Strolling through the splendors of the Reggia di Caserta gardens
It’s been years that I’ve been ‘meaning to get to’ this royal palace an hour and a half’s drive south of Rome, but I only managed during this past Christmas holiday.
Coincidentally, our visit was the day after a big special on this UNESCO World Heritage Site aired on Italian television.
Incidentally, for those of you who don’t feel like driving, the palace is only a few hundred meters from the Caserta train station, so this could be an easy day trip from Rome.
The decision to build the palace was taken by Carlo di Borbone (1716-1788), who ruled this area as part of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies – a kingdom that comprised all of modern-day Italy’s mezzogiorno region (the South). One capital was in Palermo and the other in Naples, which is only a few kilometers from Naples.
Work began on the palace – the largest royal residence on the world – in 1752, and would be completed under Carlo’s son.
The palace and its gardens were designed to be grander than those of Versailles, albeit built in a much later era. I’ll cover the palace in a future post, but we most enjoyed our wander in these splendid gardens.
The gardens stretch out over 120 hectares, and you’re bound to do plenty of walking here. The palace architect, Carlo Vanvitelli, designed the complicated system of fountains and cascades that creates a continuous line of water stretching out beyond the palace.
The fountains are filled with statues modeled on classical Antiquity – including Venus and Adonis, Ceres and the Fountain of Diana and Actaeon.
The Fountain of Diana and Actaeon was the favorite of my children, who love the story of Diana the hunter turning Actaeon into a stag after having spied on her and her nymphs as she bathed nude in a pond.
The sculpture shows the dramatic moment when Actaeon’s hunting dogs are ready to attack and kill him). In this sculpture, poor Actaeon is still half-man, half-stag.
You’ll enjoy wandering this seemingly endless flow of monumental fountains, waterfalls, pools and endless ‘water games’ found in gardens all over Italy (see my earlier post on the excellent example of this at the Villa d’Este in Tivoli).
I must admit to enjoying these spectacles, while simultaneously inwardly wincing about the plight of the poor peasants of the region who would lose their entire water supply when the nobility was in town and wanted to be entertained with their gioccchi d’acqua.
Beyond this area is the extensive English Garden, also designed by palace architect Carlo Vanvitelli alongside a German botanist, Johann Graefer.
The English Garden area is not symmetrical as the classic Italian garden, but is wild, built on hills with lakes, temples and even a pyramid dotting the landscape. This English garden was requested by Maria Carolina of Austria, and contains many exotic plants and trees, helpfully marked for those of us – ahem – who are tree-identity-challenged.
So far away from the giant palace, a visitor would be forgiven for believing he or she was wandering in the wilds of the countryside rather than being in what is essentially an endless back yard. Guess the Bourbons had it easy when they admonished their kids for slumping around the 1000-room palace bored and told them to get out in the backyard to play…
The nice thing about this stunning park is that it appears to serve as a backyard for Caserta residents, too. There is a small annual fee for city residents, and I can’t tell you how many joggers we counted on that day. Admittedly, I was slightly envious myself…
I’ll post another week on our visit to the actual palace, but I can tell all you fellow travel lovers that the garden alone at the Reggia di Caserta makes this worth the trip!
Enjoy your visit strolling (or – why not? – jogging) the splendid grounds of the Reggia di Caserta gardens.
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