For the next 3 islands I was joined by my friends of 20 years – Alison and Natalie. They flew out and joined me in Naples for our ‘3 islands in 3 days’ whirlwind tour. Naples is a vibrant and buzzing city. I love it but it’s not an island so sadly there’s no room to mention it here! Busy Molo Beverello, just one part of the huge Port of Naples, is the departure point for the hydrofoils and ships for the nearby islands of Capri, Procida and Ischia; to the town of Sorrento and other stops on the Amalfi drive. The first of our 3 islands was beautiful Capri (in Italian pronounced CApri, not CapRI).
We made an early start and took the first hydrofoil over at 0800 and were joined by a huge number of workers on their daily commute to the island. Compared to those serving the Aeolian islands, the hydrofoil was enormous with seats for several hundred people. There were 3 times the people in this hydrofoil than the entire population of Alicudi! The journey takes 40 minutes – just time for a quick trip to the bar for a decent espresso and a not so decent croissant from a packet (for us) or a few cigarettes huddled outside on the open part of the deck (lots of our fellow travellers).
We arrived in Marina Grande, Capri’s major port, shortly before 9 am to find a fairly quiet and deserted harbour. Our travelling companions surged purposefully off the hydrofoil and headed up the hill to the right – presumably to catch buses up to Capri and to the rest of the island. Marina Grande is a large and well organised natural harbour with a sturdy and well built brick quayside on the right-hand side where large hydrofoils and small to medium size ships dock and allow passengers to embark and disembark. Off to the left is a large safe space for cruise ships to moor off and transport their passengers ashore by tender. In the centre of it all, and directly in front of the wide promenade lined with bars and restaurants, rows of identical boats for hire and smaller private craft are tied up in a neat and orderly fashion – waiting to be hired by tourists or claimed by their owners and sailed off to somewhere less frenetic. In front of us the island of Capri rose steeply upwards and our eyes were naturally drawn to the top of the hill where the town of Capri nestled, covered in wisps of low white cloud.
As we crossed the wide esplanade looking a bit lost, we were accosted by boat owners enticing us to hire a boat and taxi drivers offering to take us on a tour of the island. We dodged them all and headed for the funicular railway up to Capri town – one of the highlights of a visit to Capri. I had been to Capri before and knew where the funicular was. I remembered long queues so was surprised to see that there was no-one waiting. We were just debating whether or not the railway was in operation when a waiter from the neighbouring restaurant stepped forward to be helpful. Ivan (as we subsequently discovered he was called) was a jolly man in his 40s or 50s with a healthy belly straining the buttons of his white shirt. He produced a map of the island with a flourish, told us how to use the funicular and directed us to the ticket office around the back of the port. We bought our tickets and breezed through the automatic ticket barriers onto the funicular, promising Ivan we’d be back for lunch.
Opened in 1905 and born of a desire to get from Marina Grande up to the Piazzetta on something quicker than a donkey, the funicular railway is a little red train with several small carriages which whizzes locals and tourists from top to bottom (or vice versa) in about 5 minutes and for only €2. The station at the top opens out onto the picturesque Piazza Umberto 1 on one side and a stunning viewing platform on the other. Large pots of red geraniums line the balcony with breathtaking views back down the funicular track, to Marina Grande harbour below and out across the shimmering blue sea of the Bay of Naples.
The Piazzetta (as it is known) is the heart of Capri. A miniature and well-tended square with an enormous clock in a little tower and two bars with rows of neatly arranged outside tables, is lined with designer shops and is probably one of the most expensive places to have a coffee in all of Europe! We did it anyway and were attended by an over-polite and very slick, older maître d’ type in a smart beige jacket and slicked back hair. Two espressos and a cup of tea (albeit in a silver pot) set us back over €20 and we were the only people there! Sometimes these things have to be done! Well-heeled and expensively dressed people walking tiny, tidy dogs mixed with other busier and less elegant people delivering vegetables and other supplies on hand carts. There were surprisingly few tourists.
Situated in the Bay of Naples between the Sorrento peninsular and the islands of Procida and Ischia, the island is divided by its natural geography into 2 separate areas which today have become 2 main settlements – Capri and Anacapri. Historically these 2 areas have been rivals throughout history but these days there is a bus service which runs from Marina Grande to Anacapri. Sadly, we only had time to explore Capri. Up here, the streets are narrow with frequent sharp bends. Only specially made, battery-powered, four-wheelers can negotiate the twists and turns of what are really no more than alleyways. Pedestrians are often required to flatten themselves against the wall to avoid being run over!
We wandered along the narrow whitewashed streets, peering through wrought iron gates and over high brick walls, catching glimpses of wonderfully exotic and well-tended gardens belonging to smart hotels and glamorous private houses and, beyond them, the deep blue sea. We headed down the shady, tree-covered path in the direction of the Belvedere di Punta Tragara on the south east side of the island – a wide public paved viewpoint on top of the cliff edge complete with benches to sit on and contemplate the breathtaking views of azure sea and the famous rocks known as I Faraglioni (the stacks).
These 3 large rock formations on the south east of the island (one of which is home to the famous blue lizard), rise out of the sea and are one of Capri’s most beautiful sights. The hotel here (Hotel Punta Tragara) served as the headquarters of General Eisenhower during World War II and he and Winston Churchill met here to discuss war strategies – the event is marked by a plaque on the hotel wall. We chatted with a couple of older Italian men about Brexit and the time they had spent working in the UK over 40 years previously and then with a couple of ladies from Rome also eager for a chat.
On the way back up the path, we passed a little wooden hut selling, amongst other things, limoncello – a sweet alcoholic liqueur made from lemon juice, found everywhere in the Naples area due to the glut of lemons grown here. The lady working there was sweeping the street outside her kiosk and singing O Sole Mio – apparently very popular with the Japanese tourists and good for business! We passed restaurants with staff busily laying tables for lunch and large, luxurious geranium-bedecked hotels. The shops are smart and expensive, their window-displays tantalizing. Sadly our budget only ran to postcards!! The streets are spotlessly clean and decorated with colourful hanging baskets and window boxes. It is very pretty! As we approached the Piazzetta, we noticed a huge increase in the number of tourists in the very short time since we left! A huge, seething mass of humanity brandishing selfie sticks had arrived and was blocking the stairs beneath the clock tower and the part of the square near the funicular entrance with a panoramic view. We hopped gratefully onto the train and headed back down to Marina Grande where Ivan was waiting with our table for lunch.
Capri was once the famously exclusive home to movie stars and authors such as Graham Greene and D H Lawrence. Sadly, it is now becoming increasingly overrun by mass tourism as cruise ships and tour operators import visitors in their thousands. It is a small island – only 10.4 kms² – with a population of approximately 12,000 people and yet more than 2 million visitors come here each year. In high season, 15,000 people PER DAY arrive in Capri – 80% of them day-trippers from cruise ships or other forms of mass tourism. The mayor of Capri is apparently very unhappy about the situation and was recently quoted as saying ‘it’s like trying to fit 1.5 litres into a 1 litre bottle’. The majority of these visitors only have time to see Marina Grande and to travel up to Capri town for a quick look around before getting back on their boats and leaving again. Obviously, we were no different – except that we beat the others to it by arriving early. There is now a move to encourage tourists to stay at least one night so that they have time to explore the rest of the island and the impact of mass arrivals in the harbour would be diluted.
The atmosphere back in Marina Grande was festive and frivolous with tourists dressed in their best sundresses and big floppy hats, eating ice cream and taking photos of themselves. Ivan made us comfortable outside on the shady terrace and served colourful Limoncello and Aperol Spritzes in tall glasses with straws and bits of fruit. We sipped smugly as we watched the long queue of American cruise-ship passengers snaking past our lovely table on their eventual way to the funicular. We attracted a bit of attention with our raucous laughter – Alison christened me ‘Nonna’ (Italian for Granny) because I was walking as fast a her Nan used to with my bad feet! We gladly accepted all of Ivan’s recommendations and ordered a delicious lunch of seafood salad and spaghetti alle vongole with ‘pomodorini’ and realised that it was only 11.30 am!!! In Capri, the early bird definitely gets the worm!
Capri is a beautiful island but come early, stay at least one night and visit the parts of the island the other tourists miss – oh and bring lots of money!
The next island on our whirlwind tour is Procida.