From Boar to Bufala – Gladiator Glories to Royal Remainders
Less than an hour north of the chaotic and vibrant metropolis of Naples, Caserta is a more modest, manageable, almost casual place that makes for a convenient base to savor some of Campania’s best examples of antiquities, landmarks, and gastronomical delights, like creamy mozzarella di bufala.
The claim to fame of Caserta is the Reggia, a royal palace of more than 1,000 rooms that seem to go on forever, with a ”backyard” of extensive gardens that, too, impress for their size. “Italy’s Versailles,” as this sumptuous palatial estate has been dubbed, is sometimes passed up by foreign tourists focused on exploring Pompeii or perhaps on making an excursion on the Amalfi Drive. But as most Italian schoolchildren who have made the classic class excursion to Caserta can attest, the Reggia is an impressive reminder Italy’s experience with royals in centuries past.
The Reggia was conceived as a summer palace for King Charles III of Naples in the mid-18th century, upon a design by Luigi Vanvitelli, a leading architect of his day. So vast was the project that prisoners were put to work on its construction. Half-way built, the villa saw construction come to a temporary halt due to local famine and disease. When eventually the palace was completed, its design was modified, but it is still very impressive.
Strolling through one vast salon after another, each chandelier more dazzling than the one before, and while admiring the frescoed ceilings, it’s easy to imagine the balls, theatrical entertainment and receptions that were held there during the reign of Ferdinand IV. Following Italy’s unification in the latter 19th century, royals from the Turin-based House of Savoy would journey down from their northern base for relaxing sojourns. The villa was eventually given to the Italian state by Savoy king Victor Emmanuel II. In one of the villa’s more dramatic moments, the Reggia served as the scene of the unconditional surrender of German forces in Italy to the Allied forces during World War II.
Tours begin by ascending a sweeping, grandiose staircase that leads to an ample hall, where you can marvel at the beauty of the Palatine chapel, still adorned in marble despite suffering extensive damage during the war.
Among the more fascinating furnishings to be admired in the Reggia are a mahogany bed and roll-top desk (believed to be the first known example of its kind) in what was the bedroom of Francis II. In a hint of the privilege these royals enjoyed in those times, the king’s deep, marble bathtub is displayed, complete with taps labeled “calda” and “fredda” (hot and cold). Hot water straight from a tap was an unheard-of luxury then. The soaking tub — shaped much like the ones now in vogue for stylish master bedrooms — is decorated with a pair of sculptured lion heads.
When the Savoy royalty came down from the north with their infants, special cradles awaited them. A pair on display includes one studded with bright, smooth coral and the other trimmed with mother-of-pearl and supported by a putti at one end and watched over by a sculptured, sinewy angel at the other end.
Adorning marble-topped tables are examples of a style of ceramic vases and bowls many Neapolitans prize for their homes down to this day — the ornate, exquisite capodimonte style. One elaborate example of this style in the villa is shaped like a concoction topped by a ceramic pineapple with blue stalks, a corn cob, artichoke and melon, even olives and nuts among the piece’s other decorations.
From many of the rooms can be spied inviting glimpses of the seemingly endless lawn outside the palace, where visitors can leisurely stroll. But heading toward the villa’s exit, tourists pass by an exhibition of creche scenes known as presepi, where in the Naples area has been raised to a popular art form in the last centuries. Among the finely detailed creche figures are impressive “bufali”, the dark, hulking size animals with horns that lend their name to the area’s prized mozzarella.
The gardens are vast. For a modest fee, visitors who prefer not to walk can take a mini-bus to explore the wooded areas flanking the manicured lawns and also be driven down to a 250-foot-high waterfall at the far end, roughly a two-mile distance. Fountains adorned with mythical images, including hunting scenes, liven the outdoors.
Pizza ”margherita” style is a classic version of the pie throughout Italy. Said to be invented in Naples in the late 1880s, the pie was named after the Savoy’s Queen Margherita, and features tomato sauce, basil leaves and mozzarella — evoking the red, green and white colors of the Italian flag — atop a baked, thin and crispy crust. Caserta’s pizzerias and trattorie serve that classic, of course, but you can find an option called pizza “regina.” In Italian, “regina” means queen, and since the queen of all mozzarella come from carefully bred bufale (female buffaloes) this pizza is rigorously made with only mozzarella di bufala, for a richer, creamier topping.
Along less trafficked roads in several parts of Campania are bufali ranches, where these animals roam and come right up to the fence. The smaller ranches are often family operations and serve meals built around mozzarella or have roadside stands with the milky cheese kept in liquid in transparent plastic bags or tubs, for sampling and purchase in all their shapes — tiny round balls known as ”ciliegine” or cherries and “treccia,” braided cheese are among the favorites.
Head farther inland in Campania, and the menus change with the fauna. Wild boar (cinghiale) is served up in various ways in the Benevento area, with family-run trattorias offering about as many dishes made from the commonly hunted animal as they have tables to seat diners: perhaps in an antipasto mixed with pork sausages or cooked till it almost flakes apart in hearty sauces for pasta or as a ”secondo” (main course).
Townspeople in Benevento are eager to welcome tourists who appreciate the ancient Arch of Trajan, considered by some to be the finest triumphal arch in Italy outside of Rome. The arch spans the ”queen of roads,” the Appian Way (Via Appia) and honors the Roman emperor who expanded Rome’s imperial reach to far-off provinces. The arch was built to celebrate the inauguration of the road, which stretched from Rome to Brindisi, a port on the ”heel” of the Italian peninsula jutting into the Adriatic Sea. As does the towering Trajan’s Column in Rome, this arch is rich in bas reliefs, illustrating the emperor’s feats and importance for the empire’s inhabitants. Running around the sides of the arch is a frieze, recalling a triumphal procession.
Off the beaten path today, Benevento enjoyed a few heydays. It was a Roman colony, then rebounded after centuries of decline, enjoying in the 6th century the distinction of being the first important duchy of distant Lombardy, with the arch serving as the city’s gate. Benevento preserved its proud autonomy for five centuries, till it became controlled by the church. The arch survived a powerful earthquake in 1688, and, covered with sandbags, was protected from World War II bombings. But the bombs damaged the city’s Romanesque cathedral from the 13th century. The bell tower survived. There are also the remains of an ancient Roman theater, big enough to hold 20,000 people.
Campania abounds in history.
The town of Santa Maria Capua Vetere has its roots in an Etruscan city known as Capua. Hannibal’s forces passed through its gates, and archaeologists have found signs of a military camp believed to have been used by Carthaginian troops. Another name with cachet in Capua’s ancient times is Spartacus. Capua’s arena was the venue for the revolt sparked by the gladiator in 73 B.C. Outside the modern-day town is the Roman amphitheater, dating from the 1st century and, after Rome’s Colosseum, ranks as the second-largest such arena. Only two of what was once 80 arches still stand, as the arena’s stones were carted away for building material — a common habit of those times — over the centuries.