Did you know that the largest royal palace in the world sits just 37 kilometres outside Naples?
In January 1752 Charles VII of Bourbon, King of Naples and Sicily, began construction on the largest palace in all of Europe, a palace to rival the beauty of Paris’ magnificent Versailles, and the Schonbrun palace in Vienna. Charles VII never ended up living at Caserta, instead he abdicated the throne in 1759 and became the king of Spain. His third son, Ferdinand IV became king of Naples and Sicily, and lived at Caserta. In 1768 Ferdinand married Maria Carolina of Austria, who had grown up in the Schonbrun Palace, and who’s sister MarieAntoinette would marry Louis XVI of France two years later and move to Versailles, the very palace that Caserta was designed to beat. Makes your head spin, non?
The Palace of Caserta is massive. It has more than 1200 rooms, stands 42 meters (45 yards) high and 250 meters (273 yards) long, taking up 44,000 square meters. In 1997 it became a UNESCO World Heritage site
The gardens are 3.5 kilometers long, with a central waterway and 6 fountains, surrounded by a tree filled park.
Statues enjoy a break from the sun, tucked away in the shade of the trees. Others line the walkways and the bridges.
You can rent bikes to ride around the gardens, take a horse and carriage or just walk.
The palace and the grounds are nothing short of spectacular. No matter how prepared you think you are, once you walk onto the palace grounds the sheer size of Caserta is staggering. In it’s day it must have been magnificent.
Oddly, hardly anyone bothers to come to Caserta. You would think the largest royal palace in all of Europe would get great tourist traffic, but Caserta gets around 500, 000 visitors per year compared to Versailles 5 million.
Unfortunately Caserta is sorely lacking in funds and as such is a little run down. The palace has been used as a training facility for the Italian Air Force, which along with the Carabinieri still has offices there. Movies including Star Wars, Mission Impossible and Angels and Demons have shot here. Palace security is apparently lacking, and despite the Air Force and the Carabinieri both being in residence there have been problems with theft, most notably recently $100, 000 worth of copper being stolen from a lightening conductor on the roof.
Because hardly anyone bothers to go visit Caserta it also feels like your best kept secret. Other than my friends who live in the area I don’t even know one person who has been there before.
If you are in the Amalfi Coast/Naples area Caserta is well worth a visit. The train station is right outside the palace, so you don’t need to rent a car.
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If you are planning a trip to Campania chances are you are just thinking about Capri and the Amalfi Coast, and maybe a quick jaunt into Naples. Problem is, these are the places that everyone goes to, which means the crowds can be brain-bendingly overwhelming.
There is much, much more to see and do in Campania than just the big tourist spots. Whether you want to take a half day or day to do something different, or whether you may want to add an extra few days to your Amalfi Coast trip, here are 8 places to consider when planning your trip to the Amalfi Coast.
Be sure to read to the end as you probably haven’t heard of 6 through 8!
If you enjoy visiting European palaces this one is a must see.
Built to rival Versailles, Caserta is the largest palace in all of Europe. Like
Versailles it is a gaudy display of too much gold, over the top frescoes and somewhat
crass excess, all of which make it completely fantastic!
Rent a bike and explore the beauty of the garden and fountains
which extend 3.5 kilometers in front of the palace, have lunch in the café and
explore the royal apartments.
One thing I learned while there was how fascinating Marie Carolina was. Her well known sister Marie Antoinette gets all the attention, but Marie Carolina was a tremendous character, much, much more interesting. This was her palace and her story unfolds throughout the royal apartments.
The palace at Caserta is a quick and easy train ride from either Naples or Salerno.
2. POMPEII, HERULANEUM AND OPLONTIS
While in the area of Naples and the Amalfi Coast take a morning to visit the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum and Oplontis
If you are not familiar with these incredible sites these are the ruins of three towns taken out by the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The towns vanished from the face of the earth for 1700 years.
Over the centuries when people tried to find the fabled Pompeii they looked along the coast line, as it had been a port city but the eruption of the volcano moved the ocean 2 kilometers out to sea. Pompeii was discovered in the 18th century when a farmer inland had been digging for a new well.
Pompeii is Italy’s most unique archaeological site, its 109
excavated acres giving us a snapshot of 1st century Roman life.
I recommend visiting in the morning at opening time (8:30am)
as for much of the year Pompeii gets overwhelmingly hot. Be sure to wear good
walking shoes and a hat and bring a water bottle to refil at the fountains
staggered around the site.
I suggest doing Pompeii first as this will give you insight into the life of 1st century Romans, their social structure, the absolute genius of their technological innovations, and the devastation caused by the eruption.
Herculaneum/Ercolano is only 3 stops away on the local train (the Circumvesuviana) and makes an incredible second excavation to visit.
After seeing the destruction of Pompeii, much of which was crushed down to one level, Herculaneum lets you experience the multi storied homes replete with their red Pompeii style frescoes. Resplendent in its own right, this site is jarring also because it gives you greater insight into the way Pompeii would have looked up until the day the volcano blew.
Herculaneum is about 1//3 of the size of Pompeii, and rather
than being an important merchant port city was a luxury resort town for wealthy
Romans, so features more elegant villas than commercial buildings.
The caves at the beach level are filed with skeletons. When Vesuvius erupted the people of Herculaneum were certain rescuers would come by sea, so the women and children were waiting in the safety of the caves while the men waited on the beach.
Unfortunately for all of them a pyroclastic current of trapped gases at a heat of more than 500 degrees Fahrenheit (and up to 900 degrees) blew their way, instantly vaporizing their bodies.
Their instant death meant they were in fact luckier than their neighbors in Pompeii who suffocated and in many cases took multiple hours to die.
From the 1st century B.C Oplontis was a super
elegant suburb of Pompeii where the uber-wealthy had their country villas. As
with Pompeii it disappeared for 17 centuries and was only rediscovered in the
18th century. There is just one villa is open to the public, but it
is spectacular and well worth the visit.
Poppea Sabina was Emperor Nero’s second wife. This is thought
to be her villa due to an amphora with the name of her freedman and a vase with
her mark on it being found on the grounds.
This is actually the largest Roman suburban villa ever
discovered and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, largely due to
the sensational frescoes. This villa is enormous, with large portico opening to gardens lined with
statues, a swimming pool, loads of rooms, passageways and cubicle as well as a
kitchen still recognizeable.
One of the most extraordinary features of the villa is the wealth of frescoes and mosaics all remaining in situ rather than having been carted off to a museum somewhere.
Interestingly there is no sign of life here at the time of the
eruption. Some of the statues were found on a storeroom, suggesting that
perhaps the villa had been closed up for renovations after the earthquake of 62
An alternative to the frequently overcrowded and always
expensive island of Capri is the delicious little island of Procida. Almost
completely off the tourist radar this one is a weekend getaway for the people
of Naples, but with the exception of August the streets are delightfully empty.
So try to come here on a weekday if possible.
Procida is one of the most colorful places on earth. As you
arrive into its little harbor your eyes don’t know where to land – all the
fishermen’s homes lining the seafront are painted in bright pastel hues, the
sunshine sparkles off the sea, which like the sky is a completely impossible
shade of blue. Procida is visually stunning.
This tiny island is part of the Flegrean island chain, off the
coast of Naples. The island is between Capo Miseno and Ischia, and occupies a
mere 4.1 square miles. Its history dates back as far as the 16th century BC with Mycenaean objects having been discovered there, although the
first known settlers were Greeks in the 8th century BC.
More than 30 movies have been filmed here including Il Postino
and the Talented Mr. Ripley.
If you take a day trip to Procida be sure to wander the waterfront
and the streets of the Marina Grande, then head over to the back side of the
island. Walk along sun-bleached little streets (but watch out for vespas
zipping around) and head to Marina Corricella for lunch. This darling fishing
village was one of the locations in Il Postino.
A variety of eateries line the waterfront, picturesque with
fishing boats bobbing at their moorings, fishing nets lying out to dry and
colorful buildings all around. Lunch here is authentic, inexpensive and
wonderful. I recommend having a long, leisurely lunch with a view, then having
a swim before heading back to the mainland.
Procida is easily accessible by hydrofoil from Naples.
Another absolute treasure lies at the bottom end of the Amalfi
Coast, the lovely medieval town of Salerno. Not only a wonderful place to take
a day trip to, Salerno is also a tremendous place to base your Amalfi Coast
With train access (including the high speed AV trains) you can
move around much more easily than if you are staying in any of the towns along
the coast road, yet still have ferry access to the entire coast and Capri.
The crowds, tour buses and cruise ship travelers don’t come here, (well, maybe a few small cruise ships do, but not the monsters that invade the rest of the coast)so you can wander around freely, enjoying the beauty, the history, the ambience.
If you stay in Salerno the local nightlife is infectious.
Everyone comes out at night to enjoy a glass of wine and see friends in the
cafes and bars dotted around the piazzas and the picturesque little streets.
The restaurants are fabulous – I love evenings in Salerno.
Along with the castle, the Duomo, the medical school (the first in Italy, it dates back centuries) and the medieval town center, another benefit to staying or visiting Salerno is that it is the gateway to the beautiful Cilento region.
Only 30 km or so south of Salerno you will find one of the
coolest and most un-touristed places you have never heard of, the Greek temples
The 8 best preserved Greek temples in the world are in
Southern Italy. Five of them are in Sicily, the other 3 are here in the former
town of Poseidonia, now known as Paestum.
2500 years ago this was part of Magna Grecia. Greece sent its
young men out to discover and conquer new land. Southern Italy and Sicily were
hot favorites, benefitting from amongst other things, incredible Greek
architecture. Be warned that these three temples are breathtaking.
I love arriving by car (you can also get here by train)
because as you drive through the countryside surrounded by open fields and buffalo
mozzarella farms, these 3 giant temples erupt up out of nowhere. And they are truly
Built in 550 B.C, 500 B.C and 480 B.C the temples of Hera, Athena and Hera II are in unbelievably good condition.
Also still in place are a heroon, a pool and various other
structure dating back to the Greeks.
The temples are surrounded by the remnants of a Roman town.
Romans loved Greek architecture so instead of pulling it down opted to build
around it. Roman roads, houses and apartment buildings can still be seen here.
If you have been to Pompeii and understand the layout of a Roman home, you will
appreciate being able to walk inside the ruins and identify the front and back
doors, the views from the homes as well as their layouts.
As if that weren’t enough, the cats eyes and mosaic floors are
still intact. Not a cigarette butt, coke can or McDonald’s wrapper inn sight –
it is all just here for you to enjoy.
If at all possible try to be here at sunset – it is just unbelievably beautiful. Also noteworthy are the famous roses that bloom here in the spring, famous since antiquity, bathing the temples in their gorgeous perfume and draping the area in even more beauty.
If you enjoy seeing really ancient sites and are in the area,
not too far south of Paestum there is another treasure, the town of Velia.
Velia (originally named Elea) was founded around 540 B.C by
Phoenicians from Corsica who fled the island after a brutal battle with the
Etruscans ad Carthaginians. The town had a long period of economic prosperity
as well as being an important cultural center. Home to philosophers such as
Parmenides who founded the Philosophical School of Elea in the 6th century B.C, and Zeno, who was around in the 5th century B.C
The Romans took over in 88 B.C. The citizens of Elea were
recognized as Romans but were allowed to maintain their Greek language and
Things to see here include the monumental Porta Rosa gate.
Dating back to the 4th century B.C it is thought to be one of the
only intact monuments of the ancient world. It is perfectly preserved too, cut
blocks of volcanic tufa perfectly placed together without the use of lime to
hold them in place, reaching a height of 6 meters. Interestingly it is the only
example of a rounded arch in Greek architecture to be found in Italy.
The gate leads to an ancient road and paved steps that take
you down to one of the town’s 2 ports.
In the other direction from Porta Rosa there are 2nd century Roman baths, and a lovely town square.
The acropolis has a medieval church sitting atop a Greek
temple, and just below it a small theater dating back to the 3rd century B.C.
Also to be seen here are remains of ancient homes and frescoed buildings.
7. BADIA SANTA MARIA DI PATTANO
Not far from Velia you can find the best preserved
Italo-Albanian monastery in Southern Italy, the Badia Santa Maria di Pattano.
Although the first known mention of this site was in a document dated to 933
A.D it is thought to be much older.
The complex is noteworthy for its church of Santa Maria, an
example of Angevin architecture with polygonal apses and ribbed groin vaults.
The bell tower is one of the most ancient Early Middle Ages bell towers in
Southern Italy. Standing 15 meters tall it may have been built in stages,
because it has 5 different decorations, making it fascinating from an artistic
point of view.
The Church of San Fidelfo was built on top of Roman ruins. (A thermal structure can be seen under a glass floor.)
The interior walls are decorated with some amazing Byzantine frescoes, in my opinion, alone they make the trip worth while.
8. THE CILENTO COAST
If you are not one for stone beaches, the crowds, high prices
and overly manicured visage of the Amalfi Coast, this could be the area for
Stretching 65 miles from Salerno to the Tyrrhenian coast of
Basilicata, the Cilento coast is a beautiful alternative. With sandy beaches;
pristine, clean ocean, affordable accommodation and dining options, this stretch
of coast is authentic, a little erratic and the antithesis of the Amalfi Coast.
Don’t expect glitzy hotels or the lamorous posturing of the uber rich, instead
think of ancient port towns with the local fisherman still taking their boats
out at dawn and fishing with handmade nets.
Break your days up with mornings spent discovering ancient Greek
and Roman ruins, lunches in quaint little piazzas and afternoons on the beach.
Some of the towns to look for:
Agropoli, the largest town in the area can be a great place to base yourself.
Only 15 minutes away is Castellabate. The castle ruins and the views of the ocean are fabulous, as is the main piazza. Although pretty tiny it is buzzing with cafes, a wine bar and restaurants.
Acciaroli is a lovely little seaside village you won’t want to leave.
Interestingly it is known for the longevity of its inhabitants, with around 300 centenarians wandering the streets, 20 percent of whom have reached the ripe old age of 110!
Pioppi is another lovely seaside village. Ancel Keys lived here for 28 years studying and living the Mediterranean diet.
Palinuro is yet another beautiful coastal village with a rugged but spectacular coastline broken up with sandy beaches, the ruins of a medieval castle, a blue grotto – it has a lot to offer.
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I have this theory when traveling. If Plan A goes awry, Plan B is invariably far better anyway.
And that’s how it was when I went to Caserta.
As I was running up the stairs to the platform the train was pulling out of the station. My perfect plan to spend hours and hours at Caserta had just gone sideways. The next train wasn’t for over an hour.
Once I finally arrived at Caserta the lady in the ticket booth told me to hurry and go to the gardens first, as they would be closing in an hour. You can rent bikes and ride the 7 kilometer round trip to the top of the garden and back, which had been my plan, but the bike rental dude wouldn’t rent me one due to the garden closing in an hour.
So I walked it, which turned out to be the most perfect option! It was a gorgeous December afternoon, sunny and t-shirt weather, ideal for strolling through palace gardens. Had I rented a bike I would have been stopping every couple of minutes to take photos anyway, so I was happy as a clam. The entire 7 km round trip I only saw maybe 40 people (including the workers), so it was almost like having the entire place to myself. See images of the gardens here
The Grand Staircase, Caserta Palace
Plan B got really great once I walked inside the palace itself, because that late in the afternoon on a Monday in December I literally was the only person there.
Grand Staircase Of Honor, Caserta Palace
If you have ever been to any palace in Europe you will already know how maddeningly full of tourists they all are, all the time.
Upper vestibule Caserta Palace
Normally you can’t get a clear picture of anything because there are so many people in the way.
Empty upper vestibule Caserta Palace
This by contrast was absolutely surreal. There was just me and and empty palace.
Entrance tot he palace royal apartments
Every now and then a room would have a worker in it, but I basically could have run naked through the place and not encountered a soul!
A worker at the end of an otherwise empty hallway, Caserta Palace
At one point in one of the grand salons I decided to take advantage of having the place to myself, and played some Verdi on my iPhone.
With no one to stop me I lay down on the floor of the Throne Room and took in the ceiling while La Traviata played.
Throne Room Ceiling, Caserta Palace
It was brilliant! Then, because you only live once, I danced my way around the entire salon to Verdi then Delibes, whirling round and round like a fool. The kind of red haired fool who has an entire palace all to herself.
The Throne Room
I sat next to an Italian ballroom dancer once on a flight to Sicily. We have always stayed friends, and I kept thinking how much fun it would have been to have him there with me, dancing around my private palace.
empty hallway in the royal apartments at Caserta Palace
Italy has the greatest art in all of the world, none of which is in the palace of Caserta.
Neo classical ceiling fresco in the royal apartments, Caserta
To quote Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times, “Art lovers shudder at the lèse-majesté ” but in all honesty it is actually part of the mad-charm of this place.
The Palatine Chapel, Caserta Palace
Caserta is bombastic yet delightful. And it is enormous! It gives you an incredible insight into the world that was, and you can’t help but be impressed by how magnificent it must have been in it’s heyday.
It is definitely worth taking the time to visit, and I know that I will go back over and over.
Bathroom, Caserta Palace
Unfortunately the chances of me having the palace all to myself ever again are slim to none. I found out that earlier that day there had been a few thousand visitors to the palace. My missing the first train had meant that I arrived as they were all leaving. Had my day gone as planned I would have been there with the masses, and would not have had an entire palace to myself. I also discovered that the day before 10 000 visitors had come to the palace.
Add captionThe New Apartment, or 19th Century Apartment, Caserta Palace
To end this perfect Plan B day I asked the man in the palace bookstore if there was somewhere nearby where I could have a glass of wine before taking the train back to Salerno.
The December sun setting over the Palace of Caserta
He drew me a map, told me I could take in the town’s Christmas tree while enjoying a glass of the local Moio, and still have ample time to stroll to the train station 5 minutes away.
Gran Caffe Margherita, Caserta
A glass of local Moio, Gran Caffe Margherita, Caserta
The Christmas Tree in Caserta
When I got back home I did some research on Maria Carolina. She, like her palace, was just fascinating. If you are heading to Caserta read up on her first.