Postcard from Caserta, Italy: When keeping up with the neighbors means Versailles

Reggia di Caserta

Foolish me. I thought the Royal Palace we visited earlier in Naples was lavish enough to suit the needs of the royal court, but Charles III (his later Spanish title) (1716-1788) had yet more grandiose ideas. He desired a new site for his capital, one farther removed from the coast to prevent invasions by sea and, most importantly, one with a palace to rival Versailles.

In 1752, Charles commissioned architect Luigi Vanvitelli (1700-1773) for the massive project, Reggia di Caserta, on land to the east of Naples. The result: 1,200 rooms on five floors making the palace 118 feet tall. Almost 500,000 square feet occupying 11 acres. The architect was able to employ the finest materials – travertine from Bellona; bricks from Capua; gray marble from Mondragone; white marble from Carrara. Immense single blocks of lava stone from Trapani were used for each step of the grand stairway that divides into two parallel flights of stairs of 116 steps guarded by two white marble lions.

But Charles as King of Naples never got to reside in his dream palace because he had to move on to a bigger role as King of Spain. So the incredible digs were left for his son, Ferdinand (1751-1825), and his wife, Maria Carolina of Austria (1752-1814), to finish. If sibling rivalry existed, Maria Carolina should have been more than pleased with the palace. Her sister, Maria Antoinette (1755-1793), spent much of her time at Versailles with her husband, King Louis XVI of France (1754-1793).

Maria Carolina was a proponent of enlightened absolutism until she became alarmed by the revolutionary ideas spreading through France. She began work in earnest to transform Naples into a police state. The abrupt end to her sister’s life intensified and helped justify those efforts. Needless to say, this did not enhance her popularity, but no matter. The monarchs soon had to flee as Napoleon conquered their kingdom; although Ferdinand would return later with assistance from Austria.

Enough politics.

In addition to keeping Vanvitelli occupied until the end of his life with finishing out the royal palace, Ferdinand and Maria Carolina enlisted him to design a Royal Park worthy of such a palace. The queen’s English garden covers 30 acres. The king’s mile-long fish pond provided a stage for him to float elaborate mock naval battles for the entertainment of his guests. A grand cascade of water was installed on the summit of a hill opposite the palace. Oh, and a 24-mile aqueduct, a hydraulic architectural feat, was built to keep the water flowing.

UNESCO/NHK Video

Walking a couple of miles exploring all the secret gardens filled with sculpture and fountains had been our plan when we hopped aboard for the short train ride from Naples. But, alas, the beauty of the palace and grounds of Caserta had attracted the attention of another. A film production company.

Not only were crew members scurrying around installing special lighting, rearranging furniture and adding props (see the sculpture of the man brandishing his sword astride a bear with a double-headed eagle crest on the door behind him) inside the palace, but they were filming a scene on the grounds. Meaning we were not invited. The scene we saw filmed involved a huge cast gathered to greet the important occupants of an arriving coach (no photos allowed). There are several photos above of cast members scurrying through a courtyard of the palace to prepare for their next scenes.

The film? The crest indicates a period piece focusing on Russian royalty. But the production is hardly the first to take advantage of the sumptuous palace. Think Queen Amidala’s royal palace on Naboo in Star Wars Attack of the Clones and The Phantom Palace. Angels and Demons directed by Ron Howard in 2009 and Mission Impossible 3 with Tom Cruise in 2006. And then Richard Dreyfus portrayed architect Vanvitelli himself in Caserta Palace Dream.

 Caserta Palace Dream, 2014

In 2017, Stephen Spielberg found the grand stairway ideal for a parade of cardinals for his film, still in production, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.

And one need not starve. We dropped in Osteria da Miducci and ordered eggplant and pasta before the table of locals next to us began receiving their heaping platters of seafood. Our freshly made pasta was perfect, but envy surfaced. Not sure I could have cleaned it down to the bones the way the presiding gentleman with the Godfather voice did, but I would have ordered his whole fried fish, which arrived plated perched upright on its fins as though it swam there voluntarily, for the snapshot alone.

Postcard from Saluzzo, Italy: Meals from last summer

My apologies to the restaurants of Saluzzo. Although they delivered a rich sampling of the foods of the Piedmont region of Italy, the “postcards” are so slow to be delivered everything is now a jumble.

Le Quattro Stagioni d’Italia is a surprisingly large restaurant with a spacious patio always packed with locals. We found ourselves drawn to both food and patio several times. Taverna San Martino is small, cozy and intimate and regarded by many as the best in town. Osteria Nuovi Mondagli is completely unpretentious, with its magnetic draw a shaded patio perched above one of Saluzzo’s picturesque petit plazas.

Obviously, the town kept us well-fed.

Postcard from Genoa, Italy: A seafood-lover’s paradise

The sounds woke me up Monday through Saturday in Genoa. The way-too-early alarm echoed from two doors and two floors down the steep 10-foot-wide street, actually only a pedestrian passageway. The fish monger hurling up the metal shutter, hauling out the trough and filling it with ice to hold the fresh catch of the day. Those jarring noises were followed shortly by the first customers, evidently all friends as interested in exchanging pleasantries, amplified by the four-story buildings, as purchasing seafood.

But the morning sounds quickly reminded me of a meal ahead and what always is central to menus in this port city – an abundance of fresh seafood. Mussels, squid, octopus, shrimp, butterflied fried sardines. The Mister often has remarked that Italians frown upon mixing seafood with cheese, but Genoa breaks that rule. Several restaurants feature striking black and white squares of ravioli filled with fish and ricotta cheese.

Also, Genoa is the home of pesto. Demanding Ligurians expect pesto alla Genovese to be made with D.O.P. basil, found only in the immediate region and terroir-dependent for its flavor. A favorite Ligurian pasta often paired with pesto is trofie, rolled out by hand on a flat surface to taper its ends and then twisted. Another regional specialty sold like pizza by the slice is farinata, made from a mixture of chickpea flour, water, olive oil and salt. The baked-until-golden, somewhat floppy slices are most commonly offered and consumed unadorned .

Almost every guidebook or travel feature tells you to head to Eataly on the harbor. We ventured inside, as we did in Rome, and tried to talk ourselves into eating there. The food did indeed look amazingly good and the display of high quality, authentic Italian food products were enticing. But the atmosphere felt manufactured. The customer base appeared composed of  passengers recently disgorged from the massive cruise ships docked there. Disneyland for foodies. A place to avoid crossing paths with any of the immigrant population now calling the center of Genoa home. We declined to dine. And for shopping? The alleyways in the historic center of Genoa are packed with charming and pristine specialty cheese and pasta shops and meat markets – the places where the locals go.

Instead, we enjoyed a wonderful meal at Locanda Spinola, so popular with locals on a Saturday afternoon that we felt fortunate to get a table. Parents pushed strollers in and out of an upscale cheese shop and a deli across the narrow pedestrian-only street. And now for the gritty side of a port city that keeps many tourists unnecessarily clustered near their cruise ships: a prostitute was standing on the corner. When an interested party approached, the pair subtly would disappear up the street somewhere to take care of business. Another woman immediately took up the station. But Genovesi, young and old alike, were unfazed by their presence. The prostitutes were not harassing or blatantly soliciting passersby, and most locals walking by took no more notice than they would a door of a shop selling products they did not want. The only gawker was me, albeit screened from being caught by the restaurant’s curtained window.

We enjoyed the slow-rise gourmet pizza topped with seared tuna at Savo Pizza Gourmet, and the Mandarin shrimp at Pesciolino were tasty. The casual Le Piastre di Emma is always packed; expect waiting lines. Contributing to the bustling confusion inside is one of the flamboyant owners who dramatically scurries about like a mother hen, perhaps almost to the point of flapping like a chicken with its head cut off. But the place that kept drawing us back was the family-run Trattoria le Maschere. The almost-homely décor fails to draw in many tourists and leaves the tables with their inexpensive platters full of perfectly prepared fresh seafood and classic pesto to the locals. And us.