I have a thing for islands.
One of my earliest memories growing up overseas was a holiday on Pangkor Island. My big sister warned me darkly of an evil monkey with long curly fangs who resided near our hotel. He never showed up, but the thought of him added to the thrill of being marooned there. When the appeal of ex-pat life wore thin we moved home to this pointy little green island, which for me was an exciting and curious new adventure in knitwear and wellingtons. Our new house was on a millpond and I spent my young summers planning rowing expeditions to the leafy island in the middle of it, uninhabited but for coots. I had a serious Robinson Crusoe complex.
As an adult, the siren songs of islands everywhere continue to call me from across the sea. Langkawi, Tresco, Paxos, Isle of Wight, Kefalonia, Lindisfarne, Sal. A voyage to an island offers the intrepid traveller a chance to become king of all she surveys during the limited time that an average travel itinerary allows. The ocean is never far from view, and one quickly becomes familiar with every cove and cave, most of the natives and how to manoeuvre the hairpin bends, so there is a good chance that it soon starts to feel like home. That’s one of my goals as a traveller; not just to skim the surface, but to become immersed.
My daughter has inherited the Crusoe gene, and just five days ago, as she and I lolled on the sofa together, idly swiping through a travel app called LuckyTrip, our daydreams of a half-term island escape quickly came into sharp focus when a three-night stay on the Isle of Capri presented itself.
The last time we visited this rocky island paradise was four years ago, accompanied by the men of the family, both of whom failed to appreciate its exquisite charms, preferring instead to persistently and vociferously curse the noisy cicadas, costly granitas and biting insects.
Giddy with spontaneity, I seized the opportunity to return, curmudgeon-free with nothing but a carry-on back-pack of stylish capsule essentials, (It’s Italy darling!) and my little Girl Friday.
With the frenetic buzz of Naples already a distant memory, our high speed ferry gently eased into the loving arms of Marina Grande and we were enveloped by the deep warming crescent of villas, grand hotels and soaring rock faces. Our check-in at the hotel was not for another four hours, so we lost no time finding a salubrious beach club Da Gemma’s in which to disport ourselves like film stars, her: a less bosomy Sophia Loren, and me: a fatter Hattie Jaques. We availed ourselves of chilled Fanta, insalate caprese and two comfy sun loungers where The Tyrrhenian lapped at our toes. Clear as the brilliant-cut aquamarines in the jewellers shop windows up the hill in the town of Capri, the sea provided the perfect traveller’s baptism, washing away the sticky cares of tickets, taxis and timetables. We emerged from our dip refreshed and ready to absorb every last drop of sunshine and limoncello loveliness the island had to offer.
It felt good to be climbing the familiar, if heart-stoppingly precipitous and narrow road up to Anacapri. Our open-top taxi slowed for no one, as we squeezed under the looming overhang of Monte Capiello, and nothing short of witchcraft ensured our safe arrival at the incongruously named, ‘Big Bear’ hotel, (after the constellation of course, and not Fozzie). Listed as one of the top 100 hotels in Italy, Albergo Orso Maggiore, effortlessly chic, cool, and whitewashed, nestles in an enchanting terraced garden gazing out to sea. The grounds are filled with the soothing shush of pine trees and there is the most beautiful infinity pool I’ve ever seen. We were ushered to our (upgraded!) room, shown to our private veranda and plied with welcome drinks and little dishes of tasty morsels. It was a Herculean struggle to maintain composure, but I think we gave off a convincing air of casual wealthy indifference until the handsome porter left us to a bout of hysterical bed-bouncing and hand-clapping.
That night we sat dreamily at a table outside Lollo’s bar on Piazza Vittoria sipping mango granita (her) and huge measures of negroski (me) as the sun set somewhere beyond Ischia. Yorkshire, and all its recent stresses and strains, now seemed a lifetime away. (In reality it was a two-hour train ride to Newcastle, a three hour TUI flight and a 50 minute sea crossing, allowing for the no-hurry passport control at Naples and plenty of general livestock standing about, herding and funnelling that goes with cheap air travel. Oh, how I long for a private jet)
The ample negroski meant that our walk back to the hotel that night was more circuitous than necessary, but as we ambled down the dark narrow streets and alleys I placed my faith in a strong sense that nothing bad ever happens here.
The isle of Capri has been described as ‘un mondo a parte’ -a world apart, and it is easy to believe it is inhabited by mermaids and fairies and protected by Neptune himself. Clearly Capri unleashes within me a more feverish romanticism than usual, and after watching local young newlyweds releasing white doves from a basket outside the Chiesa di Santa Sofia, I was just hopeless. This was later tempered on the rainy Sunday morning by the sight of a hearse (of adorably diminutive Capri proportions) being unloaded before a large gathering of sombre locals with umbrellas. Enzo, the owner of Corallium Capri, my favourite little jewellers workshop in Anacapri, spouted philosophical wisdoms on the nature of life on the island. In between shameless flirting and compliments about my unforgettable eyes, he confessed that he does indeed live in paradise, but is wary of complacency, living each day instead as if it were his last. A total sucker, I was completely drawn in, purchasing a large baroque Mediterranean culture pearl from him, and promising to tell all my friends about his world-wide shipping service.
In the hushed and beautifully decorated dining room the next morning, we sampled a delicious selection of freshly prepared breakfast delicacies including scrambled free range eggs, torta caprese, pineapple slices and wafer thin Italian bacon, before we struck out on a sunny hike down to Grotta Azzura.
228 winding wonky steps and many metres of steep and slippery rock path later we popped out above the thronging flotilla of little boats and launches already gathering at the entrance to the blue grotto. Long before we reached the sea, the cheery cries of bantering oarsmen drifted up through lush vegetation, with an occasional burst of ‘o sole mio’ from the more flamboyant ones as they sculled their passengers into the magical cavern. It takes great skill and timing to manoeuvre the rowing boat quickly on the swelling sea through the narrow gap without smashing tourists brains out on the rock entrance, but as a nine-to-five summer job, there are worse ways to make a living.
Having already experienced the breathtaking neon blue of the grotto on our previous trip, we opted instead to walk along the cliff path to a secret swimming spot we knew, but to our dismay, the chromed ladder had been pulled up and locked away. The girl at the bar above explained that the council had done this while the local elections were being held, as if that made any sense. (Although, I might have misunderstood, owing to my very limited grasp of Italian) So we consoled ourselves with another ice cold Fanta and settled down to play cards and observe the comings and goings on the deep blue water below. One could easily pass an entire day just idling here, peering down into the private worlds of yachts, motorboats and little fishing vessels bobbing about in a disorderly queue.
We were transfixed when a small sailboat, with a hull naively painted like Jaws, dropped anchor near to where we sat. The lone skipper, bronzed and tousled, proceeded to unload a paddle board from the deck, and, in the wake of multiple criss-crossing bow waves he glided casually off around the headland on it. Reappearing a short while later, still dry, he proceeded to deftly hop back onto his shark boat and haul up his board and paddle. Then, unfurling his sails he caught the breeze and disappeared into the blue. All of this was done with extreme and infuriating efficacy and we spent the rest of the morning musing about his seafaring adventures. My envy was almost crippling.
The €2.50 bus ride back up Via Tuoro to our hotel was typically Caprese. When the seven seats on the little minibuses are filled, the rest of the passengers play an intimate game of standing-room-only sardines, packing tightly together for the swift and death-defying ride, at speeds never seen in such conditions back in Blighty. It made me smile to think of the ‘bottleneck‘ on London Road in Pocklington where it takes a full ten minutes for a driver to ease his car gingerly past a school bus ensuring at least a bicycle’s width between them and avoiding all possible chance of a scratch. If you are born on Capri you are blessed with unique driving skills, and a blind faith in Santa Michele and the Virgin Mary, but above all, good humour. When our young hotel driver took us to Capri that night, we so very nearly creamed a little van into the rock-face on a sharp bend, but the toothless van driver just cried ‘Aiy!’ from his open window and grinned. (Unlike our Napoli taxi driver who shouted ‘testa di cazzo!!’ at everyone in his wake)
A visit to the island can be experienced through a series of vivid vignettes. This time I will cherish the sight of an elderly woman climbing in beside her husband on the bench seat of a tiny green Piaggio, the back loaded with two potted geraniums, two flagons of red and white wine and a sack of chicken feed, just an ordinary Saturday night trip to the shops. Another image that I’ll take home in my head is of the walnut veneer greengrocer casually leaning against a crate of the most gigantic lemons. Ah, the lemons!
Every path and leafy lane on the island leads eventually to a swanky villa, secret cove, grotto or vista bellissima, and as the sun dipped low on the town of Capri, I thought of the Emperor Tiberius in his summer palace, preparing for a bacchanalian gathering, and a feast of sensual excesses. I realised I was ready for dinner. But to allow the crocodiles of wide-eyed day trippers time to shuffle back onto their awaiting ferries, we decided first to explore the other side of the island which, when seen from a certain angle, resembles the curvaceous outline of a reclining woman. So we slipped round her waist and dipped zig-zagging over her hip into the peaceful Marina Piccola. With her back to the sunset, however, and her bars and restaurants still boarded up for the winter she presented a more melancholy but no less beautiful side to the island. Here the soaring cliffs are faintly menacing, but the beaches offer a myriad of superb rock formations for a day’s snorkelling. From here we also enjoyed spectacular views of the great Faraglioni rocks, Italy’s answer to The Needles, except one of them actually has an eye that you can pass through.
Back in town we paid the obligatory small fortune for ‘due Fanta‘ (which, to be fair, were served with large quantities of complimentary tasty morsels) and we sat goggling the filthy rich from our table in the Piazza Umberto I. For a fleeting thrilling moment we could pretend to be part of the Jet Set, surrounded on all sides by Armani, Gucci, Balenciaga, Prada, Miu Miu, Louis Vuitton, Fendi, and Versace…But by nightfall it began to rain, and instead of being conveyed back to our superyacht in a private buggy, we decided to board the little bus and jolt our sleepy way home crammed against the steamed-up windows.
‘Usually in May the weather here is fan-tastico!’, said almost every local we spoke to the next day, as we dodged the showers. I thought I detected a faintly accusatory tone, as if we, being British, were somehow responsible for this anomalous inclemency. Despite the weather I started to get that feeling of frantic back-pedalling you get at the end of a visit, where you want to slow time and cram as much as possible into your eyes and heart before leaving. After a little light souvenir shopping (to assuage the guilt of abandoning the menfolk), and a long stroll to Axel Munthe’s beautiful Villa San Michele we also paid a sabbath visit the eighteenth century baroque church of San Michele Arcangelo. A short, dizzying climb up an iron spiral staircase is rewarded with a complete view of the unique and slightly weird maiolica tiled floor depicting the Garden of Eden, (before Eve spoilt it) complete with a unicorn. For €2 it comes highly recommended as a rainy day activity, but be prepared for harrowing and graphic Catholic iconography.
Weighted down with a picnic of giant arancini, panzarotti (-like the most delicious savoury doughnut you’ll ever eat, stuffed with oozy mozzarella, and tomato ragu) and tiny strawberry-topped petits fours, from the Grotta Azzura Bakery, we decided, like true pazzos inglese, to take one last dip in the infinity pool. It was worth it just to see the bewildered faces of the porters and concierge as we passed them on the way to the pool. But it was the perfect way to end our last day on the island, and with the whole dripping garden to ourselves and the freedom to play two-tailed mermaids unobserved, we frolicked till dusk as the swallows swooped and scooped around us.
If you visit Albergo Orsa Maggiore you’ll see the claw marks on the gate posts where I was prised off the premises. Capri is one island I need to re-visit again and again. It captured my heart in 1987, and continues to keep me spellbound. Next time I will stay longer, swim trough that hole in the Faraglioni, snorkel off the Marina Piccola, dance naked in the gardens of Via Krupp, and ride a donkey to the summit of Monte Solaro just for starters.
A great book to take with you when you inevitably visit the island, is The Story of San Michele by Axel Munthe.
But for now, a really good online read, by a proper writer, with historical facts, literary references and everything is The Lure of Capri by Tony Perrottet.
And for my dear friends who accompanied me on that first fateful visit over thirty years ago, here is something I think you’ll enjoy. 💙