An Italian Love Affair
I have had a love affair with the Island of Capri since I was about 10 years old. It started with a book that I borrowed time and time again from my local library called “Secret of the Blue Grotto” by Kelman Dalgety Frost. This book fired my imagination and probably was the catalyst for a lifelong love of adventure, travel, and wonderful places.
When I got the parcel, I was touched deeply by an inscription written inside the hardcover in a childish hand. “Will the new owner of this book please phone Lisa at 825354. Date: 2nd September 1986”. My eyes misted over. To think that there was another young girl out there somewhere who, 24 years ago, was sad to part with this book.
Lisa read this book 20 years after I did. I read the book that very night. It was so familiar, yet there were bits I didn’t remember. As I finished reading and was about to turn out the light, I hugged the book to my chest, much as I would have, I imagine, back in 1965 when I first read it. To Lisa, wherever you are, thank you for this book and I will treasure it for as long as I live.
In 1977 I first visited the Isle of Capri. I discovered that the Italians call it Capri – with the emphasis on the CAP only sounds like CUP. So romantic the way they say it. I was 22 and I loved it. The whole time I was there, Kelman Frost’s book was at the forefront of my mind. All I wanted to do was to see the famous Blue Grotto, or La Grotta Azzurra.
Visiting the Grotto is dependent on the weather and sea conditions on the day. The entrance is so low that if there is any swell at all, no boats can enter. Luckily for me, that day back in 1977, the seas dropped by lunch time, enabling me to visit this special place for the first time.
Fast forward now until 2007. Thirty years since my first visit to the Blue Grotto, I visited again, this time with my son Matt. I regaled him with my love of Kelman Frost’s novel (at this stage I had not yet become an owner of the book). We lined up on the Marina Grande, Capri’s main harbour, and waited for over an hour for tickets to see the Blue Grotto.
The launch, holding about 12 passengers, motored around the island’s rugged high cliffs until it reached the low hole in the cliff face which was the entrance to the Grotto.
At last it was our turn. We were told to lie down in the boat. He propelled us forward with a skilful thrust of his oar, then he quickly lay down kind of on top of us as the right wave came and swept us through the low entrance on its swell, and into the most surreal, most beautiful and wondrous sight that you could imagine. The pristine, iridescent blue waters of the Grotto Azzurra. This place was once visited by the Romans way back in 79 AD and was a favourite resort for several Roman Emperors, including Octavia, Augustus II, and of course, Tiberius.
Our oarsman told us to sit up. It took a moment or two for our eyes to adjust. There were several boats like ours in there. The magnificent cavern echoed with the voices of our Italian oarsmen, singing Italian opera, each trying to out sing the next in volume. I stuck my hand over the gunwale and saw how the water made my hand look white, really white, glowing.
The light from outside squeezes in through the low cave opening that the boats come through. There is also, apparently, a lower opening down under the water. The refraction of the sunlight coming through this little opening causes it to glow upwards through the water, thus giving it the eerie but beautiful blue glow.
All too soon, we were out in the bright sunlight again and being ferried back to the Marina Grande. We walked around the little port and eventually decided to stop for lunch at one of the restaurants. We had a lovely meal with an unbelievably wonderful view of the harbour.
Time to head up to the main town, Capri, which sits perched atop the high cliffs behind the Marina Grande. There is a funicular (cable railway) which climbs steeply up the 250 metre high cliffs to Capri. There is also a very steep, very narrow road, which zigzags its way up there. Only a local would attempt to drive up. The queue for the funicular was long, as the perfect hot, sunny day had drawn more than the usual large crowds of day trippers to the island. We opted for a taxi. We climbed into an open top Volvo with a jaunty coloured stripe canvas awning over the top and tassels hanging from its edges in a fringe of colour and jauntiness.
The drive up the steep, narrow road was an experience. It was like being on a roller coaster ride at Dreamworld. Occasionally we would pass a pedestrian who obviously did not value their life. Hairpin bends, horns blaring, a sudden stop as we would encounter another taxi wanting to come down the one lane roadway. It was fun. It was soooooooooo Italian!!
The taxi dropped us at the busy town square of Capri. The view down to Marina Grande, to the blue Mediterranean and across to Naples was magnificent. We could see Mt Vesuvius standing majestically out from the hazy shadow of the mainland.
Capri town is a thriving, bustling place made of white washed buildings, cobblestones, narrow alleyways, and designer shops. No cars are allowed in the town, and the cobblestones are well worn by the feet of millions
Way back in 29 BC, Caesar Augustus visited this island. He loved it so much that he bought it. Well, actually he traded it for the island of Ischia which he owned. His successor, Tiberius lived on Capri and was responsible for building many villas between the years 27 and 37 AD, the ruins of which are still standing.
So, instead of following the glitterati, we followed a steep and winding cobblestone path upwards through the town, passing villas and homes, stopping to look at breathtakingly beautiful scenery overlooking the island and the Bay of Naples. We had no map, we just wanted to explore. It was one of the most exciting days of our trip. It was hot and sunny, making us feel homesick, as the weather was reminiscent of our gorgeous Queensland.
We bought bottles of water and walked for hours. Bougainvillea, majestic in its purple, draped everywhere, over high white walls, over wrought iron gates. Flowering oleanders in pink and white added to the colour. Combined with the blue of the sky and the intense cobalt of the sea beyond, our walk was an intense photo shoot to try and capture the beauty of the day and the place.
We found a sign saying Arco Naturale. Hmm, Natural Arch. That sounded good. So we set off to find it. We walked for a couple of hours, every now and then seeing a sign post. We passed no one. It was quiet, firstly in the outer ring of homes and then into the bush. We passed many little devotional grottoes with statues of the Virgin Mary. The Italians are very devoted to her and they leave flowers at these little memorials along the roadsides.
A peaceful walk, no traffic, the hot sun beating down. How wonderful to be in this place. Out of the blue, we came upon a café carved into a rock cliff along our track. It had little tables with white cloths. I stopped a waiter. “Si si, Arco Naturale” and he pointed for us to keep on walking. Eventually we found it. A magnificent arch of rock, suspended over a drop of several hundred metres, right down to the blue water below. We spotted some tourist boats bobbing way, way down, so tiny they were mere dots. We stayed in this place for an hour. We took photos and soaked in the view and the peace. A little kitten came to talk to us. Other than that, we were alone.
Time to head back. We were tired now from our long walk, but the walk back was easier as it was more downhill than up. We arrived back in the town of Capri and bought a gelato before catching the bus back down to the Marina Grande. Time to board the hydrofoil back to Sorrento. I was sad to leave this place that has been so fascinating to me all my life.
It had been a long day, but Mother Nature was to leave us with one last parting gift. As we stood on the back deck of the hydrofoil as it sped across the Bay of Naples to Sorrento, she put on the most spectacular golden sunset that we had ever seen.
A fitting, regal end to a wonderful day of beauty, adventure and a trip down memory lane. I imagine that Kelman Dalgety Frost also stood on the back of a boat, staring back at the monolithic shape of Capri as she rises up out of the sea with her sheer rock cliffs. I imagine him also being blessed by the sunset of Capri, and standing out on deck until it could no longer be seen.
Ciao Capri. Ciao Kelman. Ciao little Lisa, who has bequeathed her book to me.