A panorama view of the Katalnaya Gorka pavilion and sliding hill at Oranienbaum
The estate of Oranienbaum consists of a series of beautiful palaces and pleasure pavilions. Visitors to St. Petersburg today often overlook this magnificent palace complex opting instead for its more grand and opulent neighbour at Peterhof.
One particular folly which has captured the imaginations of historians and visitors is the switchback or roller coaster of Emperor Catherine II at Katalnaya Gorka (Sliding Hill).
Created soley for the purpose as a setting for a day's amusement, the pleasure pavilion and adjoining sliding hill was a highly sophisticated version of the most popular of Russian sports, the 'Russian mountains', as they were called throughout Europe, with the name of 'ice hills' for the winter version.
The beautiful pavilion built by Rinaldi which resembles a wedding cake has survived
Archdeacon Coxe, writing in 1784, brings us right to Katalnaya Gorka:
"In the gardens of Oranienbaum is a very extraordinary building, denominated the Mountain for Sledges . . . It stands in the middle of an olbong area, enclosed by an open colonnade with a flat roof, which is railed for the convenience of holding spectators. The circumference of this colonnade is at least half a mile. In the middle of the area stands the flying mountain, stretching nearly from one end to the other. It is a wooden building, supported upon high brick walls, representing . . . a mountain composed of three principal ascents, gradually diminishing its height, with an intermediate space to resemble vallies: from top to bottom is a floored way, in which three parallel grooves are formed. It is thus used: a small carriage containing one person, being placed in the center groove upon the highest point, goes with great rapidity down one hill; the velocity which it acquires in its descent carries it up a second; and it continues to move in a similar manner until it arrives at the bottom of the area, where it rolls for a considerable way . . . It is then placed in one of the side grooves, and drawn up by means of a cord fixed to a windass . . . At the top of the mountain are several handsome apartments for the accommodation of the court and principal nobility; and there is also room for many thousand spectators within the colonnade and upon its roof."
So, summer and winter, the court of the Empress Catherine II would amuse themselves for a few hours, return to the pavilion, take their refreshment and rest in its lovely rooms, and watch their friends from the terraces and balconies. But when the court no longer went to Oranienbaum, the 'flying mountain' fell into disrepair, was pronounced dangerous, and dismantled in the mid-19th century. The meadows that once housed the toboggan runs were cleared and planted with fir trees.
The only reminder of the sliding hill or switchback is this scale model, now housed in the Katalnaya Gorka Pavilion
Today, visitors to Oranienbaum can still see the field where the empress's immense folly II once stood. The pavilion at the end of the meadow has survived and undergone a splendid restoration. Inside, a scale model of the sliding hill is the only reminder of Catherine the Great's roller coaster.
© Paul Gilbert @ Royal Russia. 07 October, 2012