Caserta Beyond the Royal Palace: Casertavecchia and San Leucio

A medieval hamlet imbued with mystery and spirituality, and the 18th-century city of equal opportunities.

Caserta is synonymous with its Royal Palace, known in Italian as La Reggia di Caserta, and that’s the way it should be. But the Versailles of Italy shouldn’t be the only reason to visit this corner of the Campania region. Because a stone’s throw from Vanvitelli’s greatest architectural masterpiece lie Casertavecchia and San Leucio. Two places which, though just a few km apart, propel us into histories and atmospheres so different as to feel like planets light-years away from one another. Planets on which it’s worthwhile to land and plant a flag marking the places we’ve visited in the world.

Caserta vecchia

Casertavecchia, the fairies’ hamlet 

Casertavecchia is the perfect escape from the chaos of the city. Coming here means strolling through quiet alleyways where flowers seem to bloom amongst the stones of the buildings and the only sound is cats’ meowing in the background. This ancient hamlet is actually the original centre of Caserta, which only began expanding in the 18th century around the Reggia, or Royal Palace, built by Vanvitelli. A cluster of tiny houses that for centuries have remained standing under Mount Virgo, a tangle of flagstone streets, a cylindrical fortified tower rising over the village and breathtaking views of the newer Caserta. Just a few souls still live in this medieval hamlet imbued with charm and mystery, while it was once inhabited by fairies and sprites, some of whom are still around. Indeed, the village may be small but it was not built in a day, and not just by people. The story goes that the strong fairies from the Tifatini mountains arrived here in the High Middle Ages, carrying on their backs heavy columns to be delivered to those who would build the cathedral of Casertavecchia. A true gem completed in the 12th century, its architectural elements are a blend of the Romanic-Apulian, Arab-Sicilian and Benedictine styles. The fairy columns are still there, dividing the church into three naves. The ancient charm and fairy-tale aura enveloping the village even enchanted Ursula Pannwitz, a German artist who decided to settle in Casertavecchia in the 1970s, animating its cultural life for years with the transformation of a small, deconsecrated church into an artists’ workshop and place of culture. In the Casa delle Bifore, Ursula began creating her spiritelli, or sprites: small terracotta vases decorated with funny faces and home to the tiny spirits who protect our houses and wander through the hamlet’s alleyways at night. Before Ursula Pannwitz, English author Frances Fleetwood lived in Casertavecchia for a while – in part due to her amor fou for General Nobile, in part for the undeniable charm of the place, about which she wrote a novel and a historic guide.  

San Leucio

San Leucio, the ideal city 

It’s hard to picture a late 18th-century model city with no gender gap. Yet one such city existed, and it was created by Ferdinand VI of Spain, who completed the urban revolution of Caserta by having one of the most advanced silk factories in Europe built in San Leucio. It was surrounded by a well-ordered pattern of lawns, vegetable gardens, vineyards, a school and workshops, as well as the lodgings assigned to the labourers, who had access to running water, respectable pay and education opportunities for their children. In Ferdinandopolis, gender equality was ensured, parents had no say in their children’s marriages, people married for love, there were no dowries and inheritances were regulated. Also, education was compulsory from the age of six, and there were even social funds for the elderly and the ill. San Leucio represented a sort of comfort zone for Ferdinand, who would move to this microcosm – a sort of Eden far from the Royal Palace and its luxuries – to enjoy a frugal, peaceful lifestyle in close contact with his citizens. Here, he would take refuge in the modest rooms of the Belvedere Palace or devote himself to hunting. Meanwhile, the factory produced exquisite and renowned silks manufactured according to ancient methods and traditions, which have adorned aristocratic homes and government offices for over two centuries. They can still be found on the walls of the White House, in Buckingham Palace and even in the Quirinale. In 1997, the monumental complex of Belvedere di San Leucio was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And it is open to visitors. 

Tours start from the ancient silk factory. Restored and transformed into a museum, it preserves machinery that was truly modern for the time. Two huge twisters powered by water from the Aqueduct Carolino (also by Vanvitelli and also on the UNESCO World Heritage list, it served the Royal Palace, San Leucio and local mills, foundries and factories). Warping frames and looms. Complex and delicate machines that could only be operated by the small, industrious hands of the female workers who passed the silken threads from one side of the other of the loom. We can also admire brocades, lampas, damasks and velvets. The royal apartment of Ferdinand and his wife, a former hunting lodge, is dominated by the 7-m bathtub made of grey marble, basically a Roman hot spring, where Maria Carolina used to bathe. Because frugal life was all well and good, but they were still of the House of Bourbon! Last but not least, rooms with frescoed vaults and the royal chapel. All that’s left is a stroll through the gardens, in awe of the panorama that extends all the way to Naples and the islands dotting its Gulf. Not to mention a visit to the Waver’s House, a typical labourer’s lodging. 



Distance from La Reggia Designer Outlet in San Leucio: approx. 15 km; driving time approx. 20 min 

Distance from La Reggia Designer Outlet in Casertavecchia: approx. 22 km; driving time approx. 30 min 



Belvedere di San Leucio. Località San Leucio, via del Setificio 5, tel. 0823301817, 

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