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Have you ever revisited an old love affair to discover that nothing is quite the way you remembered it? What once looked glossy and polished may now seem a little tawdry? What once was deeply romantic many now feel a bit contrived?
I first fell in love with Capri in 1995. I arrived by night on a late ferry, flanked by a handful of college-age women from my study abroad program in Florence. We'd hopped a train to Naples, made our way through its insanely crowded streets to the ferry landing, and cruised across the famous Bay to arrive at this magnificent rocky outcrop jutting proudly from the Mediterranean Sea.
Capri! It took my breath away.
Twenty-two years later my memories of that long weekend are still blurry but warm. I recall the long, winding bus ride up to the top of the island, AnaCapri, where our group had arranged shared rooms in an inexpensive hostel that looked (to me, at the time) like a 'real' castle.
I remember eating spaghetti bolognese under the stars at an open air restaurant by the side of that same road; staring out into the deep night, across the white rooftops undulating in the darkness.
I have the faintest recollection of hiking with friends through ancient fields and coming across 'real' Roman ruins. Someone took photos of me gazing in awe at two glorious rocky limestone edifices rising from the sea off the island - I Faraglioni. I recall thinking what a romantic spot this could be, if you were there with the right person.
In my college photo album from that year, I have pictures of a few of us entering the world-famous Grotta Azzurra (also known as the Blue Grotto) in a rowboat. Somewhere deep in the cavern of my memory I remember the man piloting that wooden boat telling us to lay down, low, in the bottom of the boat so we could slip through the tiny hole that was the entrance to the cave. I can still see the luminous electric blue light inside of that underwater cave. I have zero recollection of how we hired him, how long it took to get there, or anything else. Just that radiant, searing blue.
I remember wanting to dive into its brilliant waters and feeling envious of Roman Emperor Tiberius, whose private swimming hole this had once been.
"I get it," I thought. Tiberius might have been one of the cruel Roman emperors, but I had to admit he had good taste.
At age 19, I was an easy sell. This was the stuff dreams are made of. Later, when back studying at my university in California, I came across a cigarette ad in a magazine that was set in Capri. In it there is a photo of a beautiful woman on a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean.
Above the woman, the ad reads: "She's gone to Capri and she's not coming back."
I didn't smoke, but I clipped out that ad and pressed it into my scrapbook anyway.
"Someday I'll return!" I told my roommate.
* * * * *
Twenty two years later I found myself on a warm June day crossing the Bay of Naples again. I was headed back to Capri! Except this time, I'd brought not just 'THE' right person... by my side were FOUR of my favorite people!
Seated next to me in the crowded, slightly run-down professional ferry were my husband Señor Aventura and our three children - The Scientist (11), Soccer Dude (10) and Little Angel (8).
There we were, crossing the Mediterranean in the glorious summer sunshine!
And boy, were they ever grumpy!
Everyone was sleepy and hungry. Little Angel was yawning. Soccer Dude wanted to play video games on a phone. My husband mentioned about ten times how much he preferred to go on wild swimming adventures. Even more, The Scientist had an infected cut that was really bothering his foot. Every single step the poor guy took hurt. There was a lot of grumbling! As you can see from the photos, none of them were that excited about our arrival.
"It's going to be great!" I chirped at them like an irritating mama Pollyanna.
"Humph!" they groused, and continued silently up the hill to the heart of town.
Ultimately though, after we stopped at a pharmacy to get the foot sorted out, things started to improve. We had lunch at a restaurant with a beautiful view.
(The food was overpriced and just so-so, but the view itself was world class.)
With food in our bellies, our little group of grumblies stopped noticing only the hordes of tourists flocking restaurants, cafes and jewelry stores around us... and instead began to see the loveliness of the buildings and the land.
"It's pretty here, Mom," Little Angel exclaimed. "There are so many flowers!"
While our glasses weren't exactly rose-colored yet, they were certainly much brighter than they'd been an hour or two earlier!
Here then, are the great triumphs and recommendations from the day we spent exploring Capri... along with a few helpful hints for tourist traps you may want to avoid.
Highly Recommended - 4 Things You MUST DO in Capri!
1) Get out of town!
So here's the thing. Capri has been a 'resort town' for thousands of years since the days of the Roman Emperors. This area has been dedicated to tourism before most major European cities existed. So, as you may expect, the heart of the resort town itself really feels commercial. The town of Capri lives and breathes tourism... and seems also to be infused with cash from wealthy expats looking for summer homes. The vibe doesn't really feel authentically Italian... it feels 'fake Italian'.
As an antidote we recommend getting out of town! Pick a direction and/or a destination and just start walking. There are a myriad of beautiful, well maintained roads and paths that will take you all over the island. The further you walk away from central Capri (and its boat landing below) the more likely you are to find something authentically beautiful and enriching. There are a lot of places you can walk to, and you could probably even walk the entire length of the island in a full day to see several of them.
The longer you walk, the less likely you are to run into groups of other tourists... most of whom take the buses and do not walk. The farther you walk, the more likely you are to engage with locals who actually live and work on Capri. (More about this later!)
As we walked we passed by amazing things including the villas of famous British writers, gorgeous landscapes, farmers cultivating lemons on terraced hills, and what was perhaps the world's most beautiful cat!
2) Do something OLD! Really old!
The highlights of Capri are OLD... and famous for a reason.
There are several you can choose to visit - mainly on your own - including ruins from the old Imperial palaces (including the temples, villas and aqueducts of Emperor Augustus), the Faraglioni, the Grotta Azzura, the small harbor, and lovely Anacapri.
As long as you're not traveling with tiny children we highly recommend Villa Jovis. Built by Emperor Tiberius and completed in 27 A.D. this is one of the most preserved ancient Roman imperial villas in Europe.
For a very small fee you can enter and roam through Villa Jovis on your own, even walking around its grounds and through abandoned/destroyed rooms of the ruined palace. You can step right on the ancient tiled paths, and sit in the rooms of the Emperor, taking in his ridiculously phenomenal view.
It's no wonder Tiberius retired here and governed Rome for the last 10 years of his reign from Capri.
Just be careful, there are no security measures at Villa Jovis and if you are traveling with small children I would not recommend bringing them near the area where Tiberius used to throw (no joke) his prisoners and slaves into the sea. The drop is easily hundreds of meters and there are no protective guard rails to stop your little person from slipping off the side of the cliff.
Villa Jovis is truly unforgettable and will make your journey to Capri completely worthwhile.
3) Make a local friend!
When we travel we try to speak with locals as often as we can, especially in the native language if we know any part of it. I recommend this even more when you're in a place as overrun with international tourists as Capri.
We struck up conversations with everyone we met... from servers in the restaurant to the man offering a clean bathroom at the side of the road for hikers.
It's easy to understand why Capri natives would have a love/hate relationship with tourists that provide their livelihood. We've seen so many rude, entitled tourists in action - demanding, condescending, littering.
We try instead to show respect and ask questions to the people who actually live and work there about the history of the island, and for recommendations about the best parts of it. You may just get some 'secret' recommendations that will give you a more authentic and special experience!
4) Buy something lemony!
Limoncello is a liqueur that has been made in southern Italy, especially along the Sorrento and Amalfi Coasts, for at least a hundred years. It is produced from lemon zest (Femminello St. Teresa lemons) left to steep in spirits. When the oil is expressed, it makes a yellow liquid that they mix with syrup. Limoncello is beloved in Italy (just after Campari!) and lately other parts of the world are discovering it too.
In Capri you can also buy liqueur filled lemon candies and all kinds of aprons and ceramics decorated with lemons. The best part is that these special lemons are actually grown on Capri and so it is likely that with effort you can find and purchase a limoncello or candies that come from locally produced lemons.
4 Things to SKIP in Capri...
1) Try NOT to eat at a restaurant on the main street
If you want to experience truly great Italian food, we suggest staying on the mainland in Sorrento... or even perhaps heading to a smaller town like Massa Lubrense or Sant'Agata. The restaurants on the main street in Capri are terribly overpriced and, much like California's Disneyland, they have a captive audience. You are on an island and you are hungry... thus, you will have to eat, even if the quality of the food is not spectacular.
If price is no problem, there are a few well-reviewed restaurants to be found on the Island... including Ristorante Le Grottelle and Ristorante Le Capannina. We recommend doing your research in advance and calling for a reservation ahead of time, especially if you plan to travel during a high tourist season. Just stay away, if you can help it, from the restaurants and cafes that line the center of town. Who needs to eat a plate of plain pasta for $35 euro each? It's kind of silly.
2) Don't buy gelato in Capri.
For many of the same reasons cited in #1, we recommend that you save your sweet tooth for the mainland. My children were horrified to discover that gelato on Capri ran up to 5 euro for a single scoop, when they knew they could get two big scoops back in the mainland town where we were staying for less than 2 euro.
After visiting at least four gelato shops and comparing prices, I watched (somewhat in awe) as my son and daughter decided NOT to ask me to buy them gelato in Capri.
"By our calculations, Mom," explained The Scientist, "We can skip this gelato and negotiate with you to get three scoops back in Sant'Agata tonight."
"Wow!" I could not quite believe it. "You want to wait for your gelato?"
"Yes," they nodded sagely. "If we wait, you'll pay LESS and we'll get A LOT MORE gelato."
I could not have felt more proud. "Your self restraint is amazing. With that kind of logic, I think you've each just earned an extra scoop!"
3) Don't take a tour bus!
Obviously if walking isn't your thing, a tour bus is still a great way to see Capri and Anacapri, and to get an overview of the island.
That said, the island is small enough that if you are able-bodied and willing to walk, you can see the entire thing by foot. As we mentioned earlier it really pays off to get off the beaten track and see parts of the island where there tour buses DON'T go. You're more likely to get an authentic taste of Capri... and to meet real Italians who live in Capri or travel there to stay in their summer homes.
The sooner you get off of the pre-planned bus tour and organize a walk or hike of your own, the sooner you may be able to experience more of the 'raw beauty' of the island.
4) Don't arrive late for your ferry back to the mainland!
The truth is, ferries to and from Capri run essentially on time and the lines of travelers waiting to get back onto the boats are enormous. Especially because some of the ferry companies sell a single afternoon ticket (expecting that you may need to take an earlier or later boat) it is entirely possible that the ferry you were planning to take home may be oversold. It helps to have patience and a little flexibility in your schedule.
In other words, build in a time buffer or come with a Plan B.
I heard a man in front of me in line for return tickets complaining bitterly to the saleslady that his ferry had left without his family because it was already too full of other passengers. Despite his litany of reasons why his family HAD to get back to the mainland ASAP (because they stood to miss their connecting transportation to another Italian city and also their nightly hotel room) she was unable to help him.
His ship had, quite literally, sailed.
After hearing this we made sure to arrive on time to our ferry and even so, the line to enter wrapped halfway around the harbor! So, unless you are the world's most relaxed family... we highly recommend arriving for your return boat a little early during high season.
If you expect it to be a hassle and wait patiently at the front of the line, you just may get an air conditioned seat on the ferry home!
* * * * *
Despite a few small drawbacks to be aware of, Capri is still world-famous for a reason! It may not be quite exactly the exquisite jewel of my decades-old memories, but it's one of those places you've just got to see! I'm thrilled to have checked it off of our family bucket list and shown it to my husband and kids.
With a little planning you can absolutely make the most of your time on this special Italian island!
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