While I enjoyed visiting all the usual sites, the real reason I had wanted to come back to Capri was to visit Villa San Michele, the extraordinary fulfilment of one man’s dream. I also wanted to get to the top of Mt. Solaro – the highest point on the island.
On one of my previous visits to the island, the seggovia (chair-lift) wasn’t running because of brutto tempo (‘ugly’ weather).
On another, because of time constraints, I’d had to choose between the mountain and a boat ride around the island. I happily chose the latter, but now I was back and the weather was bello.
Exhilarating seems a rather poor word to describe the ride up. Heeding the warnings, I had tethered all my belongings tightly to my body. Given the assortment of things on the ground below – mostly flip flops – others had been less cautious. As soon as you recover from the ride, you can start enjoying the views.
I wandered around the mountain top until I could no longer pretend the white, fluffy clouds of early morning weren’t being overtaken by dark, brooding intruders. I set off along the path down the mountain.
There was no one else around. It was a strange feeling after the hordes of tourists.
I had bought a guide ‘Capri Blossoming – Botanical Walks’, but rather than stopping to look up all the plants – and I mean literally ‘all’ since I didn’t recognize anything – I decided to simply enjoy the walk. I could always look them up later. Besides, look at those clouds.
When I consulted my guidebook later, I learned that there are 258 types of orchids in Europe, 80 of which are in Italy. A 1931 census recorded 27 species on Capri. By 1990 that number had dwindled to 15. Like so many plants that are now considered endangered, the problem is not climate change or pollution. It’s poaching. Even more tragically, because of a symbiotic relationship with microscopic fungi in the soil, the poaching is pointless because the orchids rarely survive transplanting.
In 1876 an eighteen year old Swedish doctor spent a day exploring Capri. That day changed the course of his life. He described the intense and immediate sense of attachment he felt that day in his memoir, “The Story of San Michele”.
“To live in such a place as this, to die in such a place, if ever death could conquer the everlasting joy of such a life! What daring dream had made my heart beat so violently when Mastro Vincenzo had told me that he was getting old and tired and that his son wanted him to sell his house? What wild thoughts had flashed through my boisterous brain when he had said that the chapel belonged to nobody? Why not to me?”
Twenty years would pass before that student, Dr. Axel Munthe, by then a renowned doctor whose practice included Europe’s richest and most royal patients, could fulfill his dream and purchase the property. Over the next five decades, come summer he would abandon his patients in Rome and sail south to his dream home.
It took “five long summers’ incessant toil from sunrise till sunset” to build the villa, which Dr. Munthe designed himself. It might have been finished sooner had it not been for all the times the doctor didn’t like how some part turned out – he had no training in either architecture or engineering – and, to the great dismay of the locals who were helping him, insisted it be knocked down.
Access to the garden is through the villa, which is surprisingly small. “The soul needs more space than the body,” was Dr. Munthe’s philosophy.
An astounding quantity of priceless relics from antiquity are spread throughout the villa. There could easily have been many more. Up until Munthe’s arrival, whenever the locals came across any marble or granite while working in their gardens, they would just toss the annoying pieces – they called it “roba di Timberio” (Tiberius’ stuff) – into the sea.
There was a lovely little garden – really not so little when you think of all the effort that would have gone into creating the terrace – but I was eager to see the views that had been at the heart of Munthe’s design. “I want my house open to sun and wind and the voice of the sea, like a Greek temple, and light, light, light everywhere!”
Of course, in order to have a view you have to be above something. ‘Ana’ is an ancient Greek prefix meaning ‘above’. Anacapri, at 327 metres above sea level, is very much ‘above’. When Munthe first came to the island in 1876, there was no road up to the village. For years he, and his visitors, had to climb up an ancient path – the Phoenician Steps – all 777 of them.
Hermes, aka Mercury, the busy Greek God, was involved in an astounding range of endeavours – animal husbandry, roads, travel, hospitality, diplomacy, trade, thievery, language, athletic contests, astronomy and astrology. No wonder he is often depicted, not as this handsome youth, but as an old, worn-out man. The younger version seemed to be more popular down here in the south. There is an identical statue in one of the gardens I was going to visit on the Amalfi Coast.
All around the villa “were loggias, terraces and pergolas (…) to watch the sun, the sea and the clouds”.
I probably wasn’t the only visitor that day who would have preferred brilliant sunshine, but, as the Swedish doctor was to learn, there is a dark side to Capri’s intense light. Tragically, years of exposure to the intense light he loved damaged his eyes and he spent the last years of his life in darkness.
There was another garden on the island – the Giardini d’Augusto – the Gardens of Augustus. It was just a short walk from the Piazzetta so I decided to have a look.
I’ve seen cool weather pansies planted next to sun-loving flowers like these petunias in quite a few Italian gardens. These combos always strike me as strange. Pansies are spring plants and petunias are for the summer border. I wonder, after years of gardening in a certain climate, do we develop unconscious notions of ‘natural’ companion plants?
I think the garden would be more accurately described as a nice little park (rather than a botanical garden as I saw it touted in one guidebook). The focus of greatest interest the day I visited was by a little bridge to the side.
Before you start shaking your head at the foolishness of some tourists, have a look at the path they have just trudged up.
If I’d climbed up that path, I’d try to get myself over that gate too.
It was a lot harder for the young girl with that short dress. After a couple of attempts she took off her flip-flops – I can never understand tourists traipsing all over the place in such flimsy footwear – and with a lot of encouragement and help from her boyfriend finally managed to get over the gate. Having been stymied by many closed gates in my travels around Italy, I felt badly for them. And relieved that for some reason, which I no longer recalled but was very grateful for, I had decided against climbing this feat of engineering prowess. However, in the interests of fairness, and since I have frequently been humbled to learn that there is a very good reason for what to a tourist’s eye seem to be inexplicable and ill-natured closures, I asked the attendant at the ticket office about the gate. His answer? “Non si sa.” (It isn’t known.)
I wandered around the island for another hour or so.
I am sure I could have happily spent a week – or two – exploring the island. But for this trip two days would have to do. It was time to return to the mainland.