The famous Isle of Capri sits just off the Sorrentine Peninsula at the point where the Bay of Naples meets the Bay of Salerno. It’s a huge mass of limestone, with small ports on the north and south shores. In the saddle that was formed between the eastern and western slopes of the island, Capri town sprawls up and over the landscape. It is reputed to have everything that those dreaming of a Mediterranean getaway long for. Up and around the higher of the two peaks, Anacapri has a series of narrow pedestrian streets lined with upscale shops, quaint cafés and intriguing churches.
The most famous attraction on Capri is the Grotta Azzurra (Blue Cave) where small boats take visitors into the cave to view the blue light that bounces off the white sandy bottom of the cave. At the opposite end of the island, the ruins of Villa Jovis (Villa Jupiter), sees fewer tourists, but is not less astounding, considering that Emperor Tiberius commanded all of the Roman Empire from its lofty location.
There is evidence of human habitation on Capri dating back to the Paleolithic Age, but the Greeks left more of a mark on the island. Emperor Augustus came for regular rest and relaxation, and Tiberius retired to the island at the end of his reign in AD 27. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that writers, artists and the odd Russian revolutionary arrived to make Capri and modern tourist haunt.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We weren’t in any hurry to travel on the ferry to Capri, especially seeing that we were planning to stay for at least a month in Sorrento. We waited for a warm sunny day with little wind so that the sea would be as calm as possible. Although the ferry takes little more than a half hour, I am prone to seasickness and I didn’t want anything to spoil our visit to this fabled island.
Unfortunately we got slightly incorrect advice about the ferry timings, and arrived at the terminal at 10:30am when the ferries were running at 9:00am and 11:30am. It makes sense that there are fewer crossings in the off-season, but it meant we lost an hour on Capri and had to cool our heels down by the Marina Piccolo. We used the time wisely though, and reread the information about Capri in our guidebook.
The seas were as calm as a mirror and we were able to snag a great seat near an open window on the upper deck. I was surprised to see how many people boarded the ferry, though most of them were locals and there were few other tourists. You can always spot the tourists, because like us, they aren’t dressed for winter weather.
Those few minutes of rereading the Lonely Planet can in really handy because we went straight to the tourist office at the marina and after learning that the ‘Blue Grotto’ was closed, we quickly purchased tickets for the funicular and the local bus so that we could zip over to Anacapri. We were told that access to the grotto was only one metre high, so boats weren’t able to get into the interior of the cave.
I can’t say we were terribly disappointed. We had heard mixed reviews about the ‘Blue Grotto’ and it was quite an expensive place to visit as there was a steep entrance fee and visitors had to pay the boatman to take them into the cave. We’d skipped riding on a gondola in Venice, missing the grotto wouldn’t crush our travel bug one bit.
We rode the funicular up to the town of Capri, saving ourselves a steep climb and plenty of time, and as our luck would have it, the bus was waiting and almost ready to depart. This meant that we weren’t able to get a seat, but that didn’t matter because it was a short ride and the tall windows meant that we could see the hair-raising cliffs bordering the edge of the narrow road. We got down at the small square and launched ourselves onto the pedestrian streets of Anacapri.
We chose to visit on a Thursday afternoon and though there were lovely shops lining the narrow cobbled streets, nothing much was open at this time of year. There were clearly signs that the businesses were not completely shut down for the winter; I imagine that they open on the weekend when tourists and day-trippers come from Naples or even Rome. We don’t really buy things to weigh ourselves down, so this wasn’t a problem for us, and besides, we love it when the small streets aren’t clogged with tour groups. We’re free to wander at our leisure and take photos without people getting in the way.
We came to a small piazza and I noted an elderly woman standing at the door to a lovely church. When I looked at the signboard near the door, I realized that this was one building I did want to enter. I had read that it had a beautiful floor, completely covered with glazed tiles depicting the Garden of Eden. Anil wasn’t at all keen at seeing yet another church, so I paid the very reasonable entrance fee of 2€ and stepped inside.
I was so glad that I hadn’t bypassed this unique church. The floor was even more beautiful than I had imagined and I’d never seen anything quite like it, anywhere. Visitors are asked to refrain from using a flash when they are taking photos, and the only thing that marred the visit was the presence of two German men who took countless photos with their camera flashing at every turn.
The rest of our time in Anacapri was spent wandering around the small town admiring the whitewashed buildings and having a light lunch in the warm afternoon sunshine. We made our way back to the square to catch the bus back to Capri on the lower slopes. I would have loved to walk down the 800+ steps, but we just didn’t have enough time.
After learning that there were interesting ruins remaining from Emperor Tiberius’ time as ruler of the Roman Empire, we decided to hike to the highest point on the eastern part of Capri to explore them. This route took us quickly up and out of the town and we walked along stone paved paths, higher and higher. The route was described as an easy walk, but that must have been because the narrow path was paved along the full distance.
What the guidebook didn’t mention that it was rather steep at times and because we didn’t really know how far we had to go, we rushed it a little and got winded every now and then. Beautiful homes and gardens bordered the path on either side, and fortunately the stone walls were low enough that we could enjoy the scenery and the views off to the sea in the distance.
We seemed to be the only visitors on the path the Villa Jovis and we were beginning to think about turning around when we spotted the ruins high above us. Once we saw our destination, we were more determined to carry on, and a short time later me met a young American on his way down. He told us it was well worth the effort, that the views were incredible.
So encouraged, we found ourselves at the gates in short order and were greeted by a very friendly caretaker. He pointed out the route that we should take through the ruins and reminded us that the site was due to close at 4:00pm. We had just over a half hour left. We we’re too disappointed because we’ve come to realize now that it gets dark quite early at this time of year, and we had almost an hour’s walk to get back down to Capri. We didn’t want to be walking in the dark, even though we knew the path would be well lit between the homes and shops.
The ruins themselves weren’t all that interesting; pretty much what we had expected, but it was thrilling to imagine Tiberius commanding the entire Roman Empire from this perch. We stood at the highest point and looked across to the mainland, admiring the tip of the Sorrento Peninsula and the Amalfi Coast to the right hand side. This was our first glimpse of the famous landscape and we looked forward to exploring the towns of Positano, Amalfi and Ravello in the weeks to come.
Near the entrance gate, we stopped to admire the jaw-dropping cliff called
It wasn’t just the fact that we were walking downhill that made the return trip more pleasant; as we walked along we met dozens of mothers coming up the path with their school-aged children. Everyone seemed to be in a great mood. The mothers chatted with each other while toting groceries or babies and the children seemed delighted to be outdoors after being confined in the schoolrooms.
A couple of times we were passed by small, motorized vehicles carrying workers to the port or elderly residents up to their homes. We had spent most of our time on Capri during the relatively quiet period when families gather for lunch in their homes and then rest after a heavy meal. Now we were seeing the town come alive, there were people everywhere going about their usual late afternoon routines.
With the streetlights coming on and the sun setting off in the distance, it was enchanting and definitely the best part of the day. We rode the funicular down to the port and when we realized that we had almost a full hour to wait for the next ferry, we walked past the touristy outdoor cafés and made for a small bar near the fishing boats.
It was chilly now that the sun was down so we chose to sit inside instead of on the outdoor patio. While we quenched our thirst with tall glasses of very cold beer, we watched a number of men come in and grab a small snack at the bar. A couple of then downed a quick espresso, but none of them ordered a drink.
It wasn’t until we received our tab for the beers that I understood why. We were clearly charged tourist prices; those labourers would never put down 7€ for a single beer. We didn’t expect the price to be so high, but the beer was cold, and we had been very thirsty. I don’t know that we would have walked away if we had asked the price in advance.
The ferry ride back to Sorrento seemed to take no time at all, perhaps because we couldn’t see anything in the pitch dark until we were almost at the marina. I was surprised to see the ferry filled with dozens of work weary labourers, many of the same ones we had seen in the pub. The ferry stopped but none seemed to move from their seats, so we stayed in ours.
We thought we must have stopped at another small port on the way back, and were surprised when someone shouted out ‘Sorrento’. We jumped up and hurried to the gangplank and off the boat. Most of the passengers remained slumped in their seats. It was then I realized that most of the workers much be commuting from Naples and they still had almost an hour’s trip home.
This made sense because Capri and Sorrento are expensive places for people to live, while Naples has a history of high unemployment. The travelling added a great deal of time to a long day of work, but at least these men could support their families. As we stepped onto the quay and made our way up the steep steps to Sorrento town, we took a moment to count our blessings. We weren’t really a part of the jet-setting crowd, but neither were we struggling to make ends meet.