The fabulous green paradise of the royal palace in Marlia just outside Lucca
Villa Reale is a national monument, as it was the royal palace during the short reign of Elisa Bonaparte (Napoleon's sister) in Tuscany with her base in Lucca. 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 this a unique and enchanting stop to add to their holiday itinerary in Tuscany (particularly the period of Napoleon's reign over Tuscany), but it is a must-stop visit for anyone who loves and enjoys historical gardens.
The park is a lovely green oasis and can be reached by car (there is ample free parking) or by public transport. I will admit to thinking we could just whiz right through the gardens, but the grounds are quite extensive and filled with surprises. Our visit was at the end of May, so we missed the fabulous collection of ancient Camellias in bloom but the roses were in full bloom in the Spanish Garden and the park boasted at least a hundred shades of green with the variety of plants and trees.
The walk around the entire garden is about 2 hours, and with the possibility to have a picnic on the grounds, it is sure to be one of the more romantic and whimsical stops you will make while touring Tuscany. There are no cafés, bars or restaurants in the gardens so come prepared (the ticket office does have water you can purchase). The cost of the ticket includes entrance to the entire gardens; unfortunately, the villa itself is still closed for restoration (2019). The newly restored miniatures room has a huge dollhouse which will give you a good idea of the floor plan.
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 in the two twin "Palazzine" (reopened in 2018) will give you a helpful map and brochure on the villa and gardens with your ticket, as well as the opportunity to purchase water and the chance to make use of the clean bathroom. For those of you vacationing or traveling with your favorite four-legged friend, dogs are permitted on the property but do need to be leashed (proper cleanup procedures are the responsibility of the owner). The warmer months also mean evening events like jazz and classical musical concerts in the gardens.
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. Certainly the highlight of its existence was 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 even if her title was not well appreciated by locals. 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.
The gardens that you see today are actually a combination of modifications made by Elisa and successive owners of the estate. More detail about the various stages of transformation are available in the brochure and at their website (see navigation bar on the right for more details). The grounds are well cared for year-round and you will always find some amazing treasures within these green walls.
The garden is easy to navigate and walk, and offers many splendid photo opportunities. Below we have highlighted a few of the intriguing and curious things you will see in the park of Villa Reale.
Highlights of Villa Reale
Viale delle Camelie: more than thirty types of camellia flowers are planted along these paths, and if you are a fan of these blossoms, you will find that they are well indicated with QR codes and detailed information. Though the stories are many, it seems that the first documented evidence of the arrival of the Camellia japonica was "the substantial delivery of rare plants received by Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi from her brother Giuseppe, King of Naples, in 1808."
The best time to appreciate the flowers are in the months of February, March and April.
Though contemplated much earlier, it was actually built more than a hundred years after the reigning princess abandoned the villa. It sets an amazing stage for photos and creates a stunning frame for the villa in the distance.
Fun Fact: The lake has an important practical function. In the hotter months, when water becomes scarce, an innovative pump system springs into action. It brings water from the lake to the Teatro d'Acqua, located in front of the Villa Reale. The water feeds the fountains and then flows back down towards the lake via a complex system of channels located under the lawn areas of the park!
One of the few of its kind, this garden originates with the Villa of the Vescovo, one of the additions that Elisa Bonaparte commissioned during her short reign in Lucca. It is actually two gardens, and the raised (or "hanging") garden, occupies the terrace and is made up of a lawn with a majestic blue Magnolia grandiflora at its centre.
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.
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. They often had fruit trees and fragrant plants resulting in a sensory experience with sound, color & fragrance.
Grotta di Pan (at one end of the Spanish Garden)
This evocative cave with its mysterious sea monsters in the the traditional style will remind you of the cave by Buontalenti in the Boboli Gardens in Florence.
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.
The Spanish Garden
Roses and fountains grace this garden with its unique Liberty-style water statues.
The sophisticated beauty of this garden was designed around 1924 by the landscape architect Jacques Greber in Art Deco style.
The Verzura Theater
Composed of green walls and plants cut to create cloves and hidden corners; its total depth is 24 meters, and was planted in 1690 by the Orsetti family, the original owners of the villa. This "green theater" is rather intriguing and was used for actual concerts and drama productions during the reign of Elisa. Roaming through the arches, you can also imagine it made for a great place for a secret rendezvous ;-).
Stanza delle Miniature
Newly restored, this building houses various reproductions of various stages of the Villa Reale. We particularly enjoyed the faithful reproduction of the villa in doll-house fashion, its rooms and furnishings will give you a good idea of what you can't see since it is under restoration at the moment.
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 Lemon Garden
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 certainly 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. My favorite thing about this particular garden were the mammoth Magnolia trees cut in a Christmas tree formation.
The Teatro d'Acqua, or Water Theater
Formed by a large semi-circular pool surrounded by rushing waterfalls which pour from five large masks, the magical water fountains and colorful roses make this a lovely baroque-styled garden. You will be enchanted with the display of white, pink and red begonias and the musical sounds of water splashing through the various layers.
The Villa itself is not yet open to the public and there is no set date for re-opening as there is an extensive restoration project at the moment. We are confident we will not have to wait too long!
In the meantime, if you are looking for a green, gorgeous setting for a picnic, a relaxing stroll or great photos, you can't go wrong with a stop at the Villa Reale di Marlia near Lucca.