pictures... Everything is made of amber in the Amber Room at Catherine Palace
Walls, ceilings, pictures… Everything is made of amber in the Amber Room at Catherine Palace

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.

Amber Room at Catherine palace
A corner of the Amber 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.”

The gardens of Catherine Palace, once very formal, now have a more natural look.
The gardens of the palace, once very formal, now have a more natural look

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.

One of several statues in the gardens of Catherine Palace, Russia
One of several statues in the gardens of Catherine Palace

The Amber Room mystery

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.

Photo of Catherine Palace on fire
Photo of Catherine Palace on fire

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. Some experts believe it’s buried in an old mining site near Nordhausen, Germany, waiting to be unearthed…

Catherine Palace restoration

Remains of Catherine Palace after WWII

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.

parquet-floor-restorers
Parquet floor restorers at work in Catherine Palace

With donations from Germany, the Amber Room at Catherine Palace 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 was officially opened for the public again during St. Petersburg’s 300th anniversary.

Queen Elizabeth II visited St. Petersburg in 1994.
Queen Elizabeth II visited St. Petersburg in 1994

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).

Liza Minnelli sang the hit Cabaret movie song, "Money Makes the World Go Round," at a concert in St. Petersburg in 1994.
Liza Minnelli sang the hit Cabaret movie song, “Money Makes the World Go Round,” at a concert in St. Petersburg in 1994

No doubt they too wondered about the mystery of the magnificent missing amber…

Can you imagine living in Catherine Palace?
Can you imagine living in Catherine Palace?

Is it worth visiting Catherine Palace, St. Petersburg?

Absolutely!

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.

How to visit Catherine Palace, Russia

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. (When launched, it was hailed as the “world’s best new cruise ship.”).

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).

Getting visas:

A visa is needed to visit Russia. The cruise line arranges visas for guests who book St. Petersburg excursions through the ship.

Taking photos:

You can’t take photos of the Amber Room, but you can take pics (without flash) elsewhere in the palace.

Do you love frothy palaces? Then you’ll love Stockholm’s Drottningholm Palace!


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How to Visit Catherine Palace, St. Petersburg

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Shubham

Thursday 20th of October 2016

This is a mystery indeed. It was fun reading this.

Janice and George

Thursday 20th of October 2016

Glad you enjoyed our story :-).

Donna Janke

Friday 7th of October 2016

Fascinating story. I can see why Elizabeth succeeded at overwhelming people with the palace's opulence. The Amber Room looks amazing. I wonder where the missing amber is.

Janice and George

Saturday 8th of October 2016

A lot of treasure hunters would like to know where the missing amber is too! Hope it's found some day... It would be a shame for it to be lost forever...

Jenna Francisco

Thursday 6th of October 2016

This is so interesting! I've always wanted to go to Russia to see the grand old palaces and museums. And a Baltic cruise on Viking River Cruises must have been an amazing experience.

Janice and George

Friday 7th of October 2016

We'd always wanted to go to Russia too. This was a first visit for us -- we're very happy the "Viking Homelands" itinerary included St. Petersburg. (BTW. It's easy to mix the cruise lines up because Viking, until recently, was just Viking River Cruises, which now has 60+ river ships. And I believe they have river ships which visit St. Petersburg and Russia. The "Viking Star" is the first ocean-going vessel in Viking's new brand, Viking Ocean Cruises.)

Anda

Thursday 6th of October 2016

Wow, what a display of lust and luxury! Quite a "whipped cream palace." It's a miracle that it could be rebuilt so beautifully after it was so severely destroyed. I loved the story and now that you incited my curiosity, I'd love going to St. Petersburg myself.

Janice and George

Thursday 6th of October 2016

It is quite remarkable how the palace has been painstakingly restored. There's still work to be done -- we'd love to return again in future to see the updated restorations...

Annika

Wednesday 5th of October 2016

Catherine Palace leaves me astounded. Every single place at this palace is priceless. The Amber Room is really extravagant. I wonder how it feels to be at this place? Thanks for the glimpse.

Janice and George

Thursday 6th of October 2016

Interesting you should ask... We were gob-smacked at how lavishly the Tsars lived (and the Empress Elizabeth in particular, who virtually depleted Russia's treasury with her extravagance). And we were saddened to think how such splendor would have been built on the backs of so many less fortunate people, who would have suffered in those times. But that's the way of the world, when we look at the world's grand historic monuments...

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