Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews    consolidated  Jan. 2011    #4 added Jan 3, 2016    Box insert in item 1, Dec 20 2017               


These four numbered items appeared separately on the dates indicated and have been consolidated here onto a single page. The blue box insert about the "Phoenecian steps" in item 1 is from December, 2017. Additionally, also see the entries  Alfred Krupp on Capri and Letter from Anacapri.

entry June 2003
add large photo June 2014

1. Capri

Capri. The view is due south from the Chiaia section of Naples.
The white houses on the right (west) are the town of Anacapri.
The main harbor is about 1/3 of the way in from the left.

Capri, looking down down from Monte Solaro to
the Villa Tiberius and, in the background, the tip
of the Sorrentine Peninsula.

Capri first attracted real and royal attention when Caesar Augustus dropped by in 29 B.C. He liked it so much that he traded Ischia for it. Since that time, there has been an unbroken chain of Capri admirers, from the Longobards to the Normans, Angevins, Spanish, Austrians, English and modern Italians. All this attention is understandable. Of the islands in the Bay of Naples, Capri simply has the most to offer. It is geologically spectacular, from its two high points, Monte Solaro and Monte Tiberius, rising like pillars at opposite ends of the island, to natural wonders such as the Blue Grotto and the twin rocks known as the faraglioni jutting up from the waters just off the east end of the island.

Nowhere in the Gulf of Naples or vicinity, not from any of the other islands, not even from the mountains above nearby Sorrento, will you find a view equal to that from the vantage points on Capri. (Photo, right, looks across to the tip of the Sorrentine peninsula from the Villa Fersen.) Its manmade attractions are also hard to beat: an old Saracen tower on Mt. Barbarossa, the cliffside path named via Krupp, a hermitage, a monastery, and the most serene chairlift you will find anywhere, leading from the town of Anacapri up to the top of Monte Solaro. Additionally, you can hike, hang-glide, scuba-dive, go down in a submarine, shop till you drop, and then relax with all the other "beautiful people" at an open-air cafe in one of the most famous squares of its kind in the world. So, even if, unlike Tiberius, you never get to "relax with equal application into secret indulgences and immoral pastimes," you can still rely on having a good time if you follow some simple rules. 

First, pronounce it CAH-pri, not cuh-PRI. This is essential to the enjoyment of your stay, since this common tourist mispronunciation of the name of the island sounds just like a local dialect expression meaning, "Please, I would like to give you some more of my money." 

Next, if you have the time—and if you haven't, maybe you shouldn't go—enjoy a ferry trip from the main port downtown, at least one-way. Hydrofoils are great, but so are open-air sea trips. In the warm summer months, you can also take a marvelous detour by ferry over to Sorrento and then back to Naples. If you have a choice, go on a week-day, not a week-end, although in the peak season, there may not be much difference. Fortunately, since the island is virtually a web of footpaths, you will be free to take advantage of the fact that most tourists don't really like to walk. You can find solitude on Capri, even in the high season. 

Prepare an itinerary that says:

(a) Blue Grotto   (b) The Villa of Tiberius   (c) The Villa of Axel Munthe   (d) Monte Solaro   (e) afternoon free for shopping

Then take a small hammer, which you should always keep with you for such occasions, and rap yourself soundly in the skull to cure yourself of the notion that it is possible to do it all in one day. Relax.

The "Natural Arch"

ivide the island, for touring purposes, into two parts, and then decide on one or the other for your visit. The two parts are Capri and Anacapri. Capri includes the delightful little main square in the town of Capri, itself, and everything leading out towards the eastern height of the island and the villa of Tiberius. It might also include going down the via Krupp pathway (named for Alfred Krupp) to the north side of the island and the Marina Piccola (small harbor).

The Anacapri side of the tour includes the town of Anacapri, itself (quaint and less frequented than its famous sister town) and Monte Solaro, accessible on foot or by chair lift. If you feeling particularly energetic, you can walk from the main port to Anacapri up the so-called "Phoenician Steps" (see box directly below). You might add a third part to your trip: the sea. Take a trip into the Blue Grotto, or take a trip around the entire island. Also, undersea sightseeing is available via a small submarine!

box added Dec 2017 

iking the Phoenecian Steps

  As you approach Capri from Naples the island looks like what you see at the very top of this page. The only houses generally visible are those of the town of Anacapri, the white specks on the right side of the island, about halfway up to the highest point on the island, Mt. Solaro (589 meters / 1770 feet). The main tourist destination on the island is the town of Capri, itself, over on the left side of the island, about one-third of the way in from the east (left) end. The town itself is not visible from the sea because it's hidden by the terrain. When you land at the main port, the Marina Grande, almost everyone will angle over to the cable car to ride up to the town of Capri and the famous main square, which Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (spoiler alert!) said looks like "a bad movie set built by German tourists". He said it, not me. There is a road that connects the two towns; the Capri-Anacapri Province Road was built in 1874 and is 2.4 km long. It was a brilliant feat of engineering and will scare the daylights out of you since much of it was cut right into the cliff-face, itself. If you sit on the right as you go up, you can't see the road on the right or the guard rail (that thing that has all the dents in it!) and you are sure you are about to fly off into space. Don't worry, what can happen?...can happen...can happen...

If you really want to try flying off into space, look at the image directly above. It faces north, the Naples side of the island, but you can't really see it from the boat as you come in. The squiggle angling up from the lower left corner of the image to the Capri-Anacapri Province Road is the Scala fenicia, the so-called Phoenician Steps, so-called because recent archeology says they were built by the Greeks, not the Phoenecians. The steps continue down out of the lower-left corner of the image to the main harbor where you disembarked. To find the lower entrance to that pathway, let the tourists go over to the cable-car at the harbor. You, you fool, go right and along the road named via Marina grande. You'll hug the beach for a stretch, then make a couple of turns as the road starts to climb. At a small soccer field there will be a path leading off to the right, aptly marked as la Scala fenicia. Off you go. There are over 900 steps. The first part is a modest incline and then you're at the zig-zag squiggle. It's more than steep; it's almost vertical in parts. The path is now well-maintained. If you are in very good shape, you can probably do the whole thing, harbor to the Province Road in an hour. If you're a flabby middle-aged couch potato, take it easy. Seriously. Enjoy the walk because it's spectacular. Give yourself a couple of hours.  If When you reach the top, you have two choices: go up onto the road and finish the walk into the main square of Anacapri where you'll find a lovely chair-lift up to Monte Solaro (yes, you can walk that, too, but don't) or two, go under the Province Road, where the steps continue on up to the villa of Axel Munthe. You can visit that or walk into Anacapri. Nice going.

I was joking about "flying off into space." You don't really fly.

The "Faraglioni"           

No private vehicles may be taken over to Capri (except for residents), but there are taxis and buses available from the port to virtually every part of the island accessible by wheel. Capri, however, is truly made for walking. When you disembark, avoid the temptation to follow the crowd over to the cable car that takes you right up to the main square in the center of the town of Capri. Take the steps; they start a little bit past the cable-car entrance. They are moderately strenuous, but provide a first-class view of the picturesque houses, small gardens and paths that abound on Capri. If you plan to go to Tiberius' Villa Jovis, the only way is to walk from the main square, so you may wish to save yourself for that. At the Anacapri end, treat yourself to the chairlift up and then hike down, taking in the view and the mountain air.

Frequent ferry and hydrofoil service is available to Capri from Naples, from both the main port and the nearby harbor of Mergellina. Additionally, you can get to Capri from Sorrento. If you are truly crazy, you can get a helicopter from Capodichino airport in Naples.

entry Mar. 2003
2. Capri 

View towards the "other end" of Capri—
Monte Solaro and Anacapri.

monte solaro imageLike the game that children and poets play, called "What do you see in that cloud?" there's an experiment in visual perception in which you look at an apparently random jumble of light and shadow, and try to pick out a figure—perhaps a human face or an animal—"hidden" in the picture. You can examine it for hours in vain, then the next day glance at it casually and have it spring out at you like a jack-in-the-box. Then, you might blink your eyes, look again—and it's gone. 

Capri is like that. I have been looking at her profile daily for many years from across the bay in Naples. "Her," because many claim to see the head of a woman in the profile of Monte Solaro. Her hair is flowing down to rest on the waters and her face is raised heavenward as she stares off into space, perhaps playing her own games with the clouds drifting overhead. Sometimes I see her, sometimes I don't. Perhaps it is good that she is not always there at my beck and call. 

But, whether or not I manage to catch that glimpse of her, whenever I need a long walk and peace and quiet, she—the island—is always there. Strange, you say, to think of Capri in terms of solitude? Is this not the Isle of Pleasure, boasting centuries of tales and descriptions of lurid Hedonism? And even if you aren't a sinner, is there not an almost obligatory hustle and bustle forced upon the visitor? How do you find the peace and quiet. 

Walk. It's amazing how long it took me to realize that. I was staring at Capri from a short distance offshore and I remember seeing for the hundredth and yet the first time the houses that dot the isle. I then realized that I had no idea how all the people who live in those houses get about when, except on a few principle roads, there is virtually no motorized traffic at all. I set off to find out, and I discovered an extensive network of trails, spun like a web over the island. 

I have walked up from the Marina Grande to the top of Monte Solaro in the midst of the tourist season and had the entire trail to myself. I've hiked up to the Saracen Tower on Mount Barbarossa and practiced the trombone, much to the amusement of the wildlife. I've wandered down from the top of Monte Solaro to the small observatory and to the church that commands the heights overlooking the town of Capri, itself. I've hiked down the steps from Villa Fersen to the sea and had a secluded bath in the sea, again at the height of summer with not a soul in sight. Up to the villa of infamous Tiberius, down to the Natural Arch, over to the red bunker that Malaparte called "home," down the via Krupp, and simply nowhere in particular along the trails around Anacapri—the variations are endless. 

to portal traditions & customs

entry Sept. 2003
3. Capri (3),  WWII September 1943 armistice

newspaper July 6, 1943I called up Herman the other day to see if had attended last week’s ceremony commemorating the Anglo-American invasion at Salerno. It took place 60 years ago and Herman, who is now 87 years old, was part of it. He told me that he hadn’t attended, though he had spoken with some members of the US 36th infantry who had stopped by to say hello to him in Sorrento. The ceremony in Salerno was marked by some counter-demonstrations by those who feel that remembering anything at all to do with war and violence is a bad thing, even when it’s on behalf of the good guys.

September 1943 was turbulent and confusing for Italians. The nation surrendered to the Allies on September 8,* at which point Pietro Badoglio, who had succeeded the deposed Mussolini as head-of-state in July, 1943 (newspaper headline, photo) declared that the war would now continue on the side of the Allies and against the Germans and Italian Fascists. That plunged Italy into a civil war. 

*[Technically, the armistice was made public on September 8. The actual surrender was a week earlier on September 3, 1943. It is called the Armistice of Cassibile (after the town in Sicily where the armistice was signed). The armistice was between the Kingdom of Italy and the Allies. It was signed at a conference of generals from both sides in an Allied military camp at Cassibile. The armistice was approved by both King Victor Emmanuel III and Italian Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio. The armistice stipulated the surrender of Italy to the Allies.]

The armistice of September 8 provided a strange episode —amusing in hindsight— having to do with the Isle of Capri. There were about 2500 members of the Italian Armed Forces on Capri at the time of the armistice. Obviously, they were now all part of the Allied command at war with their old allies, the Germans. 

Part of the terms of the armistice required the Italian naval contingent on Capri to move to Palermo, in Sicily. The Italian commander was unable to comply with the order because there simply wasn’t enough fuel left to run the ships that far. He sent a motorboat over to the Gulf of Salerno to advise the Allied commander of the situation; that is, the Italian forces on Capri weren’t making any sort of a Fascist last stand on Capri, nor were they refusing to surrender. They just had no fuel for the ships.

Accordingly, on September 12, an Allied ship showed up at Capri to check out the situation. The Allied commander then—for reasons that are as obscure as they are silly—demanded a separate “unconditional surrender… [from] the Commanding Officer of the Axis Armed Forces on the Islands [sic] of Capri.” (The Allied commander may have been counting the Faraglioni, those two beautiful rocks 100 yards off shore, as separate islands.)

In a true Laurel and Hardy finish to the episode, the surrender document —written in both English and Italian—was signed improperly. The Allied officer signed on the wrong side of the page, leaving the Italian no choice but to sign in the space reserved for the name of General Eisenhower.

[Herman, the gentleman mentioned in the first paragraph, has in these pages an Oral History of WW2. Click here to read that.]

added Jan 3, 2015

4. Capri 4         Project Baseline, Marevivo and the Blue Grotto on Capri                          

The Blue Grotto                   

Project Baseline has it origins in the 1990s during explorations of the underwater cave system in northern Florida at Wakulla Spring in the USA. Baseline has grown into a world-wide organization whose stated goals are

To document the health and vitality of the world's underwater environments; to increase public awareness of the health and threat to the world's underwater environments; and to facilitate political action that improves and protects the health of the world's underwater environments.

In June of 2015, the volunteers of Project Baseline announced a new collaboration with an important Italian association of environmental marine biology called "Marevivo, the only association in Italy that maintains a special department tasked with handling scuba diving activities in support of the management and monitoring of the marine protected areas." Marevivo has existed since 1985 and has its national headquarters on a barge moored on the Tiber river in the center of Rome (image, left). Marevivo is... association that promotes research, monitoring and environmental disclosure through many activities throughout the Italian national territory [ well as...] cooperating with international entities working for conservation and environmental protection of marine environments.

[photo directly above from Marevivo]

The organization has regional and provincial offices throughout Italy and municipal offices in Campania in Vico Equense, Capri and two on Ischia.

Besides cleaning up and maintaining the seas of Italy, Marevivo is interested in restoring some of the cultural history of Italian seas. Part of this effort concerns the restoration of the Blue Grotto (top picture, above right) on Capri as it was in Roman Times. We know that the Emperor Tiberius used the grotto as his personal swimming hole and as a nymphaeum, a marine temple dedicated to the water nymphs. The sea cave is presumed to have been an underwater appendage of the Augustan-Tiberian surface villa called Gradola, now in ruins. (The surface villa was partially excavated in the 19th century by the eccentric American Confederate Colonel John Clay MacKowen. He found capitals, fragments of statues, columns, and flooring, some of which he moved to his Casa Rossa in Anacapri, a current tourist attraction.) Also presumed, but as yet unconfirmed, is the existence of a internal passageway from Gradola down into the grotto. During the reign of Tiberius the grotto was decorated with several statues; as well, there were resting areas within the grotto at spots around the perimeter of the water. (The grotto no doubt remained known to locals during the long intervening centuries, but it was not “rediscovered”—that is, by foreign tourist—until the early 1800s.) Merevivo promotes an active environmentalist program among school children—EXACTLY what all of Italy needs—in the form of the "Guardian Dolphins" (with all due respect, you can forget Disney's Junior Woodchucks!—these kids are the real deal). There are about 600 school kids on Capri and Ischia, prowling their watery environs, picking up and cleaning up and trying to convince their elders to "pack out what you pack in."

Three statues of the Roman sea gods Neptune and Triton were recovered from the floor of the grotto in 1964 and are now on display at the above mentioned Casa Rossa in Anacapri (image, right). Also, in 2009, seven bases of statues were recovered from the grotto floor at a depth of 150 meters (492 feet). This suggests the presence of additional Roman artifacts. Indeed, the recovered statuary lends credence to an account by Roman historian Pliny the Elder (23 A.D. - 79 A.D.), who described the sea cave and the presence of a statue of the sea-god, Triton, playing a conch shell. Marevivo plans to restore the Blue Grotto to its imperial splendor by placing identical copies of the statues where they originally stood in the grotto. This project is being carried out in collaboration with the archaeological superintendency of Pompeii. Rosalba Giugni, president of Marevivo has said that "A preliminary underwater investigation has revealed several statue bases which might possibly hint to sculptures lying nearby."

That is an ambitious plan. I have no idea of recent progress. The superintendency for the “archaeological site” of Capri is dedicated to surface structures, as far as I can tell. If there is any actual work in progress, they are playing it very close to the vest—a buoyancy control device, I imagine.

[see also this related period postcard]

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