The fabulous green paradise of the royal palace in Marlia just outside Lucca
Villa Reale di Marlia is a national monument as it was the royal palace during the short reign of Elisa Bonaparte (Napoleon's sister) as Princess of Lucca from 1806 through 1814, when she had to leave once Napoleon fell. Villa Reale is located just 10 km outside of the city center of Lucca and 30 minutes from the thermal spa center of Montecatini Terme. Anyone who enjoys history should find the villa's gardens a unique stop to add to their holiday itinerary in Tuscany and a must-stop visit for anyone who loves and enjoys historical gardens. If you love the Boboli Gardens in Florence, make sure you go to Villa Reale di Marlia as well as they are just as grand!
The park is a lovely green oasis and can be reached by car (there is ample free parking) or by public transport (bus 59 from Piazzale Verdi and train station stop right in front of the entrance). I knew the garden was large but didn't realize how big until our guide on our visit, Michela, told us a minimum of 2 hours should be considered for the visits. Now that the villa has opened to the public, that's the very minimum we recommend if you want to see both so if you can, definitely plan for more time. The gardens actually invite you to stay longer, since they were made to be enjoyed for leisure. Picnics are encouraged so pack your own or buy something to eat from the recently opened café within the gardens. Dogs on a leach are welcome (you are responsible for cleaning up after them). Our visit in the middle of June meant we missed the fabulous collection of ancient camellias in bloom but there were plenty of other flowers in full bloom across the park, and many shades of green with the variety of plants and trees. So you will find the gardens wonderful to visit at any time of the year (from March through October, when they are open).
Planning your visit
Give yourself at least two hours to walk the the recommended ring walk across the entire garden but consider more if you also want to visit the villa. I would, however, recommend you plan on spending more time there, at least a morning, packing a picnic for lunch and enjoying the day relaxing at these gorgeous gardens. It could very well turn out to be the most romantic and whimsical stop you will make while visiting Tuscany. If you don't want to pack anything and decide last minute, this summer 2019 the villa has just opened its own internal café/bar to offer visitors a chance to buy lunch, snacks and drinks.
The extensive gardens started their most “recent bout” of renovations in 2015 considering its long history and the villa has partially reopened for guided visits! You can also see a restored “miniature room” that has huge dollhouse reconstructions of the villa itself which will give you a good idea of the floor plan of the villa.
Stay in Lucca
Lucca is a great base for exploring Tuscany: the airport in Pisa is an easy arrival point, the town provides many attractions and restaurants and there are gardens to explore, thermal hot springs to enjoy, and mountains for outdoor sports all in the area.
Upon arrival, the ticket office is found in the right of the two twin "Palazzine" buildings where you will get a very useful map and brochure of the gardens with your entrance ticket. To the left side of the ticket office are the restrooms, I recommend you make a quick stop before going in for your visit.
Before heading to the Villa Reale di Marlia, check out their Events page on the official website as there are many evening events like jazz and classical musical concerts, historical re-enactments and picnics at sunset planned in the gardens which would make your visit extra special.
A brief history
The villa is one of many villas that distinguish the Lucca countryside, and perhaps one of the more elaborate, thanks to its rather long and active past, starting with its main nucleus being a fortress in High Medieval times. The property was owned by several merchant families through the years until the 1600s when it was noble Olivieri and Orsetti families. During this time, the gardens took on a Baroque setting creating wide carriage lanes, courtyards and scenic gardens such as the Verzura Theater (the oldest in all of Europe) and the Lemon Garden. During this time, the elegant Palazzina dell'Orologio was built.
The highlight of the villa's history and growth dates to when Napoleon named his sister, Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, Princess of Piombino and Lucca and then as the Grand Duchess of Tuscany. She purchased the villa in 1806, and it was then re-baptized with the name Villa Reale (Royal Palace) after her regal status. She proceeded to make many changes to the gardens, extending the property, adding nearby residences to the main body of the estate and to the villa itself as well as introducing new plants to Tuscany, including the Camellias mentioned earlier. The most significant change was creating the wide expanse of garden from the villa to create a smooth downhill, ending with a lake at the end, according to the Romantic style of the period. The lake then was smaller than the present one, which was expanded in the 1920s, another important period for additional work on the setup of the gardens we see today.
The gardens of Villa Marlia are the result of a combination of modifications made by Elisa and successive owners of the estate and for this reason a walk through the gardens is like being in a living museum, stepping back into its history. After Elisa left, the villa passed on to the Bourbons and continued being a favorite for parties for the royal court. It continued to be passed down to through the family until the end of the 19th century, when the last of the Bourbons died and many furnishings were sold and the villa put on the market.
In the early 1920s, the Count and Countess Pecci-Blunt bought it and started additions: the famous French architect, Jacques Greber, was commissioned to create the recreational tennis court, a bocce area (a cross between bowling and cricket) and the swimming pool. More details about the various stages of transformation are available in the brochure and on the official website (see navigation bar on the right). The grounds are well cared for year-round and you will always find amazing treasures within these green walls no matter what time you visit.
In the late Renaissance, the gardens became larger, grander and more symmetrical, and were filled with fountains, statues, grottoes, water organs and other features designed to delight their owners and amuse and impress visitors. While the gardens have expanded and taken on different purposes, the main part of the gardens has been renovated to maintain the style and look of the villa from centuies ago.
The garden is easy to navigate and walk, even with a baby stroller as we had on our visit. The only part we found we couldn't do for a number of natural steps was the part called the “Camelia Way” at the very start but the central path we followed is certainly doable with strollers and thus wheelchairs as well. The park offers many splendid photo opportunities along the way, as you will see I was hard pressed to make a selection for this article.
Since there are so many areas of the gardens to explore, we have chosen to highlight a few of the main ones below and invite you to visit the gardens to see everything for yourself, as it is much better to enjoy it in person.
The Viale delle Camelie, or Camellia Way
More than thirty types of camellia varieties are planted along the area dedicated to these plants introduced to Tuscany by Elisa through her sister-in-law Josephine and her love of “exotic” plants in her residence at Malmaison just outside of Paris. It is through these two ladies that the camellias as well as the wisteria you see everywhere in Lucca and across Tuscany today and the mimosa tree were first introduced to Tuscany.
If you are a fan of the camellias in particular, along the path dedicated to them you will find each species indicated with QR codes and detailed information. Though the stories are many, there is documented evidence of the arrival of the Camellia japonica to Tuscany in particular through "the substantial delivery of rare plants received by Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi from her brother Giuseppe, King of Naples, in 1808." From Naples also came magnolias, tulips, gingko biloba and plantains.
The best time to appreciate the camellia trees in full bloom is in February, March and April.
Though contemplated during the reign of Elisa, the lake you see today was actually built more than a hundred years after the reigning princess abandoned the villa. Designed by the French architect Jacques Greber in 1924, the lake on the southern end of the gardens had small boats and guests could enjoy setting out to the small island on one side. Today, it sets the stunning stage for framing the villa in the distance. No boats at the moment, but who knows?
Fun Fact: The lake has an important practical function. Water flows from the back of the villa and the Teatro d'Acqua to the left side of the gardens and into the stream along the Camellia Way and ends in the lake... an innovative pump system then returns water up through the right side of the gardens to feed the many fountains via a complex system of channels located under the lawn areas of the park!
The Italian Garden
One of the few of its kind, this garden is right behind the Villa of the Vescovo, one of the additions that Elisa Bonaparte commissioned during her time here. There are actually two gardens, with the raised (or "hanging") garden on the terrace with lawn and a majestic blue Magnolia grandiflora at its center. The Villa del Vescovo is currently being renovated.
In between the Italian Garden and Villa del Vescovo (which is under renovation and where the current owners of the garden plan to live in once it is ready), there is the other area of the garden that underwent the most changes in the 1920s. This area houses a tennis court and swimming pool (which has not been renovated and in my humble opinion should be left as it) which offer an intriguing look back into this era. You can almost imagine the pool coming to life with pool parities where celebrities and noble guests mingled and enjoyed socializing.
This evocative grotto/cave with its mysterious sea monsters in the traditional style will remind you of the grotto created by Buontalenti in the Boboli Gardens in Florence. I am not sure how far this grotto dates back to, as it doesn't seem to be part of the villa property before Elisa was here, maybe she commissioned it when she bought this part of the surrounding properties (including the nearby Villa del Vescovo). The nearby Spanish garden and pool, however, date from later times, so maybe this existed as part of another garden.
Artists appointed by important Italian families built the decorative grottoes, reconstructing natural caves, often using real limestone concretions removed from actual caves. Grottoes were decorated with fountains, sculptures, and frescoes, often inspired by fantastic themes with references to the world of alchemy.
We were lucky to see the water works inside the grotto on since Michela knows where the switch is at ;-). Sprays from the top and side created rainbows and highlight how the cave is designed to look, with the water flowing.
The Spanish Garden
What is a Spanish Garden?
Traditionally, these gardens are shaped in the form of a cross, with the four cardinal directions, and includes various ponds or water channels where water reflects & trickles to create calming sounds (the model are the Spanish/Moorish gardens in Alhambra, Spain). They often had fruit trees and fragrant plants resulting in a sensory experience with sound, color & fragrance.
The Spanish Garden at Villa Marlia has delightful channels of water flowing past the roses and lemon trees, inviting you to sit and enjoy with the soothing sound of water setting a quiet mood.
The sophisticated beauty of this garden was designed around 1924 by the French landscape architect Jacques Greber in Art Deco style, as was the pool and the other “sport” areas nearby (tennis court, bocce area) and the expanded pond.
The Spanish garden is about the halfway point in the garden itinerary, so there is still more to be seen and enjoyed!
The Lemon Garden
Did you know?
Lemon trees became a fixture in Tuscan gardens in the early 1400s with Cosimo de' Medici. This tradition continued with Francesco I de' Medici (1541 – 1587), Grand Duke of Tuscany & one of the world's earliest collectors of citrus trees.
The design is based on the typical Baroque layout given to the park of Villa Reale by the Orsetti family in the 1600s. The highlight is the fish pond with two lounging white statues representing the major rivers in the area: the Arno River, originating in Casentino, and the Serchio River coming out of the Lunigiana and Garfagnana areas.
In addition to the pond, there are over 200 vases of citrus fruits, in particular, of lemons. There are also 6 large magnolia trees pruned in cone shapes which make them seem like gigantic Christmas trees. They must look like decorated trees when they blossom! The magnolia trees were planted during the reign of Elisa in the early 19th century.
The Verzura Theater
This is the oldest “natural” theater in all of Europe! The stage and walls are all created with plants, cut to create alcoves and hidden corners.
Planted in 1690 by the Orsetti family, the original owners of the villa, its total depth is 24 meters.
This "green theater" is intriguing and was used for actual concerts and drama productions during Elisa Bonaparte's reign. Roaming through the arches, you can also imagine it made for a great place for secret rendezvous as well ;-).
The Teatro d'Acqua, or Water Theater
Formed by a large semi-circular pool with rushing waterfalls pouring from five large masks, the lovely Baroque-style garden with its magical water fountains and colorful roses right behind Villa Reale makes it the easiest one to enjoy from the villa even if on this itinerary you get to it last (the itinerary recommended has you do a circular route anti-clockwise of the property as seen below). You will be enchanted with the display of white, pink and red begonias and the musical sounds of water splashing through the various layers.
Parts of the villa have just opened to the public in August 2019. Some parts are still under restoration, but the villa is open so you can add it to your visit! Check the side column on the right for details on hours and tickets since the villa is optional, an extra to the gardens. It wasn't yet open when we visited last, so we will need to head back soon to get to peak at how the royal and noble inhabitants of the past lived.
In any case, visiting the villa could not be easier: when you arrive you will be given brochures on the gardens and the villa, but you can prepare for your visit ahead of time by downloading the new app "villa reale di marlia" on your phone which contains a video guide to the gardens and an audio guide to the various rooms in the villa. You will be able to visit both at your leisure once you've entered the park, no need to join in on a group at a specified time.
The villa organizes special events that invite the public to enjoy the gardens under special conditions, such as picnics at sunset (with the picnic baskets prepared by top restaurants in Lucca), musical concerts, cosplay afternoons and historical re-enactments. Take a look at the Villa Reale di Marlia's official website for more details on all of the events.
If you are looking for a green, gorgeous setting for a picnic, a relaxing stroll or great photos, I suggest you make a stop at the Villa Reale di Marlia near Lucca a must during your stay in Tuscany!