Ancient Capri still casts its powerful spell

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Patricia Harris
Globe Correspondent / June 29, 2008

CAPRI - Ferries arrive and depart every few minutes at Marina Grande, dropping sightseers at the harbor on the north side of this island. That's where I found Ernesto Staiano, 87, who spends most days prowling the waterfront to oversee his family's modest bus empire.

As a young man in the 1940s, Staiano had an eye for tourism, even under the worst of circumstances. While war raged in Europe, soldiers from the armies occupying Naples still found time for some sightseeing. "The Germans," he recalled, "would walk everywhere. They came and spent three or four days." After Naples was liberated late in 1943, it was the Americans' turn. "They were very organized and saw everything in one day," Staiano said.

One of those day-trippers was my father. As a Navy signalman, he saw the world from the decks of a destroyer minesweeper. The place that most captured his imagination was the island of Capri (pronounced KA-pree). He has been dead many years, but last Christmas, my mother and I discovered that among his few keepsakes from those days were his ferry ticket from Naples to Capri, and the stub of an entrance ticket to the Blue Grotto.

I'm not one for chasing ghosts, but as I crossed the Bay of Naples more than 60 years after my father, I wondered if Capri would work the same magic on me. Certainly the island has a history of enchantment. Its sirens may have failed to lure Odysseus onto the rocks, but Roman emperors proved more susceptible to Capri's charms. In 29 BC, Caesar Augustus traded the island of Ischia to the Greeks in exchange for Capri. His successor, Tiberius, ruled the empire from Capri for the last decade of his life, and Roman nobles kept villas here until the empire went bust in the seventh century. For 2,000 years, Capri has been a haven of the rich and powerful - and since the 19th century, of artists, trendsetters, and dreamers.

The good thing about an island, of course, is that there are limits to growth. Capri covers only about four square miles, and inhabitable land is limited by the sharp volcanic mountain ridge that runs across the island, its peak separating the eastern and western lobes. There's a village on each side of the peak - Capri proper on the east, and higher Anacapri on the west.

The island has long been synonymous with fashion: Think Capri pants (designed in 1948 by Sonja de Lennart), handmade sandals, and jewelry fashioned from the orange-red Mediterranean coral. Florentine designer Emilio Pucci, who launched a haute couture salon on Capri in 1957, credited the island and its myriad of colors and patterns as inspiration for his designs.

Indeed, in both villages designer boutiques nestle along the narrow streets that radiate from central plazas like grout lines in a floor mosaic. As I strolled near the Piazzetta (the main square) in Capri, an American approached me for help: "My wife said to meet her next to Ferragamo. Do you know where that is? I'm as turned around as I'd be at the mall."

Fortunately there's a limit to designer labels, even in Italy. Other shops offer exquisite cameos (an art form here for the last 2,500 years) and coral; still others specialize in perfumes made from Capri flowers, or limoncello, liqueur made from Capri lemons. Guidebook writers often sneer at this commercialization, but it's nothing new. Even my father, a typically shopping-challenged American man of his generation, managed to bring home two beautiful coral necklaces.

The shops tucked into ancient buildings hardly detract from the island's natural beauty. In Capri village, almost every street seems to lead to a scenic overlook. In Anacapri, a 12-minute chairlift shoots abruptly over the mountain forest to the 1,932-foot peak of Monte Solaro, the island's highest point, for soaring views of the harbors, the bay, and the not-so-distant peninsulas of the mainland. There's also an old mule path to the summit, at least an hour's climb from Anacapri.

I preferred the view from Villa San Michele in the village of Anacapri. Built by Axel Munthe, a Swedish physician and author, in 1896, this stunning piece of Caprese architecture sits on the site of a medieval Italian chapel dedicated to the archangel Michael and the ruins of a Roman-era villa. The rooms and gardens incorporate ancient statuary and architectural fragments, including a sphinx that visitors touch for luck. I had immediate visions of moving in, so alluringly does the property domesticate the island's sweep of history and scenery.

Islanders seem on intimate terms with nature. When a shopkeeper asked if I had seen the Faraglioni, he spoke of them with such warmth that I thought they might be eccentric island sisters. But they turned out be three eroded mini-mountains of volcanic rock that extend into the water from a point visible from Marina Piccola on the southeast coast.

I studied them at leisure over a marinated octopus salad and a plate of ravioli alla Caprese at Ciro a Mare, the terrace restaurant of Bagni Internazionali, which opened shortly after World War II as one of the first beach clubs at Marina Piccola. Jet-set celebrities of the '50s and '60s made the beach clubs of this harbor their hangouts. But they and the paparazzi who followed them have long since departed, leaving ordinary families and couples on holiday to enjoy the small stretch of sand and impossibly blue waters.

So far, so good. But I feared the Blue Grotto might be a disappointment. The island's best-known tourist attraction is a small sea cave with a very small entrance, only about three feet high. Visitors get inside by engaging a boatman to row them into the cavity where the water is luminous and intensely blue, thanks to sunlight flowing through fissures in the rocks and reflecting off the sandy bottom.

Hiring a boatman is a little like catching a fish during a feeding frenzy, as they row around in a chaotic pattern, some peeling off to pick up passengers from the big boats, others loading passengers from shore. Four of us climbed into a small, tippy rowboat and put ourselves in the capable hands of Leone, so named for the lion tattoo on his leg. When our turn came, Leone told us to lie low as he rowed us to the mouth of the cave and shot through the opening with a final lunge on the oars.

Inside, the waters gleamed a slightly phosphorescent silvery blue, almost a neon color. Leone rowed us around until our eyes adjusted to the relative darkness, shining a flashlight to show a wall niche that he said had been a Roman altar. He sang corny Neapolitan songs that echoed off the cavern walls for a singing-in-the-shower reverb effect. He slowly dipped an oar and we watched the water glide off it like quicksilver.

It worked for me. The Blue Grotto is such a simple natural phenomenon that it resists being updated or glamorized. At heart it will always be a guy in a rowboat who sings snatches of "Santa Lucia" while the water beneath him glows. And I understood why my father held onto that ticket stub.

Patricia Harris can be reached at

If You Go

How to get there

Caremar ferry


Several trips daily between Molo Beverello, Naples, and Marina Grande, Capri. High-speed ferry $16.30 each way (50 minutes).

Getting around Capri

Bus service covers the island ($2.18 per trip) and is the least expensive way to reach the Blue Grotto.

Where to stay

Grand Hotel Santa Lucia

Via Partenope 46, Naples


This 96-room hotel near the harbor is convenient to the ferry docks. Standard rooms $264-$334.

Hotel Il Convento

Via Speranzella 137A, Naples


Restored 17th-century building in historic city center has 14 rooms. $124-$280.

Where to eat

Ciro a Mare

Via Mulo 57-58 Marina Piccola, Capri


Daily for lunch and dinner. Light salads, pastas, and seafood. Entrees $15.50-$28.

What to do

Blue Grotto

Rowboats entering charge combined entrance and transportation fee of $15.50 per person.

Villa San Michele

Viale Axel Munthe, Anacapri 011-39-081-837-1401

Daily May-August 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; closes earlier the rest of the year. Admission $7.75.

Monte Solaro chairlift



Ticket office open daily March-October 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., with the last trip at 5; closes earlier the rest of the year. Admission $12.40.

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