Thursday, 15 November 2012


The monumental complex at Caserta, created by the Bourbon king Charles III in the mid-18th century to rival Versailles and the Royal Palace in Madrid, is exceptional for the way in which it brings together a magnificent palace with its park and gardens, as well as natural woodland, hunting lodges and a silk factory. It is an eloquent expression of the Enlightenment in material form, integrated into, rather than imposed on, its natural setting -
I get the impression that, unlike the Amalfi Coast or Pompeii, Caserta isn't often high on the list of tourists' to-visit lists. It's probably because not many people are really that bothered to see a bigger, slightly run-down, Italian version of Versailles. It could also be because the surrounding area has about as much tourism appeal as Hamilton (Aucklander joke, apologies). However, we weren't about to let such a handy UNESCO site slip by, so we made this our final day trip from Naples.

When arriving by car from the south, you definitely feel a twinge of awe when you first glimpse the massive building from afar - easy to do when the main road leading up to it is pretty much completely straight. Unfortunately, sets of traffic lights spaced about every hundred metres on that road (and consistent reds) made us easy pickings for the gauntlet of window washers we had to plough through.

It's annoying enough when you encounter them at home, but in a foreign country you can't help but feel even more helpless and awkward when it comes to turning them down. When the first guy approached us while our car was helplessly stopped at a red, we instinctively and violently shook our heads to mime our rejection of the offered services. Unfortunately, our windscreen was actually filthy from our drive and was just begging to have soapy water squirted on it - the guy even made a bit of a 'come on!' gesture at the dirty glass. In the end, we didn't really  have much of a choice anyway and grudgingly parted with a coin after he proceeded with this cleaning.

At the very next set of red lights another group attempted to try their luck, but perhaps our more vehement head shaking, plus the soapy streaks left by the previous guy made it quite clear we didn't need windscreen cleaning services again, and we were allowed to move on unmolested.

When we finally got close to the palace we started slowing down and scanning for carparks. This is when we were inexplicably lured in by a smiley, hobo-esque old man with terrible teeth waving us into what looked like an empty space in front of a building, right opposite the palace entrance. We really should have known better, but it seems that no matter how seasoned a traveller you are, you can still always fall victim to unsavoury locals.

Of course this guy spoke zero English, but after fumbling with our phrasebook we managed to ascertain that the parking fee was 5 Euro. I knew this was more than we probably should be paying, but by now the guy was so enthusiastic we thought maybe it was easier to just give him the money so he would leave us alone. Plus, we did need to park our car after all. Unfortunately we had no fives so James pulled out a ten. The guy lit up, pocketed the note and then proceeded to give James a great smacking kiss on the cheek, before babbling on about feeding his children etc. After several awkward moments of both failing to ask for (and receive) change, we finally decided to just give up and started toward the palace, hoping that our car would still be there when we got back. As getting ripped off while travelling experiences go, we could definitely have done worse than lose 10 Euros...
Caserta Palace is, in a word, Imposing - with a capital I. It's hard not to feel dwarfed as you approach it from the expansive open area at the front, and you feel even smaller when you are swallowed into its lavish interior. The showcase of old palace bedrooms, chambers and thronerooms felt a bit run down compared to other European countries, and you could literally see the paint peeling off some of the door frames and walls - easy to understand given the cost of maintaining such a massive estate.
It's difficult to imagine something which would be more impressive in size than the palace building itself, but the gardens somehow manage it. From Google maps satellite view, the grounds north of the place are easily visible and dominate the town.

Let me tell you, if you are thinking of walking all the way to the north end of the garden, on a hot sunny day, you would be absolutely stupid not not rent a bicycle. Unfortunately we totally missed the bike rental stand (it's to the left as you come out of the palace toward the back part, for future reference), and decided to go ahead and walk the whole way.

Walking long distances doesn't usually phase us - we walked over 20km per day on the Queen Charlotte Sound track - but 3km of straight concrete is kind of another matter. You'd think that being able to see your ultimate destination the whole time would be encouraging, but it actually had the opposite effect, especially when the end point never seemed any closer.

Anyway, after ages we finally got to the fountain at the very end, snapped our photos, and then decided to go into the 'famous' English gardens off to the east.

We really should have paid more attention as we walked up because we could only assume that as the garden ran parallel to the main part, we would be able to come back out halfway down. Well, no such luck. Turns out at the very end of the garden there was a massive, locked iron gate barring our way back to the palace. By this time we were so tired, hungry for lunch and discouraged that we even contemplated climbing over, but this was a proper, massive thing where any attempt would probably have resulted in serious injury - so there was nothing for it but to retrace our steps all the way back.

In all, we probably walked around 9km in just that one complex, including the wandering inside the palace interior. At least our car was still there when we got back, and we had successfully ticked another UNESCO site off the list.

My advice for anyone else keen enough to make a stop in Caserta? Ignore old men on the street with bad teeth waving you into a 'car park', and definitely hire a bicycle if you want to go to the end of the garden. Or if you're not that into gigantic palaces and gardens, which are a bit run down and average to be honest, it's probably safe to give this a miss.
The only UNESCO logo we found
[Flickr set here]

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