Capri is a place that I’ve been to three times in total. On one hand, I adore it – it’s a sun-kissed slice of Mediterranean beauty, where an unbelievably blue sea sparkles under an equally azure sky. It is a place of pure pleasure, clean and prosperous. If you’re so inclined, and if you have the money for it, you can embark on a truly luxurious experience which recalls the glamour and class of old Hollywood, sipping champagne on a yacht off the coast, or sampling the high-end shops. It can be a heaven on Earth.
On the other hand, some of the people who visit there can be pretty shitty.
But I get ahead of myself! The day dawned, bright and warm. After my morning battle of wills with the hotel breakfast, in which the staff cunningly make a huge batch of delicious, perfectly-crisped, mouthwateringly perfect bacon for the buffet breakfast, knowing that I will fall upon it like a Survivor contestant on chocolate, I headed down to Sorrento’s Marina Piccola.
The ticket office for the ferries in Sorrento is in a sort-of sunken courtyard, and there is usually an air of confusion over the place. This is because each serving hatch has a destination printed over the top of it, but different ferry companies operate from each one. So two different hatches might both say that you can buy a ticket to Naples, but are you buying tickets for the car ferry, or the passenger ship, or the high-speed hovercraft? You stand at the dock, ticket crushed in your sweaty paw, before realising that no matter which time or ferry company is printed on your ticket, that you generally get herded on to the same boat anyway.
And thus I found myself on a boat headed to Capri, standing on the top deck and enjoying the views, whilst a member of the boat crew toured the gangways attempting to sell tote bags with a jaunty “Capri!” printed on the sides. At this point, I’ll give you my top tip for Capri: it’s not pronounced in the way you think it is (unless, of course, you are thinking of the correct way). Instead of the “ca-PRI” that we tend to use here in the UK and in the US, it’s actually “CAP-ri”. Use this information. Separate yourself from the hoi-polloi.
Indeed, as I looked around the top deck of the boat, there appeared to be a few people who were trying to separate themselves from the hoi-polloi already. Bizarrely, this conspired to make them blend into the crowd. I’ve never seen so many identical-looking people. The women, whether younger or older, were wearing skinny white jeans, with a pastel-coloured blouse and matching scarf. The men wore chinos, shirt with a jersey slung over the shoulders, and a trilby. Everyone wore sunglasses. Everything was designer. I suddenly felt the spike of anxiety at standing out, in my plain old denim shorts and t-shirt. I edged towards the gangplank even before we docked at Capri’s harbour, suddenly keen to be away from the inscrutable gazes.
On arrival at the harbour, I walked towards the funicular railway at a brisk pace, keen to put a bit of distance between myself and the hordes who were about to descend on the easiest route to Capri Town. The funicular is good fun, and has some pretty awesome views, before it deposits you at your destination, the elegant chaos of Capri Town.
The initial landing after you disembark from the funicular has the feeling of a riot in a branch of Ralph Lauren; it’s unseemly but you can’t take your eyes off it. You’re torn between wanting to get out of there, and desperately hoping that you witness two posh ladies battering each other with crocodile-leather handbags. In Capri’s case, it’s dodging the crowds and the tour groups, whilst simultaneously attempting to avoid being run down by grumpy-looking locals driving baggage buggies so their rich patrons don’t have to suffer the indignity of pulling their own cases, or the chauffeur-driven convertible taxis.
The tourists stick out like a sore thumb, as they’re generally the ones pretending to be someone. Perhaps dressing in the ‘Capri style’ makes them feel like a film star for the day – and I’m fine with that. It hurts no-one. However, when they then extend that to how they treat others, barging people out of the way in the fashion that they must imagine important people to do, that’s where I have an issue with it. I actually have an acquaintance who has been in several Hollywood movies, and he’s genuinely one of the sweetest, most generous people I know. He’d be horrified by such behaviour. Plus, you can usually spot the people in Capri who are genuinely famous, because they’re the ones dressing down and trying not to look like a movie star. Unaware of this, one woman in a fur scarf attempted to brush me out of her path with her arm as I paused for a photo for an artwork, and received a non-starstruck finger in response.
I came off the main piazza with its crowds, cafes, and people trying to be seen, and ducked down into an invitingly quiet and shady backstreet. It wasn’t especially scenic, apart from a flower shop which had a dazzling amount of colour and variety, watched over by a multicoloured zebra, but I had my eye on the prize – this was the best way to skip the shopping crowds and get on to Via Krupp. And Via Krupp is something quite special.
It’s a shady street – not a street in the sense that most of us would visualise it; there’s no car traffic on Capri – but a shady path which lazily winds down towards the sea. The walls of the surrounding buildings bloom with purple flowers, bright against the background of the blue sky. Granita stalls drift lemon scent into the air, as fragrant and beautiful as the perfumes produced by Carthusia at the top of the street. As you pass the Augustus Gardens, you are confronted with a breathtaking view as the path goes into a switchback, zig-zagging down to an impossibly blue sea.
It also has an intriguing history. Named after the German industrialist Friedrich Alfred Krupp, it was built as a link between his luxury hotel and the Marina Piccola, so he could pop down to work on his marine biology research vessel, which was at anchor there. However, unbeknownst to everyone except some young local men, it also led to a grotto where the industrialist explored some quite different types of work with said young local men. The Capri authorities were not particularly amused by this, and he was asked to leave the island in 1902 after it became a scandal. He died, possibly by suicide, mere weeks later.
However, the switchback was closed, alas alas. Thanks to its position, hacked into the cliff, it has the alarming tendency to shed large rocks on to the unsuspecting heads of people walking the path, leading it to be temporarily closed for safety reasons, and so it proved today. However, I was not to be deterred. I walked back to the Augustus Gardens and paid the small entry fee. Although the gardens weren’t at their best at this time of year, it scarcely mattered – the entry fee is completely worth it just to head over to the far balcony, perched on the edge of the cliff which overlooks the Via Krupp, and take in the views. It was stunning.
It’s also the perfect spot to take in a view of the Faraglioni – three rock stacks eroded by the relentless blue waves. Named Stella, Mezzo, and Scopolo, they were surrounded by pleasure craft taking eager visitors to see them close up. They are almost the symbol of Capri, the image conjured up by the mention of Capri’s name. And Scopolo has a colony of blue lizards, the only place in the world where they can be found. I liked this very much.
Clearly a lot of people had previously enjoyed this vista; the viewpoint from the garden contained a prickly pear, which had suffered the traditional punishment of having people’s names carved into it. It was a big plant. There were a lot of names.
I walked back along Via Krupp, passing a kitten who poked his head out of a drain (I checked; he wasn’t stuck!), and treated myself to a bottle of Carthusia perfume, before I walked along Via Camerelle with its shops that I am always far too scared to go into – think Louis Vuitton, Hermès, and Gucci. The day that I go into those shops will be the day that I suddenly explosively sneeze everywhere, and I’m forced to buy everything that my unseemly fluids have touched. Instead, I headed on to Via Tragara.
Via Tragara is a magical place, a street with few peers in the entire world. It is a glimpse into another world, one which has been created to be utterly perfect. It will make you instantly start to mentally check how much money you have in your account, and whether you can afford a little slice of this paradise. A gentle walkway, it goes from the end of Via Camerelle around the coast, and spoils you with the most sumptuous views of the sea, of Capri Town, of hotels and villas. I joined other visitors in stopping to gawp, looking over people’s garden walls just to admire the perfection they’d created in their gardens.
I also particularly loved these sniffily prim tile notices embedded into the walls of this immaculately-clean walkway – “Cleanliness and silence are indicators of civilization; respect them.”
And then, when you think you can’t possibly take any more beautiful views, you spill out into the little square outside the Hotel Punta Tragara, and you are blown away by the views of the Faraglioni, close up, huge, impressive, buzzing with tiny boats which look like toys in bathwater.
I stopped for a rest here, after gawping at the view for a while, and perched myself on a bench where I could take it all in. A tour group wandered over to check out the view, accompanied by their Italian tour guide, and were suitably blown away.
“That’s amazing,” an American woman said to the guide, sounding stunned. “It’s so blue!”
“Yes,” the guide replied proudly. “When Italians think of Capri, they think of blue. The island is the colour blue.”
The American pointed down, where the boats where taking passengers through a small arch in the base of Mezzo. “Down there, is that the Blue Grotto?”
“Yes, yes it is,” the guide replied a little shiftily. My absolute trust in every tour guide ever immediately shattered. The Blue Grotto is on the other side of the island.
The tour group was replaced by a far more irritating visitor – a young woman, English speaking, who had absolutely no interest in the view whatsoever. She marched up to the balcony overlooking the view, turned around so the Faraglioni were directly behind her, tucked her Louis Vuitton handbag so it poked out across the front of her side, and gazed into the middle distance. I followed her view, trying to work out what she was looking at; it appeared to be a plain cliffside. And then I noticed her boyfriend taking multiple snaps on a camera phone as she twisted her dress one way then another, flicking her hair to multiple positions, putting a hand above her eyes in a “look yonder” expression, before she marched over to him, without a backwards glance at the view, to check the products. I overheard “That’s a good one; I’ll upload that now”.
Ahh, the instagram traveller. I saw a good number of these on Capri, but this was a prime example. Now, let me get this clear – I think taking a selfie in front of a view is great, if you like doing that (I’m camera shy, but that’s just my personal choice; I’m more than happy to see other people doing it, though). It hurts no one. As long as it’s realistic, and not over-edited, then it can really inspire people to travel. I’m all in favour of that. But for the love of bacon, at least spend thirty seconds looking at and appreciating the view that you’re using as your backdrop, the one that you’re telling your followers that you’re having an amazing time at. That’s all.
It was at this point that I was looking at the map I’d downloaded on to my phone (double checking that the Blue Grotto was indeed on the other side of the island in case it had moved since my last visit), when I noticed a trail with scenic viewpoints marked upon it. Even better, the trail, Via Pizzolungo, started where I was right now – turning, I spotted a small staircase leading downwards at the side of the hotel. This was too good an opportunity to miss. I scuttled happily towards the trail start.
That was when I noticed the defibrillator mounted upon the wall next to the trail.
Now, let me remind you that I get very, very anxious. I pulled up and stopped so quickly that I’m surprised that I didn’t skid and leave tyre marks on the cobbles. A defibrillator does not usually count as a good sign for a hike, in my book. Especially after my recent experience in Positano. However, I did something that I’m quite proud of, and still slightly surprised by.
I mentally shrugged, and took the path.
I think this was the point at which I realised that travel does very good things for my anxiety. It distracts me, and the anxiety gets buried underneath curiosity and a thirst to know more, to live like a local, to see the things they see. I took those steps after just a moment’s hesitation. And I realised that travel is something that I have to do, for the rest of my life. The anxiety has to get beaten. I’m not missing out on travelling the world.
The crowds disappeared immediately. I was walking down a path which wound through pine trees, the only sound that of birds and lizards which went rustling over the dropped pine needles. I found a better view of the Faraglioni than the one at the Hotel Punta Tragera, and had it all to myself, including one which was located on a tongue of rock which spat out into thin air. I inched across it, knees weak with vertigo and images of Rai1 news reports (“Foolish tourist killed on structurally-unsound viewpoint at Capri; didn’t stop to think why there wasn’t anyone else there, che stupido!“), and I took my photo and survived. I felt amazing. I got back on the path and walked further, listening to insects calling loudly in the woods, and having my breath taken away by glimpses of pure blue sea visible through the green of the trees. It was perfect.
Then I got to the steps back up. There were a lot of them.
Given the experience a couple of days earlier in Positano, I’m again proud that I didn’t panic. It helped that it was shadier here, but I took them slowly. I didn’t freak out or get paranoid that I was lost; I took them a section at a time. I stopped halfway up and checked out the ruins of a Roman shrine, carved into a cave and half-forgotten. I carried on as the steps got ever steeper, but I didn’t panic once. I made it to the top, and felt like I’d conquered a personal demon.
I rested outside a restaurant situated at the top of the steps, who must do a roaring trade in providing liquid refreshment to weary walkers before I headed back to Capri Town, and bought myself a crema gelato. I admit that I was pretty tired by this point – it’d been a very hot day, and I’d done a lot of walking. Throughly enjoyable walking, but the hike had taken a couple of hours. Hopping back on the boat to Sorrento and taking it easy for the afternoon became too tempting. Plus Capri Town seemed to be getting even more crowded, if that was even possible. So, regretful as I always am when I leave anywhere in Italy – there’s always too much to be seen, too much to enjoy – I headed back to the harbour and waited for my ship.
Waiting provided my favourite encounter of the day. Right in front of where I was sitting, two American women asked a worker at the harbour for details on services, right as an elderly Italian couple were walking along, their path blocked. The husband slipped past their roadblock like a silver shadow, as his wife, a formidable-looking lady with a walking frame, came to a dead stop inches from the Americans.
“Alberto!!” she squawked, outraged. Alberto, either not hearing or caring, continued onwards. His wife narrowed her eyes at the oblivious American girls, who had their backs to her, looking like she was assessing the best spot to slide a knife into their spines and leave them twitching on the quayside.
“Permesso,” she growled, impatiently.
They didn’t hear her.
“Permesso!!” she barked, head bobbing angrily.
Still nothing. The sound of blood vessels bursting was like a firework being lobbed into a popcorn factory. The old lady tilted her head backwards, and yelled at the top of her voice, her head shooting forwards like she was throwing her vocal cords at them.
The girls continued chatting and laughing with the harbour worker. The elderly lady looked at me, stunned, lifting her hand from her frame and gesturing towards the women with an open mouth, in a clear “can you believe this??” gesture. I smiled apologetically.
At this point the day was saved by Alberto, who had seemingly been halfway to Naples before he realised that his beloved wife was no longer with him (or, as I suspect, had been hoping that she’d finally fallen off the side and into the water, sinking down with her frame whilst bubbles of outrage fled to the surface), finally came back to politely ask the girls to move aside whilst he shepherded his darkly-muttering other half through.
I was still chuckling when I got back to Sorrento, ready for a rest, and looking forward to tomorrow.
Next up: Herculaneum! Been to Capri? Are you annoyed by people who don’t take in the views and experiences? Have you almost been clubbed over the head with a walking frame? Let me know your experiences in the comments below!