A Tale of Two Casertas
Caserta Vecchia and Reggia di Caserta
Wednesday, September 26
Before leaving Canada, I had written out a list of possible activities for my and my sister's nine-day trip. I had tried to ensure that there was a good mix of activities and locations on this list, and not just a bunch of hiking. Elvira had taken this list and circled several that were of interest to her. With the completion of yesterday's hike on Montevergine, it was time to pick a non-hiking activity from the list. She chose the royal palace of Caserta.
The Royal Palace of Caserta
The palace of Caserta was the royal residence of the King(s) of Naples. It was constructed in the 1700s in a grandiose Baroque style, and is essentially the Italian answer to France's palace of Versailles.
I had visited the palace of Caserta back in 2005
, and likely that was where Elvira got the notion that she'd like to visit the place. Since Caserta is only about 60 kilometres from my Aunt's house, it made for a easy, short day outing.
A visit to the Royal palace isn't really a full-day outing, so I thought about what might be nearby that we might also like to see. From time to time, I had heard of how beautiful a place called "Caserta Vecchia" was, and, not knowing any better, I assumed that this referred to an old part of the surrounding town of Caserta. A few days before, when my cousin Anna had heard about our possible plans for Caserta, she also effused over Caserta Vecchia. So, I did a bit more research.
As it turns out, Caserta Vecchia does indeed refer to an old, historic town - but not the town of Caserta that surrounds the palace. Caserta Vecchia is actually in a different location, up on a hilltop about twenty kilometres away - a separate entity entirely from the more modern Caserta and its palace. A medieval hilltop town - interesting, and not what I had expected. Worthy of a visit!
Seeing as the Caserta area is not particularly far from my Aunt's house in Avellino, we did not leave super early. Our intention was to visit the palace first, and then Caserta Vecchia, but as we drove through the busy streets of 'nuova' Caserta to the palace, we saw that there was some sort of military function in progress, meaning that visiting access to the place was probably not possible. I had verified before leaving that the palace was indeed open this day, so we decided to switch things up and visit Caserta Vecchia first, and return to the palace in the afternoon.
After a bit of fun shenaningans with the Lancia's GPS (it took us along a little-used steep gravel road), we left the urban build-up of modern Caserta and began traversing up an arid, open hill. Atop this hill was Caserta Vecchia. It looked pleasant enough, but from a distance, a bit nondescript.
Upon arriving at the outskirts of town, we saw several signs for large parking lots, but on this Wednesday morning in late September, there seemed to be very little traffic. Presumably these large parking lots indicated that the town could be overrun with visitors at times, but apparently not today. We came to a spot just east of town where any further regular vehicle traffic was prohibited, and we parked easily along a virtually empty street.
Caserta Vecchia Businesses
We got out and started walking, not knowing precisely what to expect. We first crossed a shady, forested hillside park, upon the top of which stood the ruins of an old tower. Just beyond this, we came to the start of the narrow streets of Caserta Vecchia itself. Narrow, primarily pedestrian-only streets snaked out in several directions. Made of mostly grey colored stone and mortarwork, the densely packed buildings exuded a simple, rustic air.
Bell Tower, Caserta Vecchia Cathedral
Caserta Vecchia is, as I said earlier, a medieval village. It is quite old, as villages of this area go, being founded more then 1,100 years ago, in 861 A.D, by Germanic Lombards. According to wikipedia, it was built on the location of a previous Roman town, called "Casam Irtam" (in which you can see a vague relationship to the name "Caserta").
The town changed hands many times over the centuries, being taken over by the Normans, Aragonese, and Bourbons. Despite all of this tumult, the old medieval character of the town seems to have survived. Unlike many Italian towns I've visitied, most buildings are a monochromatic gray, with color only seeming to come from the many creeping vines, plants, flowers and gardens of residents' houses. Everything here seemed a touch rougher and simpler than other historic towns, but not in a shabby sort of way.
Caserta Vecchia Cathedral
The lack of cars on the approach roads and streets had translated into a very quiet town: there was nary a person around. A few locals sat outside a small business, an elderly lady walking back home with some groceries. We saw perhaps five other tourists during our whole walk. Just the way I like it!
Wandering through the maze of narrow laneways, we eventually came to the prominent central church - the cathedral of Caserta Vecchia. It continued the theme of mostly gray (although there were some muted colors) and rustic, but with a definite elegance in its rusticity. Built by the Normans in the 1100s, it has a very interesting mix of architectural elements, with very definite Arab influences. It would have been very interesting to go inside, but we had arrived at five minutes after noon, at the beginning of the daily noon-to-4pm closed period.
Architectural detail, Cathedral Casterta Vecchia
Our walk through the network of alleys brought us to the southern edge of town, where several lookouts provided panoramic views down to a large plain that spread out below in the direction of Naples. It was down on this broad plain that the much larger city of modern Caserta was situated. We could clearly see the huge bulk of the Palace of Caserta and the green gash of its extensive gardens leading off to the right of it.
We spent another hour or so wandering about the town, avoiding the occasional droppings from the smattering of local unleashed dogs that wandered the streets (the owners of these dogs really should be a bit more responsible). As we walked along, we faintly heard the tinny, distorted sounds of a voice coming out of a loudspeaker. The sounds grew larger until we turned a corner to see a tiny white Hyundai truck slowly squeezing through the largest of the laneways, its back section crammed with rows of produce and other groceries. A moving supermarket!
We slowly followed the market truck up and back through the main square, watching local residents come out of their houses to buy items.
We gradually wandered back in the direction of the car, passing by the old Norman fortifications (including a ruined tower) at the town's height-of-land. We decided to have lunch at one of the larger restaurants on the "car-side" of things - a place called alla tana del lupo (the lair of the wolf). Like everything else in Caserta Vecchia so far today, it was also virtually empty, especially given its size: it looked like the restaurant had seats for hundreds of people. Clearly this town is busy sometime! (side note: upon further investigation, it seems that Caserta Vecchia is the home to a late summer festival called "Settembre al Borgo", when national and international artists come here in what appears to be some sort of musical festival - at which time this place is probably packed solid).
Interactive Trackmap, Caserta Vecchia Walk. Click map to view