Spring Break Pt. I: Exploring Capri

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**Author’s Note: This is the longest post I have written to date (with good reason). You may want to grab a cup of coffee and make yourself comfortable before you embark.**

As I (edit: begin to) write this, I am sitting on a train from Naples to Rome, the first half of my two weeks of traveling completed. After being redirected to Sorrento from Marina Grande in Capri this morning due to high seas, an hour long train ride brought us back to Naples and I am now on my way to Florence, with a stop in Rome. But let’s start at the beginning.

The first week of travel began on Sunday morning at 6:45 am. My friend and classmate Lily (who also keeps a blog, much more interesting to read than mine) and I met our professor, Romolo, outside of our residence area and took a cab to Roma Termini, the main train station in Rome. From there we took a train to Naples, hopped on a cab to Molo Bevellero, the main port of Naples, and rode a hydrofoil to the island of Capri (pro tip: pronounced CAH-pri, not ca-PRI). We rode the bus to the center of the town of Capri, and took the short walk to our hotel, a nice, 4-star hotel not far from the Piazetta, the central square of the town. After unpacking, and lunch with our professors, we met Romolo for the first of what would become a plethora of hikes throughout the week.

The first hike we took was full of attractions. The first one we encountered was the Arco Naturale, an archway made of stone that was originally the entrance to a cave or grotto in the side of the mountain. As we traveled down the edge of the island, we made our way to Grotta Matermania. This grotta is a naturally formed cave that was formalized by the construction of walls along the edges in prehistoric times. The grotta was a sort of place of worship to “Matermania”, or, Mother Earth.

After exploring the grotta, we made our way back up along the edge of the island. Our next point of interest was Casa Malaparte, a house built in the 1930s for a journalist by the name of Malaparte. The house careened on the edge of a cliff, with straight drops to the ocean on three sides. Malaparte was able to acquire this magnificent piece of property through his connection with Facist leaders because of the way he wrote about the regime in his publications. Unfortunately the house is closed to visitors, but we were able to get a good view of it from the cliffs above.

The final attraction on this hike was a set of three enormous rock formations jutting out of the ocean, just of the coast. These three rocks are collectively known as the Faraglioni. As you will see in the photos, we viewed the Faraglioni from almost every angle imaginable throughout the course of the week.

We returned to the hotel around sunset, unwound and finished unpacking for awhile, That evening began the reason the trip to Capri existed in the first place. We were part of a group of European students, mostly from Italy but a few from Romania, taking part in a graduate student workshop, focused on the revitalization of archaeological sites. The island of Capri is home to a site known as Villa Jovis, a well preserved vacation home perched on high cliffs, belonging to the Emperor Tiberius around the time of Christ. The villa is well preserved, but has recently fallen into disrepair and closed, due to lack of interest and funds from admission fees to keep the site operating as a local attraction. Our project was to develop an idea that would revitalize the area and spark an interest among visitors to visit the site.

We met with all of the students in our hotel lobby, and after an introduction to the project, we were broken up into groups. Lily and I were paired with a group of 4 students from Romania and 1 from Milan. They all spoke pretty good English and we thought that it would be a good fit. More on that later. After meeting with our group and introducing ourselves, we left for dinner at a place recommended to us by Romolo, Il Bucco di Bacco. For dinner I had what seems to be a local favorite in Capri, pennette aumm aumm, small penne noodles in a red sauce with grilled eggplant.
On Monday morning we visited the archaeological site as a class with special admission from the Campania regional government in Naples. We were allowed three hours to explore the site, recording what we saw and experienced as we traveled through it. Lily and I came across a secluded area of the villa that was disconnected from the rest of the site, and decided that it would be an interesting area to develop. As we were exploring the site, we found what was to be the first of many unplanned hikes throughout the week. We found a trail that led from the area of the site that we were looking at, straight down the mountain in a tight switchback formation. The trail was seemingly well maintained for being so desolate, and we found at the bottom that it led to a much newer villa, Villa Lysis, and eventually led all the way down to the edge of the island. We did not have time to explore these areas this time, but made a point of returning later in the week.

After climbing back up the mountain, we met with our group at the entrance to the villa. They began doling out assignments to us, not realizing that we were not participating in the workshop in the same capacity as they were. After a mildly awkward dialogue, we issued our “statement of disengagement”, as it was phrased by the Romanian team’s alpha-female leader, and decided that we would be best off working more separately from the group.

We returned to Capri, and after lunch and some downtime, met in what was known as the Sala Azzurra, or Blue Room, a general meeting hall in the town’s city hall building. A lecture was given by one of the teaching assistants (in Italian) and was kindly translated to us quietly by Romolo. After the lecture, we attempted to go on another hike with Romolo, this time on a trail known as Via Krupp, which led from Capri down to the Marina Piccola. The trail, however, was closed due to falling rocks and remain so all week. We decided, instead, to wander around the city.

The streets in Capri are completely “people-sized”. The roads are virtually entirely pedestrian, save for a few electric carts delivering goods to local businesses, and are generally less than 20’ across. This makes the walking experience completely different from Rome, as you never know what’s around these tiny, white-washed corners of buildings. As we were wandering, we began to see signs for a place called “Belvedere Cannone”. The word “belvedere” literally means “beautiful view”, and was an indication of a look-out spot. We followed the signs up a hill and had a great panorama of the southern side of Capri, less than an hour after dusk.

After this walk, we returned to our hotel, and then went out to eat at a restaurant we had seen earlier called “Michelangelo’s”. We were the only people in the restaurant, and were greeted by a tall, tan Italian man named Edvino. Edvino told us that he had lived in England for awhile, and spoke very good English. We sat us down, and introduced us to the chef, “Poppa”, as he called him. Edvino recommended the salmon, so I ordered that with a plate of pasta in a cream sauce. It was hands down the best fish I have ever eaten.

As we sat eating, we noticed a photo on the wall, a view of Capri and Marina Grande framed by a pair of Doric columns. Our nerdy architectural curiosity sparked our interest and we asked Edvino where the photo was taken from. He insisted that it was taken from Villa Jovis, the site we had visited earlier that day. We told him we didn’t think it was, we hadn’t seen columns like that in the morning. He left to ask Mrs. Poppa if she new. First they decided that it was taken somewhere near the villa, and after telling them again that we hadn’t seen any columns in that condition around the site, they finally conceded that it must be a photo montage. We found the real truth later.

On Tuesday we started the day with a short walk down to the Certosa di San Giacomo. The certosa was a Benedictine monastery which now housed a local middle school. The church within the certosa was beautiful in its simplicity compared to the churches of Rome, and the courtyards provided beautiful views of the surrounding cliffs. Attached to the certosa was an area known as the Giardino di Augusto, the Gardens of Augustus. While it was sill early in the season for much of the garden to be in bloom, the area was an extremely peaceful one, shaded by trees leading to beautiful views to the ocean.
After we finished this visit, we attempted to walk Via Krupp, which was again, closed. We found another trail, however, which led to the base of the Faraglioni. We hike down was steep, and hike back up felt even steeped, but standing at the base of these huge towers and sheer cliffs with the crystal blue waves crashing on the shore made for a refreshing new perspective on the island.

After this hike, we went to the Sala Azzurra to work on our project. We spoke with Romolo for the last time for the week, as he was leaving to join the rest of our class on their trip to Florence and Venice. Not long after he left, the group of graduate students began a lecture. Since our translator was gone, we had nothing to gain, and left for another walk.

In the afternoon, we returned to Villa Lysis, where we had been the day before after climbing down the mountain. This time we arrived by an easier path, a fairly level road, which intersected our trail at the villa. Maps indicated that the trail led down the hill past the villa to a cove area known as La Fossa, as well as a small, skeletal lighthouse. We began our extremely steep decent down the hill, helped by questionably rotted wood railings and crumbling stone stairs.

We had almost made it to the bottom when we noticed the lighthouse, tucked in overgrowth to the right of the trail. After venturing through some chest-high patches of weeds, we made it to the base of the lighthouse. It was clearly abandoned, and was much smaller than it looked in the photos. A quick excersive of my acrobatic abilities (though I’m sure it looked quite ungraceful), I made my way up the spiral metal ladder to the top. The top of the lighthouse only stood about 20; from the ground level, but provided enough clearance above the growth to see to the water’s edge, not far from where we were.

We returned to the trail and made our way to La Fossa. The beach was covered in huge boulders, many of them volcanic, which we could only assume to be from Mt. Vesuvius, looming across the Bay of Naples. We hopped across the rocks, and I found my way around the corner of La Fossa. While La Fossa was shaded by the cliffs we had just climbed down, but around the bend was a great view back to Marina Grande and the rest of the island, basked in sunlight. I grabbed a few photos, but as it was getting near dusk, we decided we should begin our ascent back up to Villa Lysis.

The villa was completely empty, and though the interior of the house was closed to, a break in the wall surrounding the property assured us that the grounds were open to visitors. As we wandered the overgrown gardens of the abandoned villa, I caught something out of the corner of my eye…the columns! A flight of stairs from the driveway to the villa led to a small rotonda, surrounded by Doric columns supporting a circular pediment. Here we found the exact image we had discussed with Edvino the night before. After getting over our amazement and luck at finding this site, we returned to the trail, and back to the hotel.

That night we ate at another restaurant recommended to us by Romolo, “Il Verginello”. The restaurant sat on the edge of the town of Capri, overlooking the Bay of Naples, and though it was dark by then, we could still see the Neopolitan skyline across the water. That night I ordered gnocchi with mozzarella and swordfish. The restaurant boasted fresh seafood, and this fish tasted like it had been swimming an hour before, another great meal.

Wednesday morning we decided to reinvestigate the first hike we had down with Romolo on Sunday. We took a few spurs off the trail, and found some interesting spots, such as an abandoned entrance pathway to the Casa Malaparte. After the hike, we worked on our project for awhile, then took lunch down to Marina Piccola, the small beach area on the south side of the island. I had every intention of going for a swim this week, even though the water temperature was slightly below 60 degrees. The day, however, was too cloudy and hazy, and the sun would not come out enough to cure me of what would be my eventual hypothermia on exiting the water. We wandered around the various beaches tucked away between rock outcroppings, and then made our way back to the hotel.

That evening, we noticed that the sunset was casting a nice, orange glow on the Faraglioni, and decided it would be the closest we would be to seeing a sunset that week, since the sunset behind the mountain of Anacapri, the opposite side of the island that we were staying on. We had originally planned to take the hike to the base of the Faraglioni that we had hiked on Tuesday morning, but a wrong turn, coupled with our eagerness to catch a few before the sun set, led us down the most…adventurous…path of the week. The trail began as a gentle slope along a stone wall, tucked away from the cliffside. As we neared the edge, however, we realized it was about to get much steeper. Very, very much steeper. A steep path led to old stone stairs that led to sections that you basically had to rappel down to the next landing. I made it to the bottom of the cliffs just in time to catch some residual glow on the Faraglioni before heading back up to the top.

We returned to “Il Verginello” for dinner that night, this time I ordered grilled shrimp, which were the biggest shrimp I had ever seen, and looked like they had just come out of the ocean, eyes, feelers, and all. It was an interesting experience trying to dissect them, but it was well worth it, another delicious meal.

Thursday was by far the most intense day of adventuring around the island that we had all week. We had originally planned on doing a boat tour in the morning, followed by a short hike or two in the afternoon, however, when we got down to Marina Grande, we found out that there were no tours running for the rest of the day. We decided to go on the mother of all hikes around the island, a ~13 mile hike with an elevation change of 1935’ in about 8 hours.

We started out from Marina Grande, elevation 0’, to the Scala Fenicia, a set of stairs that were the original connection from the port town of Capri to the hill town of Anacapri. The stairs switchback almost vertically up the side of the island, and level off right at the Villa San Michele. This villa was built and owned by Swedish doctor, Axel Munthe, who came to Capri in the late 1800s. He fell in love with the island, and not only made it his permanent residence, but also saved the island from many epidemics, and put his life’s work into making the island a better place. The villa is now a museum dedicated to his life and work on the island. After visiting the villa, we walked into Anacapri for a cup of coffee and a quick break before our next leg. We picked up lunch and began hiking again. We went from Anacapri to the Augustan villa of Damecuta. All that is left of this villa are 1’ high walls that mark the original ground floor plan of the villa. We found the site deserted, as many other places on the island. We took a break here for lunch and to admire the cliff side views offered by the villa.

After lunch, we hiked back down to the water’s edge, along what is known as the Sentiero dei Fortini, or, the Trail of the Forts. There are a handful of medieval forts positioned along the edge of the island, facing out into the sea, originally built by the British, and later added onto by the French, as control of the island changed, particularly during the Saracen raids. The trail winds in and out of the coves carved along the edge of the island and provided great views along the coastal cliffs.

After finishing the trail, it was time for the 1925’ climb to the top of Monte Solaro, the highest point on the island. We wandered up a street that led to a trail taking us up the mountain. Passing by the Torre Guardia, a guard tower for one of the forts, and providing stunning overhead views of the Faro lighthouse at Punta Carena, the trail emerged into the most scenic sections of the day.

We soon arrived at Belvedere Migliara, a site I had visited when I was last in Capri with Cait. Another awesome lookout leads to a trail that steadily climbs to the top of Monte Cozucco, and finally up to Monte Solaro. At Monte Cozucco, the trail teeters on the top of the ridge, with a sheer drop to the ocean below (I kept my distance (for the most part)). We made the final ascent to Monte Solaro, although we didn’t have much time to take in the views because it was getting close to dusk.

We made our way back down to Capri by way of “Il Passetiello”, a trail recommended to us by Romolo as well as our cartography professor back in Rome, Allan. Both advised high caution upon walking the trail, but after some of the trails we had walked earlier in the week, this section was a walk in the park.

So finally at around 6:00, we arrived back in Capri, having circumnavigated over half of the island in one day. With a feeling of accomplishment, we made our way back to the hotel before leaving for dinner.

At dinner on Tuesday, we were told that the restaurant was hosting a party of sorts on Thursday evening. Music, dancing, and good food were all promised, and they came though with a bang. The best part was that it was apparently a party to celebrate International Women’s Day. This meant that all of the old women came out to dance around, and it was hilarious to watch. That night we had two pasta dishes, one with the salmon we had had earlier in the week, and the other was a homemade gnocchi.

Friday, our last full day in Capri, was spent unwinding from the day before, and working on our project. There were presentations that afternoon, and we weren’t sure if we were expected to present or not, but we figured we were better safe than sorry. We got our project done and showed up for the presentations, and sure enough, after all of the grad students had finished, we were called up to present ours. The presentation went well. The professors did not speak very good English and their critique was very minimal, but I was glad we got to show our work.

That night we went to a group dinner with most of the grad students at a restaurant called “Scialapopolo”. The meal consisted of penette aumm aumm and a fried seafood mix with calamari, shrimp, and small sardines. The food wasn’t the best we had eaten all wekk, but it was our first opportunity to really interact with the graduate students, as they had been busy with their projects all week. We sat with a group of students from near Bologna who spoke very good English (they start learning it when they are 6) and they tried their best to have all of their conversations in English, so as to include us. It was a fun dinner and in true Italian fashion, we were there until around midnight. After saying our good-byes, we left for our last night in the hotel.

The next morning we had planned on catching a ferry at 9:10, directly to Naples. The seas were too rough, however, and we wound up taking a ferry to Sorrento, then a train around Mt. Vesuvius back to Naples. The ferry was running a little late, and we missed the train back to Naples that would have met my connection in time by about 6 minutes. But so as to not end the story of this awesome week on a sour note (and to leave a cliffhanger to bring my readers back), I’ll spare you the details of the rest of the day until the next installment of my spring break trip!

**Published on the train from Florence to Venice, stay tuned for the next update!**

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