Palace of Caserta (Italy): the world’s largest royal palace?

After spending a week on the Amalfi Coast, visiting Pompeii, Ercolano, Naples, Sorrento & Capri, it was time to head back to the airport.  However, I managed to schedule a detour via the Palace of Caserta, a former royal palace of the Kings of Bourbon.

Arriving at the palace was somewhat potluck.  The town fo Caserta itself doesn’t signpost the palace, and we failed to find anything that might have been an official car park.  I knew, though, that the palace is within walking distance of the train station (I’d recommend taking the train if you plan to visit) and so we followed the signs for the station, found an underground car park nearby with a reasonable charge, parked, and just hoped that our car would still be there when we returned (it was – parking cost €5).

The gardens in front of the palace (outside the station) host a number of loitering men, the type who sell sunglasses and fake designer handbags in Rome & Florence.  It made the initial approach a little intimidating.

As we arrived at the palace we found the entrance blocked by hoards of schoolchildren, together with men trying to sell them phone cases and sunglasses.  I said to D, let’s just push through, which we did and we were inside.

We made our way along the grand hall towards the gardens.

And discovered that the sunglasses-selling men were inside too!

If I didn’t know Italy as well as I do (this kind of thing is normal, especially where something is state-run), I wouldn’t have been able to understand why the management of the palace didn’t throw these toutters out of the grounds.  It seems that they buy a season ticket for the gardens and it is part of the experience – be hassled by someone who makes the visit a little uncomfortable.  So much so that I didn’t take my camera and had to rely on D’s small point and push.

That said, as I mentioned, I understand by now how Italy operates and so we just ignored this part of the experience and (as Monty Don did before us), we hired a bicycle and made out way in 30 degree heat along the length of the extensive vista from the palace up to the hill in the distance.  By bicycle is definitely the way to experience this garden.  The other alternatives are to walk (it would take a couple of hours to make the round trip, at least), or the take a trip up to the end in a bus.  The only downside to the bicycle, we discovered, is that cycles aren’t allowed in the English garden located at the end of the avenue, so without a chain to lock the bikes up, I simply peeped inside and we had to skip it (the guard was very vigilant and there was no way we could have snuck inside, even if Monty Don cycles inside on his visit).  Perhaps you want to watch the Monty Don visit below?

This is background to a puzzle.  Why were we two of only a handful of visitors to the palace that day who weren’t school children?  On every single visit that I’ve made to an Italian palazzo or villa so far, save Villa Balbinello on Lake Como, the place has been almost deserted.

Nevertheless, La Reggia Caserta IS the Italian equivalent of The Palace of Versailles.  It was conceived in 1750 by Spanish-born Charles III, King of Naples, and entrusted to his architect Luigi Vanvitelli, with the goal of creating the largest formal garden in Italy, a fusion of the Palace of Versailles (France) & the Escorial Palace (Spain).  He also intended to move Italy’s capital from Naples (with its vulnerable coastal location) inland to Caserta.  Such grand ideas were two years in planning.

And it certainly is large; monumental even.  The structure consists of 1200 room and the formal Italian gardens are overwhelming – dancing fountains, flower beds, pools of fish and avenues heading off from every axis.

The English garden was a later addition and marked one of the first departures in Italy away from the formal baroque garden to the more naturalised English landscape garden. Indeed, Caserta is widely understood to be the last palatial garden to be built in Italy in the formal style. As Monty Don notes, “it took 25-years to make and by the time it was complete, gardens across Europe were being changed for ever“.

As to the building , Charles III never saw it completed.  In 1759 he abdicated the Neapolitan throne to become King of Spain.  It was his third son, Ferdinand IV who took on the gigantian task of completing the interiors.  Intended projecting wings were never added.

The interiors tower over the visitor.  They overwhelm with all their immense baroque power.  They took over 100 years to complete, well into the Victorian era. Even now, there is constant building work and one gets the feeling that the Italian state will constantly need to have scaffolding up at the palace.

Today, some of the rooms are bare and austere, lined with travertine and gilded, frescoed ceilings, some have seating, others are being used as an art gallery for modern art.  The only interior space I thought worthy of a photo was the main entrance and stairs.  The rooms seemed never-ending, as though we would never escape again and would almost surely miss our flight.

The best bit?  Free wheeling from the top of the garden back to the palace.

When visited: May 2015


House * out of 5: ***

Gardens * out of 5: ***

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