As soon as you step off the ferry or jetfoil, you’ll find yourself in Marina Grande, the island’s commercial and tourist port. It’s a bit like a huge bazaar swarming with day-trippers and crammed with tiny shops, bars and restaurants, At the same time, the hundreds of boats in the marina (with many mega-yachts anchoring off the coast) make it feel like a floating village. Yachties prefer to come ashore in the evening when the hordes of tourists have left. If you’re looking for somewhere to go swimming and sunbathing, your best bet is either the Bagni di Tiberio private beach club or else the public beach not far away. Otherwise, you can walk along the narrow pedestrian streets and up the steps leading to Via Acquaviva and Capri’s medieval gate. From the harbour, Via Marina Grande will take you to the Chiesa di San Costanzo (the island’s patron saint and protector against Saracen invasions), which is actually dedicated to Our Lady of Freedom. It served as a bishop’s palace until 1596. Probably built on the site of a pre-existing early Christian basilica, it has a Byzantine-style plan in the shape of a Greek cross. An alternative way of getting away from the harbour area is to catch the funicular in Piazza Vittoria. It takes just five minutes to travel the 648 metres up the hillside to Capri town. Opened at the beginning of the 20th century, it’s been running regularly ever since and is especially busy in the summer. From the belvedere at the top, the first of many spectacular vista points on the island, you’ll find couples staring out romantically over the stunning views. Just behind the funicular terminal is Piazza Umberto I, better known as the Piazzetta, Capri’s iconic square and a declaration of its celebrity status. It’s the town’s main hub during the day and most of all at night, the place where international jet-setters and wannabes come to see and be seen, mixing in with the tourists, lounging outside the bars and chatting away in multitude of different languages. During the second half of the 18th century this was a marketplace, so in a different way just as important as it is now. Here you’ll find the town hall, clock tower and the Chiesa di Santo Stefano, formerly a cathedral (until when the bishopric was abolished in 1818). The building you can see today dates from the end of the 17th century. In front of the high altar is a fine polychrome floor in inlaid marble, originally from Villa Jovis. The church contains a statue of San Costanzo. Other churches in the area are the Chiesa di Sant’Anna, built at the end of the 1300s, which has a 17th-century façade, and the Chiesa del SS Salvatore with its Teresian convent. The small 14th-century building opposite the church of Santo Stefano houses the archaeological museum of the Centro Caprense “Ignazio Cerio”, founded by Ignazio’s son Edwin Cerio in 1949. The cultural centre is dedicated to his father, a naturalist doctor who moved to Capri in 1868 and knew the island extremely well. On a more profane note, the person who came up with the brilliant idea of putting tables outside the bars in the Piazzetta back in 1938 was a young local man called Raffaele Vuotto. From the square, there are several interesting options to choose from. Via Le Botteghe, a narrow street in the old part of Capri, has an Arabian-like atmosphere. It was here that the very first grocery stores were opened, hence the name (botteghe means “shops”). Via Camerelle, the road running from the Quisisana Hotel to Via Tragara, is a shopper’s paradise lined with swanky boutiques and internationally famous designer labels. But don’t forget that this was originally a Roman road with a series of rooms (called camerelle, perhaps cisterns) built into a load-bearing wall. Via Tragara is considered Capri’s most romantic street, with grand villas, smart hotels, lush vegetation and sweet-smelling flowers. It leads up to a spectacular belvedere and then down to a small cove, once the site of a Roman port, with spectacular views of Capri’s famous stacks, the Faraglioni, and another rock called the Scoglio del Monacone. In what was an age of opulence, the Romans built houses and nymphaeums in this area, and hundreds of years later in the 20th century they were imitated by many of the artists for whom it became a place of refuge. The Faraglioni, the three legendary rocks, were once known as the Sirenum Scopuli, “the rocks of the Sirens”. Each of the three stacks has a name. Stella, still actually attached to the coast, is 109 metres high. Mezzo, the one in the middle, is 81 metres high and has a natural arch at its base. Eight metres further out is the third stack, Scopolo, 106 metres high. The famous blue lizard, Podarcis sicula coerulea or Lacerta coerulea faraglionensis, discovered by Ignazio Cerio in 1870, only lives on Scopolo. Marina Piccola, on the southern slope of the island, is a 15-minute walk from the Piazzetta. You can get to the bay by taking a short-cut down the steps of Via Mulo. Here you’ll find Villa Pierina, owned (along with nearby Villa Serafina) by Maxim Gorky. The great Russian writer lived here at the beginning of the 20th century and set up a revolutionary academy with other Russian exiles. Today, Marina Piccola is a popular resort with private beach clubs, but up until the end of the 19th century you wouldn’t have found anything other than shacks belonging to coral fishermen. A few steps further down is the small chapel of Sant’Andrea, built in 1900 by German engineer Hugo Andreas, owner of Villa Capricorno in Tragara. It was designed by the painter Riccardo Fainardi. Hugo Andreas and Mortiz von Bernus financed the construction – between 1899 and 1901 – of the German Evangelical Church in Tragara for the large German community living on the island at that time. The church is notable for its gable roof and Gothic style architecture. If you carry on right down to the shore you’ll come to the Scoglio delle Sirene (Rock of the Sirens), which splits the bay into Marina di Pennauro and Marina di Mulo. Some say this was the “island in a flowery meadow” from where the Sirens attempted to lure Ulysses with their bewitching song, as described by Homer and Apollonius Rhodius. Above Marina Piccola, on the south-eastern slope of Monte Solaro at a height of 150 metres above sea level, is the Grotta delle Felci (Cave of Ferns). Here were found the oldest traces of human settlers, dating from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Bronze Age, and in particular the Middle Neolithic Period. Back in the Piazzetta, another option is to go up Via Longano, Via Supramonte and after the crossroads called the Quadrivio della Croce, turn left into Via Tiberio. This is the start of Capri’s most famous walk leading to Villa Jovis and Monte di Tiberio (335 metres). The scenery is typically rural, with vineyards, vegetable fields, gardens, citrus groves and copses. You’ll pass the chapel of San Michele (a small Byzantine-style convent with a bell gable), and the Villas of Monetella and Moneta. Dedicated to Jupiter, father of the gods, Villa Jovis was built by the emperor Tiberius and was the first of twelve Roman villas on the island. A massive complex, it extended over an area of 7,000 square kilometres, with 13,000 square metres of terraced gardens and nymphaeums ranging over a height of 40 metres. The villa looks out majestically towards the Sorrento Peninsula and Punta Campanella. Excavation work directed by Amedeo Maiuri uncovered the main body of the villa, with its large cisterns, around which four distinct areas can be identified: the quarters of the emperor and his court, the servants’ quarters, the baths and a hall for public audiences. You can recognise at least two stratified layers within the complex. The first dates back to the Augustan Age and is made up of limestone walls covered in opus reticolatum, plastered over and painted, and marble mosaic floors. The second is visible in floors paved with marble slabs and walls decorated with glass mosaics. Further on, towards the northernmost part of the villa, is the so-called Salto di Tiberio (Tiberius’ Leap), a sheer 297-metre-high cliff dropping vertically down to the sea. According to Suetonius’ legendary account, this was the spot where the emperor would amuse himself by having his victims hurled down onto the rocks. On the villa’s highest terrace, the people of Capri built the small church dedicated to Santa Maria del Soccorso to contrast the “pagan atmosphere” of the place. Fishermen used come here to offer thanks for a successful catch. If you follow the previous route but take a detour along Via Lo Capo, you’ll come to Villa Fersen. Built by French count and poet Jacques d’Adelswärd Fersen (1880-1923), it was also known as Villa Lysis, in honour of Socrates’s young friend. Fersen was a dandy who belonged to the Decadent movement, a symbolist aesthete persecuted in France for his homosexuality. Built in the Neoclassical style with elements of Art Nouveau, the villa stands in an area of outstanding natural beauty. Alternatively, from the Quadrivio della Croce you can head towards the rugged scenery of the Arco Naturale (Natural Arch), Grotto of Matermania (or Matromania), Pizzolungo and beyond, following the slopes of Monte Tuoro until the curiously-shaped Villa Malaparte comes into view. The Arco Naturale is situated 200 metres above sea level in an inlet called Matermania. It’s all that remains of a large cavity in the mountainside discovered after a landslide, which has gradually been enlarged over the course of time through the effects of erosion. Continuing the descent, you’ll come to the Grotto of Matermania, thought to be a site of Cybele worship. Cybele, the Mater Magna (Great Mother) of the Roman world, was also the goddess of fertility. During the Imperial Age the cave was used as a sumptuous nymphaeum, a place for eating and relaxing, as is clear from the mosaic decorations on the walls. Further on, you’ll get a good view of Villa Malaparte and its unusual architecture. In 1936, the writer Curzio Malaparte bought the promontory of Punta Massullo for 300 lira and from 1938 to 1940 built the “Casa Come Me” (A House Like Me). The house was designed and built in own his image with the help of rationalist architect Adalberto Libera. The sweeping views extend from the Faraglioni to the rock face of Matermania, whilst to the east you can see as far as the Amalfi Coast and beyond. It’s a truly breath-taking place. From the Piazzetta, another option is to visit the Giardini di Augusto (Gardens of Augustus), just a few minutes’ walk away. These beautiful terraced public gardens were once owned by German steel magnate Alfred Krupp, nicknamed the “Cannon King”. Although he adored Capri, it was a rather one-sided affair. Krupp donated the park to Capri, and it bore his name until 1918. It houses a monument to Lenin, designed by sculptor Giacomo Manzù, in memory of the Russian revolutionary’s stay on the island. Another of Capri’s legendary landmarks, Via Krupp, connects the Gardens of Augustus with Marina di Pennaulo on the slopes of Marina Piccola. It’s justifiably considered a work of art. The road zig-zags down sharply for 1,346 metres going through a series of dizzying hairpin bends. The work of Swiss engineer Emilio Mayer, it was completed in 1902 in under two years. The project was financed entirely by the Krupp family, at a cost of 43,000 lira. Just a few minutes’ walk from the gardens is the Certosa di San Giacomo (Charterhouse of Saint James). The monastery was founded in 1371 by Count Giacomo Arcucci from Capri, secretary to Queen Joan I of Naples. The building of the monumental complex was based on the Carthusian Rule (prescribing prayer, labour and solitude), with an entrance housing guest quarters and a pharmacy followed by a small late 14th-century cloister, opening onto which are the refectory, library and church. The actual monastery itself includes the large cloister dating from the end of the 16th century with the monks’ cells and service rooms, chapter house, vegetable gardens and the prior’s quarters facing westwards towards the sea. The single-naved church has three groin vaults, whilst the refectory houses a museum with paintings by German symbolist painter Karl Wilhelm Diefenbach, who lived in Capri from 1900 until his death in 1913. Also on display is a collection of 17th- to 19th-century paintings, and some Roman statues found on the sea bed in the Blue Grotto. The clock tower is topped with a spire formed by Baroque-style volutes. The charterhouse was badly damaged in 1534 during a raid led by Red Beard, and suffered further damage in attacks by Lala Mustafa Pascia (1553) and Dragut, a corsair from the Barbary Coast. After the monks had fled, the building was enlarged and fortified. Extensive renovation work ended in 1636, only to begin again in 1691, when the tower, large cloister and presbytery were restored. A three-arched bell tower was also built between the two cloisters, but was demolished in 1908. Today, in addition to the museum, the monastery houses a school and a public library.
Moving across to the other, western, side of the island, you’ll find the Chiesa di Sant’Antonio da Padova (also known as the Sailors’ Church), dedicated to Anacapri’s patron saint. Originally built in the 17th century, it was renovated and enlarged in 1899. It has a small belvedere, and stands halfway down the so-called Scala Fenicia (Phoenician Steps), which are in actual fact Greek. This long and steep stone stairway used to be the only direct link between the harbour and Anacapri until a road was built in 1874. From Piazza Vittoria, in the old part of the town, follow the pedestrian street leading off to the left of the war memorial until you come to the Casa Rossa (Red House), strikingly painted in Pompeian red. The house was built with a mixture of architectural styles, inspired by the late 19th-century fashion for collecting. Interesting features include a square-shaped 16th-century Aragonese tower, mullioned windows and battlements, and an internal colonnaded courtyard. It used to be the residence of US general John Clay H. MacKowen, who arrived in Capri as a veteran of the American Civil War and remained for 23 years. The story of his life is in some ways similar to that of Axel Munthe, who also transformed his Villa San Michele into a house-museum. MacKowen owned a large collection of archaeological finds, including epigraphs, bas-reliefs and statues discovered around the island. The Casa Rossa is home to a permanent exhibition of paintings by Italian and foreign masters. The entire collection was bought by the Anacapri Town Council from two art-lovers, Spiridione and Savo Raskovich, who had put together an extensive collection of works depicting Capri. The three Roman statues found in the Blue Grotto in 1964 and 1974 joined the collection in 2008.
Villa San Michele, one of the island’s most popular attractions, is located in the Capodimonte area, five minutes’ walk from the town centre. Designed personally by Swedish doctor and writer Axel Munthe (1857-1949), author of the famous autobiographical novel The Story of San Michele, the villa was built on the site of pre-existing Roman ruins. Because of its eclectic and controversial style of architecture, some say it was inspired by a kind of “individual madness”, similar to what Count Fersen may have been suffering from. The Villa is run by the Axel Munthe “San Michele” Foundation. In 1940 far-sighted Munthe applied for and obtained a ban on hunting migratory birds. After his death, the University of Stockholm set up an ornithological station in the grounds, where scientists carry out research into bird migration and the environment. The research centre stands in a spectacular location, surrounded by lush vegetation and in sight of the Castello Barbarossa. The Barbarossa, or Red Beard, after whom the castle is named was Khair ad-Din. Capri was one of the places where he built his reputation as a frightening raider and scourge of the Mediterranean. He laid siege to the castle of Anacapri (built in the year 1000) and burned it to the ground.
For nature lovers, a trip up to Monte Solaro, a visit to the hermitage of Santa Maria a Cetrella or a walk along the Passatiello trail is a must. The trail was once the only way – and a tough way it was – to travel between Anacapri and Capri. In 1808, during the French occupation, it played a strategically important role by allowing troops to get from one town to the other. The summit of Monte Solaro can be reached either on foot or, more comfortably, by chair-lift. The terminal is in Via Caposcuro, to the right of Piazza Vittoria. The views from the peak are absolutely breath-taking. The hermitage named after the aromatic herb cedrina (lemon verbena) stands in the valley between Monte Solaro and Monte Coppello, overlooking Marina Piccola. Its location inspires a sense of solitude and contemplation, probably why it was chosen by Dominican hermit monks at the end of the 15th century. Attached to the monastery is a small church with a square bell tower, an example of the late-Gothic style architecture typical of Capri. Coral fishermen once came here to perform acts of devotion.
Another fascinating trail for nature enthusiasts starts from the heart of Anacapri, to the left of the chair-lift terminal, and takes you up to the belvedere of the Migliera. Remains of buildings from the Imperial Age have been discovered here. From the belvedere you can see right down to the craggy rocks of the coves of Tuono and Limno and westwards as far as Punta Carena and the lighthouse. Opened on 1 December 1867, this is the second most powerful lighthouse in Italy. Migliera means “place where millet is grown”. Millet used to be a very commonly grown cereal before the introduction of corn. The walk takes you through vineyards, olive groves, gardens and vegetable fields, and the views from the belvedere are quite spectacular. If you climb a little further up, to the foot of an iron cross, you can even see the Faraglioni. A road, Via Nuova del Faro, goes to Punta Carena and the lighthouse, and here too the scenery is magnificent A series of small forts (Pino, Mesola and Orrico) conjure up powerful images of the past. Together with the towers of Damecuta and of Guardia, they once formed the western defensive line going northwards, all the way to the Blue Grotto. The line follows a succession of small coves and inlets, including the lovely Cala del Tombosiello and Cala del Rio.
Only a few ruins remain of the magnificent Imperial Age Villa Damecuta standing on the plateau. Excavations directed by Amedeo Maiuri began in 1937. Archaeologists have discovered a long loggia supported by arcades and fragments of solid Greek marble columns. The villa would certainly have boasted marble floors, stuccoes and fine decorations. The round Tower of Damecuta, standing at the western end of the villa at a height of 151 metres above sea level, was built as a defence against Saracen raids. It was used as a fort by British soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars (1806-1815). From the belvedere you can catch a glimpse of Gràdola, an ancient Roman landing stage with a small rocky beach just by the Blue Grotto.
The Blue Grotto is undisputedly one of the world’s top tourist attractions. It was first explored on 18 April 1826 by four men destined to go down in history. Among them were the German poet and painter August Kopisch, and his friend, landscape painter Ernst Fries. Their guide was Don Giuseppe Pagano, and with them was local fisherman Angelo Ferraro, nicknamed “Il Riccio” (Sea Urchin). Ferraro was the only one of his contemporaries to have visited the cave. Its existence was otherwise completely unknown, though it had been frequented thousands of years previously. Kopisch enthusiastically recounted those thrilling moments in his book The Discovery of the Blue Grotto on the Isle of Capri, and since then it has become famous all over the world. The entrance to the cave is two metres wide and one metre high. The sky blue colour of the sea magically reflected on the rocks is caused by light coming in through an underwater opening. Remains of an ancient landing place have also been found here. The Romans used the grotto as a nymphaeum, decorating it with statues and mosaics.
Back in the centre of Anacapri there are a few more churches that deserve a visit, such as the 18th-century Baroque Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo, designed by Antonio Vaccaro. The church was built on a central layout with a cupola over an octagonal floor plan fanning out into six niches with apses. The amazing majolica-tiled floor depicts the famous scene of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.
The Chiesa di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli was built at the end of the 14th century and was originally called Santa Maria “alli Curti”, after the neighbourhood in which it is situated. The Chiesa di Santa Sofia, with a nave and two aisles, was built over different historical periods. Looking onto the square, it has a white 18th-century façade and a bell tower with three clocks. Last but not least, don’t forget to have a wander around Le Boffe, the 17th-century district described by Maiuri. Some say the name comes from a word used in the local dialect referring to air bubbles under the crust of a loaf of bread, while others maintain it’s a distortion of “d’Elboeuf”, once a commander of the French garrison on the island.
There are three classic caprese dishes. One is pasta, one is a salad and one is a cake, but each is a symbol of Capri and a celebration of simplicity. You could say that the island’s culinary delights are just as famous as all its other attractions. Ravioli capresi is the island’s signature pasta dish: light and delicate stuffed ravioli with caciotta cheese served with a fresh tomato and basil sauce. This is the traditional recipe, though some prefer their ravioli with just butter and sage, or even fried. Insalata caprese, as everybody knows, is made with mozzarella, tomatoes, basil and olive oil. What a lot of people don’t know, however, is that it was actually invented in Anacapri in the early 1900s. Torta caprese is a scrumptious chocolate and almond cake that you just can’t say no to. Enjoy it with a dollop of ice cream or try the lemon-flavoured version. The recipe is said to have been brought to Capri by a family of Russians, whose cook apparently used to make it for officers of the Napoleonic army during the Russian campaign. A typical feature of the local cuisine is the combination of fish and vegetables, such as stuffed squid or squid and potatoes, two traditional dishes Capri mammas often make at home. Pasta with a grouper or scorpion fish sauce, or spaghetti with sea-urchins is always a good bet, and so is chickpea and baby cuttlefish stew. There’s usually a wide choice of fish and shellfish on the menu. The locally fshed pezzogna cooked “all’acqua pazza”, is another local speciality. Other tasty options are fresh anchovies, fried or marinated with citrus fruits, or squid, stewed or stuffed with raisins and pine nuts. If you prefer meat or game, you should go to Anacapri, where quail with smoked pancetta, peas and wild herbs is a classic. You can also find chicken and locally sourced rabbit on the menu. A very popular dish with the locals is zuppa di cicerchie, a thick soup made with a rare kind of legume called a grass pea, which is still grown on the island. Capri’s red and white wines were already highly rated by the emperor Tiberius and now have DOC status. Lastly, to end on a sweet note, the locally grown super-fragrant Capri lemons make an excellent limoncello. Pezzogna all’acqua pazza (Poached pezzogna with tomatoes)
Gut, clean and scale the fish. In a deep frying pan, heat some olive oil and fry a little unpeeled garlic and chilli pepper. When the garlic is nicely browned, add the tomatoes, cut into quarters, the fish and some diced potatoes. Season with salt and pepper and add just a little water and white wine. Poach the fish for 5 minutes. When the wine has reduced, add two ladlefuls of fish stock and cook for a further 10 minutes. Sprinkle with the herbs and serve with toasted stale bread.
Capri and Anacapri are two exclusive resorts frequented by big names from the world of business, politics cinema, fashion, art and show business. In such a cosmopolitan environment you’re obviously going to find everything that’s got a designer label attached to it. Smart shops and trendy boutiques, craft shops and artist’s studios have everything you could wish to buy, whether you’re looking for a souvenir or an original luxury item. Everything has that distinctive Capri hallmark. You can find all the top designer brands in the island’s most exclusive shopping streets – you want it, they’ve got it. Fancy clothes and expensive jewellery, beautiful pearls and corals, chic designer costume jewellery, gorgeous ceramics, traditional fabrics and even the ubiquitous T-shirts. For something a little different, how about some of the trendy espadrilles known locally as “zappateglie”, or a pair of the classic hand-made sandals Capri is so famous for. Don’t forget another island exclusive: sophisticated Capri perfumes hand made from special herbs and spices growing wild on the island that have to be hunted out along the rocky coast and steep pathways. Not what you were thinking of? Then what about antiques, prints, paintings by local artists, sculptures, hand-made lace, sarongs, swimwear, shawls or inlaid woodwork. Let’s face it, there’s no better place than Capri for window-shopping, browsing and buying – it’s literally a shopper’s paradise. Join in the fun!