Capri calling

Author: Kendall Hill
Photography: James Geer

It is, to be honest, a little daunting arriving at an island that has been eulogised by everyone from the emperor Augustus to Somerset Maugham, intending to capture a nuance of its personality that has not been immortalised already in print or on film by any one of the millions of visitors who have holidayed here since ancient times.

Even more so when you realise, as you'd feared, that it's overrun with daytrippers from cruise ships and the Italian mainland who throng its narrow streets - mere alleyways, really - and threaten to sweep you up in their conga line of tick-the-boxes tourism.

Follow that umbrella!

But the surprise of Capri, the eternal gift of this magical place, is that you need only detour from the well-trodden cobbles to find yourself at one with the blue isle, tramping through fragrant scrub with skittish green lizards, thrumming cicadas and riffling pines for company. And in those solitary moments, dazzled by the intense blue of sea and sky and dizzy from the potent cocktail of wild herbs and salt air, it is easy to understand how Augustus became so besotted with this speck in the Mediterranean that he convinced the Neapolitans to give it to him in exchange for the neighbouring island of Ischia.

Capri has earned many reputations in the two millennia since then. Augustus liked to refer to it as Apragopolis, the "city of do-nothings" whose citizens spent their days feasting and carousing. A generation later the island briefly became the most important in the ancient world when Tiberius moved here in 27AD, ruling the Roman empire from his hilltop Villa of Jupiter until his death a decade later. It seems bizarre to think that a rock just six kilometres long and three wide could ever be an imperial seat; even Tiberius seemed to acknowledge this improbability when he described Capri as "parva insula… sed aemula Romae" - a small island, but a rival to Rome.

Its imperial legacy lives on in the ruins of once-lavish villas constructed under Augustus and his successor Tiberius, and in the grotto nymphaea dedicated to water spirits with their faded marbles and statues. But history holds less appeal than celebrity for today's visitors. Artists, writers and eccentrics make the pilgrimage here in the shadow of such luminaries as Henry James and Graham Greene. After the literati came the glitterati of the 1950s and '60s, when the likes of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton descended on Capri and reinforced its reputation as the Isle of Love. Every second hotel celebrates those halcyon days of Hollywood stardom with a wall of photographs of screen idols at play.

But you realise soon after disembarking the hydrofoil at Marina Grande that Capri's glamorous reputation is something of a chimera. Tantalising images in brochures and magazines promise an encounter with the style and dolce vita embodied by charismatic former guests such as Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant, but that lifestyle is not attainable for mere mortals. The aristocratic Capri captured in gelatin prints and breathless histories has largely been superseded - stampeded even - by the advent of mass tourism. If it even exists today it is hidden behind the security perimeters of the island's impossibly elegant villas, closely guarded by the fortunate few who, through birthright or bank balance, call this enchanted isle home.

The paradox of modern-day Capri is that the crowds who clog the central piazzetta or parade past Prada and Gucci hoping for a brush with fame are missing the island's true charms, which are found not in the ghosts of celebrities past but in its wild coastal walks.

"We have glamour more in the summer, and nature the rest of the time," explains Donatella di Marino from Carthusia, the perfume laboratory on Via Matteotti that bottles the island's botanical essences - wild carnation, fig, lemon - for discerning customers around the globe. "It's the nature that's the real attraction of the island for me. If you want to know the island, you have to walk."

It is excellent advice. One morning, before cruise-ship customers have colonised the narrow byways of Anacapri in search of handmade sandals, crisp linen shifts and cooling gelato, I slip past Santa Sofia church into the bougainvillea- and geranium-lined labyrinth of Le Boffe until the streets peter out to bush tracks. Just 15 minutes from the town centre the warm, late-summer breeze is scented with pine from the needles crushed underfoot. Wild asparagus, apparently delicious when boiled and seasoned with lemon and pepper, thrives on the verges.

Villa Damecuta, one of 12 cliff-top residences built under Tiberius, is around here somewhere. I check directions with a municipal worker on a break enjoying his blue-collar view over the Bay of Naples, and he smiles broadly and nods that, yes, I'm on the right track.

The gate to the compound at the end of the path is locked but the fencing is so derelict I climb through it, walk past the abandoned entry booth and cross a glade of pines to reach the villa remains.

Villa Damecuta was abandoned during the 79AD eruption of Vesuvius, whose cone is clearly visible on the far shore of the gulf. The humble ruins - a former guest area, private rooms and a medieval watchtower - are nothing much, but the scenery is phenomenal. A heart-stopping bird's-eye panorama of the bay from Punta Campanella on the Sorrentine Peninsula to Ischia. There is no one to disturb me so I spend the next hour admiring the spectacle to a soundtrack of birdsong, wind in the pines and boat engines humming below.

There is a constant coming and going of yachts and speedboats along the coastline. I guess they must be heading to the Blue Grotto, the sunlit marine cave that is Capri's major tourist attraction. La Grotta Azzurra was a nymphaeum in Roman times but stood neglected for centuries until a German poet rediscovered it in 1826, igniting the island's new age of tourism. "From that point on the legend of the magic spread all over Europe," local guide Aldo Salomone explains.

I have a vague urge to see the grotto so leave Damecuta and stumble onto a rock staircase that cuts a straight line down to the seafront and Orrico fort, where Napoleon's troops overwhelmed the British and claimed Capri for France in 1808. Painted ceramic plaques fixed to rocks announce this as the sentiero dei fortini, a trail linking the redoubts strung like a stone necklace along the west coast. The route is shaded by myrtle, mastic, fig and oak trees and perfumed with wild rosemary and Phoenician juniper. The vegetation has been sculpted by the elements into windswept silver and olive forms that complement the stark white limestone bedrock and background blues of sea and sky. The combination is stunning from every angle. Sometimes I stand on the spot and rotate 360 degrees to take in the kaleidoscope of gorgeousness all around.

The path emerges back onto the narrow, twisting ribbon of road that links the low-lying marina to hilltop Anacapri. There are signs to the Blue Grotto but I get diverted by a cliff-front café and lido called Gradola, where tables and chairs painted Aegean blue and crisp white offer ringside seats to shimmering sea vistas. Only a handful of people are here, sunbaking on the rock terrace below or diving into the Mediterranean. I admire their enthusiasm but go for a glass of falanghina instead. It is a cheap drop, served tepid, but not even bad wine can dull the lustre of the setting or my feeling of good fortune. The Neapolitan waiter serving me feels equally blessed. "We got everything wrong that we can do," he says of his home city. "But for six months of the year I work in paradise."

Three days later I return to tackle the Blue Grotto in the company of Signor Salomone, a 20-year veteran of the island's tourist trade and well versed in the elaborate theatre of Capri's premier entertainment. First we must queue behind dozens of others on narrow steps above the sea, waiting our turn to board one of the gozzo rowboats captained by a lively barcaiolo. A corporal directs the traffic mayhem in front of the grotto. There are more than 20 boats bobbing on the choppy waves and more still inside the grotto; the backlog gives us ample time to visit the floating ticket booth to pay the $28 per person fee.

When our number is up the barcaiolo orders us to lie flat against the hull before he steers us towards the entrance, waits for an ebb in the waves and then paddles through the precarious, metre-high opening. Inside, the Tardis-like cave extends for almost 60 metres and is 25 metres wide.

The pitch black lasts only seconds before our eyes adjust and register the ethereal shimmer of the rock walls. When we sit up we are rewarded with the sensational luminosity of the sea beneath us, a whorl of mercury blue that appears to glow with an inner light. "It looks as if it were artificial, you know, but it's all natural," says Salomone.

The more operatic boatmen are belting out Neapolitan numbers - "O Sole Mio", "Santa Lucia" - that turn the cave into an acoustic echo chamber and add a surreal tone to the experience. "It's a magic place," Salomone smiles.

Almost every visitor to Capri ticks off the Blue Grotto and many, like us, also sign up for a one-hour, 17-kilometre circuit of the island by speedboat. It is the ideal way to understand the scale of the place and witness some of its star turns. From Marina Grande the boat passes beneath the 300-metre cliffs from which Tiberius is said to have tossed the poor souls who displeased him. There are fabulous photo opportunities with the candy-coloured bathing boxes of chic Marina Piccola and Via Krupp, an architectural wonder of a road that unfurls against the rockface. The magnificent Villa Castiglione sits astride a natural arch, on the site of one of Tiberius's original 12 Roman villas. At other times there is nothing to see but towering faces of chiselled limestone freckled green with pines. A savage place at odds with Capri's more worldly reputation.

The wildness is even more pronounced on a walk with Salomone to the Matermania grotto, along "a very nice footpath where there is only nature, landscape, sky, rocks and sea". At an imposing eroded arch above Matermania Bay there are no houses, no people, just raw and rugged nature. He leads us on to a small lookout where we stand alone, staring over the dramatic Faraglioni rock spurs from where the sirens tried to lure Ulysses to his death. The coastal route rejoins civilisation at the romantic promenade of Via Tragara, where handsome hotels like the Casa Morgano and the Scalinatelli keep their gardens looking as impeccably groomed as their guests. Tragara leads to Via Camerelle, the street of "little rooms" - a reference to the Roman cisterns now transformed into flash boutiques selling Blumarine, Dsquared2 and Missoni.

I ask Salomone if he ever gets tired of living on Capri, it being so small and overrun with people. "No, I don't think so," he says. But he admits it has been difficult managing the pressures of mass tourism, the mordi e fuggi or "bite and escape" daytrippers who rush in and out each day like the tides.

"Tell me how it's possible to grasp the nature of Capri if you only have two hours? They cannot sense the slow rhythms of life, the living community," he argues. "If you come to Capri you have to stay at least three or four days; otherwise it's only a sort of Disneyland."

There is no shortage of fine places to stay overnight, but for me the Capri Palace Hotel & Spa in Anacapri is perfect. It feels apart from the island, a sanctuary almost, and its position on top of the plateau annexes some of the loveliest views. (The finest of all are from the peak of Monte Solaro, reached via chairlift, where on a clear day you can see all the way to Acquafredda in Basilicata, about 100 nautical miles away, and the entire sweep of the Gulf of Naples from the Ligali islet opposite Positano to the staggered assembly of Ischia, Procida, Naples and Vesuvius. It's the kind of view you might get in heaven.)

The family-owned Capri Palace opened in 1960 and has been renovated progressively since 2001 to create a suite of new suites including some inspired by the artists Magritte, Kandinsky and Warhol and one that pays homage to screen queen Gwyneth Paltrow.

The two-bedroom, two-pool penthouse has black-and-white deco accents and Paltrow's image everywhere - hanging on the walls, on the base of the pool and transposed into a repro Roman fresco depicting a toga-clad Gwyneth swooning before a handsome lyre player.

My digs are rather more sedate. The large and airy room has a floor of handmade white tiles, bold stripey accents on walls and furnishings, and a deep balcony with sun lounges, formal garden and Capri laid out before you in CinemaScope widescreen.

At the hotel's two-star restaurant L'Olivo, 31-year-old Ischian chef Andrea Migliaccio fashions modern regional dishes where quality produce works its magic in the likes of basil risotto with cuttlefish and bottarga. The sultry room is lit by film-set lights and 300 candles, and furnished with pinstriped cashmere armchairs and sofas.

There's also a casual bistro and outdoor terrace bar, added in 2011, that blends poolside style and sunsets. The Capri Beauty Farm, the hotel's smartly named spa, is famous for its skin peels, diet programs and a patented "leg school" residential program to tackle cellulite and varicose veins.

Far more compelling for me is the hotel's beach club and sun-drenched seafront restaurant Il Riccio. Chef Salvatore Elefante sources produce from his native Campania, including tomatoes from the slopes of Vesuvius, buffalo mozzarella, Gragnano pasta and seafood straight off the boats. Elefante's trademark plates are salt-crusted fish and sea urchin spaghetti served with lemon and those Vesuvian tomatoes. His precise cooking, the dreamy setting and a convenient dinghy service for superyacht guests attract all sorts of somebodies including, the fortnight before we visit, El Bullí legend Ferran Adrià.

By day five I am keen for a glimpse inside the life of a real local. Veteran journalist Anna Maria Boniello obliges, showing me around a family apartment and giving a guided commentary of the old neighbourhood, remarkably untouched by tourism, where she has lived for more than six decades.

Boniello has reported for the local Il Mattino newspaper for 25 years and is the island's correspondent for national broadcaster RAI and the press agency ANSA. Few people know and understand the place like she does.

"Capri is like Janus, with two faces," she says as we sit in her office, tucked off the central Piazzetta.

"For six months you are on a high level, very stressed, and for six months you are on standby. It means living in a place where 8000 to 10,000 people come every day during high season, and where, for the rest of the year, it's very difficult to find more than 10 people around." (Capri's permanent population is just 12,000.)

Like many island-dwellers she laments how tourism has evolved. "People used to come to live the life of Capri, not to consume it. Today it's just a way to exhibit yourself; they come for just a few hours to say they have been here."

Before we part, Signora Boniello wants to show me something. A "secret", she grins. She leads the way out of her office and down a lane, stopping at a side entrance to Sant'Anna church, one of the oldest on the island. She pulls out a key, turns the lock and ushers me inside, pointing to an alcove in the foyer where a 700-year-old fresco was rediscovered during renovation works last year. The vertical line of a crucifix and two outstretched arms are clearly visible, as are several apostles gathered below the form of Jesus Christ. Signora Boniello reckons the painting probably dates from the church's construction in the 13th century. There are other, equally historic frescoes in Sant'Anna but this one had been completely forgotten until a few months back when labourers chipping away at centuries' worth of plasterwork found traces of paint beneath and unveiled the hidden gem.

Her secret fresco seems symbolic of the island itself. What lies on the surface is undeniably beautiful. Impressively, overwhelmingly so. But spend a little more time, dig a little deeper, venture a little further than the rest of the pack, and the real treasures of Capri begin to reveal themselves.



Qantas/Emirates fly via Dubai to Rome, from where there are regular trains to Naples central station. From there catch a cab to the Molo Beverello hydrofoil terminal and embark on the 45-minute crossing to Capri.

Capri Palace Hotel & Spa
Hotel, L'Olivo restaurant, the Beauty Farm spa and Mariorita designer department store open April to October. Rooms from $680/night; bookings Via Capodimonte 14

Capri Tiberio Palace
Chic design hotel in Capri town where floral mosaic floors and geometric textiles meet library nooks and a breezy terrace bar with views over Marina Piccola. Rooms from $458/night. Via Croce 11-15, Capri town

Gradola beach bar, café and sundeck
Via Gradola, Anacapri

Il Riccio Ristorante and Beach Club
Open April to October. Via Gradola, 4-6 Località Grotta Azzurra

The Blue Grotto
Boats run daily from 9am until dusk, but waves can cut access at any time.

Villa San Michele
Exceptional villa, now a museum, built by Swedish doctor Axel Munthe. Remarkable views, glorious gardens, colourful history (Oscar Wilde, Henry James and Rainer Maria Rilke have all been house guests) - even an Egyptian sphinx. Open daily. Viale Axel Munthe 34, Anacapri

Carthusia I Profumi di Capri
Various island outlets.

Capri Flor
Premium flower shop run by two great grandsons of Mimi Ruggiero, who designed the grand gardens of many aristocratic villas last century. Via Tragara 3

La Parisienne
The place to come for Capri pants, made to order or ready-to-wear. Piazza Umberto I 7, Capri town, +39 081 837 77 50

L'Arte del Sandalo Caprese
Since 1958 Antonio Viva has designed Caprese sandals from pure Italian leathers for the likes of Jacqueline Onassis and Sophia Loren. Custom-made or ready-to-wear. Via Giuseppe Orlandi 75, Anacapri

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