After Ischia we were going on to its much more famous and glitzier neighbour, Capri. Wonderful! So why weren’t we bursting with excitement as we gathered up our things the morning of our departure? After a great deal of not very organized thought and a lot of useless rummaging through my books for one that I vaguely recall sheds some light on this, the only thing I can come up with is that there is something wrong with the currently popular maxim that the only source of true happiness is to live in the moment. Do these people not go to the dentist? Or shovel snow on a bitterly cold night? What about laundry and dirty dishes? The thing is, we had grown very fond of our castle home and in the moment did not want to leave. (This is the type of ‘champagne problems’ you’re up against when you travel.) In any event our spirits lifted when we saw the taxi the hotel had arranged to take us to the ferry.
The driver – and obviously proud owner – needed little encouragement to tell us all about La Bambola, who at 45 years old, was the last of its kind on the island. They had stopped making them 30 years ago. ‘Come la mantiene?‘ How do you keep her in working condition? I asked, taking care to use the female pronoun as he did. ‘Con grande cura‘, he replied. And regular visits ‘dal meccanico‘ (to the mechanic’s). I know nothing about what goes on under the hood so cannot comment on the inner workings of the Bambola, but it was clear that like all Grandes Dames a great deal of attention had been lavished on the face she showed the world. The interior was in perfect condition. Ah, he said, it was also important to keep up appearances. After all, when she wasn’t taking visitors to the harbour, she was engaged for weddings and other momentous occasions.
He also told us about driving mules and donkeys laden with wine-filled barrels or wood in the winter when the mountains roads were impassible. He was the only one on the island who still did this kind of work, which he went on to explain, not as if it were a hardship, but a simple statement of fact, required una grande passione. There is a lot of talk these days about how we need – as in NEED – to pursue our passion. As if it were a moral duty. But here was someone who had fallen into more than pursued his passion. He had grown up driving mule carts. It was what his family had done for generations. And during the short Ischia tourist season he occasionally drove another kind of cart, which although motorized and much more comfortable than a mule-driven cart would have been, struck us as just as fanciful.
When we got to the harbour he pulled out an envelope full of old photos. There he was! A Greek hero astride a noble steed in a procession. And there again, atop an elegant carriage all dressed up in the livery of an 18th century carriage driver. He had been in two movies so far. I was dying to ask if I could take photos of his photos. But something held me back. Instead I asked him how he got the roles. ‘Per lei‘, he said, gently patting the steering wheel. Because of her.
My daughter told me later she felt as if she were in a movie. It wasn’t just the whimsical Bambola. There was something about the driver. In spite of the many hardships he undoubtedly encountered, and from what I could tell, without any of the standard trappings of wealth, (it was a 15 euro ride), power or fame (ok, there was a bit of that, but I certainly had ever seen, let alone heard of the movies he appeared in) he had an aura about him of a truly happy person.
Things were as chaotic as always along the narrow quay and the tour groups disgorged from the ferry quickly created a bottleneck at the entrance to the funivia, the little train that would take us up the mountainside to Capri village where our hotel was. (The other village on the island is called Anacapri. It is all very confusing. I wrote about it in Una Passeggiata a Capri, Feb. 16, 2014). In any event, in no time at all we were climbing the stairs at the funivia exit in Capri – the village – and within a half hour of landing on Capri – the island – we were on the path to Villa Jovis.
With all the Bougainvillea and other lush blooms along the path it felt like a mid-summer day.
But in the minuscule vineyards along the path the grapes were ripe and the leaves had started to turn.
And then we came to a bizarre, but unmistakable sign of fall.
By the time we came to the patch of Amaryllis, which as I’d seen on previous trips to the region, is a fall bloomer in this part of the world, there could be no doubt. Close by we passed a woman with an armload of the pink beauties. ‘Belladonna‘, she said, when she saw us admiring them. I was puzzled. The only ‘Belladonna’ I knew was ‘Deadly Nightshade’, a rather plain, shrubby plant with a dull mauve flower, whose only remarkable feature is that all parts are highly toxic. Something the ancient Romans obviously knew all about, if we believe the rumours about how the wives of at least two emperors (Augustus and Claudius) used it to get rid of unwanted family members.
As usual a bit of meandering around the Internet solved the puzzle. In the largely unfathomable hierarchy that botanists have organized the plant world, what we had here was Amaryllis belladonna. Amaryllis being the genus and belladonna (beautiful woman) the species. However, as I read on, I discovered a weirdly pleasant twist. I had correctly identified the plant but how I got there was all wrong. Apart from the fact that they were growing more or less wild and blooming in the fall, the plants in the garden on Capri looked exactly like the Amaryllis that start appearing in stores back home, often as boxed bulbs that we pot up in November in hopes they will bloom in time for Christmas. Same stem, same flower shape. But, as it turns out the indoor, winter blooming plants are not, botanically speaking, Amaryllis. They are a cultivar of the genus Hippeastrum. So why do we all call them Amaryllis? It turns out that for a long time the botanists themselves weren’t sure and while they spent years arguing over what exactly it was, the rest of us continued along our merry, botanically incorrect way and called it Amaryllis.
It was a long, steep climb up to Villa Jovis, one of twelve sumptuous villas Tiberius built for his personal enjoyment on the island.
Going down was easier. Marginally. Who knew the muscles we use for going up aren’t the same ones we use going down? Mercifully by now it was l’ora di pranzo. On my last trip to Villa Jovis I had eaten at a lovely, simple trattoria. You could eat inside or along the path on a narrow terrace opposite the main building. There was no question where we were going to eat. The food was delicious and the procession of people along the path endlessly fascinating. Locals on their way home for the midday meal – school children, the younger ones still accompanied by their parents, signore with their shopping bags full; big, muscled delivery men squished into the impossibly small vans that are the only means of transporting goods in many parts of the island – and tourists on their way up to Villa Jovis. I for one was glad it was all downhill for us from here on.
Next – You call this a path?!