Capri, Italy. The Best Place on Earth!
Lunatics of Rome
Music: Be Careful What You Wish For, Bad Omens
Movie: L’imperatore di Capri (The Emperor of Capri)
Book: The Story of San Michele, Axel Munthe
Capri’s shape is blurry, and my face is frozen. The wind and salty droplets splash me relentlessly. Maybe boarding the traghetto so early in the morning was not the most brilliant idea. But I did it nonetheless because it would give me an entire day on the island.
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As the port of Naples is shrinking behind, my eyes are squinting longingly forward, glued to the familiar blue shape rising from the greyish sea at this early hour. I am becoming acutely aware of how much I’m yearning for this particular island. Capri, here I come again!
The traghetto finally docks in Marina Grande; I’m thankful to feel firm ground under my feet. One could say I should be used to the rocking of a boat after working so many years on cruise ships. This small boat though was more jumping on top of the waves rather than gliding through them. So did my stomach!
Thank goodness for a sunny start to the day! The life-giving star slowly thaws my body and brings back my senses. All of the senses! For Capri smells blue and looks intoxicating!
The bus takes us to Capri Town. I let the tour guide know that I would like to explore the town by myself and re-join the group before boarding the bus to Anacapri.
I’ve been here many times before; the island is mine to explore how I like. This time, I’m covetous, and I’m not sharing it with the lovely Americans from the cruise ship!
I have a goal: Giardini di Augusto (Augustus Gardens). So, I start my long uphill walk at a brisk pace. A few minutes on, I’m grateful for the coolness of the early morning. A hike at this speed is demanding even for a fit person.
I don’t stop at all until I reach my chosen destination. I swallow greedily the incredible coastal scenery, the steep drop to the azure abyss.
Next to the green Capri, two tiny rocky islands are peering from the hazy sea. Via Matteotti is sprinkled with gorgeous villas and chic hotels emerging from oases of olive trees and cypresses. The diversity of vegetation is something else in Capri. I’m half intoxicated by the fragrant citrus, rosemary, cypress and the entire plant life on this island!
Ingresso, finally! I’m out of breath, having jogged for the last part of the way up here! I buy my one Euro access ticket, and I step into a fairyland of colour, fantastic fragrance and art scattered all around the terraces of this beautiful botanical garden. A symphony of beauty created by nature with a bit of help from humans takes over all my senses and rewards my effort to get there.
I look down at the windy paved Via Krupp that leads to Marina Piccola wishing I had more time to afford a quick swim. No such luxury. A tourist’s life is a hustle! In my case, a hustle job I love.
There is one more thing I would like to do before re-joining my group: visit Villa Jovis or rather the ruins of it.
Her famous (and infamous) owner is two millennia dead; his tyrannical presence on this peaceful island had faded to some extent. It will never be erased from humankind’s collective memory, for the history books tell about his cunning, cruel, devious, and deviant ways. I’ll get there in a minute.
I’m rushing to take as many pictures as possible, many mental ones. I also want to impregnate this fragrance in my brains and carry it with me when I’m far from the island.
With regret, I leave these astounding gardens. I mentally thank the great emperor Augustus for finding time to set foot on this island two millennia ago amid turning a republic into an empire. I also make a mental note to re-read a book I came across a few years back: Augustus, by Pat Southern.
With a map of Capri in hand, I’m aiming for Via Tiberio. I’m on another brisk mile-long walk in under fifteen minutes and, of course, uphill again. On the way, I pass by Parco Astarita, another intoxicating symphony of sonic blue and green, more breathtaking views of the sea and Sorrento Peninsula.
One last stride and I’m facing the ruins of the imperial palace of the first in a line of notorious lunatics who ruled the world from Rome. At least, this is how authors of antiquity preserved his memory.
Only that this one, Tiberio Claudius Nero, allegedly messed up by drugs, alcohol and a pathological fear of being assassinated, gave up the world he ruled for a tiny island he was going to change forever. To this day, the inhabitants think poorly about him. The unimaginable cruelty the locals endured in the decade he spent in Capri is still indelible from memory.
I will only briefly mention his abominable debauchery and deviant orgies involving girls, boys, even babies. If you want to know more about it, read The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius Tranquillus. It will scare the life out of you!
Imagine you were the tenth child of a poor farmer who lived in Capri two thousand years ago. And a psycho with absolute power was building a palace next to your father’s farmland!
The man who was denied love over family interests and state politics (source: Augustus, by Pat Southern) might have just turned into a degenerate perverted sociopath once he held the reins of the greatest empire known on earth. Power does change people. What else could have inspired such horrible chronicles?
Of course, there is a debate that Suetonius was not even contemporary with the emperor and based his histories on gossip. I believe that there is never smoke without fire. You believe what you want! Roman brutality is common knowledge.
Apprehension takes over me. I wanted to see the ruins, but in the end, I decided against buying a ticket. I sense an almost palpable negative energy in the air. As if the spirits of the lunatics of Rome were still lurking among these ruins. It surely deferred me from my initial intention!
Now, this is new to me! I would typically go to any place with a historical value, whether it was an execution place haunted by undaunted spirits or a crumbly wedding altar. I would vividly imagine life in times of glory.
Not here, though. The thought of abused innocent babies is enough to make me take the way back to Capri Town. Enough Roman history for the time being. I’ll trade it anytime with the stunning scenery or anything else that could obliterate from my memory the lines in Suetonius’s book.
By all means, visit the place; it is part of the islands’ legacy and contributes to its tourism! I’m just saying it’s not for me. After all, what’s left of the once-magnificent Villa Jovis is now just a pile of bricks and stones. Ancient bricks and stones!
I made an effort to walk all the way here only to turn back at the entrance gate. Why had I read the damned book? Ignorance is bliss! However, my intuition is always correct, and I have learnt not to ignore it.
The walk back to Capri Town is way more enjoyable, and I often stop to take it in wholly. Festina lente, good old Augustus liked to say and right he was. Make hurry slowly!
The “Blue Fever” (“la febre azzurra”, as the Actor calls it) takes over me.
God must be a lousy football player. He must have kicked with the ball a giant bucket of lapis lazuli that stained this corner of the world with the most beautiful hues. The Blue Grotto waters are sprinkled with blue pigment, and the air of Capri is too.
Everywhere I look, over or through a church bell tower, treetops, parks and gardens, villas, and their adjacent gardens, the blue of heavens glows undisturbed by a single cloud. Everywhere!
“Vedi, Sonia? Siamo a Capri. L’isola del sogno. L’isola dell’amore!” (See, Sonia? We are in Capri. The island of dreams and love!”) said the waiter dreaming he’s an emperor. I’m talking about the black and white Italian classic I saw ages ago.
The movie comes back to memory, the beauty of the place amplified by the ability to see the colours, to smell the island’s medley of olive trees, cypresses, lemon and orange trees or rosemary bushes or hear it singing with mighty waves breaking into the cliffs, cicadas or birdsong. It is not the siren’s song, but it is just as alluring.
“The magic of Capri is eternal, no doubt born in the times of the Gods, for who else could have conceived of such a place that emperors, kings and queens have found it to be their Shangri-La,” says Suetonius. “With the island at your feet, it is said that the mystical views from here are a vision of paradise below, like an azure dream woven of light and mist where the profoundest of calm and silence reigns.” (The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Complete by C. Suetonius Tranquillus).
Nobody could ever contradict the wise historian of antiquity. I re-read the book later and cited from it; it’s not from memory!
I’m back under the freestanding clock tower of Piazza Umberto I (better known as La Piazzetta) to join the American cruisers and lovely Antonia, the tour guide, just in time for lunch. I am pleasantly surprised that the tour operator chose this hotspot for lunch. I mean this is the heart of Capri. Everybody who’s anybody and commoners alike stops here for at least a cappuccino.
On a previous visit, I paid six euros for a small gelato. The primary revenue of the island is tourism, hence the top dollar. You will pay three times the price for ice cream but might sit at the same table where Leonardo DiCaprio had dinner a couple of months ago. It pays the price!
Funny how famous derrières have the incredible power to sanctify a place fiscally. Only Sapiens!
The lunch in the small restaurant was delicious. I had ravioli (divine!), a mouth-melting torta Caprese served with a dollop of gelato alla vaniglia and a glass of iced limoncello. The AC coolness appeasing the midday heat was much appreciated too.
Now we’re ready for the second part of the tour. A lady from the ship asks me what’s to see in Anacapri. I happily obliged: “You must visit Villa San Michele; you will love it!”
To me, Anacapri is way more fascinating than Capri; I’ll explain later why. The lady doesn’t seem impressed by my enthusiasm, though. She wants to know if there are more shops. Of course, plenty. And Villa San Michele, I mention for the second time. My fervour still doesn’t impress her. I understand; she doesn’t know yet!
We finally board the bus to Anacapri. Winding roads, hardly any traffic on Via Provinciale Anacapri, and we stop in Piazza Vittoria. From there, it is only a short walk to Villa San Michele. My favourite place on the island. My favourite place in the entire world, even before the fabulous Barcelona!
The best book I read during high school, The Story of San Michele, comes back to life as I step into the white villa and walk around the gardens suspended on the clifftop.
Axel Munthe has put considerable effort and time into building this place. It is something I appreciate hugely! That’s why my eyes caress every stone in the courtyard, every object inside, every pot in the garden.
The fascination of this island throughout history is never lost on me! Talking about Villa San Michele is pointless if you cannot see it for yourself. So go and see it!
Like the author in his youth, I wish I had enough money to buy this place, complete with its Egyptian sphinx recovered from Nero’s villa in Campania and never leave it! A man dreamt of my dream in another century. The good doctor built this place, lived here and granted it to you and me to see and enjoy.
If your imagination is as vivid as mine, you can surely spot Billy, the mischievous alcoholic baboon, hanging about the fig tree. Or see old Pacciale digging up Roman relics “not worth a baiocco” in the vineyard.
Back in Piazza Victoria, the guide encourages us to stroll around or take the chairlift to Monte Solaro.
I’m on my way to buy a seggiovia ticket. Not many follow me. I get comfortable on my chair and enjoy the journey over the local’s beautiful villas and gardens. I am mindful not to drop my shoes. Le scarpe are not cheap on the island either, albeit beautiful.
I greet in fluent Italian a few cheerful locals working their allotments as the chair lift gets closer to Monte Solaro. A few excited tourists climbing down tell me it’s so beautiful, they are sorry to take the trip back down. I know I’ll feel the same.
On the stone-paved platform, I enjoy a 360-degree view greedily. The Bay of Naples, the Vesuvius, the Amalfi Coast, and the infinite Tyrrhenian Sea are all bathed in a myriad of blue shades on the horizon. From the top of the island, the vista is more breathtaking, if that’s even possible. The gods made use of their most fabulous architectural skills when they created this place.
I salute a handless marble Augustus gazing protectively over the Bay of Naples. I allow time for a cappuccino on the terrace. My mind drifts again to the movie while I enjoy the blue silence of the place.
La febre azzurra! Perhaps the Actor was right to call it so. “Comme tutto e bello e poetico qui, Antonio!” the elated Actor told his friend. Indeed, everything is beautiful and poetic here. And he went on: “If I had to choose a place to die, I’d choose this island!“
If I had to choose a place to live, I’d choose Capri over any other place in this world! Says I!
Italy is, of all the European countries, and will forever be the most outstanding travel destination for her incredible history, art, culture, scenery, lifestyle, and everything else in between. From the Alps in the north to Sicily in the south, every patch of this blessed land has something fabulous to show and teach you.
Everything good in today’s world is from Italy: food, vino, shoes and clothes, cars, art, history, language. Tutto!
When the supervolcano under the Bay of Naples’ azure waters will erupt, sending a nuclear blast wave over Europe, Capri will be the first to abandon the Tyrrhenian and rise to the heavens to become the new Olympus. The gods will claim it back someday. For now, let’s be thankful that they gave it to us for a while to visit, enjoy, smell, hear, live and fill our hearts.
If you ever travel around Campania and don’t take a traghetto to Capri, know that you’re committing the ultimate sacrilege! Says I! And read the book! Anacapri and San Michele are one and the same!