The gardens of the Royal Palace of Caserta are another attraction that I first discovered through Monty Don’s Great Gardens of Italy series. The images of the Bath of Venus in the English Garden had especially enchanted me. So on a recent visit to Campania I made sure that Caserta was on the itinerary.
The town is not too far from the big cities, taking about an hour from Rome and half an hour from Naples on the train. When you arrive you immediately see the huge palace building, which is right next to the station. Some tour guides recommend that you only come to tour the site and then move on, but I decided to stay the night and as a result I enjoyed one of the most delicious pizzas ever (I’ll explain further down)
The palace was constructed in the 18th century for the Bourbon Kings of Naples. Caserta was originally planned to be the new capital for the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. That plan dwindled yet the palace, one of the largest buildings erected in the 1700s, still remains in all its splendour, becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.
Construction of the palace started in 1752, under Charles VII of Spain, who worked with architect Luigi Vanvitelli, using Versailles as a model. Charles abdicated in 1757 however to become King of Spain, and the project was only partially continued for his successor, Ferdinand IV of Naples.
Personally, there was little about the palace which caught my eye. It was just massive, opulent and richly decorated, but lacking in true beauty and elegance. I did like the gardens however, and exploring the English Garden, a botanical garden at the top of the grounds, was really special.
When we arrived in the morning to tour the palace, we were told the English Garden was only open at specific times, so we speed-walked about 3 km to get there, only to find that there were no specific entry and exit times being enforced…
The English Garden has a different design to the rest of the grounds. It was built in the 1780s, fuelled by the desires of Ferdinand’s wife Maria Carolina, the sister of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. She wanted to have a romantic English garden, which followed a less formal style and featured grottos, groves, fake ruins, tea houses and lots of flowers. Designed by German-born botanist John Graefer, there are many features that don’t appear English at all, such as various types of palm tree around the Fountain of the Shepherd:
The most alluring spot is in the heart of the garden. After walking through narrow rock-lined pathways, we came to a beautiful shady lagoon where turquoise waters reflected the dimpled light shining through the overarching trees.
To the right we could hear the sound of a powerful waterfall, and to the left we spotted a pretty statue of Venus, bathing.
Next to the lagoon we explored a ruined “cryptoporticus” or covered passageway. This was made to look derelict on purpose to create a mystical atmosphere. However, I think an information sign would be useful to explain this to visitors, as almost everyone who walked into this passageway started tutting about the huge hole in the ceiling and about how badly run-down the parks are!
We wandered further along the rock-lined pathways, passing Venus again, this time with a cheeky view of her bottom.
We then passed this wall of water, and sneaked through dark tunnels while waterways rushed past us on either side (this part would be especially enjoyable for children, in my view).
Nearby we came to a section that seemed more English, with rose gardens and plants arranged in a more organised fashion
When you visit this site, I recommend spending a night in Caserta. It is not very pretty, with few sights, but as a result you get to see a normal Italian town. Strangely enough, Caserta people seemed to be quite fond of the UK- many were wearing Union Jacks (I guess this is a trend I have noticed in other parts of Italy), and there were also several chip shops and British pubs!
Eating out here is also a great experience. We went to Pepe Nero (Via Giuseppe Maria Bosco, 15), which had a lively atmosphere and was full of locals having a fun and noisy Saturday night out. We enjoyed two delicious pizzas and a lovely bottle of Falanghina wine for a very reasonable price. Here’s the proof– give it a try.