When I entered the grand ballroom in the Catherine Palace, just outside St Petersburg, Russia, I was captivated by the idea of swirling around this space wearing exquisite silks and jewels like Natasha Rostov in War and Peace.
In 2016 Lily James got to live out my fantasy on TV! It couldn’t happen to a nicer person. She’s playing a fairy-tale princess, of the 19th-century Russian kind, whose fairy-tale life collides with Napoleon’s invasion of her country. The six-part BBC adaption of the mammoth Tolstoy novel is the latest work of Andrew Davies, that wonderful screenwriter who delighted us all with his versions of Pride & Prejudice and Vanity Fair.
As well as the lovely Lily James, there’s the brooding James Norton, the sultry Tuppence Middleton, the glamorous Gillian Andersen and the peerless Greta Scacchi, Jim Broadbent and Stephen Rea.
I love Russian literature and I love travelling to places that have featured in books and films. War & Peace was filmed on location in Russia, and then in Latvia and Lithuania when Russia got too expensive. It brings to vivid life the decadent world of aristocratic Tsarist Russia and the tragic consequences of war.
Here are our top five film locations where you can enter into the world of War & Peace:
The Catherine Palace, St Petersburg
This is the setting for the overwhelmingly sumptuous ball given by the Tsar of Russia and Lily James told the UK’s Telegraph newspaper that this was her favourite moment of the War and Peace whole shoot.
“We were in Catherine Palace, where it really would have happened, and when the orchestra recorded the music for Andrei and Natasha’s waltz, the acoustic was so magical that the last note went on for about a minute,” she said.
The Catherine Palace is in the town of Tsarskoye Selo, just south of St Petersburg and easy to reach by train or subway. In 1743 the Russian royals ordered the creation of this opulent palace in an attempt to rival Louis XIV’s Versailles.
The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
The Hermitage in St Petersburg is one of the oldest and richest art museums in the world and consists of no fewer than six historic buildings along the Palace Embankment, including the fabulous Winter Palace of the Russian Tsars.
It was created by Catherine the Great in 1764 but has only been open to the public since 1852. This is a must do for any visitor to St Petersburg and you should devote a whole day to exploring its vast collections.
The mighty facades and ornate interiors of the State Hermitage were essential to recreating the world of War and Peace.
Alexander Pushkin’s Museum
This tiny museum in St Petersburg is an apartment rather than a palace but it is a well-preserved example of a nobleman’s apartment in the early 19th century so was a perfect film location for War & Peace.
Alexander Pushkin is Russia’s most beloved poet and this is where he died after being shot in a duel (also very War & Peace) and this apartment museum is a shrine to a celebrated literary figure. It is well worth a few hours wandering through the Pushkin Museum.
Rundāle Palace, Latvia
This little known fairy tale castle in Latvia is about an hour outside Riga and makes a perfect day trip from the capital. The Baroque architecture of Rundale Palace was a perfect stand in for many of the St Petersburg interiors in War and Peace.
It is a vast place with even bigger gardens and in the summer time hosts a popular garden festival around its showpiece rose garden and fountain. Rundale has a small museum highlighting the history of this 18th-century beauty.
Access is by road from Riga and you can find out more about visiting Rundale Palace on the website.
Rundale Palace, Latvia, Photo by Artis Rams under the creative commons license
Gediminas Castle, Lithuania
This striking red-towered edifice stands high above the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius and is all that is left of a much larger castle that was built at the beginning of the 15th century. Gediminas Castle is an important symbol of the city and there is a funicular from the bottom of the hill so that visitors can enjoy the panoramic view of the historic old town.
Like Riga, Vilnius is popular city break destination in Europe and there are cheap flights available from many central European hubs. The university and the old town of Vilnius were also used in filming War and Peace and the famous battle scenes were recreated in the unspoilt countryside outside the city.
Vilnius from Gediminas Castle, photo by Peter Collins under the creative commons license
These dramatic film locations perfectly match this strikingly passionate screen adaption of the classic novel War & Peace, a breath-taking story of love and death at a most tumultuous period in world history.
By Natasha von Geldern
Did War & Peace inspire you to visit Russia? If so better pin this!