When we travel we look for the hidden gems, those things that fly under the radar, that the locals are aware of but no one else is. When researching our trip to southern Italy, I came upon an obscure blog post (so obscure I don’t know where it is now…but thanks!) that mentioned a palace in the city of Caserta about an half-hour outside Naples. The blogger said that locals flock to it but for some inexplicable reason it isn’t on any North American to-do lists. A quick search proved them to be right: every list I checked had the usual suspects (Amalfi coast, Pompei, Naples harbour, etc.) but not a single one mentioned the Reggia di Caserta. Well, said I, let’s put it on our list if we happen to get that way but if it’s that unknown, there must not be much to it. Yes, I was wrong.
As we approached the city of Caserta on the expressway it looked like many of the suburban cities we had encountered in the province of Campania, aging row houses and apartment buildings broken up by the occasional ‘bar’ or local coffee shop/hangout yet the GPS told us the ‘palace’ was in 500 metres…how could this be??!! We saw nothing that even hinted at a tourist site. As the GPS voice mellifluously apprised us, “You have arrived”, we saw a large hedged entryway alongside some unimpressive signage in the middle of a city block. This was it?
We parked and walked through the leafy passage, coming out into the 18th century! Ahead of us was the one of the largest edifices I had ever seen, 5 floors, 1,200 rooms, including two dozen state apartments, a large library, and a theatre modelled after the Teatro San Carlo of Naples with 42 boxes and seating for almost 300! The palace was surrounded by dozens of gardens and fountains stretching as far as the eye could see.
Commissioned by Charles VII of Naples with architect Luigi Vanvitelli, construction began in 1752 on something Chuck hoped would be more spectacular than the French palace of Versailles…and I think he got his way (although he was never able to spend even a night in it). It took almost 3 decades to complete and today at over 2 million cubic metres is the largest royal residence in the world! We were momentarily in such a state of awe that we stumbled zombielike through the gardens toward the palace proper.
We paid the admission (9 Euros for the palace, an extra 3 for the gardens), a pittance for the beauty we were to encounter and stepped into the magnificent (what WASN’T magnificent about this palace?) foyer with its Grand Staircase.
Made completely of marble with a size of over 600 square metres and 42 metres in height, this breathtaking passageway has been used for the filming of several movies including…
several Star Wars movies,
Angels and Demons,
and Mission Impossible 3.
At the end of the upper staircase is the chapel, itself a work of art.
To the left we walked into the first anteroom (there were 3!) leading to the royal apartments. After the 3rd anteroom, we were greeted with a hallway stretching as far as the eye could see and off this hallway were 25 of the most spectacular rooms we has ever encountered, each complete with enormous paintings on each wall AND ceiling…
…ending with the glorious throne room.
One of the highlights was a room size nativity scene in miniature, so detailed we spent the better part of a half hour examining it.
We headed out to the ‘Park’, an incredible collection of gardens, statues and fountains stretching over 2 kilometres (!!) and culminating in a man-made 75 foot waterfall.
Although it was drizzling, we decided to make the trek to the falls and back because the way it was created, it frankly didn’t look that far…we were wrong. As glorious as it was, by the time we made it to the falls, my wife said she was taking the bus back (a bus circles the garden, providing a ride for the less hearty for 1.5 Euros. Bicycles are also available for rent and a horse and carriage ride is also available).
Although we didn’t know what to expect, this turned out to be one of the highlights of our 10 days in Italy. Make it a part of your itinerary.
Here is an unofficial but wonderfully detailed website dedicated to the palace.