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 and the Palazzina dell'Orologio has opened to the public, the very minimum we recommend is at least 3 hours if you want to see as much as possibile. Definitely plan for more time if you can: the gardens were made to be enjoyed for leisure so you will feel the call to slow down and stay longer.
Picnics are encouraged so pack your own or buy something to eat from the café centrally located within the gardens. Dogs on a leach are welcome, just make sure you clean up after them. Our past visits in June have meant we missed the fabulous collection of ancient camellias in bloom but there are plenty of other flowers in full bloom, including many roses behind the villa and across the park, with many shades of green with the numerous variety of plants and trees. You will find the gardens wonderful to visit at any time of the year (between March and October, when they are generally open).
Planning your visit to the gardens
As mentioned above, I recommend you 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 and Palazzina dell'Orologio. I would, however, if you have the time, to just plan for an entire morning there, packing a picnic for lunch and enjoying the day relaxing at these gorgeous gardens without being in a hurry. 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, the estate now has its own Café where you can buy lunch, snacks and drinks.
The extensive gardens started their most “recent bout” of renovations in 2015, the villa and the Palazzina dell'Orologio has opened for self-guided visits (all you need to do is insallt an App on your phone). At the Palazzina, you can also see a restored “miniature room” with dollhouse reconstructions of both the villa and Palazzina which will give you a good idea of how they were used in times past.
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.
Arriving at Villa Reale
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. On the right of the left building are the restrooms, I recommend you make a quick stop before entering in for your visit.
You can arrive here by car and park either before this piazza at the start of the tree-lined road or go past in between these two buildings. There is a parking lot further on ahead, either way you'll just need to walk back a little bit to enter. If you take the bus from Lucca, the bus stops right on the right by the front gate.
A quick recommendation: before heading to Villa Reale di Marlia, check out their Events page on the official website as there are many evening summer 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 of Villa Reale di Marlia
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 owned by the noble Olivieri and Orsetti families. During this time, the gardens took on a Baroque setting as the families created wide carriage lanes, courtyards and scenic gardens such as the Verzura Theater (the oldest natural theater in all of Europe) and the Lemon Garden. It was also during this period that 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 that the villa was renamed 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. 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 back then was smaller than the present one, which was expanded in the 1920s, another important period for the creation of the gardens as we find them 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 through the family until the end of the 19th century, when the last of the Bourbons died and many furnishings were sold with the villa itself being 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.
Numerous important people were hosted by the Pecci-Blunts, who spent the summer months at the Villa. Thanks in grand part to Anna Laetitia (known as Mimì), who was a great patron of the arts with an eye for talent, Villa Reale experienced a period of lively cultural activity, with guests including Jean Cocteau, Paul Valery and the painter Afro, just to name a few. Mimì’s fashionable salon attracted members of the international nobility and jet-set, including Jacqueline Kennedy and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
More details about the various stages of transformation are available in the brochure, App 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 centuries ago.
The garden is easy to navigate and walk, even with a baby stroller as we had on one of our visits. 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 wheelchairs as well. The park offers many splendid photo opportunities along the way, I was hard pressed to make a selection for this article and thus you're seeing lots of photos!
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, the Camellia Way
More than thirty types of camellia varieties are planted along the area dedicated to these plants introduced to Tuscany by Elisa Bonaparte through her sister-in-law Josephine, who cultinated 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 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 if they might make a comeback?
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.. Then, an innovative pump system 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 Italian garden is right behind the Villa of the Vescovo or Bishop's Palace, 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 a lawn and a majestic blue Magnolia grandiflora at its center. The Villa del Vescovo is currently being renovated.
Behind the Villa del Vescovo (which is currently under renovation, future home for the current owners of Villa Reale, Henric e Marina Grönberg) you will find the part 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 yet... it would be interesting if it remained as it, but a full restoration is planned) which offer an intriguing look back into this era. The pool has unusual Liberty style changing rooms, a wooden diving board and is distinctive for its bright colors. It had a powerful heating system for the water, which is still in existence.
You can almost imagine the pool coming to life with pool parties where celebrities and noble guests mingled and enjoyed socializing. Many illustrious individuals whiled away carefree days here at the pool, including Spanish painter Salvador Dalì and Italian writer Alberto Moravia (who also enjoyed playing croquet).
You should make a stop at the public bathrooms near the Limonaia to check out the newspaper clippings and photographs of the era along the walls, giving you an idea of the parties and guests that have passed through the park in that era.
This evocative grotto/cave with its mysterious sea monsters in the traditional style will remind you of the Grotto 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. It is possible she commissioned it when she bought this part of the surrounding properties (including the nearby Villa del Vescovo) and had it built. Both the nearby Spanish Garden and pool date from later times, so it's possible this existed as part of another garden that was added to Villa Marlia through the centuries.
Artists appointed by important Italian families built 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 was designed to look with water flowing down its walls.
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 original model is 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 roses and lemon trees, inviting you to sit and enjoy with the soothing sound of water which sets 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 of this garden is based on the 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. The great violinst Niccolò Paganini performed here as he was often a guest of Elisa Bonaparte! Roaming through the arches, you can also imagine it made for a great place for secret rendezvous as well ;-).
The Teatro d'Acqua, the Water Theater, behind the Villa
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 is located right behind Villa Reale, making it the easiest one to enjoy if you have limited time and plan to visit the Villa and surroundings. You will be enchanted with the display of white, pink and red begonias and the musical sounds of water splashing through the various layers. If you visit in May and June, you will enjoy all the roses in bloom.
The Villa and the Palazzina dell'Orologio
Several rooms on the ground floor and first floor of the main Villa opened to the public in summer of 2019 and on the first floor of the Palazzina dell'Orologio this year, 2021. I highly recommend you add the Villa and the Palazzina to your visit (both villas and their collections are optional, you can add them on to the ticket for the gardens) as the furnishings and collections inside are quite spectacular and unique.
If you recall in the brief history above, the villa and its furnishings were sold after the last of the Bourbons disappeared at the end of the 19th century. When the Count and Countess Pecci-Blunt bought the property about 30 years later, they put in a lot of work and resources to retrace and buy back the original furnishings from the previous century or at least of the right period to redecorate the villa. The villa today has been set up to showcase how some of the rooms were at the times of the Imperial Court: we can see Elisa's bedroom with an imperial bed and full body mirror, a full bathing room next door, the ballroom with a harp and pianoforte, a library with just a small part of ancient books of the larger collection, a billiards room with a pool table from the period and a separate games room and dining hall, to name a few.
The Countess was an avid traveler herself and established unique collections from her lifetime and travels. Those collections can be seen in the Palazzina dell'Orologio, including a selection of the most antique books of the collection, original musical records, periodicals and magazines, dolls from all over the world and another dedicated to Native American customs and traditions, a personal passion of the countess. A room is dedicated to the personal items owned by Leo XIII, Pope from 1878 to 1903, born Gioacchino Pecci and uncle to the countess. The current owners were very lucky indeed that they purchased Villa Reale with those furnishings and collections intact almost a century later, and they have chosen to catalog, restore and display them so that we can enjoy them today.
Visiting the villa and Palazzina cannot be easier: when you arrive, you will be given a pamphlet on the gardens and the villas, but I suggest you download the App "Villa Reale di Marlia" to your phone for your visit. It contains an audio guide to all of the rooms in the Villa and Palazzina, and video clips of various parts of the gardens. You will be able to visit everything at your leisure. I don't offer very many photos of the insides of the villas, as it is prohibited to take photos inside of the museums.
Special Events at Villa Reale di Marlia
The villa organizes special events that invite the public to enjoy the gardens under special conditions, such as a picnic 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.
Ready to make your visit to Tuscany extra special? I suggest you make a stop at Villa Reale di Marlia near Lucca a must-do on your itinerary. The royal grounds will be a gorgeous setting for a picnic, a relaxing stroll through well-maintained historical gardens and lawns and offer a chance to walk through past times as you explore the park.