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 Valencia, Spain: Grotesque guardians watched over silk exchange

While orange trees abound along the streets of Valencia, mulberry trees were more important as a cash crop in the 1400s. Not for the fruit, but because their leaves provided food for the very hungry caterpillars striving to build cocoons and emerge as moths. The moths only live about five days, but lay hundreds of eggs before their passing.

For Valencian farmers, the cocoons were the most important result of the short life cycle. After a dip in boiling water killing the pupa who so industriously wove it, a silkworm’s cocoon can be unraveled to produce a strand of silk ranging from about 1,000 up to almost 3,000 feet long.

So unravel the Valencians did. They unraveled so much, that by 1482 the fortunes amassed and riches anticipated from future trade enabled the silk merchants to begin construction of a major Gothic edifice worthy of housing their transactions.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, La Lonja de la Seda has a hall with soaring palm-tree-like columns for conducting transactions, a tribunal hall for adjudicating commercial disputes and even a prison for those found at fault.

Ah, but there are devils in the details. Although the Virgin Mary crowns the entryway and there is a nod to the crown on the side, many of the embellishments throughout the secular compound feature up-to-no-good-looking creatures. Was the ornamentation designed to warn dishonest merchants to stay away or to represent merchants thumbing their noses at the power of the church?

Less expensive fabric from Japan and China began dominating the silk market in the 1800s, but the streets of Valencia still house numerous shops continuing to vend fine silk brocade, with windows displaying their use in women’s fashions of centuries ago.

Oh, and the model wearing one such dress? She simply popped into camera view on a walk the same day we visited the silk exchange.

Postcard from Queretaro, Mexico: A picturesque center sheltered from the affluence of its suburbs

A safe haven in Mexico, Santiago de Queretaro has attracted lucrative businesses and manufacturers to establish headquarters in what formerly were its outskirts. The population has swelled to more than one million, with its affluence attracting the 2013 opening of Antea, the largest mall in Latin America. Chanel, Burberry, Michael Kors, Carolina Herrera, Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabbana – they are all there.

Fortunately, you are sheltered completely from all of this when staying in the historic center of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. The heart of the city mercifully remains unscathed by the invasion of fashionable international chains.

The charm of the historic center, as noted by UNESCO, is created by its successful merger of diverse cultures:

The property is unusual in having retained the geometric street plan of the Spanish conquerors side by side with the twisting alleys of the Indian quarters. The Otomi, the Tarasco, the Chichimeca and the Spanish lived together in the town, which is notable for the many ornate civil and religious Baroque monuments, with a skyline that has been defined since the 16th century. The urban layout of is unique for Spanish colonial towns in the Americas in that its town plan was from the start divided into two distinct sections – one rectilinear and intended for Spanish settlers and the other composed of smaller, winding streets where the indigenous population lived.