I immediately signed up for a day trip to Capri on the arsviva tour of Naples and the surrounding area. I was thrilled. The azure sea, the beautifully blue sky, the terraced slopes on the massive cliffs – I could hardly wait.
After we disembarked from the ferry, we got on a small boat, which held about 20 or 25 people. Then we cruised around the island. I was enthralled by the scenery, but at the same time I was terrified. I had never been on such a small boat. The waves – though no doubt gentle – rocked the boat back and forth as we took photos. While I have an affinity for mountains, I have always felt – no pun intended – like a fish out of water near the sea. I don’t even remember how to swim, though I did take lessons as a child. Each time the boat rocked to one side, I was convinced that it would capsize, I would fall in the enchantingly azure water and drown.
Yet, at the same time, I was captivated by the intense beauty of my surroundings. There was a pleasant sea breeze on that beautiful September day. The rocky coast, the high cliffs, the grottoes, the natural arches made by the rocks, the houses set precariously on the cliffs – it was breathtaking and a bit surreal for me. As the boat navigated around the caves, I worried that it would get stuck and that we would be trapped there. Still, the caves had a sense of mystery to them, a sort of mystical quality. The Blue Grotto was not open on that day – the water level was too high, but the other grottoes we saw were remarkable.
I was especially intrigued by the red box-like villa of the now deceased journalist and writer Curzio Malaparte (whose name means “wrong-sided”), who had fought for Mussolini during the so-called “March on Rome” in 1922, but became a fervent opponent of the Italian dictator when Italy changed sides during World War II. After the war he flirted with the Communist Party. Malaparte was known for his anti-Hitler and anti-Mussolini writings. He was kicked out of the National Fascist Party and was arrested by Mussolini on numerous occasions. The rebellious author had been a Republican most of his life but died a devout Catholic.
His villa was built from 1938 to 1941. Some critics call it a masterpiece of Italian modern architecture while others see it as an eyesore. I was drawn to it because it was unique. Some features of the villa include reverse pyramidal stairs that lead to a roof patio. It lurks precariously on a cliff 32 meters above sea level, looking as if it may fall into the water at any moment.
Before my trip to Capri, I did a little research about the island, a large limestone and sandstone rock that has a population of about 12,500. The total surface area of the island, made up of towns Capri and Anacapri, comes to 11 square kilometers while the island is six kilometers in length. Mountains can be found on the island, too. The highest is Mount Solaro at 589 meters.
Capri was once a Greek colony. It got its name from wild goats on the island. The Romans took over in 29 AD when Emperor Augustus saw it for the first time. Augustus’ successor, Tiberius, formed close ties with the island. He lived as a recluse there during the last 10 years of his life. After his death in 37 AD, things were not so rosy for Capri, and later many pirate raids took place on the island. After the Romans, Capri switched owners many times. The Spaniards controlled the island for a lengthy period. The island has certainly had its share of trials and tribulations, such as the plague during the 18th century. It was ruled by the Bourbons before becoming part of the Kingdom of Italy.
Tourism officially started on Capri in the 17th century, when the first tourist, French antiques dealer Jean-Jacques Bouchard, visited the island. During the “Dolce Vita” years of the 1950s and early 1960s, none of the names in cinema, the arts and politics could resist Capri’s charm, and they were often seen on the island wearing so-called Capri pants and espadrillas. A number of well-known personalities have lived on Capri, and today many celebrities have homes there. The founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Ilych Lenin, even visited Maxim Gorky at that writer’s residence on Capri in 1908. Queen Victoria made a point of staying on the island. Norman Douglas was another Capri resident.
Back to my trip: I was thrilled that I had survived the boat ride. From the Marina Grande we took the funicular to the town of Capri. I was glad that I did not know then about one of the first rides in the funicular during the the early 20th century, when two cables broke – a tragedy that resulted in two deaths. However, my ride, thankfully, was uneventful. We all made it to the main square safely.
I soon found myself on the main square, the Piazzetta, bustling with crowded, outdoor cafés. I took a seat at one café and drank a Cola Zero. The waiter served me surprisingly quickly. When I got the bill, I was shocked that a small bottle cost six euros. At least I did not have to wait an hour to pay.
Then I took some time to take in my surroundings. I saw the clock tower, the former bell tower of a cathedral. I admired its architecture featuring an eastern-influenced cupola and arcades. I stood in front of the Church of Saint Stephen, which had Baroque elements and a central dome. It was not open, but later I found out that the interior included Roman fragments from the Villa Jovis, which we would see a bit later on, as well as sculptures and paintings. I took a short walk through narrow, winding paths, past designer shops and white houses, toward the marina. Then I headed back for our meeting at the main square.
We trekked uphill to the Villa Jovis. Away from the busy main square Capri was tranquil with narrow streets flanked by magnificent villas and gardens. I occasionally stopped to take in the stunning scenery.
Villa Jovis, named after the god Jovis or Jupiter, hailed from 27 AD, when it was constructed for Tiberius, who lived like a recluse there until he died in 37 AD, when he was 79 years old. It stands on Mount Tiberius, which is 335 meters high. It is by no means the only villa Tiberius had built on Capri; he had no less than 12 constructed on the island. Villa Jovis, though, is the biggest of them all, measuring 1.7 acres or 7,000 square meters.
Below the villa we saw the remains of a watch tower that Tiberius had used as a sort of telegraph system. He would signal to the mainland via fire or smoke. We explored the former living quarters, the administrative area, the reception area and what had been a hall offering magnificent views of the sea. We saw the remnants of the complex system of water tanks that had collected rain water for the villa and the area where the baths used to be along with a complicated heating system. Part of the ruins may have even once been an observatory.
Tiberius was a complicated historical figure. He made quite a name for himself as a general but didn’t seem too enthusiastic to take on the role of emperor. He was known as a sad, weary, reclusive old man in an unhappy marriage. Augustus forced him to leave his beloved wife to marry into the emperor’s family. There were rumors of Tiberius’ cruelty and perversion. For example, it is said that he threw his enemies into a bottomless abyss. Yet, it is probable that there was little truth to these stories. Tiberius ruled for 22 years and during that time only about 50 people were accused of treason. Only half of them were actually convicted. He certainly was no friend of the Senate, which abhorred him, even refusing to grant him divine honors after his death. One of the reasons Tiberius fled to Capri was because he was afraid he would be assassinated, and his villas on Capri were well-guarded and hard to reach.
After taking many snapshots of superb views, I wandered down the narrow, winding streets, invigorated by the tranquil atmosphere and found an excellent family-run restaurant. Then I went closer to the center and did some window-shopping. I was impressed with the ceramics sold on the island.
While I did not have time to get to Anacapri, other members of the tour did. They visited the villa of Axel Munthe, who, in the first half of the last century, had been a Swedish writer, physician and psychiatrist. He was known for helping the poor free of charge, and he had bravely offered his medical services during wartime. His Villa San Michele includes impressive gardens dotted with Egyptian relics. I hope I have a chance to return someday to visit Anacapri and other sights on the island.
While Capri seemed idyllic as I walked along its narrow, picturesque lanes, I would not buy a villa on the island if I ever become rich enough to do so. I found the sheer cliffs daunting and in a way terrifying. I was certainly not at home by the sea. It was a thrilling place to visit, but I would prefer to buy an apartment in Paris or Rome, though I doubt I will ever have the money to do so!
On the way back to Naples, I sat on the upper level, outside on the ferry, feeling the sea breeze on my face and watching the hypnotizing movement of the waves. I did not feel scared on the ferry as I had on the small boat. I breathed in the fresh sea air and was thankful I had had another superb day during my trip to Campania.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.