7 Delightful Surprises about Tuscany’s Villa Reale (Royal Palace)
A national landmark and one of Italy’s most famous villas rests only 10 kilometers from the historic center of Lucca. Villa Reale (aka the Royal Palace of Marlia) boosts over 16 hectares of rolling landscape and includes a Renaissance-era villa, exquisite English-style gardens, an outdoor theater, fishing pond, lemon garden, fantastical grotto and historic swimming pool and bathhouse, along with flush streams, waterfalls, lake and a multitude of other surprises.
A mighty woman put the “royal” in Royal Palace.
One-time Princess of Lucca, and sister of Napolean, Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi acquired the property in 1806 from the noble Orsetti Brothers and instantly began making her mark, in part, with the help of Lucca’s starchitect of the day Lorenzo Nottolini. Elisa unleashed her appreciation for Empire-style and took inspiration from her brother’s Malmaison House residence near Paris.
She also expanded the gardens, nearly doubling their footprint, while creating her notion of an English garden paradise – a rare departure from Italian-style gardens of the day – and adding new species including camellias picturesquely lining walking paths. Villa Reale’s “Camellia Walk” is still a drawing card, especially when the sweet blossoms are aglow in spring.
Like any royal house worth its showy claim, Villa Reale boosts dark secrets.
Most of us are drawn to the smells of home-cooked dinners being lovingly prepared in the kitchen. Well, not our royal Elisa. As she went about transforming Villa Reale, she made a decision which would change the lives of everyone in the house, royalty and servants alike.
Elisa gave the villa’s kitchen the backside of her boot, relocating it from the main house to another building on the property, then connecting the two structures by underground tunnels. Her servants could prepare all the family and their guests’ meals – out of range of sight, sound and smell – then, transport their culinary works while still piping-hot directly to the dining room, via candle-lit underground passages.
Villa Reale boosts the oldest “green” theatre in Europe.
The equally-visionary Orsetti Brothers, owners of the villa prior to Elisa, commissioned this outdoor venue in 1664. Soon, rows of hedges were planted and pruned to create walls surrounding the stage of grass and hedged rows of seating. Hidden passages and walkways were created on the sides, allowing actors and musicians to spring from the green-wings, unseen until taking centerstage. Elisa also treasured this space and staged many productions for her endlessly-rotating roster of guests. Even the famed violinist Niccolo Paginini, a favorite “friend” of Elisa’s performed, in this beautifully-natural setting.
Today, the current owners, are at work building hidden supports for the hedges and ensuring the green theatre grows on. This space is magical and inspiring from every angle.
If Villa Reale’s walls could talk, there would be tall tales of ambitious proprietors and frolicking guests.
After the fall of Napolean in 1814, Villa Reale fell into the hands of one royal after another until landing with a mentally-unstable, debt-laden owner known as “The Mad Prince.” It wasn’t long before the estate was sold and furtniture auctioned off. Many of the estate’s trees were even sold for timber.
In 1923, a sophisticated and well-heeled Count and Countess known as the Pecci-Blunt’s purchased the estate and ushered in its modern-era of elegance. They immediately began works to restore the gardens to their former glory and add a new level of form and function.
They created a beautiful stream running through the property as well as a boating lake, along with an ingenious water collection, irrigation, and distribution system for the properties many waterfalls and streams. The Pecci-Blunt’s also created a zone for sporting activities, like playing croquet, tennis and bocce and one of the property’s star features, a massive swimming pool, with ultra-cool wooden diving platform and changing pavilion.
Don’t miss the public bathrooms nearby, where the current owners have installed a display featuring photos of former guests, including Jacqueline Kennedy and The Windsors, frolicking about the estate. A favorite is the young Salvador Dali lounging by the pool.
And, not for nothing, also notice the tessiere tile work on the floors of the public bathrooms. If you watched our “House Hunters International” episode, you may recognize that work. Yep, it’s from the same 100-plus-year-old handmade tile company we worked with to create our kitchen tiles and who also made the original flooring. Can I now call ours the “Royal Apartment”?
Among Villa Reale’s many surprises are, perhaps most surprisingly…sea creatures!
One of the estate’s quirkiest and most beloved features is one you might miss unless you know to look. (Seriously, the estate is that large).
Pan’s Grotto, a dreamy pavilion made of smooth stone and black and white pebbles, is dedicated to the god of the wilds. It provides a cool shelter from the sun and an ample dose of whimsy and fun. Water jets blast surprise refreshment from the mouth of sea creatures and other hidden spouts. You can never be sure when the water is activated, so guests can’t help but gasp when a spray hits your cheek, head or legs. It’s cheeky-good fun!
From the Foundation Comes a New Era for Villa Reale.
In 2015, new owners took the reins of this historic landmark and launched an ambitious renovation plan to restore the villa, accompanying structures, grounds and gardens.
A tour of the villa includes access to before-and-after photos illustrating the restoration thus far. The amount of work which is already finished as well as what is still to be accomplished is staggering. From the Carrara marble sculptures and priceless ceiling frescos to every piece of wood, tapestry and mosaic, the tasks are endless and massive. And, then there’s the gardens. Years of neglect, combined with a catastrophe storm just a few years ago, mean that every inch of waterway and green space has required love and attention.
Thankfully, these new owners are willing to tackle a project of this magnitude as well as being visionary enough to view Villa Reale as the public treasure it is and invite all of us to experience the magic, past and present.
For opening hours and information, visit the top-notch website at Villa Reale.
And, for tips for your visit, keep reading below.
Villa Reale is so grand, it has its own speciality cocktail.
The estate currently claims over 40 varieties of Camellias, along with over 200 lemon trees. Naturally, the estate’s public cafe – a peaceful spot if ever there was one – has created a special concotation made with Tuscany’s own Camellia Gin and housemade limoncello. It’s light and refreshing, with just the right amount of kick.
It’s a perfect way to wrap up a day well spent at Villa Reale. (Keep reading below for more tips for your visit).
Tips for when you visit Villa Reale in Tuscany:
DON’T rush. Allow a full morning or afternoon. It takes a minimum of three hours to walk the grounds and experience the entire estate.
DO purchase the additional five euro ticket to see the villa’s interior. This gives you access to an installation showcasing renovation efforts as well as entry to the ground floor and first floor which includes elegant sitting and dining rooms, a magical ballroom and the private bed chambers.
DO hire a certified local guide to take you through the experience. You will learn more about the history and understand the interworking of the estate. Plus, you show your value for those hard-working locals historians who light up at the opportunity to share their knowledge with us.
I’d like to thank our guide Diletta Barbieri for an extraordinary tour and for sharing her wisdom and humor!
We are happy to answer any questions you might have about Villa Reale and about Tuscany in general. Also, for anyone interested, we recommend tour guide Diletta Barbieri – she’s an ace! Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org and please tell her Jess and Matt gave you the nudge!
Also, if you see anything you think she be added to this story, reply in the comments. We hope to create a good resource for visitors so everyone can experience the magic of Villa Reale to the fullest.