The Peter and Paul Fortress
This is where it all began – the spot where Peter the Great started building a fortress on May 27th 1703, thereby founding the city that would become one of the most beautiful in Europe. In building the Peter and Paul Fortress Peter was
attempting to secure for Russia the Neva River delta which at the time was a part of Sweden. The original fortifications were made of earth and wood, but by 1706 stone was being used. It was 35 years before the massive 12 meter walls were completed and by that time the war with Sweden was long finished. The war had officially ended in 1721 but was essentially over as early as 1709. But work on the fortress didn’t stop, with fortifications being continually improved all through the 18th Century. The fortress served as a political prison for a long while with prisoners including Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leon Trotsky and Maxim Gorky. The plan of the fortress, with its protruding bastions forming the shape of an irregular hexagon and occupying the entire space of Zayachy (Hare) Island, was the work of St Petersburg’s ‘first architect’ Domenico Trezzini. Entry to the fortress grounds is free and it’s certainly an experience just to wander around admiring the buildings, walls and gates. Entry to all the major buildings on the site costs 120R ($4.50).
The dominant and most spectacular building in the fortress is St Peter and Paul’s Cathedral. Also designed by Trezzini, the cathedral is in early Russian baroque style and was built between 1712-33.
The golden spire on top of the bell tower reaches a height of 122.5 meters, making it the tallest structure in the city. A golden angel sits at the very zenith. Inside, the Cathedral is quite beautiful and much of the interior decoration has remained unchanged since the 1720s. St Peter and Paul’s Cathedral is also renowned as the burial place of the Tsars. All the emperors and empresses from Peter the Great to Alexander III were buried here, with a couple of inconsequential exceptions. With the families of the rulers buried there as well, there was no room left by the end of the 19th Century so the Grand Ducal Burial Chapel was added to the Cathedral. As a closing chapter, the remains of the last Tsar, Nikolai II, and his family were laid to rest here in 1998, 80 years to the day after they were executed by the Bolsheviks.
There are a number of other buildings in the fortress grounds which are probably of little interest,
depending how seriously you take your St Petersburg history. You should definitely buy the extra ticket to do the walk along the fortress wall for 50R ($2). There are some great views across the Neva from there. It’s also worth checking out the ‘beaches’ around the fortress that are crowded with people in the summer months. There is a nominal fee if you want the join the masses.
Another popular feature on the fortress grounds is the statue of Peter the Great. In sharp contrast to the idealized portrait of Peter as the Bronze Horseman across the river, this version of Petersburg’s founder seems almost a mocking one. The Tsar is depicted with an abnormally small head and creepily elongated appendages. However, architect Mikhail Shemyakin did use Peter’s death mask and the wax figure made of him after his death as models for his sculpture so there might be some truth to it. Unveiled in 1991, the statue caused commotion and controversy with some demanding its removal from the Peter and Paul Fortress. But the statue has stayed and gradually become accepted. It is today obligatory for all visitors to the fortress to snap a photo of themselves on Peter the Great’s lap.
Directions: The fortress takes up all of Zayachy Island. The closest metro is Gorkovskaya. The fortress grounds are open daily from 6:00-22:00 while the museums are open from 11:00-18:00 Thursday-Tuesday.
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