I had always assumed that Capri was volcanic. Vesuvius isn’t far off, and Ischia, which is even closer, is part of the Phlegraean archipelago of islands strung out on the western edge of the Bay of Naples. All volcanic.
The Faraglioni on the eastern tip of Capri certainly look volcanic.
So I was surprised to learn recently that not only is Capri not the result of a volcanic eruption, it isn’t even, in John Donne’s immortal words, ‘an island, entire of itself’. It’s a limestone-based ‘piece of the continent’.
Take a boat ride around the island and you’ll see no end of fantastical ridges and towers.
It’s what geologists call a ‘continental’ island, or Karst, ‘a land formation underlaid with limestone which has been eroded by dissolution over the years forming fantastical ridges, towers and sinkholes in the rock’.
Amongst all the ‘fantastical ridges’ there is even an elephant.
Whatever its origins, the result of all that geological dissolution is an island that is, ‘a dir poco’ (ah deer poe-koe) – to say little – utterly charming.
Like the Marina Grande in Sorrento, Capri’s Big Harbour oozes with charm.
Caesar Augustus was so taken with its charms when he visited in 29 BC, that he promptly made a straight swap for it with Ischia. From a purely economical point of view, this was a very poor trade – Ischia is larger and more fertile – but such are the charms of the island.
Then he had a villa built, so he could enjoy its charms whenever he wished. After Augustus came Tiberius, who, demonstrating a more refined sense of natural beauty and architecture than he did of other things, commissioned a total of twelve imperial villas scattered around the island on the most spectacularly beautiful sites.
Augustus and Tiberius may have taken up the island’s prime locations, but 20th century afiçionados still manage to find some pretty good sites.
Villa Malaparte 1939, aka Il Ferro (The Iron) by locals who are not not enamoured of the Italian Razionalismo style.
Nowadays most visitors have to content themselves with a day trip. So every day, huge ferries from the mainland disgorge thousands of them, all bent on getting off those ferries as quickly as possible.
Unlike the Marina Grande in Sorrento, this one really is grande.
This of course has a tendency to make the arrival anything but charming. It’s even less charming if you’re a woman travelling by yourself and get hit on by a local the moment you step off the ferry.
Even if you’ve done your homework, it’s easy to miss the entrance to the funivia. It’s the arch behind the striped, red awning.
Hoping to make the arrival on this return visit somewhat less disagreeable, as soon as we entered the harbour I left the upper deck with its gorgeous views and positioned myself as close to the gangplank as possible. Who would have guessed this was where all the smokers hung out? In any event, I experienced slightly less jostling, although it never ceases to amaze me how many adults are evidently still at the developmental stage – I think the child psychologists put it around age 2 – during which, if you don’t see something – because you have covered your eyes or you don’t make eye contact – it’s not standing there, right in front of you. On the plus side, there was no sleazy come-on this time. (Age has to have some benefits.) And the delivery vans, that some local admin people obviously think are fine to let mingle with the half-dazed tourists, weren’t quite as unnerving.
Reminding myself of the plaque I’d seen at Villa Maria – ‘Even paradise is not for the faint of heart’ – I made my way to the biglietteria and was soon on the funivia heading for the town the island is named for.
Piazza Umberto, aka la Piazzetta, was as crowded as ever.
In 2012, the mayor of Rome passed a law prohibiting eating on or around the monuments of the Città Eterna. Apparently things had gotten out of control. Tourists had no respect for the ancient treasures. They had been caught chopping watermelons in the fountains of Piazza Navona; setting up dining tables, complete with table cloth and cutlery, on the Spanish Steps. The prohibition is strictly enforced by the Roman vigili urbani, who routinely hand out fines, ranging from 25 to 500 euros.
According to a plaque next to the steps in Piazza Umberto, a similar law had been passed even earlier in Capri.
But it would appear that in Capri the vigili take a more laid-back approach to such things.
Given the abbondanza of charms found on the island, it’s surprising how small it is – just over 6 km long and, at its widest point, less than 3 km. You would think it wouldn’t matter where you stayed, you’d be close to everything. Accordingly, for my first visit, once I discovered that the town of Capri was even more expensive that it was charming, I decided to stay in the slightly more reasonable and down-to-earth village of Anacapri.
Capri may only be a few square miles, as the crow files, but down at ground level, it’s another story.
What I hadn’t taken into account was how difficult and time-consuming getting around 10 square km. can actually be.
With space at such a premium, there is little room, even in Capri’s most luxurious hotels, for private courtyards, far from the prying eyes of the passing hoi poloi. But maybe that is part of the essence of Capri. To see and be seen.
So on my return visit I was glad when I managed to secure a room at a very simple, but lovely hotel only 5 minutes from Piazza Umberto.
I loved the trumpet vine blossoms lining the path when I first arrived. Sadly, the next day when I returned in the evening someone had ‘tidied up’ the path.
Paradoxically, the views from the little terrace of this simple hotel were absolutely wonderful.
And as promised, the hotel really was just a few minutes walk to the Gardens of Augustus…
I arrived in the middle of a photo shoot for the local dance school.
…and the terrace overlooking one of my favourite views – the Faraglioni.
It’s surprising how mesmerizing it can be to watch boats flit around a few hunks of rocks.
A mio parere (a me-oh pah-reh-ray) – in my opinion – without a doubt, the perfect way to start off one’s first morning on Capri is un giro in barca – a boat ride around the island.
Leaving the Marina Grande and heading east…
…past the rocky outcrop on which the statue of a little boy waves hello to all visitors.
The statue is of lo scugnizzo Gennarino (low skoon-yeats-so jen-nar-ee-no). Scugnizzo is Neapolitan for ‘street urchin’.
Gennarino waves ‘Benvenuto‘. Welcome.
Augustus may have traded Ischia for Capri centuries ago, but both islands have remained in essence, napoletane. With me the locals speak in italiano, but amongst themselves, always in the incomprehensible – at least to outsiders, which includes not just me, but Italians from other regions as well – Neapolitan dialect. How strange that this small, upscale jewel of an island and the sprawling, gritty metropolis of Naples would be, in fondo (at the heart of things), so closely tied.
This young couple gets ready to kiss – for buona fortuna – as we pass under the arch in one of the Faraglioni.
If I hadn’t seen Via Krupp from above on a previous trip, I had a feeling I might be wondering why everyone got so excited when we came to this zigzagging stone wall.
View Krupp, seen from the terrace of Augustus’ Garden.
The Grotta Azzurra (Blue Grotto) may be the most famous, but on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d rate some of Capri’s other grottoes a lot higher for overall viewing experience. For one thing, as I explained in Una Passeggiata a Capri (Feb. 16, 2014), after you’ve handed over the supplement for the Blue Grotto tour, there are no guarantees you’ll even see it. All it takes is a bit of wind and the small entry hole may be submerged.
As a confirmed landlubber, I was somewhat taken aback at how close our captain took us to the entrance of the first grotto we came to. But he was obviously as comfortable on the sea as I was not, and watching him, I got the feeling he took great pride in his prowess at the tiller.
There might also have been a touch of competition and showmanship going on among the captains of the various boats as they vied for the best positions for their passengers.
Marina Piccola, the only section along the south shore where the cliffs don’t drop precipitously into the sea.
Il Faro di Punta Carena at the south-west tip of the island.
From the lighthouse we continued up the western shore of Capri. The light was now all wrong, but I’ve included these shots to give you an idea of what the Blue Grotto experience is really like.
All those boats jostling for position and all those people on the steps are waiting for their turn in the small, low boats that can fit through the opening of the grotto.
The specially built boats can handle only two adult passengers, and, in a pinch, a couple of their offspring, at a time. This is because everyone aboard has to scrunch down to the level of the gunwales when they get to the entrance. Is it just me, or does the fellow with the cell phone seem somewhat unimpressed with the whole experience?
The trip around the island takes about an hour and a half, so by the time you get off the boat, stroll around the harbour a bit and then take the funivia up to Capri, it’s time for an aperitivo – and what better place than the social centre of the island – la Piazzetta?
It’s hard to spend any time on the island without coming across some serious bling.
I’d seen countless tourists walking around with bags decorated with this watch. Curious, I finally went into one of the stores. It was packed with people who were not just gawking like me, but making substantial purchases.
The man in the orange shirt was, I’m pretty sure, this woman’s husband. I overheard him encouraging her to buy something, but she seemed as mystified by the Capri Watch thing as I was. She and I may have been the only people to leave the store empty-handed in a long time.
It’s all about your priorities I guess. Ironically, in spite of my ignorance when it comes to high-end shopping, I do have in my possession – it’s sitting on my book case – a pigna identical to the one in the window of this luxury store. I bought mine (it’s the blue, pine-cone) in Sicily, where they are considered a symbol of friendship and welcome.
Obviously this is a place where some serious shopping goes on, but it’s all beyond me, in more ways than one. What I’m on the hunt for is a table where I can sit for a while and enjoy one of the most fascinating shows in the world. I’m here for some serious people watching.
A waiter and an elegant signora.
Four young guys having a chat.
But wait! One of them is a cop.
There was something terribly intriguing about this fellow.
He went back and forth, visiting with friends seated at the various caffès lining the piazza.
I took this elderly man for a widow, who’d come out to the piazza to read his paper for a bit of company.
A few minutes later, a group of well-dressed signore arrived, one of whom was his very much still alive wife.
After a few kisses and words of greeting, he got up and left them to continue a very intense conversation.
After about an hour’s worth of people watching and having long since emptied my wine glass, I decided I’d better get a move on or I’d be tempted to order another glass and would end up spending the rest of the afternoon there – which is exactly what a lot of the people I was watching seemed to have every intention of doing. But they were Italian – for them it was just a typical Sunday outing. We tourists on the other hand don’t have time to sit around indulging in la dolce vita. We have sites to see. Photos to take. Things to check off lists.
I asked the waiter for the bill.