Capri: Twenty-four hours on a real set of a 1950s movie
by Janice Nigro
There is nothing like that grand feeling of accomplishment when you reach a dream destination after what might seem like a travel odyssey. Especially when your feet touch a beautiful island like Capri.
You have to have faith these days that you will end up somewhere real after a series of email exchanges and credit card payments online without ever hearing a human voice. It took us an international flight, a train to Napoli, a taxi, and a fast ferry to reach Capri. But then you land like a movie star…or maybe not. The ride over is not so easy on the stomach and it’s probably worth it to skip breakfast if you choose this way to get there.
You step off the high speed ferry into Marina Grande filled with people, motorbikes, boats, more ferries, and small businesses and homes seemingly stacked upon each other like a game of Jengo that has been running throughout history. Every structure seems intricately attached to the next, and you wonder if any single building were to be removed at this point in time, whether it will all fall apart.
Napoli, one of the ports from where you can reach Capri if you don’t have your own yacht, is one of those unusual cities in Italy that seems on sight has no relationship to the other towns in the country. It is not quaint (it has skyscrapers), and any history, except for Vesuvio, is not immediately apparent like the Roman ruins or the colosseum in Roma. From Napoli though, the islands and sea look idyllic. Arriving in Capri off the coast then is a welcome step back in time, it seems, onto a movie set from the 1950s. It is old world elegance at its best, and you expect to see a crowd following a Sophia Loren or a Clark Gable around the small town.
Our driver was there waiting to take us to the Cesar Augustus Hotel in Anacapri. The trip up the mountain is not long but it’s a windy narrow ride up to the hotel which is located at ~ 300 meters. You are greeted by hotel staff speaking incredible English. They take about 30 minutes to explain all of the benefits that the hotel has to offer. All while you sit with a view of Vesuvio in the distance. Sadly, we were only going to be there for 24 hours so our introductory speech was immediately followed by the “we have to make plans for your departure” speech. So much for that dream moment.
The first thing to know about Capri is that the accent is on the first syllable. We couldn’t help ourselves, a pathetic group of four US citizens, who continually pronounced the island name incorrectly during our 24-hour respite from big city life.
I was merely a companion on this particular journey through Italy. I just dragged my bags-willingly for sure-along. It is a long trip there-or at least many changes in between various means of transport-which I suppose can be viewed as part of the charm of travel. For this reason though, I thought if you are going to Capri you might as well do more than an overnight. I had the good fortune of visiting Capri once before, a long time ago, yes, on a day tour with my father and my sister when we were girls. I have been on a lot of islands since so I would not have necessarily chosen to visit Capri again. And yet because of the appeal of Capri, I have to admit it was a real luxury to see it at night after the hordes of day tourists had left.
We did not have much of a plan for those 24 hours. It was one of those trips where you think you should not sleep at all in order to get what you paid for. We arrived, and we were already having to plan our departure.
The hotel was gorgeous inside and out, but we left it as soon as we settled in to take a look around the small piazza in Anacapri. Just taking a moment to eat something small enables you to get a glimpse of the over the top elegance on Capri. Even the taxis are different-convertibles! I have never seen these taxis anywhere else in Italy and some of them are old classic Fiats. You get the sense that some are passed down through generations in a family.
The real Capresi probably make up a fraction of the people on the island on any particular day. We found out who some of them might be when we came across a wedding taking place at the main church in Anacapri. Even the owners of the hotel whom we had just met were at the wedding.
A chair lift will take you to the top of Anacapri. And there we were able to view the Faraglioni, the famous rock formations just off the coast of Capri. Since it was so windy while we were there, it was our only chance to view them.
It is a cliché perhaps to suggest that you need to position yourself well to watch the sunset while you are on Capri. Somehow the colors of the sunset seem often to be filtered partly through a marine layer over the sea and partly through the particles of sand and dirt that the Sirocco winds blow from the Sahara Desert. You forget how close you are to another continent, Africa, and you are reminded of how different history is for Italians. They were conquerors, but they were also forever on the watch, protecting their small towns along the coast from invaders originating from diverse cultures in the early world.
We only had one evening for dinner. I asked the hotel staff which was the one dish we should try before leaving Capri. They answered, “Ravioli capresi.” It wasn’t the answer I expected. I wanted it to be some exotic seafood dish that I could only get there. Something I might have to be brave to try. We decided on a restaurant in Capri rather than staying at the hotel for dinner. I had ravioli Capresi, which were great, but I am not sure the restaurant was a fair trade-off relative to the one at the hotel where we would have had a view at least of the moonlight and night lights from the mainland.
But we had a chance to look around Capri town and take the local bus, which was packed during the day, back to the hotel. Capri apparently does have some conflicts, one with motorbikes because of the noise and pollution. So they ask you kindly to use the taxis or the bus. Capri the town is filled with boutiques of the most famous of fashion houses from Italy and elsewhere. You think you can escape the big city and then there it is, a reiteration of what is everywhere else but in miniature.
Unfortunately, after all of our difficulty making a decision the previous day, the wind prevented us from our tourist mission which was to visit La Grotta Azzurra-the Blue Grotto. The sea was too rough even for just a boat tour around the island. Luckily I had seen the Blue Grotto on my trip with my father and my sister. It’s not one of those images that fades with time. The sunlight passing through an underwater opening brilliantly lights up the water a spectacular shade of blue, like a swimming pool at night. You instinctively wonder, where are the lights?
While I did not do my homework for the trip, one of the things I did not expect to be doing on Capri, was to speak Norwegian. Close to the hotel is the Villa di San Michele. The villa was built by a physician, Axel Münthe, who happened to be Swedish. I did not know his country of origin until I was surrounded by a large group of Scandinavians. I simply asked in Norwegian where they were from. They were Swedish, and when I asked about Axel Munthe, they told me yes, he was Swedish. It was a big surprise for me, and perhaps even bigger for my mother to hear me speak Norwegian. The views from the villa are predictably spectacular and within it are items supposedly from the emperor Tiberius. An Egyptian sphinx is overlooking the sea towards Vesuvio, and I touched it for good luck.
We wandered further now as tourists in the day crowd, in a hypnotic shopping trance until we came to a boutique where a man would custom make sandals while you waited. Apparently custom made sandals are one of the things to do when on Capri. I didn’t take it seriously at first. While my mother and her friend were making decisions, I simply introduced myself to Salvatore, the man making the sandals, by telling him in Italian that my feet were ugly. He told me that my feet would be beautiful with his sandals on them. I was of course enchanted and left the shop with a little piece of Capri that I could walk on every day back in LA.
While I waited, I learned that Salvatore had made the sandals ever since he was a young man and for some of the world’s most famous. The woman running the shop had an interesting story as well; she was originally from the Netherlands and had long ago fallen for a Caprese man on a trip as young woman to the island. Their stories sounded like a movie.
Our sandals were ready (and beautiful), and our 24 hours was up. The van was waiting to take us to Marina Grande for the ferry ride out of our short dream. It’s hard sometimes to find those moments that make you feel at least a little different than the thousands of other tourists descending upon the same spot. Maybe we did at the sandal shop, when we learned how one man on a small island in the Mediterranean is connected to so many people around the world. Or how you can take a leap and find the love of your life there.
©Janice Marie Nigro/janikiInk.com