by Amy Knauff
The Reggia di Caserta, or the Royal Palace of Caserta, is not on the tourist radar. Although it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and close to Naples, for some reason it tends to get passed over by foreign tourists in favor of other, more famous villas (like Villa d’Este in Tivoli, for example).
This sumptuous palace, once the home of the Bourbon kings of Naples, is set on enormous grounds that include a waterfall, an English garden, and gorgeous fountains and statues. The Reggia was supposed to be a new administrative center for the kingdom, far from the unrest of Naples and in a strategic, protected location. Architect Luigi Vanvitelli worked with King Charles VII of Naples to create the design of the Baroque palace and its gardens, modeled off of Versailles.
It could also be called the poor man’s Versailles – not because it was any less stunning than Versailles in its heyday, but because today, unfortunately, it is not very well-maintained. It seems to have perpetual scaffolding on the front façade and the courtyards, which makes for a disappointing arrival. Dust bunnies and debris from the day’s visitors drift around the big empty halls. Pigeons manage to get in and perch (and poo) on some high decorations. Under the front portico – that is, on the inside once you’ve already gone past the ticket booth – you’ll find some locals hawking cheap guidebooks, plastic magnets, and 1970s-quality postcards.
Having said that, these are minor issues (though it’s a shame) and the palace and gardens are truly gorgeous and well worth a visit. The best part is – unlike the seething masses of tourists inside the palace of Versailles – it never gets crowded, so even during high season you may find yourself alone to soak up the beauty of a room in santa pace.
The palace has about 1200 rooms and is the largest, volume-wise, of all the royal palaces in Europe. The Throne Room is stunning, as well as the Grand Staircase of Honor (which, by the way, masqueraded as the Vatican staircase in Angels & Demons); there are also royal apartments, a library, the Palatine Chapel, and the Court Theatre. Many of the grand halls are decorated with frescoes. The Reggia was even a movie set for a few films – most notably, it was Queen Amidala’s palace in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
The garden behind the rear palace façade stretches on for 120 hectares, with a series of artificial fountains and small cascades (fed by the Carolino Aqueduct) extending most of the way and ending with a waterfall. Sculptures depicting mythological or religious figures adorn the fountains, like the Fountain of the Three Dolphins, Aeolus’ Fountain, and the Fountain of Diana and Acteon.
You can also wander down the shady avenue lined by oak trees, visit the manmade lake filled with fish, and stroll through the English garden.
Finish your visit by climbing the set of stairs to the artificial cave called “the Dungeon” on top of the waterfall and get a view of the entire gardens, palace, and beyond. This view, with Mount Vesuvius and the island of Capri in the background, truly looks like a colorful Mediterranean version of Versailles.
Full ticket (palace and park) €12. Closed Tuesdays.
By train from Rome to Caserta (between 1 hr 15 mins – 2 hrs 20 mins, €11.80-46.10), then a 5-minute walk from the station to the palace. By car on the Autostrada A1 (Milano-Napoli), exit Caserta nord.
By train from Naples to Caserta (approx. 45 mins, €3.10), then a 5-minute walk from the station to the palace. By car on the Autostrada A30 (Milano-Napoli), exit Caserta sud.