How Italy’s Reggia di Caserta is being restored to its former glory

The Royal Palace of Caserta, a long-neglected architectural jewel near Naples, is being revived by a vast restoration project partly financed by the EU recovery fund.

How Italy's Reggia di Caserta is being restored to its former glory
The Royal Palace of Caserta, the residence of the Bourbon dynasty near Naples, with Mount Vesuvius in the background. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

Nicknamed the “Italian Versailles”, after the royal palace near Paris, the Italian UNESCO site boasts 1,200 rooms and 123 hectares of lush gardens.

It was built on the orders of the King of Naples Charles of Bourbon, with work beginning in 1752 under the direction of architect Luigi Vanvitelli.

But it fell into neglect after Italy’s unification at the end of the 19th century, and was used only rarely after that, such as when it served as the Allied headquarters during the Second World War.

From restoring the facades to reviving the gardens and repairing the gates, remedying the ravages of time is proving a titanic task.

The ‘Throne Room’ at the Royal Palace of Caserta. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

Efforts made so far were rewarded last week when the palace won a third star – the highest accolade – in the prestigious Michelin Green Guide to Southern Italy.

Philippe Orain, the Michelin Green Guides’ director, told AFP the restoration so far was “remarkable”.

The palace has also earned points for its collection of contemporary art, showcased in the royal apartments, as well as its decision to open to visitors in the evenings and at Christmas.

Tiziana Maffei, Director of the Royal Palace of Caserta, with the third star from Le Guide Vert Michelin, the highest award given to a tourist site. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

The third star lifts the palace and its gardens, complete with reflecting pools and gushing waterfall, to the level of the Pompeii archaeological site.

“It is a recognition that we hope will make us known throughout Europe and the world,” said the palace’s director Tiziana Maffei.

‘Expression of power’

Once home to Queen Marie-Caroline, Marie-Antoinette’s sister, the palace was designed to be “an expression of power but also of cultural prestige”, Maffei said.

The restoration comes with a stiff price tag, but the project has received around 25 million euros from the European post-pandemic recovery fund.

Maffei said it was “very little” compared to the total costs, but it would help restore the aqueduct, which carries water to the palace’s fountains, canals and basins, over a distance of 40 kilometres.

The palace serves as a location for film shoots, from “Star Wars” to “Angels and Demons”, which help lift its profile – and can raise unexpected extra funds too.

Maffei cites Tom Cruise, who she says paid for the curtain in the palace theatre to be restored while he was there filming “Mission Impossible”.

The Court Theatre of the Royal Palace of Caserta. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

Visitors to the royal apartments first climb a vast staircase, under the fierce gaze of marble lions.

Above them is an immensive dome, below which lies a hidden platform, where musicians were once housed out of sight, to play as distinguished guests arrived.

Beyond the palace lie the Old Woods and the English Garden, one of the few great European gardens still intact, boasting temples, lakes and some 200 or so different species of rare and exotic plants.

Tourists arrive at the Royal Palace of Caserta. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

UK tourist Terry Thompson, on holiday with her husband, says the revived royal palace now rivals even the imposing Vatican in Rome.

“I can honestly say that here it is as beautiful, if not more beautiful,” she said.

“It’s absolutely superb: the colours, the paintings, the ceilings, the gilding… it’s really worth a visit”.

The gardens of the Royal Palace of Caserta. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

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EXPLAINED: How will Venice’s ‘tourist tax’ work?

Venice has confirmed it will trial a long-delayed ticketing system for visitors in spring 2024. But who will the fee apply to and how will it work?

EXPLAINED: How will Venice’s ‘tourist tax’ work?

Venice officials last week approved the trial of a long-delayed ‘tourist tax’ aimed at regulating crowds and lessening the impact of mass tourism on its city centre. 

But the announcement, which reportedly contributed to Venice dodging inclusion on the UNESCO list of endangered heritage sites for the second time, has left many confused as to who the entry fee will apply to, who will be exempt and how the system will be enforced.

Though future changes cannot be ruled out, especially given the project’s troubled history, this is what the city council has said so far about the incoming trial, which is presently scheduled to start next spring.

Who will the entry fee apply to?

The Venice city council has said that all day trippers over the age of 14 will have to pay the fee. But no small amount of confusion lingers over who exactly will qualify as a ‘day tripper’.

In particular, Venice officials describe turisti giornalieri as visitors who don’t “stay in one of the accommodation facilities located within the territory of the Venice municipality”.

READ ALSO: Five essential tips to escape the tourist crowds in Venice

Besides hotels, it remains unclear exactly which other types of accommodation (B&Bs, hostels, holiday rentals, guest houses, etc.) will fall under the ‘accommodation facilities’ umbrella.

Gondola, Venice

A traditional gondola crosses the Grand Canal in Venice. Photo by ANDREA PATTARO / AFP

Who’s exempt?

Aside from guests staying at the city’s hotels, so far the city has said a number of other categories will be exempt from paying the fee. 

Exemptions will include: 

  • Venice residents
  • People working or studying in Venice
  • Veneto residents (though they may still be required to register their trip online)
  • Second-home owners and their households
  • Partners, parents or relatives up to the third degree of kinship of people residing in Venice 

There are currently no details on how people will be asked to prove they’re entitled to the exemption.

How much is the fee?

Day trippers will be charged a flat five-euro fee to access the city’s historical centre during the 2024 trial stage.

However, it’s likely that this set-up will change once the trial’s over and the ticketing system becomes fully operative. 

As laid out in some of the earliest project plans, the council should ultimately opt for a variable-fee format, with the fee’s amount changing based on the time of the year and the number of visitors expected in the city. 

This means that the fee will be higher in peak tourist season and lower in low season.

How can I pay the fee?

According to the Venice comune, tourists will be required to pay the fee via a new online platform (also available via mobile app) that is expected to become operational next year. 

Venice, St Mark, tourists

Tourists walk across St Mark’s Square, one of Venice’s most popular attractions. Photo by ANDREA PATTARO / AFP

The platform will provide visitors with a QR code, which they will then have to show to ticket officers upon entering the city. 

READ ALSO: Five ‘secret’ places in Venice you need to visit

It remains unclear where and how controls will take place, though the city council previously advanced the idea of setting up gates at the city’s main entry points.

Fines for those flouting the rules will range from 50 to 300 euros.

When will the trial start?

The Venice city council has said that the trial will be spread out over up to 30 days during 2024, but officials haven’t yet agreed on exactly which days the entry fee will kick in.

That said, it is likely that the system will be tested on particularly crowded days such as long weekends and public holidays, according to the Venice comune website.