Monday, March 5, 2012

Heaven on Earth

I’ve died and gone to Capri. We spent four days and three nights on this romantic island, which appeared to have been art directed to perfection by a brilliant designer. It looks exactly like a Mediterranean island should, its colors vibrant, water clear, gardens abundant and shoreline rugged.

Our Gap Year has been the ultimate lesson in geography. I have to admit that before we started planning our visit to Southern Italy, all I had was a vague notion of Capri as an island somewhere in the Mediterranean; I’m not even sure I realized it was part of Italy. Once we situated it on a map just three miles off the point of the Sorrentine peninsula and read so much that referred to it as a Mediterranean jewel, we decided to make it part of our itinerary. We also learned that if we wanted to sound like locals, we needed to accent its first syllable and not the second: it’s CAP-ree in Italian, not ca-PREE as we Americans say.

It was a quick 25-minute ferry ride from Sorrento across the Bay of Naples to the island, the first of three we’ll be visiting in succession (Sicily and then Malta will be next). The ship was filled with day-trippers on a brief excursion, leaving us feeling particularly special to be two of only a few dragging suitcases behind them and overnighting on the island, which has drawn pleasure seekers since Roman times. Capri is small (just ten miles around) and vertical; the sea meets the shore and then everything goes up – straight up. High in the hills above opposite sides of the port sit Capri Town and her sister village, Anacapri. In season, a funicular continuously shuttles quayside visitors from the ferry skyward to Capri’s main square, the Piazzetta, but since we were off-season February interlopers, our only option was to ride the packed local bus up the corkscrewed road to the top. Once past the surprisingly efficient bus depot, the town is pedestrian-only, so we rolled our suitcases up through the undulating center, over the crest in the middle of town and then down several blocks to the other side of the island that looks away from the mainland out south over the Tyrrhenian Sea. Delicately painted street signs in tandem with helpful glazed ceramic maps mounted on every corner directed us to the elegant Via Tragara, the narrow lane that wanders east away from town and on which our hotel was located. Even before we saw our lovely room at La Certosella, an 1880 villa set high on the hill and one of the few hotels open before April, our walk through the meticulously maintained town assured us that the decision to come to Capri was a wise one. And once we entered our bright, everything white, sunny room with daintily decorated floor tiles, sheer, breezy curtains and a broad balcony that overlooked a citrus garden and the azure sea beyond, we knew that our visit to the island would be special indeed.

Was it our imagination or did the sun shine a bit brighter and warmer and sit higher in the sky while we were on Capri? Could we possibly be glimpsing the very first signs that winter is finally giving in and letting spring take over? On our many walks through town, I noticed gnarled, gray wisteria and bougainvillea vines just beginning to sprout pale green new growth and buds on branches atop the twisted trunks of compact oleander trees hinted of color to come. It actually made me stop, close my eyes, feel the warmth and smile: ah, spring. Although most of the countless flower boxes, pots and planters scattered wherever we went remained empty, waiting to be filled with springtime blooms, the Augustus Gardens with its incomparable views over the Marina Piccola, a tiny fishing village on the island’s south side, was already adorned with early plantings: hardy purple pansies and bright pink cyclamen. We could only speculate about the island’s in-season brilliance; if it’s this beautiful now, imagine how gorgeous it must be in full season splendor when the hedges are heavy with blossoms and the trees and gardens are in full flower. But despite this lesser lament, we felt ourselves lucky to be able to witness Capri before the hordes of visitors descend in May. We had what was perhaps a more special experience walking the streets with the locals and watching workers busy patching stucco, freshening whitewash, trimming trees, replacing broken tiles and stocking the stores. A few shops selling postcards and various Capri tchotchkes were open, along with a cafe or two on the Piazzetta. But the many purveyors of all manner of designer luxury items from Prada, Blumarine and Ferragamo for the soon-to-arrive beautiful people were busy slicing open stacks of boxes filled with the latest must-haves delivered on motorized carts which managed to make their way with the precious inventory through the jumble of streets.

In contrast to its refined main town, much of Capri remains a wilderness, the result of its harsh topography, and there are plenty of trails for exploring. Needing to appease our hiking yen, we did a scramble of a walk along the overlooked western coast, three miles as the crow flies but the distance may have doubled with all the ups and downs we negotiated along the craggy limestone cliffs. The recently restored Sentiero dei Fortini, the Trail of the Forts, starts at the lighthouse on Capri’s southwest corner and skirts the coast to the famed Grotta Azzurra, the Blue Grotto, in the northwest. We had the remote trail all to ourselves as we passed through stunning landscape that looked much as it has since emperors vacationed on the island two millennia ago. The footpath climbed up dramatic cactus-strewn cliffs around wild headlands jutting into the dazzling sea and then back down carved stone steps that led to the water along the rocky shoreline; there was not even the hint of a sandy beach en route. We took our time, hiking at a leisurely pace, stopping to munch on sandwiches and including many stops to admire the spectacular scenery.

As we rounded the final point and made our way down the hill towards the Blue Grotto, we were belted with the wind from the north that had picked up substantially since the morning, whipping up white-capped peaks across the bay. With such rough waters, the grotto was closed and we had to cross our fingers that the wind would calm by the following day so that we could visit Capri’s number one sight the next morning. Subside it did and the sun shone bright so we booked a ride with Gerardo in his small motorboat named, “Pizza Man,” from the Marina Grande. Outside the watery cave we transferred to a small rowboat that would allow us, lying down flat, to swoop through the two by two meter entry into the mystical sapphire blue cave as our oarsman grabbed a chain and pulled us in. Refracted sunlight from a hidden opening in the cave illuminates the grotto and tints the water such that all appears to shimmer with an iridescent pale blue light; it was just breathtaking.

Our final Caprese pursuit turned out to be one of the most beautiful walks we’ve ever taken, around the southeastern edge of the island. The guidebooks promised panoramas and the trek did not disappoint. Much more lush than the barren, rocky western side, this corner is covered with soaring pines, spindly cypress and a tangle of vines. A simply gorgeous trail wanders through the rainforest-like microclimate and passes the towering natural stone arch, descends to the Matermania Grotto and then winds around to the Punta Tragara and the Faraglioni, three huge limestone eggs that sit guarding the end of the Via Tragara. The crystal clear sea around the massive rock formations allowed us to see to its very depths and the pale sand underneath formed a perfect canvas for its translucent aquamarine.

On our final morning on Capri, we sat on our sunny balcony with an enchanting view over orange, lemon and grapefruit trees so close we could practically pick our own breakfast fruit. All sound but the rustling palms and a background of birdsong seemed to have evaporated from around us. A teeny gray and orange sparrow with shiny black eyes paid us a visit and he accepted our invitation to stay when we tossed him crumbs from our basket of breakfast cornetti. We imagined returning to Capri someday in the full finery of the season, but decided that it would be overrun with the stiletto-sandaled, Bermuda-shorted jet set licking the windows of the bright luxury emporia, the streets would be jammed, prices would triple and we just wouldn’t fit in. Better that we’d visited Capri in her heavenly natural glory -- the epitome of effortless luxury.

Pictures of our adventures:

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