If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider the Isle of Capri in the Bay of Naples. This tourist attraction popular with jet setters and many others lies in the Campania region of southwestern Italy on the Tyrrhenian Sea. Frankly, Capri is the opposite of undiscovered; it ranks with Rome, Florence, and Venice at the top of Italian tourist destinations. In fact, it is probably one of the most visited little islands in the world. Does that mean you should avoid it? While the ultimate answer is up to you, this article may help you make up your mind. Make sure to see our other articles on Campania destinations in this series; they cover Campaniaís capital city Naples, the historic ruins east of Naples, the area west of Naples, and finally Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast.
The British singer and vaudevillian Gracie Fields was the first (1934) to popularize the song The Isle of Capri whose initial stanza we quote: ď'Twas on the Isle of Capri that he found her; Beneath the shade of an old walnut tree; Oh, I can still see the flowers blooming 'round her; Where they met on the Isle of Capri.Ē Many others recorded this song including Frank Sinatra in 1957.
The island is quite small, only 4.2 miles (about 2.6 kilometers) long and 1.7 miles (1.1 kilometers) wide at its widest point. In general tourist cars are not permitted. If you donít feel like walking in this hilly terrain, there are usually plenty of taxicabs and buses. Weíll start our tour at Marina Grande on the north shore of the island, about one third of the way in from its easternmost point. Weíll head westward not far from the northern coast. Then we go south and back east until we get to the coast and head mostly north. Our final destination is Villa Jovis in Capriís northeast corner. There are too many destinations to list. Depending on your time and your interests, and on your pocketbook as well, you may not visit them all. Once you know what you want to see, get a good map and plan out your specific itinerary.
Marina Grande (Large Seashore), Capriís port, is divided into a commercial and a tourist section. Fishermen in small boats used to transfer tourists from ferries anchored in the bay onto the island. Some cruises still use this romantic means of transportation. You may want to spend some time in Marina Grande and see the Church of San Costanzo, Capriís oldest church. It is named for the Patriarch of Constantinople who upon returning home from Rome landed here to escape a violent storm. In gratitude he decided to stay and eventually became Capriís Patron Saint. Other local sights include the ruins of Roman Emperor Octavian Augustusí villa and the Bagni di Tiberio (Tiberius Baths) with its fish breeding ponds.
Take the Scala Fenicia (Phoenician Stairway), steps cut out of rock, from Marina Grande to the Rock of Capodimonte at the city gate of the medieval city of Anacapri described below. The view is really great, but you will have quite a climb. On the way you will pass the Byzantine Castello Barbarossa (Barbarossa Castle) named for the Saracen pirate who devastated the island. The Villa San Michele and its spectacular grounds mark Anacapriís ancient entrance. In the summer months Friday means evening concerts. Swedish citizens engaged in cultural work or research are really in luck, they can stay at the guesthouse. The villa once belonged to the expatriate Swede Axel Munthe who served as physician to the Swedish Royal Family and to Queen Victoria when she resided on Capri.
Do you wish you could stay in Capri forever? Walk to the nearby Sphinx Parapet overlooking the Bay of Naples. According to legend, touch the sphinxís hindquarters with your left hand while making a wish and it will be granted.
Anacapri, population about six thousand, is the second largest town on the island. This town is definitely less expensive than Capri Town, to be described later. From the main square, Piazza Vittoria, take a chairlift to the top of Monte Solaro, the islandís highest point at slightly less than 2,000 feet (650 meters). This mountainette is living proof that you donít have to get very high in the air for absolutely spectacular views. By the way, Monte Solara features over 850 species of plants. Casa Rossa is an unusual looking old red mansion that houses a permanent art exhibition called ďThe painted island,Ē illustrating daily Capri life in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Anacapri is home to many historic churches including the Thirteenth Century Church of St Maria of Constantinople, the Fifteenth Century Church of Santa Maria a Cetrella, the Sixteenth Century Church of Sant'Antonio (known as the sailorís church), the Sixteenth Century Church of Santa Sofia, and the Church of St Michele Arcangelo, built in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.
The Villa di Damecuta is one of the three standing villas built by the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Itís only a short ride from Anacapri. If the weatherís good and youíre feeling a bit ambitious you can walk it in about 30-40 minutes. Be sure to visit the tower and the two rooms that reputedly were Tiberiusís summer hideaway. This villa may have been hit by cinders when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. destroying the nearby cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The Villa di Damecuta actually served as a fort when the English and French were fighting for ownership of Capri.
The world famous Grotta Azzurra (Blue Grotto) on the northern coast of Capri is only about two miles (three kilometers) from Anacapri. Some feel that this tourist attraction put Capri on the map, so to speak. To get inside the Grotto you have to lie down inside a tiny boat that navigates its narrow passageway. On windy days the Grotto is closed to traffic because of the waves. The blue color of the water inside the grotto must be seen to be believed. As an added bonus objects in the water take on a silver color. On the downside you may have to wait a long time outside the grotto before spending your allotted few minutes inside. The best viewing time is between 11 AM and 1 PM.
The Belvedere del Migilara southwest of Anacapri offers a spectacular view and plenty of food for thought. Its lovely wooded Capri Philosophical Park contains about sixty tiles, each displaying a bilingual quotation from a great western philosopher: for example Conosci Te Stesso! Know Yourself! Delfi c. 600 B.C.
The Bay of Marina Piccola (Little Harbor) lies southeast of Anacapri. It was already a dock site in the time of the Romans. Gracie Fields lived here and immortalized Capri in her song quoted above. Other local sights include a Saracen Tower and the Cave of the Ferns formerly inhabited. Marina Piccola has probably the best beach on Capri, an island known for many attractions, but not particularly for its beaches.
With a population exceeding seven thousand Capri Town is the islandís largest municipality. You can get there by rail, bus, or taxi from the port. If you are ambitious you can climb your way up. Obviously you will find plenty of shopping, and the usual tourist facilities. The town center is officially called Piazza Umberto I, but most people say the Piazzetta home to the Museo Caprense Ignazio Cerio (Ignazio Cerio Centre of Capri) named for a doctor, archeologist, and naturalist. Its two thousand exhibits include specimens from Capri and all over the globe. The building itself is an old palazzo across from the Byzantine St. Stefano Church constructed towards the end of the First Millennium. There are several other historic churches in Capri Town.
Our next stop is the beautiful Giardini di Ausgusto (Augustusís Gardens) that didnít belong to the Roman Emperor Augustus but to Friedrich Alfred Krupp, son of the founder of a German industrial empire. Krupp resided in Capri towards the end of the Nineteenth Century and built a villa upon Roman ruins. Later he donated the gardens to the Town of Capri. A nearby road, Via Krupp, is a rock-hewn staircase. Unfortunately it is closed to the public. Tucked away in a corner of this industrialistís domain is the statue of a famous visitor to Capri, V. I. Lenin. Go figure.
The Fourteenth Century Certoso di San Giacomo (San Giacomo Monastery) was built by a count in gratitude for the birth of a male heir. Some say that it stands on the ruins of a villa belonging to the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Believe it or not this beautiful building was abandoned in 1808 for over a century. It has been restored on several occasions. Make sure to see its two beautiful cloisters and try to determine which one came with the original structure and which is merely an add-on.
Sights south of Capri Town include Punta Tragara, an upscale spa, and I Faraglioni, spectacular rock formations jutting into the Tyrrhenian Sea. These two points of interest could not be more opposite. The former was visited by Churchill and Eisenhower and renovated by Le Corbusier. The latter remains in a pristine state; its only inhabitants are blue lizards.
In the southeast corner of Capri lies the Villa Malaparte, the kind of house that people love or hate. This house was the setting of a 1963 Jean-Luc Godard film Le Mťpris (Contempt). Its owner was the surrealist Italian Fascist writer Curzio Malaparte who managed to get arrested in the days of Mussolini. Go north along the coast to visit the Arco Naturale, a giant natural archway in the Grotta di Matermania (Cave of Matrimony), a natural cave that was the site of rather unusual Roman religious rituals. There is no shortage of caves to visit on this island.
Our final stopping place is Villa Jovis, the largest of the twelve villas built by Emperor Tiberius to honor twelve Roman gods. The view is what one might expect from a built-for-the-ruler-of-the-world kind of villa. Thereís a cliff and you might guess its use given that there were no checks and balances in those days.
What about food? One can imagine that precious little food is now raised on this upscale island. At the same time fancy restaurants abound. You can probably get just about anything you want cooked to order. And a lot of the food is produced close by.
Letís suggest a sample menu, one of many. Start with Insalata Caprese (Mozzarella, Tomato, Basil, and Olive Oil). Then try Ravioli alla Caprese (Parmesan and Ricotta Egg Ravioli). For dessert indulge yourself with Torta Caprese (Chocolate and Almond Cake). Be sure to increase your dining pleasure by including local wines with your meal.
We conclude with a quick look at Campania wine. Campania ranks 9th among the 20 Italian regions for both acreage devoted to wine grapes and for total annual wine production. The region produces about 64% red and and close to 36% white wine, as there is little rosť. Campania produces 17 DOC wines. DOC stands for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, which may be translated as Denomination of Controlled Origin, presumably a high-quality wine. The G in DOCG stands for Garantita, but there is in fact no guarantee that such wines are truly superior. Only 2.8% of Campania wine carries the DOC or DOCG designation. There are three DOCG wines: the red Taurasi, the white Greco di Tufo, and the white Fiano di Avellino. I have tasted the Fiano and found it to be top of the line.
The Isle of Capri was well known for its wines even before it became the headquarters of the Roman Empire. As an expression of continuity some Capriís vineyards are situated among the ruins of Tiberiusís villas. Capri actually produces its own wine, imaginatively named Capri DOC. Capri DOC wine is mostly white but may be red. Both wines are made from specified Italian grape varieties with a certain percentage of local grapes. Because the local real estate is quite pricey, growers may try to overload the vineyards effectively diluting the wine. Be careful when you pay for Capri wine that you arenít sold wine from the neighboring island of Ischia.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website www.travelitalytravel.com devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website www.theworldwidewine.com with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.
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