September is one of my favourite shoulders. The travel season kind of shoulders that is. The only downside, compared to May, the other shoulder, are the shorter days. By the time my daughter and I got back to Capri the sun was already beginning to set. Happily, the fewer hours of daylight are compensated by an earlier aperitivo hour. But before settling down in the Piazzetta, the social hub and only real piazza in the village, to what quickly became our evening drinks of choice – Aperol for my daughter and a glass of white wine, sometimes Prosecco for me – there were two things I wanted to show her. There was a good view of both of them from the Garden of Augustus, a 10-minute walk. We made it just before the gates closed.
Off the south-east coast of the island are three rocks. Iconic is a much abused word I generally avoid, but these rocks really are icons. They’re the official symbol of Capri and decorate the tickets for the island’s public transit.
The rocks are called I Faraglioni. Faro means lighthouse. The other letters turn them into big lighthouses. (By the way, this is another one of those ‘DO NOT PRONOUNCE THE G’ words. It’s fah-ral-yoh-nee.)
By the railing at the far end of the garden is an overhead and, for some of us at least, butterflies-inducing view of the Via Krupp. (By the way if some of this post sounds familiar you may have read the post from my previous visit – A Piece of the Continent – Part I, Jan. 4, 2015. Hopefully the revisit is as fresh for you as it is for me.)
The next morning we set off for un giro (gee-roh) in barca. A boat ride around the island.
As we headed west along the north shore a stretch of the road up to Anacapri came into sight. Locals affectionately – or maybe not – call it the ‘Mamma mia!’ road. On our way up later that day the young woman in front of us crossed herself every time we made it past one of the heart-stopping, hairpin turns.
I was surprised when we started heading west, since on the previous two boat trips I’d taken we had headed east from the harbour, but the reason for the change in direction soon became apparent. Unbeknownst to me – the manager at the B&B we were staying in had made the arrangements for us – this giro in barca included a visit inside another of Capri’s icons – la Grotta Azzurra. The Blue Grotto. As my daughter and I knew from a trip to Capri years ago, the otherwise rhapsodic website is totally accurate about the ‘few magical moments’ visitors will enjoy inside the cave. And since the sea was calm, I knew there was no chance the grotto would be closed. (The opening to the cave is less than a metre high, making entering extremely dangerous when the sea is at all mosso – literally, moved.) As we rounded the bay and the grotto came into sight my heart sank. Despite the early hour, there was already a long line-up of boats, as well as people (who would have come by bus) on the staircase waiting for their turn in the little row boats.
As our captain inched our boat closer to the grotto entrance, things looked even worse. My hope (delusion?) that none of the people on our boat would want to go into the grotto was short-lived. When the captain asked if anyone was interested, at least half the passengers raised their hands. I wasn’t at all happy about the thought of wasting some of our precious time on the island, twiddling our thumbs while all those people had their few magical moments.
However, I have to admit, that with all the antics, the time – we ended up sitting there for well over an hour – passed surprisingly quickly. Apart from watching how close the boats could get without hitting each other, there were other distractions, like Mr. Numero 1, the cool dude who pulled his ultra luxury craft next to ours and proceeded to ogle my daughter. (She and I were the only ones at the back of the boat and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t leering at me.)
After a while I noticed something. One of the fellows rowed his boat around a lot, but he never seemed to pick up any passengers. I pointed him out to my daughter and we started to watch him more closely.
Eventually we figured it out. He was the Vigile! Vee-gee-lay. The traffic cop.
It was one of those times I wished I had a better camera and could have taken a video. I don’t understand napoletano, the local dialect here as on Ischia, but the gestures were pretty self-explanatory. He got really agitated when one fellow with a huge barge of a boat tried to cut in.
Finally everyone was back on board and we set out again. A few minutes later we rounded the north-west tip of the island, Punta Carena, where a real faro has been guiding the way since the late 1860’s. Every three seconds it sends out a white flash with a range of 25 nautical miles, which is why, although it is clearly on terra firma, in the mysterious ways of seafarers, it is considered an ‘offshore’ lighthouse.
In 29 B.C., while returning from a trip to the Far East, Cesare Ottaviano disembarked on Capri. The future Emperor Augustus was so enchanted with the island, which had been under the rule of Naples for three centuries, that he swapped it for the larger and more fertile island of island of Ischia.
There are three ‘lighthouses’ – Stella (Star), the highest at over 100 metres and the only one still attached to the island, il Faraglione di Mezzo (Middle Lighthouse), perhaps the best-loved, and Il Faraglione di Fuori, (The Outside Lighthouse) which, despite its prosaic name, is the only place in the world where the spectacular lucertola azzurra – blue lizard (‘Podarcis sicula coerula’ for the initiated) – is found.
The same wave action that has eroded the rock, cutting the ‘stacks’ as geologists call them, off from the island, has also created a tunnel at the base of the Faraglione di Mezzo. When the sea is calm, astute captains, perhaps looking to increase tips, drive their boats through the Galleria dell’Amore.
By the time we got back to the marina we were famished. We made our way to a simple trattoria I had discovered on a previous trip. Since we were on the island it came from, I suggested we start with an insalata caprese. My daughter is a bit of a foodie so I was surprised to learn she didn’t know that caprese meant ‘of Capri’. One of the blindspots, I’ve discovered, of learning another language is that you sometimes lose sight of what you didn’t used to know.
Like so many of Italy’s sites and dishes, the origins of the humble salad are surrounded with legends and urban lore. The most likely theory is set in the secondo dopoguerra, the period of hardship and extreme poverty following the second World War, and involves one of the island’s stone masons. Extremely patriotic, he took the colours of the Italian flag and made a simple sandwich of them – tomatoes for the red, mozzarella (preferably mozzarella di bufala from the region) for the white and fresh basil leaves for the green.
Next – when going down is a lot harder than going up