The appeal of Capri is ENDLESS: a hedonistic yet confidently unassuming dolce vita that has CHARMED Roman Emperors and Hollywood stars alike, but finding its real essence among the loud tourist facade is a CHALLENGE of its own.
The sun is low and the town is languid from sleep when I arrive in Capri by ferry. Already I begin to understand the enduring appeal of the island. It feels like taking that first gasp of fresh air when jumping out of the ocean; fresh, serene. They’re slightly paradoxical adjectives to use, given the glamorous and hedonistic history of the island. Jackie Kennedy Onassis made it her second home in summer, strolling around the whitewashed bougainvillea-covered streets with Lee Radziwill and Valentino Garavani. Brigitte Bardot filmed Le Mepris at the scenic Casa Malaparte, appearing on the architectural wonder’s symmetric cliffside stairs and rooftop in what would become iconic examples of French cinematography. Centuries before that, in AD 27, Roman Emperor Tiberius built the Villa Jovis, where his life was either modest and secluded, or one full of debauchery—you choose what legend to believe.
We take the funicular to the piazzetta, the social heart of the island. Tourists haven’t arrived yet, locals are still sat on benches chatting away, and restaurants are opening up the striped awnings of the various cafés that make up the square. I always make the point of being early, and for good reason. This mise-en-scène feels like catching a glimpse of rehearsals before a play—a sight into the real Capri before the cacophonous typically-Italian tourist charade is put up. The challenge is navigating around it to unmask the crux of the island.
Navigating both metaphorically and literally, that is. Seeing Capri by boat feels like second-nature. How else will you see the Faraglioni—the three spurs of rock rising up from the sea, and traverse the tunnel of love, unforgettable regardless of your romantic situation? Or visit the Blue Grotto and experience first hand the quirks of the voyage, like boarding a tiny boat in choppy waters, or listening to opera sung inside the luminescent cave? If not, do it simply for la dolce vita; to close your eyes and feel the Mediterranean sun, the gentle breeze, and the swashes of sea water against your skin.
Suddenly it’s midday and Capri has woken up from its lethargy to enter a frantic pace impossible to keep up with. We need some calm, and take this chance to visit Villa San Michele, home of author Axel Munthe. When faced with the option of hiking up the Phoenician stairs—once, the only means of communication between Capri and Anacapri—or taking a taxi, we choose the former, perhaps naïvely so. My cashmere sweater, lack of water, and mental unpreparedness, quickly turned the walk up 1000 flights of stairs from pleasant to arduous. Yet upon finally entering the gates and walking through the veranda, sun flickering through the leaves, the hike becomes worth it. Before me is a view, like a postcard, of the Marina Grande, framed by the cliffs and the sea. Everything seems washed in blue and stands still, and the villa is so high up, the only sounds that reach us are the ferry horn and the wind. Just when Capri was waking up from its doze, I enter it, all at once.
I spend the afternoon in an idle state, somewhere between denial and daydreaming. We have burrata and homemade pizza at Buca di Bacco, and grab a gelato on our way to Giardini di Agusto. When passing through the entire town of Capri, and storefronts of labels like Fendi or Hermès, it’s bemusing to see how style is so imbued in the spirit of the island that high fashion stores seem as old as the sun-bleached stucco buildings themselves, instead of glaringly out of place, as would happen elsewhere. It was Jackie O who walked here in perfect ensembles of maxi skirts and gladiator sandals, or a silk scarf artfully wrapped around her neck, after all.
It’s nearing 5pm and the last ferry back is soon to leave the island. A faint sense of urgency builds up, and yet when we arrive at the gardens, time stands still. There’s a bench on a cliffside terrace, and beyond it, the deep sea and the Faraglioni. Sitting there seems like the most natural thing in the world, and weeks later, I sometimes catch myself watching the boats pass and listening to the careful whisper of the trees, my mind back on that terrace. On my way back to Sorrento I still can’t define Capri—it’s entrenched in an endless menagerie of paradoxes, a world of its own. Glamorous yet understated; secluded and bold; otherworldly yet traditional. Perhaps therein lies its appeal. After all, to define is to limit.
See my Jackie Kennedy Onassis in Capri post at This is Glamorous