From the time of Roman Emperors, through the era of North European vacation enclaves to the present flocks from all over the world, the irresistible call of Capri has enchanted visitors with its beauty, wonder and atmosphere.
An island paradise
A largely rocky island with few sandy beaches, the charms of Capri are a little harder to pin down than the typical “sun and sea” vacation spot. It could be the Blue Grotto, with the luminous glow of its waters. It could be the many migratory birds which led Swedish scientist Axel Munthe to set up an ornithological observatory here. Or it could be the stunning views of the craggy hilltops that led Roman Emperor Tiberius to build the Villa Jovis here.
Visitors arrive in Capri by boat at one of its two harbours, Marina Grande or Marina Picola. Although the resort has been greeting visitors for at least the last two thousand years, Capri today remains unspoilt, in large part due to the restrictions on cars on the island. Hence, Capri is largely a pedestrian’s haven, and tourists walk to see the many sights on offer around the island.
Capri town offers classy dining and shopping for new arrivals. The Piazza Umberto I, known locally as the Piazetta, is home to numerous cafés on the sidewalk, open day and night. Take a walk from here and you eventually emerge at Via Camerelle, Capri’s main shopping street. Here you will find a selection of designer stores from the top designers of Italy and Europe. No worries about dressing down, however, as the heat of the place make sandals and shorts legitimate attire.
A trip through time
You can take a longish uphill walk to the peak of Mount Tiberius, named after the Roman Emperor who operated the capital of the Empire from here in the years AD 27- 37. The Villa Jovis was his headquarters, and during the time he was resident here, it was host to excessive entertainment, including reported cruelties such as flinging people over a cliff. The cliff from which the people were purportedly flung is known as Salto di Tiberio, or Tiberius’ Jump. All that remains of the Villa Jovis are the stony ruins, but with a little bit of imagination, you can be transported to the time when this was the seat of power of the most powerful government in the world.
The other town in Capri island is known as Anacapri. Located in the Northwest corner of Capri Island, this town has a different set of attractions nearby.
Nearby is the Villa San Michele, the former home of Axel Munthe. Munthe first came to Capri in 1884, and decided to settle here permanently in 1887. With royalties earned from several books he wrote, he was able to finance a sanctuary for migratory birds at Santa Barbarossa, on the island. The most well-known of his books, “The Story of San Michele”, describes his life and his love for nature in a fantastical manner and was very well-read in his days.
His beloved Villa San Michele was built to satisfy his desire for the wind and sunlight to be an integral part his home. Sadly, Munthe lost his eyesight and he had to move to the less well-illuminated Torre Materita. When he died in 1949, at the age of 92, he bequeathed all of his properties in Capri to the Swedish Government. The Villa is now managed by a foundation, and part of the house has been transformed into a museum, which you can visit today.
Visitors to San Michele today will get to enjoy the collections of Roman, Etruscan and Egyptian artifacts, some of which were acquired by Munthe in unusual, even fantastical ways. You will also get to enjoy the fruits of Munthe’s eye for beautiful natural scenery, architecture to enhance it and a garden of Mediterranean plants and trees to decorate it. To the south is the bird sanctuary of San Barbarossa, also set up by Munthe. Swedish and Italian researchers observe the behaviour and patterns of various species of birds migrating from the African Continent towards Northern Europe. The reserve works in collaboration with the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) today.
Enter the Blue Grotto
No description of Capri would be complete without a mention of the Blue Grotto. Carved into the limestone cliffs facing the Northern Shore of Capri by the dissolving action of seawater, the grotto is so named because of the refraction of the thin sliver of light pouring in through the small entrance when reflected by the water inside the cave. The grotto was first “discovered” by German poet August Kopisch in he 19th Century, though there is reason to believe that it had been known to locals long before then. Whether or not this was the case, it would not be an exaggeration to say that this discovery was the catalyst for the modern tourism boom in Capri.
You have two options for visiting the grotto. One option is to take the boat. You will lie flat on your back in the boat in order to clear the low entrance. A boatman pulls the boat in using a fixed chain. Once inside, the blue light creates the mirror effect on the water, giving the impression that the water is actually a blue floor. Another option that the more daring ones may take is to swim into the grotto. You may only swim in before or after the boats have started making their trips of the day. Swimmers’ bodies take on an unearthly silver tone due to the effect of the refracted light.