Monday, September 7, 2009

Carefree on Capri

Back in July I got a call from my friend Hana whom I had befriended while we were both living in Aspen and who now works for Hewlett Packard and leads a very exciting life in London. Hana and I reconnected earlier this summer and quickly determined that it would be great fun to do some traveling together. We zeroed in on a long weekend in late August and started preparing a list of all the places we would like to see, including Sardinia, Greece and Croatia.

Then one day Hana sought the advice of a friend of hers, a well-traveled restaurant critic in London, who told her “Sardinia??? Oh no, you HAVE to go to Capri.” He made a list of where to stay, how to get there, what private beach clubs to go to, restaurants for lunch and dinner and where to people watch over aperitivos.
Capri has always topped my list of places to visit in Italy. It seems that everyone I meet at Castello di Casole has been there and has raved about how glamorous and visually stunning the island is. They have also told me how expensive and insanely crowded it is during the summers. Sharing the costs with a friend and visiting during the very last weekend in August seemed to solve both of those problems, so the decision was made and we booked a room for three nights at the Hotel Capri.

A month later, we met in Florence and caught an early morning, three-hour high-speed train to Naples. A forty-five minute ferry ride later, we arrived at the island I had fantasized about for so many years. The minute I laid eyes on Capri I understood why it has been a destination for the rich and famous for over 2500 years. It is much bigger than I had thought, and even more beautiful than I had imagined. It is almost frightening how steeply its jagged limestone surface colored green with woods and vegetation majestically rises out of the sea. The harbors and coves are dotted with yachts of varying sizes and shapes, some moored there for the entire summer.

We decided to get our bearings in the town of Capri while waiting for our luggage to arrive and realized within seconds of walking out of the hotel that Capri town is the LAST place in the world any sane person would want to be at that time of day. In July and August, hoards of tourists from the cruise liners and ferries pile into the funicular and buses up to the town and converge into a suffocating mob.

We high-tailed it back to the hotel, grabbed our beach bags and took the bus down to Marina Piccola where we discovered a delightful private club called Lo Scoglio della Serene, a smattering of lounge chairs and umbrellas tucked into little nooks and crannies on the flat rocks. We parked ourselves on two chaises and spent the next few hours relaxing in the sun and cooling off with occasional dips in the clear deep blue water. Emperor Augustus had it right when he named this place “Apragopolis” – “the land of sweet idleness.” I couldn’t even muster the energy to open my book.

On the way back to the hotel, we each bought a frilly white linen sundress then showered up and headed out for our first night on the town. Hana’s restaurant critic friend insisted that we have an aperitivo on the terrace at Quisisana, a world-renowned five-star hotel with the best people watching on Capri. The town was much more pleasant during the evening and we could finally see the storefronts of the designer shops lining the narrow, winding lanes. The terrace was packed when we got there but the head waiter Luigi quickly whisked us to a table perfectly situated for people-watching. I ordered the “Princess” - champagne with baby strawberries- and Hana had a "Rude Cosmopolitan" made with tequila, and for several hours we sat there gazing at all of the gorgeous men with scantily-clad supermodels on their arms stroll by. For those few hours we felt like princesses.

The next morning we took a bus up to the little town of Anacapri to buy some gifts and check out Villa St. Michele. This splendid residence was built by a Swedish doctor named Axel Munthe in the late 1890s on the site of the ruins of the St. Michael chapel built around 1000 AD. Several rooms in the villa have been preserved in their original condition and the residence is filled with Roman fragments and other valuable works of art. The Loggia of Sculptures with its marble bust of Tiberius is the biggest attraction but my favorite is the sphinx precariously perched on a ledge overlooking the most incredible views of the sea below.

I neglected to mention that immediately upon landing on the island the day before, Hana had informed me that Capri was famous for its custom-made leather sandals. Being a 5’10” shoe freak, I couldn’t help but notice the vast selection of beautiful, FLAT bejeweled sandals in window after window of the shops lining the streets of Capri town. There was simply no way I was leaving the island without a pair of my own.
So on our way to a private beach club called Fontellina, I stopped in the shop with what I thought were the most attractive sandals and ordered a pair with gold straps and large glistening cut glass stones. The shoes would be made that day with the final fitting at 7PM – just in time for drinks at Quisisana later that evening.
We arrived at Fontellina by descending a long and steep footpath with very slippery stone steps. (Rubber flips are highly recommended!) We set up shop on white, canvas-covered, thick foam mats spread out over a concrete slab that somehow managed to feel both elegant and comfortable. Later that afternoon we sauntered up to the pergola-covered restaurant for lunch in our beach cover-ups and ordered a pitcher of white sangria loaded with mangoes, oranges, lemons and mint at the recommendation of three attractive Italian men with whom I had engaged in a lively discussion during an earlier, rather lengthy dip in the sea. Hana ordered the Linguini Fontellina with crustaceans and I had a grilled whitefish called “dorato” with olive oil and lemon. We enjoyed the breeze and the incredible views until every last drip of sangria and every
morsel of food was gone.

That evening we donned our favorite summer dresses and headed straight to the shoe shop to pick up my sandals. Fortunately they fit perfectly and I kept glancing down at them lovingly throughout the evening. We decided that rather than hoover down all of the olives, crackers and peanuts served with our Princesses at Quisisana, where Tina Turner was sitting just a few tables away, we would have a nice dinner at one of the restaurants with outdoor tables lining the street further down from the designer shops. Sophisticated “edodē” had the most interesting menu, plus the waiters were really nice. We sat in our own candlelit booth and ordered two appetizers- a fresh ricotta salad and a raw crostini platter which included the freshest tuna tartare on a bed of raw potatoes, a tender red shrimp from Sicily, and thinly sliced sea brine. This time we opted for a bottle of Toscos- a light and fruity pinot bianco from Friuli.

The third day was definitely the highlight of the trip. We took the funicular down to Marina Grande where our own private boat manned by 19-year old Captain Roberto was waiting for us. For several hours we puttered around the island, swam through the famous White Grotto and admired the breathtaking beauty all around us. Then Roberto motored us over to the Amalfi Coast to a little harbor called Nerano and we walked off the boat and up the dock to a fabulous open-air restaurant called Lo Scoglio.
Hana’s friend the restaurant critic knew what he was talking about when he recommended Lo Scoglio. The Caprese salad had mozzarella so fresh it must have come right out of the cow. We ordered marinated anchovies and the local fish called “pezzogna” which the waiter recommended we have baked rather than grilled, a side of fried courchettes (zucchini blossoms) and a bottle of the Antinori Cevaro della Sala I had first tasted at Badia di Passignano in Chianti a few weeks prior. I experienced mild heart palpitations when the bill arrived but this lunch really was worth every penny.

Later that evening we reminisced about our long, taxing day at sea over glasses of Rosé in the main Piazza which was considerably less crowded because it was Sunday. We ordered salads at a little trattoria and tumbled into bed. On our last day, we had to catch a ferry in the afternoon so we took a final spin around Anacapri and then fueled up for the train ride back to Florence with a light lunch at a corner table overlooking the sea at Ciro a Mare in Marina Piccola.

My first experience on Capri far exceeded my expectations. Simply, put, it was blissful, and it was so fun to share it with a good friend. I can’t wait to go back again next year, this time in June or September when it’s not so crowded. Maybe I’ll even check out the impressive ruins of Villa Jovis (Villa of Jupiter). Built for Emperor Tiberius of Rome during the 1st-century BC, this massive 59,000 square-foot villa is situated near the famous “Tiberius’ Leap” where, according to local legend, disobedient servants and undesired guests were hurled over the cliff by order of the Emperor. Hmmm. On second thought, maybe I’ll just opt for a little more “sweet idleness” ….