When Life Gives You Lemons

Since ancient times the mountains just inland from the Amalfi Coast had given the locals a much-needed refuge from invaders.   But very little land.

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So over the centuries they built terraces up the mountainsides and on them planted the only crop that held the possibility of providing them with a livelihood – lemons.

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Terraces planted with lemon trees along the road up to Ravello.

In days gone by, the lemons were valued for their ability to  prevent scurvy – the scourge of ancient sailors.   Nowadays, in addition to their medicinal properties, they are also valued as the essential ingredient for a uniquely Italian version of lemonade – Limoncello.

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We’re not talking about just any old lemon – and definitely none of the “interventions” that characterize so much of 21st century agriculture.  This is an ancient lemon, oval in shape, medium size.  No  chemicals are used on the trees.  Any diseased plants are nursed back to health, rather than torn out and replaced.   And like the consortiums that govern Italy’s wine production, there is a Consorzio del Limone di Sorrento which keeps a close eye on things.  Even grants a coveted IGT label – Indicazione Geografica Tipica – a guarantee that the lemons have been grown in the rich volcanic soil in the area around Sorrento.

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It is difficult to even conceive of the back-breaking labour that has gone into the creation – and maintenance – of these terraces.

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Pergolas covered with netting protect the fruit from cool winter temperatures and sea breezes.

 

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In winter, with all the black netting, the hillsides look as if they are in mourning.

Since the tour of the Michelangelo Cheese Factory included a visit to a Limoncello factory, I thought it might be a good idea to visit a citrus garden beforehand to have a close-up look at the  star ingredient.  There was one such garden in all the brochures on Sorrento.  It was called l’Agruminato and was on Corso Italia, right in the centre of the city.

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Lemons and their outsized cousins – cedri – at a fruit stand along Corso Italia.

When I saw the long wooden poles I knew I had found it.   The poles, usually made of chestnut, support the protective cover for the citrus trees.  In the past this cover had been made of straw matting, and although black or green netting has mostly replaced the straw mats, the whole thing is still called pagliarelle (pal-ya-rell-ay), from paglia (pal-ha) – straw.  It has a nice ring to it, especially when you don’t pronounce that ‘g’.

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The only problem was – I couldn’t find the entrance.  Maybe I had misunderstood.  Maybe it was a private garden.  Maybe it was closed for repairs.  In the meantime, that tree with the pink flowers looked a bit like a Redbud.  Somebody had really gone at it with the pruning sheers.  I repeated to myself one of the Golden Rules of the Good Traveller – the one about not rushing to judgment.  To my Canadian gardener’s eyes it still looked like a hack job.

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Leaving the redbud aside for the moment, someone obviously knows what they’re doing when it comes to roses.

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Finally I asked a passerby.  Of course, like most things in life, once you’re in the know, it was obvious.

Citrus Heaven

Citrus Heaven

In a place where lemons were so plentiful it was surprising to see that they cost more than oranges.  But of course, these aren't just any old lemons.

In a place where lemons were so plentiful it was surprising to see that they cost more than oranges.
But of course, these aren’t just any old lemons.

 

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PIEMME (pea – em– may) – self-described producers of the best Limoncello
and a few other dolci tentazioni (sweet temptations) to be found along the Sorrentine Peninsula.

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An enormous cardboard box – maybe five feet by five – was  lined with plastic (no fancy “staging” for visitors) and filled with the precious bucce (rinds).

The rinds are placed in a huge stainless steel vat and left to macerate for a few days in a secret family recipe based on pure alcohol and sugar beets (no additives, syrup or sweeteners).  At regular intervals the mixture is stirred – very carefully – so the rinds aren’t bruised.

They were very particular about how the lemon rinds were to be stirred.

They were very particular about how the lemon rinds were to be stirred.

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It may not look like anything special, but the aroma was intoxicating.

It may not look like anything special, but the aroma was intoxicating.

on our way to the tasting room we passed by one of their specialties - Babà al Limoncello.

Babà Sorrento – “soft masterpieces of refined artisanal pastry” impregnated with limoncello
to create an “irresistible marriage of sweetness and fragrance.”

The little cakes had just been brought out of the oven, their sweet fragrance wafting through the entire building.  Since they  had to cool before they could be transferred to the jars in which they would then be ‘drowned’ in limoncello, it was our guide’s dispiacere to regretfully inform us we would be going straight to the tasting room.   No displeasure.  Not at all.

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Limoncello and Babà Sorrento – Irresistibile! (ee-ray-zees-tee-bee-lay!)
Try saying that after a glass of the stuff.

 

 

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Buffalos and Torn Cheese

Starting to get the itch to visit gardens again.  The closest garden in the area is the Reggia di Caserta on the outskirts of Naples.  It’s a biggie – sometimes described as Italy’s Versailles.  But before leaving the Amalfi Coast, which in addition to being a region of spectacularly beautiful views, is also the birthplace of the insalata caprese, of which I had eaten quite a few by now, I wanted to see how all that mozzarella was made.

Insalata caprese served at in the village of Amalfi

Southern Italy’s culinary take on the country’s flag – insalata caprese.  In Amalfi…

The only problem is you have to drag your eyes away from the view  to look at the menu.

…Ravello…

Pranzo con vista. (Lunch with a view_.

…and on the island of Capri where it was first made.

The website for Caseificio Michelangelo promised “an unforgettable experience at the oldest cheese factory on the Sorrentine peninsula”.  Relying on websites in the past had resulted in several totally forgettable experiences.  Hotels seem especially good at finding absolutely brilliant photographers, so I didn’t know what to expect.

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Floating around in a light, home-made brine, mozzarellas of various shapes absorb a hint of flavour and a natural preservative.

When I first contacted them, they had no other bookings for that day and could not provide a tour for just one person – disappointing, but totally reasonable, I thought.   We left it that I would contact them again once I arrived in Sorrento.

In the meantime, I already knew that to make the real thing, you start with – not cows – their milk is used to make Fior di Latte – but with bufala (water buffalo).

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A few years before, I had seen a few of them while on a trip to see the Greek temples of Paestum (Staying Put, March 23, 2014).

Some people make it a day trip.  Paestum is 92 km south-east of Salerno at the eastern edge of the Amalfi Coast.  Salerno is where most people who, after driving the Amalfi Coast road and coming to the conclusion that it’s something they’d like to keep to a once-in-a lifetime experience, pick up their rental car.

92 k is, of course, a mere hop, skip and a jump by Canadian standards.  But keep in mind that Michelin, which I have found to be remarkably accurate, gives the time to cover those 92 km as 2 hours, 23 minutes.

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That narrow strip of asphalt you see winding its way around the village?  Welcome to the SS163, aka the Amalfi Coast road.

The water buffalo is probably the descendant of wild oxen that had been domesticated  in Asia and later brought to southern Italy – Magna Grecia at the time – by Greek settlers.

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The only time I had seen such clean cows or bulls before was
when they were all spruced up for the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto.

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A bit out of focus, but even with that metal rod, there was no way I was going to fiddle around with the settings on my camera for this shot.  If this one is average, it weighs 5 quintali.  500 kilos.   The gestational period lasts 10 months and the mother nurses her baby for 270 days.  Mercifully for Mom, multiple births are extremely rare.

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So-o-o cute. Almost looks like a little lamb. And yet, in just a few years…

Fast forward a couple of years and I’m back in Sorrento, hoping to visit the Michelangelo Cheese Factory. By the time I arrived at the hotel I was a hot, sweaty, tired mess.  The hotel isn’t all that far from the train station – it was lugging my suitcase up the hill at the end that almost did me in.

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Entrance to Villa Oriana Relais.

The path leading to the hotel looked promising.  And as soon as I walked through the front door of the villa I knew I had landed ‘butter side up’.  They may have had a good photographer, but the real thing was beautiful too.  And the welcome as warm as promised.  I dumped my stuff in my room and rushed out to the terrace, where the young woman who had greeted me brought me an ice cold lemonade made with lemons from their garden and a slice of lemon ricotta cake.  Heaven!

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Lugging my suitcase up that hill hadn’t been much fun, but what views!

When I mentioned Caseificio Michelangelo, my hostess was very enthusiastic about their tours – which of course left me in the rather peculiar state of feeling encouraged and discouraged at the same time.  But she did promise to get in touch with them for me.

The next morning brought good news – a couple had booked a tour – I could join them if I wanted.  They were newlyweds from Naples, so the tour would be in Italian.  As long as they didn’t slip into napoletano – the local dialect – I would be fine.  In fact, taking a tour with locals usually makes things even more interesting – you get their take on things.  Sara, our guide for the day, would pick me up at 9:30 and then we would pick up the honeymooners who were staying in a hotel closer to the caseificio.

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Views to the west.

They were  adorable – not at all upset to find out that a woman “of a certain age”, and a straniera (foreigner) at that, was horning in on their tour.  And while they did speak with strong, southern accents, I needn’t have worried.  As it turned out, initially it was Sara who struggled.  It was her first time doing the tour in italiano.  There was a spirited discussion about how Italians don’t get out to see the treasures of their own country.  It all sounded very familiar.  How many of us Canadians have seen less of our country than many visitors?  But it didn’t take Sara long to get the hang of her script in Italian and soon she was rattling away at top speed –  in italiano and al volante (at the wheel).  Being driven around by a local was, as always, a fascinating experience, the only downside of which was to make me dread even more the day I would have to pick up that rental car.

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Before we can enter the room where the cheese is made, we have to don special apparel for visitors – apron,  cap and blue booties.  All terribly flattering of course.

Since the workers were just getting set up, Sara began by showing us the cella frigorifera Up to 1,00 cheeses can be aged in the refrigerated ‘cell’ at a time.  The darker balls hanging along the back wall – caciocavallo – have been affumicati (ah-foo-me-cah-tea). Smoked.

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The ‘cell’.

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Some of the provolone were enormous, giving rise to several references in napoletano to various parts of male anatomy.  Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.

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Just a bit of rennet gets things going.

As with most cheeses, the basic process is fairly straightforward – heat milk, add starter, cool, drain, shape and age.   Sara shows us what gets things going – rennet – a mixture of enzymes that, when added to the heated milk, cause it to separate into curds (the solid part that will become cheese) and whey (the liquid that gets drained off.)

The heated milk is starting to separate.  The skill of the cheese-maker lies in knowing when each stage of the process is complete.

The heated milk starts to curdle.

The art of making the cheese, Sara tells us, lies in knowing exactly when each stage of the process is complete.

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After a while the cheese-maker decided, just by eye-balling the vat, as far as I could see, that it was time to lift the semi-solid curd out of the vat.

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The curd is cut into chunks and placed on a slanted surface to allow the whey to drain off.

Then came the delicate process of cooking the curds.  If you’ve ever cut into a mozzarella ball that was hard and rubbery in the middle, it’s probably because the curds weren’t cooked properly.

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The curds are put into a bowl of hot water.  Gradually that water is replaced with hotter and hotter water until eventually it reaches the boiling point.

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The cheese-maker, Sara’s uncle Luigi, had been quite talkative up to this point, but now he got very quiet, his attention focused on the curds – a goopy, tangled mess that reminded me of science projects we did in Elementary School.  As he massaged the goopy mess, as if by magic (which is what science always seemed to me), it slowly became  smoother and shinier and started to come together.

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Finally the cheese was cooked to his satisfaction.

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Now that the tricky part was over, he hammmed it up for us.

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Then he showed us how some of the most popular shapes are made, starting with a treccia (tray-chuh).

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Next, an anello (ring) – a popular shape for wedding receptions and fancy buffets.

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Next he tore off a small hunk of cheese and shaped it into a small ball – like a bocconcinoBocca means “mouth”.  Adding “ino” to a word turns it into a smaller version of itself, so a bocconcino is a “little mouthful”.  The he picked up a pair of scissors and started cutting into the little ball.

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Mozzarella gets its name from mozzare (mots-sah-ray) – to tear or cut.

As we watched the flower unfold, another mozzare word came to mind.  Mozzafiatomots-suh-fee-ah-toe.  Literally, ‘to cut off your breath’.  With all the spectacular scenery everywhere you look, you hear it a lot in this part of Italy.

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Now it’s our turn.  In Italy, a great deal of respect is still shown to the anziani (elderly), so the giovani (young people) respectfully insist that I go first.

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It’s not as easy as Luigi made it look.

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But I’ve done a bit of braiding in my days so, with a little help “pinching” the braid at the end, mine came out not too badly.

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Antonella’s came out quite nicely too.  Notice she’s not wearing a wedding ring.  It’s safely tucked where women have been tucking such things for centuries, so that it doesn’t go astray while she makes her braid.

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Even with Luigi’s help, Enrico’s was a bit of a dog’s breakfast.

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But it had been a lot of fun and one more tourist and two very much in love Italians were delighted to have learned a little bit more about their rich culinary heritage.

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To end our tour, Sara brought us each a plate with samples of the cheeses we’d seen.  And a flask of local red wine to wash it all down.  It was only 11 am, but I’d been up since dawn, so … Buon appetito!

A Piece of the Continent, Part II and the Problem with Capri

Today I’m off to Anacapri, ‘the village above Capri’.  I want to see what Villa San Michele looks like in the fall.  When I’d gone back to Villa Cimbrone and Villa Rufolo in Ravello a few days earlier, the gardens were beautiful, but, as I had suspected, not nearly as beautiful as they had been in spring ( Quando, Quando?,  Oct. 26 and Nov.2, 2014).

I wasn’t sure about Villa San Michele.  Apart from the pots of cineraria lining the path to the sphinx, there hadn’t been a lot of colour even in spring.  It might be one of those gardens where it doesn’t matter what time of year you visit.

The white structure above the church tower is part of Villa San Michele.

Above the church tower to the left, a stretch of the ‘Mamma mia road’. The white structure at the top is part of Villa San Michele.

Anacapri is 3 km from Capri (the town, not the island).  Officially, it’s a 10-minute bus ride from one to the other.

As I walked thorugh Pizza Umberto on my way to the bus stop I saw more tourists engaged in illegal activities.  Good thing they're not in Rome.

As I walked through Pizza Umberto on my way to the tiny bus terminal jammed into a small, flat area at the edge of town, I saw more tourists engaged in illegal activities. Good thing they’re not in Rome.

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The main bus stop in Anacapri.

Like the buses that go up and down the narrow, twisting road between Amalfi and Ravello, the buses to Anacapri are small.  Even when people cram into them – I’m constantly amazed at the way tourists, from countries where personal space bubbles are much larger, not only adapt to the local spatial norms, but often, to the consternation even of the locals, take them even further – but, as I was saying, even with people cramming into them, unless you’re there in the off-season, when almost all the hotels and restaurants are closed – I know, I went to Capri once in December – you can count on waiting for at least a couple of buses before you are anywhere near the front of the line.  As for the line itself…

In Italy 'line' is often more  'un'idea approssimitiva' than what you might be used to back home.

In Italy ‘line’ is often more ‘un’idea approssimitiva‘ than what you might be used to back home.

It was extraordinarily hot for mid-October.  Caldissimo.  (cal-dee-see-moh).  So instead of going straight to Villa San Michele, I headed for a gelateria I remembered from my last visit.

Some people warn against going back to places filled with wonderful memories.   You’ll be disappointed.  It won’t be as beautiful as you remember it.  But so far, that has not been my experience in Italy.  Al contrario.  Walking along the narrow alleys of Anacapri, past white-washed villas and one of a kind shops was as delightful as I remembered. (Una Passeggiata a Capri, Feb. 16, 2014)

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Thunbergia laurifolia aka Blue Trumpet Vine. Exotic beauty or invasive pest, depending on where it’s growing.

The wall in front of one of the villas was covered – and I mean covered – with this stunning purple vine. My guess was that it belonged to the orchid family, but after spending quite a bit of time and getting nowhere searching for ‘purple-flowered vine’ on the internet , I got in touch with a friend who had spent many years in South Africa.  I should have gone straight to her.  She recognized it right away. Apparently it was quite common where she lived.  Maybe too common.  It’s the old story of what can happen when we start moving plants around the globe.

Knowing that local gardeners would go crazy for its gorgeous blooms, growers took it to Australia.  But the plant soon escaped from the lovingly manicured gardens and with none of the plants in its native habitat to keep it in check, has since become more beast than beauty.  As if on some kind of horticultural rampage, it has climbed up over the natural vegetation, smothering and eventually killing whatever plants get left behind in the shade, and the sheer weight of the vine can pull down mature trees.

According to the Australian Department of the Environment it has become a major threat to Australia’s Wet Tropics.  The efforts they are taking to eradicate it sound like a modern version of Sisyphus.  “In dense infestations, injecting the tubers is not practical as they are numerous and large, often the size of a 4WD vehicle.”

Fortunately, on dry, rocky Capri, there is no danger of it getting out of control. Of course, I knew nothing of this at the time and thought it was quite lovely.

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Santa Sofia.

How do they walk in those heels?

How do they walk in those heels?

I was partway through my gelato when two young women came walking down the lane.  The clothes and the direction they were walking – towards Santa Sofia – could mean only one thing.  I grabbed my camera, quickly took this photo (I know, it’s out of focus – one of the downsides of always putting one’s camera safely back in its bag when food is around)  and hurried back to Piazza Santa Sofia.

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I arrived just in time to catch the last guests before they entered the church.

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A  few minutes later…

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A bystander had just wished the rather nervous-looking bride, Auguri (ow-goo-ree).

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Apart from one time in Lecce, when the church doors were firmly closed after the bride entered, the public is free to watch the ceremony.

Time to head for Villa San Michele on the other end of the village.

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As if time had stood still, the same shoe-maker is at the same little table, making Capri’s famous sandali.

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How do people ever choose when there are so many options?

After my previous visit (Yearning for Light, Feb. 23, 2014), I had read Azel Munthe’s memoir, ‘The Story of San Michele’, and discovered that I had been so taken with the views, I had missed an entire section of the garden.

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From down here, even having already walked by those columns, it was still hard to imagine the views.

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The villa was unchanged, although I noticed that I had also missed a few statues.

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Roba di Timberio.

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I suppose archeologists have a fit when they see things like this, but what a great way to display little bits of antiquity. Besides, at least Dr. Munthe saved them from being into the sea with the rest of Tiberius’ ‘stuff.’

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The shade seemed deeper than before – a welcome relief on this crazily hot day.

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Perseus still sits pondering, but there were no colourful pots along the walkway beyond.

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Please do not tromp all over the grass or pick the flowers.

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Now here’s a nice planter for your papyrus – an ancient Roman sarcophagus.

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I only found out what this is recently, when I was learning the script to take tours through the tropical greenhouses of Allan Gardens. It’s a banana flower.   After a while it will wither and drop off and the bananas will keep on growing.

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A Renaissance-inspired cypress avenue.

I made sure I visited every nook and cranny of the garden.  In the end I came to the view that, unlike any other garden I have visited – except for Sacro Bosco in Tuscany, a strange Mannerist garden – the time of year doesn’t really matter for Villa San Michele.

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An Egyptian and an Etruscan sphinx. Puzzles upon puzzles.

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The sphinx. Enigmatic, no matter what time of year.

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The sphinx’s view. As breath-taking as ever.

Even though I’d already ‘been there, done that’, I couldn’t imagine leaving Anacapri without going up to the top of Monte Solaro.

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The ride up was not quite as unnerving the second time.

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I had carefully timed my visit up the mountain for the late afternoon, so that the sun would be at my back, where it’s supposed to be for photos, instead of right in front of me, as it had been when I had gone up first thing in the morning on my previous trip.  I was hoping to get some really nice shots of the Faraglioni, rising from the constantly changing blues of the sea, dramatically set off against the blues of the sky by a clearly defined horizon.

What I hadn’t counted on was  foschia (fos-key-uh) – haze – from all the unseasonably warm temperatures.

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So instead of being elated, I was disappointed when I got to the top and could barely make out the mainland – a mere 3 kilometres away – let alone the horizon.  Actually I was annoyed, and since that was obviously a totally inappropriate reaction, given the glorious weather I’d enjoyed throughout my entire trip, I was on the verge of a real funk.  Then I overheard a young American tourist say something to her friend that put everything back in its proper perspective: ‘I don’t know.  Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve seen so many, I’m having a hard time, it’s just another beautiful view.’

And that is the ‘problem’ with Capri.  By the time you get here, presumably after having spent some time on the Amalfi Coast, you have seen so many breathtakingly beautiful views, you run the risk of becoming overwhelmed – like Stendhal in Florence – and unable to take in any more beauty.

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It wasn’t the perfect view I had hoped for, with the sea and the sky tidily separated by a clear, unambiguous horizon.  Maybe it was something more.

 

 

A Piece of the Continent – Part I

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 easter Faraglione, one of two rocks which over time have become the symbol of Capri.

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’.

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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.

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.

Unlike the Marina Grande in Sorrento, the one in Capri really is grande.

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 villa builders in more modern times still manage to find some pretty good 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.

Augustus and Tiberius may have taken up the island's prime locations, but with all those craggy outcrops, villa builders in more modern times have still managed to find perfectly acceptable sites for their refuges.  The villa of nick-named Il Ferro (The Iron) by locals not enamoured of the style.

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.

..but unlike Sorrento's harbour, this one really is grande, just the place for enormous ferries to dock and unload the hordes of tourists that invade the island every day.

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.

Arriving for the first time on your own is xxxx

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.

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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 was as crowded as ever.

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.

The police in Rome vigilantly enforce the prohibition against sitting and eating on the Spanish Steps, but evidently their  counterparts in Capri take a more laid back approach.

According to a plaque next to the steps in Piazza Umberto, a similar law had been passed even earlier in Capri.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Paradoxically, the views from the little terrace of this simple hotel were absolutely wonderful.

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And as promised, the hotel really was just a few minutes walk to the Gardens of Augustus…

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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.

One of my favourite views - The Faraglioni viewed from the Giardini di Augustus.

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.

We leave the Marina Grande and head east.

Leaving the Marina Grande and heading east…

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…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.

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.

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This young couple gets ready to kiss – for buona fortuna –  as we pass under the arch in one of the Faraglioni.

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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.

Via Krupp from the terrace of Augustus' Garden.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Marina Piccola, the only section along the south shore where the cliffs don’t drop precipitously into the sea.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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It’s hard to spend any time on the island without coming across some serious bling.

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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.

this woman and I may have been the only people to enter the store and leave empty-handed in a long time.

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.

and the stores surrounding la Piazzetta ...

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.

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A waiter and an elegant signora.

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Four young guys having a chat.

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But wait! One of them is a cop.

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There was something terribly intriguing about this fellow.

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He went back and forth, visiting with friends seated at the various caffès lining the piazza.

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I took this elderly man for a widow, who’d come out to the piazza to read his paper for a bit of company.

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A few minutes later, a group of well-dressed signore arrived, one of whom was his very much still alive wife.

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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.

TBC