One year ago, the ruined palaces and overgrown park at Tsaritsyno emerged from a massive reconstruction project as a glowing wedding cake ensemble set in immaculate grounds. Conservationists complained that the unfinished palace had been hideously transformed into a disneyland venue for diplomatic balls, and that the relandscaping destroyed large numbers of trees. Muscovites, however, voted in favor of the renovation by their attendance, pouring into the park every weekend to visit the palaces, stroll along the lake and watch the musical fountains. The annual Honey Festival, which is held next door to the park until October 10th, makes it an even more popular attraction.
Exit Orekhovo metro station near the back of the train and turn left in the tunnel. You will see the park gates directly in front of you as you come up the stairs. Pass through the gate and continue along the red brick path ahead, soon entering the landscape park through a tall forest of lime trees. The yellowish "Nerastankino" pavilion (1) soon appears on the left, built two hundred years ago and recently restored. Just beyond the pavilion are a number strange burial mounds interspersed with statues and supposedly dating from far earlier periods in the park's history.
Going back to the pavilion and past a statue of a dryad with lyre, bear right and take any path and bridge across the ravine beyond, turning right along the far side to reach the ‘Temple of Ceres‘ summer house, a colonnaded rotunda housing a statue of the Roman goddess of fertility, looking a bit like the Empress Catherine. Follow the zig-zag path down to the lake and turn right along the waterside path, passing the ‘mermaid's gate', a stone archway on an island.
A flight of steps leads up again quite soon to a ruined tower. Walk under the tower and on towards another pavilion, the ‘Milovida Gallery' with an ornately painted ceiling and great views over the lake. Walking on along a red gravel path, you come to the elabourate "Grapevine Gate" (2). The first building after this archway is the Opera house, topped with double-headed Romanov eagles and built in the 1770s by Vasily Bazhenov, the architect first charged by Catherine the Great with constructing a palace at Tsaritsyno. Rounding the corner of the Grand Palace, the whole pinnacled ensemble comes into view, together with the ruins of one of Bazhenov's original palaces. On the other side of these, two bronze models show the palace as built by Bazhenov and then as redesigned by Kazakov after Catherine ordered it to be torn down.
No one knows exactly why Catherine disliked her new palaces. One theory is that she objected Bazhenov's masonic connections and certainly some of the surviving white stone decorations on the red brick walls possess masonic symbols. Whatever the reason, Matvei Kazakov, who also built the Petrovsky Palace near Dinamo, was commissioned to build a new palace in 1786. It was still unfinished when the empress died ten years later and became increasingly dilapidated until its grand restoration last year. Several of the smaller buildings in the ensemble survive from Bazhenov's time, including the octagonal "Cavalier Building" near the church (3).
The church itself, dedicated to "Our Lady of the Life-giving Spring," pre-dates the palaces and a wooden church was first built on the site in the fourteenth century.
Through the spiked gate in the wall between the palaces, statues of the two architects stand in the courtyard near the glass building which - like the Louvre pyramid - provides a smart entranceway into the Grand Palace (150 rubles) and the Kitchen building (Klebniy Dom 100 rubles). The first of these houses exhibitions about the history of the estate, archeological finds (in the basement) and endless pictures of Catherine II.
Some of the most interesting exhibits are the original architects' plans and the before- and -after photos of the restoration. You can also visit the brand new state rooms while, in the Klebniy Dom, you can see many-layered reconstructions of eighteenth century confections. There is also a cafe in the basement hall where you can get a decent cup of coffee without necessarily visiting either museum. For more information about the buildings in the park, the museum-reserve has a english-language version of their website accessible at: http://www.tsaritsynomuseum.ru/ English_vers/complexE.htm
Walk under the huge ‘Figurny Most' bridge back down towards the lakes. Heading right, you come to another bridge that goes to the island where the musical fountains (4) dance in time to an assortment of well-known tunes. On the far side of the island, a futher bridge and a path lead you uphill through carefully-tended flower beds to the main gates. Look back before you leave for a great view of the palace across the valley. Through the gates and to the left, colourful banners mark the entrance to the Honey Festival (5) where you can sample and buy thousands of different types of honey from all over Russia, as well as beeswax candles, honeycomb and mead. If all this sweetness makes you thirsty, just keep heading left through the stalls until you come to a larger tent in the far corner where you can buy a cup of tea or cheap canteen-style food.
Tsaritsyno metro station is only ten minutes walk away through the tunnel opposite the main gates to the park, but if you have some energy left, you can explore the park further, enjoying the views of wooded islands and shining water. Turning left just back inside the main gates, you can follow the path around the top end of the lake and then back all along the water's edge on either side of the further pond until you reach the island with the "mermaid's gate." From here you can follow the path uphill through the woods back to Orekhovo Metro Station. ■
Family friendly features
The musical fountain and honey festival are great to visit with kids and can be accessed most directly from Tsaritsyno metro, although you miss the wilder, more picturesque end of the park. Beeswax candles in the shape of animals, jars of honey-flavoured gummy bears or boxes of sweet "Chak Chak" all make good souvenirs.
The Honey Festival runs until October 10th, or until the delicious golden stuff runs out, so you better hurry!