Today we set out for the Isle of Capri.
We took a ferry from the pier in Sorrento. I couldn’t wait to feel the ocean breeze on my face and watch the water churn behind us, so I picked out a spot at the back of the boat with several of the girlies. When I wasn’t mesmerized by the whitewater we left in our wake, I watched the girls’ faces alight with eager anticipation of the beauty that awaited them. I took pictures, mostly when they weren’t looking, to send to them later. Watching some of these girls on this trip, I think back to myself on my own study abroad trip at age 19, when all I could see were my own flaws, all the things I wished I could change about myself, and I like to catch them when the joy and the adventure of the moment leaves no room for worries. This was one of those moments.
Capri’s history is at least as old as the Roman Republic. Though scholars dispute whether the island was named for wild boars (“kapros”) or wild goats (“capreae”), it is clear that humans have lived there for thousands of years. Some excavations have yielded items that date back to the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. The Roman Emperor who finally developed Capri was Augustus, and he used it as a sort of private oasis. Tiberius, who succeeded Augustus to the throne, actually relocated himself there and ruled the Roman Empire from Capri for the last ten years of his life.
I can see why. It’s an incredibly beautiful place.
The most enjoyable part of my time on the island itself was the walk from sea level up to the Piazza Umberto I, where I found the Chiesa di Santo Stefano. It was a beautiful walk, and I found, to my delight, that despite its steepness, I was apparently well-conditioned by all the walking I’d been doing in Rome and my travels prior to the program, so I wasn’t worn out by the climb at all. As the path led upwards, I passed beautiful doorways – bright blue, pure white, natural wood – as well as wrought-iron patterns overlaying the visions of the courtyards into which the doors led. I couldn’t help but try to capture the beauty of the flowers or the ocean view behind the wrought iron gateways or above the stone walls, and my efforts were rewarded with lovely photos. These little B&Bs were as picturesque as could be – bougainvillea spilled over the tops of white stucco and ivy crawled across stone walls, date palms fanned their fronds up over the horizon between the blue sky and the even bluer sea, and a few scrappy cats made the scenery come to life from the postcard picture before me.
When I reached the Piazza Umberto I, I thought I’d reached “the top” of the island, but I’d been mistaken. The girls who were messaging me that they were on their way up by gondola were, as it turned out, on a different part of the island. So I wandered in and out of shops, trying to decide where to eat lunch and how soon I would need to leave in order to catch the boat reservation made by a few girls I’d gotten off the ferry with.
In spite of being by myself for the whole midday, I was glad I’d walked up to my destination. Having walked the Camino de Santiago in the past, I recognized this as a classic Camino lesson – that walking led to a way of being in this place that was more up-close and personal than transport would have allowed. The funicular would’ve taken me the same distance for 2€ in just a few minutes, but the smudged glass windows would’ve cut me off from the beautiful flowers, the peaceful courtyards, the smell of the ocean.
But on foot, I peered into paradisiacal courtyards of honeymoon-worthy B&Bs, followed prowling cats, passed a mother with her two small boys, all three singing along to “Bohemian Rhapsody” on a portable speaker, and turned around every twenty yards or so to see a new and different view of the sea above the rooftops of the villas beyond the pathway walls.
The Piazza Umberto was the hub of several little streets that spidered out in various directions, lined with trendy caffés and restaurants, and shops selling high-end jewelry and clothing, flat sandals that could be made to order on the spot with jeweled straps in various configurations, ceramic bowls brightly hand-painted – all those things that seem necessary to bring home from a vacation but then seem oddly out of place in one’s ordinary, everyday life in a mountain climate. Having visited some nine years before with my mother, I knew I wanted a few ceramic items I hadn’t bought the first time around, but always envied at my mother’s house – a bright little blue-and-yellow lemon bowl she used for lemon wedges every time she served fish, another painted with olives that she used for dipping oils – so I just window-shopped on my first pass, and bought a few of the things I liked best on the way back through. I wanted to make sure that the prices I was seeing were consistent with what I would find elsewhere on the island.
I did see a crate of the famous Sorrento lemons up high on the Piazza – each one was about the size of a baby’s head. I’d never seen lemons so big before! I leaned over to inhale their pungent, citrusy cent, and detected…almost nothing.
Finally, I sat down to lunch by myself on the terrace that overlooked the seascape near where the funicular let out. Cliffs flanked the terrace and pink and purple bougainvillea curled around the white columns, creating a view that begged for photos of lovers in paradise. I enjoyed my Neapolitan margherita pizza and Sprite just fine on my own, even posting a picture to Facebook to inform those back home of my “current situation.”
I took the funicular back down to the coast for expediency…I didn’t want to accidentally take a wrong turn on the way home or take longer than I expected to by walking down the path, and thereby risk my spot on the boat the girls had hired. I made sure I got a spot at the very bottom of the tram, in front of the window that provided the best view of the descent. At sea level once more, I had some time to browse more shops, so I went back to a few I’d made note of and bought a breezy blue dress and a collection of beautiful little ceramic treasures for myself and friends. Shopkeepers hawked their wares, offering me the story of the Capri bell (make a wish when you hear a bell ring), or commenting that the jewelry in the store was designed and created in-house.
The boat tour was scheduled for 2:30, and as soon as I saw the boat and the boatman, I knew we were in for a good tour. There were seven of us, and when we found our boatman, we watched as four or five American college-age girls piled off his boat, clearly intoxicated. It was a spectacle, and as we greeted Antonello, our boat captain, we assured him we would be stone cold sober and well-behaved. He looked relieved.
It could not have been a more beautiful day for a boat ride. Antonello’s English was very good, and he was humorous and handsome and made the sites interesting and fun. We saw the White Grotto with its stalagmite in the shape of the Virgin Mary. At the Green Grotto, we all jumped in and enjoyed a ten-minute swim in the cool, salty Mediterranean, laughing to one another about bucket list items and how much we’d revisit this very minute in years to come, especially during snowy Colorado winter days.
When we got back on the boat and continued our trek around the island, the girlies went to the front to lay on their bellies in their bikinis, all their American body insecurities forgotten under the bright afternoon Capri sun and each other’s enthusiastic compliments. It was a sweet thing to watch them, their support for one another, their joy in the experience.
Antonello continued to point out items of interest as we made our way around the island – the elfin-looking statue who sits on a rock pointing towards the coast of the mainland (“The Capri Welcoming Committee,” said Antonello); the natural bridge of Capri; the Blue Grotto (which we passed by – too long a line).
When we docked and returned to solid ground, we thanked Antonello effusively, and had just enough time to visit the little ceramic shop I’d already patronized and spend a bit more money on treasures…then down the hill again to a little lemon ice stand, where we each got the most amazingly sweet Sorrento lemon slushies before heading for the rendezvous point and boarding the ferry for the mainland.
I looked for differences in the people I’d met – a southern variation, distinct from those we’d met the previous weekend in Tuscany – but I came up mostly empty. It’s difficult to discern linguistic variations when the language is one you aren’t familiar with, and because our time in Naples had been limited, and our time in Capri was in locations with heavy tourism, I was treated as a tourist in both places: with a friendly, welcoming tone, but as a customer and a tourist nevertheless. In both places, almost all the shopkeepers addressed me in English even before I’d opened my mouth, and even when I greeted them in Italian, they knew I was not native to Italy.
Because the two locations were vastly different, Naples and Sorrento being coastal towns and Florence and Montecatini being more inland hill towns, I also find it difficult to pin down cultural differences because the topographical variable throws off the comparison. A leather salesman in Florence is a different creature from the boatman in Capri, but both seem to relish their jobs. Both are expert craftsmen, whether with leatherworking or in deftly steering a motorboat into and out of tight grotto spaces, and both will hawk their wares to passersby if those passersby don’t initiate the transaction themselves. While I bought my leather jacket in Florence from an Australian woman, she clearly had lived and run her shop in Florence for years, and I imagine the Italian men who owned the leather shops around her had done the same. Our boat captain in Capri had been born and raised in Capri, and, at the age of 30, had been working in the industry since he was a teenager, surely dreaming of the day when he would own his own boat and make upwards of 80€ an hour in the sun and the waters he had loved all his life. Italianitá, then, seems to involve a dedication to a particular vocation. One knows one’s place in the world, and it is close to home, doing what one loves and honing that craft to an art form.
I didn’t get enough of Sorrento…I wanted Amalfi and Positano and Ravello and more Capri, and I was bummed to have missed the little gondolas that I never did find my way to, and for a while, a few of us talked about going back during our two free days over the final weekend. But even if we don’t, I know I’ll come back again one day – and that I won’t get enough then, either. The love I already had for Sorrento has now expanded to Capri. It really is a jewel in the Mediterranean.
About the Author
My name is Christine, and I am a grad student seeking an M.A. in Creative Writing: Nonfiction. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my rather unconventional presence in this awesome group of undergrads, and will be returning to Colorado to complete my degree – along with my 20th year of teaching high school English – with a head full of history, art, and the beautiful Italian landscape in all its incarnations. It’s been a dolce estate!