A thousand-year-old pathway unfolded before us. Through the ancient Greek quarter of Capri with its maze of whitewashed houses, lemon gardens and small vineyards, we walked under an unrelenting sun. A wall of craggy cliffs loomed ahead of us and my husband, squinting in the harsh glare of the sun, espied a carriageway zigzagging its way up. “This is not happening. We are not climbing all the way up,” he stated, with some vehemence. Then, he proceeded to stand in the middle of the path and refused to budge. “I see. I shall carry on and you better make your way back to the bus stop. Wait two hours. That small rickety bus, overstuffed with people, shall eventually bring you up,” I replied.
I was not exaggerating. We had been in a winding queue when I first saw the bus for Anacapri arrive in the Marina Grande and fill up with more people than it could hold. Let’s leave it at this, it was not a pretty sight. Queues for the taxis were even longer.
A deep scowl and some disgruntled words later, the husband started following me up the path that took us into a stretch of woods with gentle steps, which graduated soon to some seriously steep steps. We were on the famed Scala Fenicia trail. Those steps are named after Phoenicians but they were built by the Greeks, the first recorded colonisers on Capri. Women from Capri, apparently much appreciated for their beauty by the early travellers, painstakingly built the steps which was the only way linking Capri and Anacapri. That is until 1877 when the vertiginous carriageway was built.
The sky was immensely blue, the waters impossibly turquoise and the heat unbearable when we reached the island of Capri, in the Tyrrhenian Sea, and off the Sorrentine Peninsula.
Capri had occupied my febrile imagination as a school girl. We had a short story in our curriculum, The Lotus Eaters by W. Somerset Maugham, in which a bank manager from London arrives in Capri for a summer holiday. There’s no turning back for him when he claps his eyes upon the limestone sea stacks of Il Faraglioni, ‘those two great rocks sticking out of the water, with the moon above them, and all the little lights of the fishermen in their boats catching cuttlefish, all so peaceful and beautiful…’ He wonders to himself “Well, after all, why should I go back?” He lives a lotus eating existence thereafter but the ending always gives me the heebie-jeebies. Capri since, in my mind, has been the island of lotus eaters.
The copious numbers on the island but was a rude shock but the Capri of my imagination exists, only once the sun sets and day-trippers leave the island.
We left our baggage at the luggage storage on Marina Grande, one of the two harbours in Capri, and decided upon an escape to the commune of Anacapri that stands high above Capri, upon the slopes of Monte Solaro.
When we reached Anacapri, in the matter of a punishing 921 steps, it was a different world up there. I could not imagine that locals would have charted the steps every day to get their supply of drinking water from the spring in the Marina Grande. There is a book by a Swedish doctor called Axel Munthe who once lived on Anacapri. In it he made a note about Anacapri’s postal lady. She climbed up and down the steps every day to collect letters and parcels from Capri.
For us the reward of the climb was the view over Capri that was breathtaking along with the tiny chapel on the path dedicated to Sant’Antonio of Padua, the patron saint of Anacapri.
Atop the steps was Munthe’s Villa San Michele, the construction of which took 20 long years with building material hauled up the Phoenician Steps by donkeys and men. It is a coveted spot in Anacapri which in ancient times had an imperial Roman villa and a medieval chapel.
“My home shall be open for the sun and the wind and the voices of the sea – like a Greek temple – and light, light, light everywhere!” wrote Munthe.
The heat meant that we had to resuscitate ourselves with the icy goodness of glasses of lemon granita before we could hop onto the chair-lift to glide up to the 600-metre summit of Monte Solaro, passing over patches of vegetable gardens. From atop the mountain, I stared at Il Faraglioni and day dreamed of The Lotus Eaters. In the vicinity of the sea stacks is another famous landmark of Capri – the Blue Grotto, a natural sea cave with iridescent blue lights in its interiors.
Now, Anacapri was wonderfully quiet. It had a small network of clothes boutiques, Neapolitan tailors and perfumeries that were bustling. I quite fell in love with the citrus fragrances in those perfumeries but contented myself with a big cone of ice cream.
Wholly committed to the cause of licking away the ice as it dripped fast in the heat, we descended to Capri via the Phoenician Steps and with trembling legs caught our breath on the Piazzetta in its heart.
A resort ever since Emperor Augustus landed there, Capri has a glitzy air about it. You can easily put a finger upon the atmosphere that might have been inculcated by the many emperors in the past or the brigades of film stars and fashion icons who have been its dedicated patrons. We had a glimpse of that world when we sat at the marina, dangling our legs, watching the boats come in and leave. We watched old men on their boats who could have passed off for playboys with tanned bodies, gold chains hanging around their sagging necks, but then we chanced upon the sight of a bejewelled woman get off a boat and dish out autographs to a few people. And all of the clichéd notions of Capri came to life at that moment.
How to Get There: You can reach Capri only by sea. Frequent ferries from Naples and Sorrento bring you to the island. One-way tickets from Naples to Capri cost between €15-€20 depending upon the kind of ferry you opt for and from Sorrento to Capri about €14 for the fast ferry. If you want to book tickets online, your go-to website is – http://www.capri.net/it/ferry-booking.
Once you Set Foot on Capri: (If it is a day trip especially) Head straight up to Anacapri. Take the Phoenician Steps even though the sun might be blazing and you might curse yourself at the start. The views over Capri and then at the top, Anacapri, shall be your reward. The funicular and bus, both from Capri to Anacapri cost €1.80 one-way. If you are in a large group and want the luxury of a taxi in Capri, here’s a link for an idea: http://www.capri.com/downloads/taxi_capri_tariffe.pdf. For taxis in Anacapri, look no further than http://www.capri.com/downloads/taxi_anacapri_tariffe.pdf.
Where to Stay:
Capri Wine Hotel (http://www.capriwinehotel.com/en/index) on the Marina Grande offers beautiful deluxe sea-view rooms. A double deluxe bed sets you back by €210 per night which includes breakfast.
Hotel San Michele (http://www.sanmichele-capri.com/) on Anacapri is not luxurious but a family-run affair and is positioned below Munthe’s villa. Rooms usually are sold out but why not try your luck. A classic double room with sea view is pegged at €145, including VAT and breakfast.
What to Do:
Monte Solaro. Hike up via Migliara for grand views to Monte Solaro or cut all the hiking and just take the chair lift (€11 return and €8 single).
Blue Grotto. Take the boat from Marina Grande to the ancient Roman cave of Blue Grotto (thought to be a favourite with Emperor Tiberius) between noon to 12pm (the best time of the day to soak in the intense play of colours inside the cave). Tickets cost €13 which includes the cave entrance price of €4. On the first Sunday of every month, the entrance is free, so then you cough up €9 for the boat service.
Villa Jovis. One of the villas of Roman emperor Tiberius. A short but steep 40-minute walk from the Piazzetta of Capri to, along the length of Via Longano to Via Tiberio. Ticket costs €2.
Palazzo a Mare. On Marina Grande in Capri along the San Constanzo route. Another of Tiberius’s pleasure villas – he had 12 on the island.
What is your story from setting foot upon this Italian island?