On the spur of the moment we decided to shoot off to Capri for 2 nights – catching the ferry from Sorrento and with the plan of catching the ferry from Capri to Naples on Saturday. This was to be our Italian island adventure.
And what a contrast to our French island adventure on Ile D’Aix last summer. There the island was delightfully flat, there were smelly toilets it’s true, but loads of hollyhocks and no stairs or hills anywhere. Capri is remarkably clean and well cared for, but pretty much entirely vertical. The limestone cliffs thrust up from the sea, and completely dominate the place. The main town of Capri, is built on a small saddle of not quite so steep land between the cliffs. A funicular takes you up to the main square from the ferry terminal. The square is tiny, with a café on each side, a church on the corner and a bell tower on another, with a tangle of narrow lanes leading off in each direction and scrambling up and down passed white rendered villas and hotels each decorated with bright coloured tiles announcing their name.
Despite being the middle of winter bougainvillea, camellias, trumpet vine and hibiscus are still in flower, oranges and lemons and kumquats hang on the trees, and pots have been planted up with winter cyclamen. Glorious views of the ocean open out right and left and gulls hang glide above. It is stunningly quiet. No cars are allowed in the town of Capri, the streets are too small anyway, so only little electric bag carriers go up and down the lanes.
It is low season here – very low season. Walking around at night all the little lanes are well lit and enticing, and lined with twinkling designer shops: Armani, Dolce and Gabbana, Bulgari, ie places I’ve only heard about from Sex in the City (and Pandora). And virtually everything is closed. This suits me fine – but how strange that people would come to this tiny island to clothes shop. On a more serious note there is only one restaurant open but luckily we did find it!
Capri first came to fame about 2,000 years ago as being the chosen place for Emperor Tiberius to retire. He is so ghastly I can’t possibly give details here. Suffice it to say he lived here 12 years, built 12 palaces, and used it as his own private island of debauchery. As a result it has grown into a pleasure dome for the rich and famous. Why he chose Capri is puzzling. It does just look like a sheer rock. But perhaps that kept away prying eyes, and besides the cliffs provided a great place to throw off any slaves/lovers/peasants/etc that displeased him. Or just for fun.
And it is the cliffs that are the real centre piece of Capri. We decided we would try and take a boat ride to the blue grotto today, but the TIC told us it was closed as it was too dangerous and rough to enter. Just as we left the TIC we were accosted by a local pirate who offered to take us around the island on his private fishing boat for 80 euros. Before I knew what was happening dad had eagerly drawn out 80 euros and handed it over. So that was that! We were whisked on to a small boat, and chugging out of the harbour before I could say “shouldn’t we think about this over a latte first?”
And what a ride. Despite the sea getting quite choppy and being flung about the boat (I broke the steps loose twice because I was hanging on to them so tightly) we had a stupendous view of the cliffs. The pirate’s son, MacPirate, took the boat right up close to the coral grotto (edged with round buttons of red coral) and the white cave (featuring a stalagmite shaped like the virgin Mary), through an island archway of rock, and around other enormous rock stacks sitting out in the sea. We finally ended up at the mini blue grotto. This is a cave filled with water and once inside the sun makes it glow a wonderous bright blue. Despite having to hang on so tightly that my hands ached, it was a magnificent trip, and Dad for once is willing to acknowledge it was his idea. In any case it is difficult to be truly scared when MacPirate spent the whole time standing on deck, hanging onto nothing, and texting on his iPhone…
We staggered off, and after another coffee decided to take the bus to the other town called Anacapri. This involves a bus journey up and over some of those very cliffs. Even the books say this bus ride is terrifying. But there was a villa I wanted to see at Anacapri, so we decided to go anyway and I decided I simply would not look out the window during the journey. Dad, being the sensitive soul that he is, kept up a constant stream of “oh look down there! Gosh! It’s amazing! You’re missing it!” etc, etc. I focused on Fiona’s text about Bangkok. I can confirm that thinking about half cooked chickens with feet attached works very well as a distraction exercise.
It was a short walk to Villa San Michele, which is a fully furnished Mediterranean house built in about 1900 by a Swedish doctor called Munthe. It is a beautiful house, filled with treasures he collected/looted from ruined Tiberius’ palaces in Capri, not too big and very comfortable. Its highlight is the magnificent gardens, terraced and with fabulous views over the ocean and back towards Vesuvius, Naples and Sorrento featuring a little church he converted into a library/miniature concert hall. Munthe was an amazing guy. As a doctor he did not believe in counting visits or issuing bills, but simply in treating everyone, and he helped both poor and rich with the rich paying him more than enough. He helped the poor extensively during a terrible cholera epidemic in Naples, and was good friends with Queen Victoria of Sweden (they’d sing and play together in his little concert hall). But he was also a misanthrope, infinitely preferred animals to people, had loads of dogs as well as a pet mongoose and a pet monkey (who loved picking fleas off the dogs).
Munthe hated the way birds were hunted on Capri. During the migration each spring thousands of beautiful little birds stop at Capri, and people would put nets everywhere catching thousands and thousands. They’d then lock them in boxes with no food or water and send them off to the restaurants in Paris. Munthe was so distressed that he bought a big piece of land and made it a bird sanctuary, so at least there no birds would be caught. It still exists today and is used by scientists to study migration patterns.
As Anacapri was even more closed than Capri, we took the bus back to the main square of Capri. This time I couldn’t have seen out of the bus even if I had wanted to as it was so full. All I could see was lots of Italian denim bottoms. Who’d have thought I’d be pleased about that?
At Capri we had the thickest hot chocolate ever and a sandwich, and then strolled around the lanes admiring the views and an especially impressive door, before finishing up at our hotel where we sat on my terrace and watched an exquisite pink, amber and gold sunset.