Goethe must have had quite a shock in 1787 when, after travelling on mud roads through herds of buffalo, he came upon the newly built 1,200-room royal palace at Caserta. Even today, the scale of this Versailles-inspired Bourbon conceit seems gargantuan. “People like myself cannot feel at ease in its immense empty rooms,” he wrote of the then unfinished palace. Yet the Reggia’s commanding position over the surrounding countryside and its spectacular landscaped gardens filled him with enthusiasm.
I agree: the Vanvitelli-designed giardino all’Italiana really is breathtaking. It extends straight out behind the palace into the mountain as far as the eye can see, an aquatic folly that rerouted an important river to power its descending cascades. In one pool, dominated by marble sculptures of Diana and Actaeon, trout swam in numbers abundant enough to sate the Bourbon king’s voracious appetite.
Modern Caserta – a short train ride from Naples – is one of the lesser-known jewels in the Campania region, which stretches down past Vesuvius, the Amalfi coast and Paestum to the Cilento. The areas inland from this famous coastline have remained relatively undiscovered and they offer an authentic taste of provincial life in southern Italy. If you want to see more than the town centre, hire a car. A short drive from Caserta is one of Italy’s most fascinating experiments in industrial utopianism. The village of San Leucio is a baroque silkworks built in 1789 by Ferdinand IV. “The king’s idea was of a community in which workers and their superiors would live in equal-sized houses, joined by a common goal to manufacture the world’s most exquisite silks – a radical proposal in any period,” explains Massimo Alois, whose family have been making courtly silks at San Leucio since the 18th century – including for the Vatican and the White House. The stunning complex seems closer to a stately home than a factory, with a museum now housed in the high, majestic workrooms.
The Bourbons’ passion for the finer things in life included wines. If the legendary model vineyard they planted in the shape of a fan, “la vigna del ventaglio”, alas no longer exists, drawings of it do: they list Piedimonte – or Pallagrello – among the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies’ 10 favourite grape varieties. Long believed to have disappeared, the unique Pallagrello grapes, in both red and white versions, were recently rediscovered here. A local lawyer, Peppe Mancini, took cuttings from some aged vines, verified their DNA, and started a trend with other Caserta winemakers.
If you prefer water to wine, don’t miss the mineral water Ferrarelle, which comes from springs under the now extinct volcano Roccamonfina. It has acquired almost cult status for its light, natural bubbles. Caserta is one of two key mozzarella-producing areas. Eat this shiny, white cheese still warm and milky, or you’ve never tasted the real thing. “La vera mozzarella doesn’t travel more than a few kilometres,” says Signor Cozzolino, the dairyman there. “And never refrigerate it, or it will become rubbery.” Fresh mozzarella will keep for several days in a covered bowl, in the liquid it has been sold in.
The Independent, 05 March 2006