Captured by Capri

by Stephen Smith
Special to

Capri, ITALY - Is there any place on earth that better evokes the spirit of La Dolce Vita than the mere whisper of Capri?

The first time I dreamed of Capri, a bikinied Brigitte Bardot was sunbathing on the rooftop of the villa Curzio Malaparte in Godard’s film, Le Mépris. The movie star like the place was impossible to forget. Yet since that day of my movie gawking adolescence it has taken me more than 30 years to get here.

Capri touts itself as the most beautiful island in the world and it is hard to dispute. Drenched in the Mediterranean sun, this rocky mythical isle, dedicated to Eros, lies just 17 miles off the Amalfi coast. It has always been a refuge for the rich and famous, the artists and writers not to mention a Roman Emperor or two.

Arriving in the early morning from Sorrento, Capri’s harbour is splayed open in dappled light after a dark dawn. Set between the bosoms of two mountain ridges, Marina Grande, the island’s main marina, cradles the small fishing boats that bob in the morning wakes set off by the ferry unloading supplies and day trippers from nearby Naples.

From here you can hire a guide for touring the rugged coastline and the soaring Faraglioni rocks up close. And if the sea is calm and your guide turns a blind eye, you might even take a swim in the Blue Grotto and immerse in the diffused light which bathes the cavity in a sublime chromatic blue.

The grotto is Capri’s most famous attraction that still inspires superstitions of witches and sea monsters and tales of Roman orgies. But to fully appreciate its serenity and magic, you must arrive early morning when the light is perfect and before the traffic jam of tourist boats clog the cave’s entrance.

Capri has always loomed larger in the imagination than the 11 square kilometres it occupies. In the 50’s and 60’s the place was synonymous with celebrities and jet-setters who had found their Mecca. And now, every new generation of stars eventually will make a pilgrimage here, not for the seclusion which is found easier elsewhere, but as a writ of passage.

On Capri there is continuity. The yachts still moor off the Marina Piccola, the boutiques still sell mind numbingly expensive fashions from Italy’s top designers, and the celebrities still cause a stir strolling along “La Piazzetta” sporting monster sunglasses with their entourage and paparazzi in tow. And all the proprietors of the shops and restaurants perpetuate the play with walls dedicated to photos of their famous patrons.

For island commuting public buses are available but if your pockets are deep splurge for a ride on the famous candy coloured taxis which are just thin enough to navigate the narrow switchbacks with most times inches to spare. There’s also an antique funicular inaugurated in 1906 that arduously ascends from its base, the Marina Grande to the bustling Piazza Umberto in the heart of the old town.

Despite the rocky inclines if you are fit the island is easy to navigate on foot. I set out on route to Villa Jovis which crowns the isle’s most eastern tip. The path along the Via Tiberio snakes past private mountain side villas whimsically named after lovers and romantic notions. As you ascend each villa is more luxurious than the last. Most are defined by decorative iron gates strangled by wisteria and high perimeter walls holding back lush manicured gardens and prying eyes. I wonder at the lives lived here.

In reverie, I imagine after my morning swim I'd be busy with dinner arrangements and exchanging the latest island gossip between sips of iced Lemoncella with my friends, Garbo, Stravinsky, Alexander Dumas, Graham Greene and Sofia Loren, or maybe Valentino and Puffy with a posse of supermodels and the latest "it" girl who just happen to drop by that very afternoon.

By the time I cleared the last enclave of villas, the mountain peek appeared beyond a proscenium path of trees leading to Emperor Tiberius’ getaway, the Villa Jovis. So loved was this place that Tiberius never left. He even managed much of the affairs of the Roman Empire from here and built many monumental villas on the island, the largest being Villa Jovis at over 7,000 square metres.

From atop the sprawling ruins I take in the panoramic vista of the island’s outline that abruptly falls from rock to sea. At my feet the villa’s floor plan unfolds, dissected like an architect’s model. Chambers of aqueducts, thermal baths, reservoirs, kitchen and the imperial quarters are hauntingly exposed.

It was here that Tiberius spent his retirement "Golden exile" years trying to tame the wild adolescent Caligula. And doubting that all the gruesome stories told about this place are apocryphal, I find it impossible to overlook the towering cliffs (335 metres) known as the Tiberius Leap, and not imagine Caligula filled with orgasmic delight as slaves and sexual conquests were thrown into the sea below.

Surrounded by the sheer beauty of the landscape it is impossible not to get lost in fantasy. Where the skyscraper Faraglioni rocks dramatically plunge into the bluest of seas, where the serpentine paths are canopied with blossoming cactus, where lemons the size of cantaloupes burden the ornamental orchards, where perfumed gardens are caressed by winds from North Africa and mélange with the bitter brine of the sea. Who would not dream of running away to such a place?

Of the thousands of tourists who visit annually how many briefly imagine running away to this paradise isle forever? I did. But like the tragic Thomas Wilson in Somerset Maugham's "The Lotus Eater," these kinds of fanciful dreams can only be realized by Roman Emperors and movie stars.


photo: Stephen Smith

Getting There:

Capri is serviced by ferry and hydrofoil from either Naples or Sorrento. From Naples you can board from the port at Mergellina or Molo Beverello. The trip by ferry from Naples costs 4.54 EUR per passenger and takes approximately 80 minutes, the hydrofoil cost 11. EUR and takes only 40 minutes.

From Sorrento the ferry cost 5.68 EUR and takes around 40 minutes, while the hydrofoil takes only 20 minutes and costs 8.50 EUR.

VILLA JOVIS - admission 2. EUR


CAPRI - Piazza Umberto I - Tel: 39 081 8370686
MARINA GRANDE - Banchina del Porto - Tel: 39 081 8370634
ANACAPRI - Via G. Orlandi, 59 - Tel: 39 081 8371524

For more information on Capri contact:

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