Capri, island heaven
Get used to sighing, because that’s mostly what you’ll do on Capri. If your idea of island heaven includes green hillsides dotted with white villas, mountains that rear vertiginously from the sea, knotted lanes threaded with flames of bougainvillea and a history that blends Hollywood, Victorian royalty and ancient Rome, then Capri will do nicely.
Set like the dot off the exclamation point of the Sorrento Peninsula, Capri is tiny. Just six kilometres from end to end and less than three across, yet its seductive powers are obvious from the moment your hydrofoil berths at the Marina Grande and the funicular whisks you up the hill to Capri town.
The town is charm itself – a compact arrangement of squares, alleyways, cubist houses and domed churches squeezed onto a narrow balcony with grey cliffs on one side and the sea on the other. Even the Roman emperors were seduced. It was one of the earliest, Augustus, who started the craze for Capri, building several villas on the island, and it’s been attracting the beau monde ever since. Yet it was his successor, Tiberius, who really set the tone for the island, conducting wild orgies and hurling disagreeable acquaintances from Salto di Tiberio, the high point of his astonishing Villa Jovis – Jupiter’s Villa – which remains one of the island’s highlights. For many centuries afterward, the name Capri was associated with movie stars, divorce, and European aristocrats in pursuit of risque pleasures.
What lured them is not the standard hothouse pleasures. Capri breaks most of the conceptions of what constitutes a Mediterranean island. You can swim at Bagno di Tiberio, a small islet west of Marina Grande, and a rocky cove at Marina Piccola, as well as any number of places around the island that are accessible only by boat, but none of them these places really deserve the accolade of “beach”. You do not go to Capri merely to laze around in the sun. Its appeal is chiefly aesthetic. Capri exercises a powerful hold over the artistic imagination, and has done since the time of the ancient Greeks. After all, this was the mythic home of The Sirens, who sang sailors to their deaths on its barbed rocks, and who had their pick of Homeric real estate. cathedral. Debussy wrote a serenade to Capri. One of the best of the 600-plus books that have been written about Capri is The Story of San Michele
One Caprese experience you will not escape is the Blue Grotto, the Grotta Azzurra, a sea cave in which the only light comes from the narrow entrance and reflects off the walls, giving the water and the white sandy bottom a silvery, opalescent shine. The reality is far beyond words. Floating on the surface, the small rowing boats that are the only craft that can enter the cave are weirdly lit from below, suspended on the ethereal glow that emanates from the floor of the cave.
For me though, the real pleasures of Capri are quieter ones. Long walks in scented sunshine along roads edged with prickly pear, lunches of grilled calamari and afternoons over espresso and limoncello, the bitter-sweet aperitif that captures the flavours of lemons and sunshine in a bottle.