In Capri, love of nature and lust for shopping
Herald Tribune (25/07/2005)
Few specks of land yield as much romance as Capri, the fabled island that rises like a mirage from the Bay of Naples, just off the Sorrento peninsula of southern Italy. It is here that some say Odysseus resisted the seductive but deadly song of the Sirens, and the Roman Emperor Tiberius caroused in orgiastic debauchery. The Russian novelist Gorki lived in ex ile on Capri, as did the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, whose stay in the early 1950s inspired the film "Il Postino." Later, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis stopped by while on the yacht Christina, buying capri pants on her trips ashore.
Like most visitors, I recently set out for Capri dreaming of its storied past. Like Odysseus, I was awakened by the voice of a temptress though this voice wasn't so pretty. "I'm going to Capri, and I'm going to shop!" it shrieked, foreshadowing the Ferragamo, Prada, Versace and other designer boutiques that have taken over the place.
Indeed, those words came from neither Sirens nor the ghost of Onassis, but rather a middle aged woman who was boarding the ferry from Sorrento. Wearing a denim jacket and a khaki sun visor, she was among the hordes of daytrippers that descend on Capri in the spring and summer.
In fact, there are two Capris. One is filled with those who, taking advantage of the island's closeness to Naples, Sorrento and the AmalfI coast and avoiding its high prices, come in the morning and leave with the evening tide. The other is a sun soaked playground for the rich and famous, from Tom Cruise to Tommy Hilfiger and countless celebrities, moguls and politicians in between. Many keep their own private palaces, like the Ferragamo family, or sail in on their yachts, as the Microsoft co founder Paul Allen sometimes does.
Others can be found at the Grand Hotel Quisisana, Capri Palace and other five star hangouts where women in big clunky jewelry congregate alongside men with cashmere sweaters slung over their shoulders and sunglasses propped in their hair. "Everybody passes through Capri, from Jennifer Lopez to prime ministers. E ver y body," said the crystal heiress Fiona Swarovski, whose house there was owned by the British music hall singer Gracie Fields.
Most people arrive at Capri by hydrofoil or ferry, usually from Naples or Sorrento. From a distance, the island, which is about 6.5 kilometers long and about 2.5 kilometers wide, or 4 miles long and 1.5 miles wide, looks like not much more than an outcrop, a sculptured rock dwarfed within a surreal panorama that spans Mount Vesuvius, Naples and the larger island of Ischia. Its precipitous profile and jagged peaks are forbidding, and the hazy Mediterranean air gives it the veil of fantasy.
As one nears, shades of cerulean and turquoise emerge from the water. Sea gulls swarm along the steep walls of the coastal rock, where stone and stucco villas cling as nimbly as the goats that also inhabit the island. Capri begins to look real, but no less spectacular.
A funicular whisks one up from the Marina Grande, where the ferries arrive, to Capri town. Perched high above the water, it is the larger and more developed of the island's two settlements. Anacapri, its lower key sister, beckons from a plateau above. Their narrow streets wind along hillsides, between whitewashed facades and among gardens scented with juniper, myrtle and lemon trees.
But the center of the action is the Piazza Umberto I, known simply as the Piazzetta, a small and colorful square beneath the clock tower in Capri town. Paved in volcanic stone and surrounded by walls in white, yellow and sienna, it is where the backpack crowd mixes with the well heeled under the bright awnings and umbrellas of its several outdoor cafés.
It is also where the shopping starts. In recent years, every luxury brand and then some have colonized the area, marching in single file into the nearby Via Camerelle. This spring, Pucci opened a new store on that street, marking a return to the island, where its founder, Emilio Pucci, opened his first shop in the early 1950s.
Those feeling a little shopped out can head for the tourist attractions, the travelers' equivalent of comfort food. A chairlift takes passengers from a spot near the Capri Palace in Anacapri to the top of Monte Solaro, about 590 meters high, the island's highest peak. The views are stupendous, and getting there is half the fun.
Capri should also be explored from the water. A range of boat excursions and rentals are available, but day trippers with limited time can take hourlong tours around the island from the Marina Grande.
Besides going past sites like the Faraglioni outcrops and the island's many grottoes, including the famed Blue Grotto, they offer a rare glimpse of the Casa Malaparte. That legendary modern house, with its stepped roof and Pompeiian red walls, was built by the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte and featured in Jean Luc Godard's 1963 film "Le Mépris" (Contempt).
On a recent boat tour, the guide pointed to two other houses, saying they belonged to Sophia Loren and Giorgio Armani. The passengers became excited; too bad none of it was true. But such are the celebrity obsessions that must be catered to.
The most famous name to have actually lived on Capri is, of course, Tiberius. And one can walk among the ruins of the Villa Jovis, the largest of the 12 villas that the emperor is said to have built for himself there. Nearby, a precipice called the Salto di Tiberio is where, the story goes, he hurled wayward subjects into the sea.
Tiberius started a tradition of decadence and hedonism that the Caprese maintained well into the 20th century. "There were pajama parties, white flower parties, pink parties," said Roberto Russo, the retail magnate and Capri native who owns nearly 30 of the island's upscale boutiques, including the new Pucci franchise. Russo was referring to the soirées given by an American, Bob Hornstein, who lived in a house called the Villa Capricorno.
These days, however, creatures of the night wind up at Anema e Core (Via Sella Orta 39/e), a tavern run by a local fixture named Guido, where pop stars are known to take to the mike and modern day revelers do that thing they do: dance on tables. "Everybody sings there: Mariah Carey, e ver y body," said Russo. (Notice a trend?) They might also head to Pantarei (Via Lo Palazzo 1), a sleek lifestyle temple that opened last fall with a popular lounge bar and terrace. It also has a spa; you can drink at night and treat your hangover with an exfoliation the next day.
Indeed, many will say that Capri is best in the evening, once the flood of day trippers has receded. It becomes a quieter paradise of simple pleasures derived from both its shimmering artifice and its stunning natural beauty, whether it's for stars of the human kind or for those that are celestial. "The moon from Capri is absolutely amazing," Swarovski said this summer. "Especially around now, it comes up from between the Faraglioni and goes from yellow to pale orange to white, white, white. It's difficult to describe; you have to see it to believe it."
Exploring the island
WHERE TO STAY The famous Grand Hotel Quisisana, Via Camerelle 2,
(39 081) 837 0788, www.quisi.com, is in the heart of Capri town. Double rooms in the high season start at €330.