Images from the 60s growing up–and the names of places I never expected to visit–seem to stay fixed with me. Capri is one of those, a symbol from the 60s, like convertibles and bouffant hair. Capri was a Hollywood outpost of celebrity, en vogue, carefree in those days. More feminine than not and above all, so of the new world. Beautiful women lounging poolside, or wrapped in the wind of a car’s pacing along old European byways. Yachts at anchor, tenders and motor scooters to carry one off into the hills for a picnic.
The Sixties were the first decade of a New World freed from the gray ruins of two world wars, famines, frightful slaughters, like spring overcoming a death of winter. So we were instructed, we blooming babies.
Capri is, in fact, older than the Roman Empire. The Greeks got there first. They hit all the highlights of Italy before the tourists arrived.
Augustus hung out there in his time. The Villa Jovis, built in 27 AD, remains from the time of Tiberius who succeeded the august Caesar.
So, Hollywood was late in discovering the island. The Romans had lived in their villas for long enough on Capri to have sprawled across a good part of it, as they had Italy. Pompeii’s disaster happened within sight only fifty years later in 79 AD when Vesuvius blew its top.
The word is that Vesuvius is extinct, but if I lived anywhere nearby, I’d probably check when I got up in the morning to confirm the situation.
We planned to catch the ferry from Sorento to Capri in the morning after breakfast.
A very arrogant motorcyclist, possibly on assignment for GQ, gestured to me it was his privilege, nigh his duty to intrude on the line of lesser beings waiting to board the ferry. So I told him to get a life. Or go live with the goats, I forget which. I’d not had my morning cappuccino yet, so the universal high sign may have been involved.
Capri–caprice–capricious–‘the skip or frisk of a goat’ One suspects there were goat trails climbing the cliffs before the first roads were built. Capri pants were first fashionable in the Sixties.
None of which has bearing on the name of the island.
We sat down to a lot of caprese salad in Italy, and I wondered how they grew tomatoes so sweet so early in the summer. Italians believe tomatoes should have flavor to match their bright red merchandising. Still, my money is on the goats.
Arriving at Capri, it was a curious current of rovers disembarking from the ferry. We sought out a coffee place then went looking for the funicular to carry us up the mountain. Tourists were waiting patiently to be elevated to the Piazza Umberto at the center of the island, and from there sprinkled like faery dust for the day to dodge passing tuk-tuks rumbling over the old cobblestones. Vehicles larger than tuk-tuks are rare on the island, certainly one thing in its favor. Though after a few hours of tuk-tuks honking and nudging your ankles, the traffic seemed only smaller scaled but no better than I-95.
Though if the streets were any wider in Capri, the island might well subside from the weight of the tourists, who were made weightier by an abounding love of gelato. In Italy the tourists go for gelato. On the Outer Banks, it’s the fudge that will kill them. Either way dairy cream, chocolate and sugar satisfy some unwritten rule about vacations.
In Tiberius’ time, Roman noblemen on Capri were the ones catered to. In modern times, these are the tourists. What servants might have whispered behind Roman backs was likely not too different from what present day shopkeepers might mutter while waiting on red-faced tourists.
We saw no celebrities shopping.
We saw few other than shopkeepers who appeared to be local. To live full-time in the town of Capri would seem to require a stoic nature moving through the vacationing hoards. The main east-west street, Via Camerelle is known for the density of high-end shops, the usual culprits one sees advertised in the New York Times’ magazine. If purchasing a scarf at the Hermes storefront in Capri, does it carry more cache than if one lays down the credit card at Tysons II outside Washington, DC? Should we have saved all the plastic bags labeled for Capri in case we needed proof?
The higher the climb from the Capri harbor, the wealthier the denizens. Being safe from pirates may have been the ancestors’ motivation, however it’s likely that the bragging rights for the stunning views from these promontories were a factor. Laying cobblestones on the sides of cliffs is another matter.
As in much else of the Italian coast, front yards for houses are nonexistent–here and there courtyards, gated and fortified, were visible, but more frequently a narrow walkway led away from the not much wider lane to some private place. I suppose if the lane where the tourists tromp by dripping ice cream is just a few feet from your door, once inside you want to turn your back on the parade.
Years ago, speaking to a native on Monhegan Island, off the coast of Maine, she explained the winter population topped out at a dozen or so, which sounded perfect, an excuse for a solitary existence if ever I’d heard of one. Monhegan compared to Capri is but a few acres of rock. I expect she’d have sympathy for the year round citizens of Capri. Might even consider them insane for having to put up with that island’s summer hoards.
With no particular plan, once Fabio dropped us in Ravello’s small piazza, we set out followed the hand-sized signs for Villa Cimbrone.
Soon after leaving the car park we found the noise of the crowds fading to quiet. As we entered the grounds of the villa, birds and the wind coming off the sea were all that we heard..
The intimacy of the route was striking. A former donkey trail two people at most might walk abreast, with abrupt turns, stairs with and without handrails. Stair ramps paved over as full ramps puzzled me until the first tuk-tuk past us chugging up the incline with its load of bottled water.
In the 1900s Villa Cimbrone was reclaimed from neglect by an Englishman, Ernest William Beckett who proceeded to recreate the landscape in something like the formal Italian style of landscape architecture. Rumors of Vita Sackville-West’s influence on the landscape at Cimbrone may be overstated, since she and her husband were yet to begin their work at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. Cimbrone’s gardens are much more about the architecture than Sissinghurst’s, which was more ruin than building by the time Sackville-West came on it. Nevertheless, strolling beneath an arbor of wisteria in early bloom, catching views across a small blue gulf to another hillside sanctuary was a singular joy particularly because public gardens are at a premium on the Italian coast.
Either side of the principal allée are discrete lawns with sculpture collected from a variety of places either old and important, or just well weathered; they felt more the latter in expression. These lawns appear to be fitted to general contours of grade, dropping away to views of the sea on either side of the allée. The eastern garden rooms, associated with the hotel, are more carefully tended, whereas the western side of the ridge has been left with more rustic woodland trails, if still clearly marked by geometry.
The allée runs straight toward the water, and a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean, intersected at several points, first by an arching bridge passing overhead and then by a fountain. It terminates at a folly[i] in the guise of a temple complete with statue and the deep blue sea far below. All of this is but an approach to the Terrazzo dell'lnfinito. ‘Terrace to Eternity’ called that only by tour guides, one suspects. The terrace runs at an angle to the main allée’s axis, creating a small promontory from which to gaze at the sea. However since the sea surrounds the entirety of the gardens, it’s hard to feel the payoff the designer had hoped to achieve.
[ii] A British term, ‘folly’ designates small, nonfunctional structures or ‘ruins’ resembling ancient Greek temples. Capability Brown, for one, enjoyed placing these in his landscapes for exclamation points. These are the same people who employ ha-ha’s to keep the cows from grazing on their lawns, and belvederes for their views.