The Blue Grotto, the Faraglioni, the Piazzetta ... The island in the bay of Naples has no equal either for its natural beauty or as a fashionable meeting place.
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Carefully choosing the right moment between one wave and the next, “Il Riccio” slipped the boat into the narrow opening in the rock. A few metres lit by the flickering light of a torch of pitch and then suddenly, draped in cobalt reflections, the Blue Grotto astounded the German visitors seated beside him: the painter-poet August Kopisch and his friend Ernst Fries. August Kopisch gave news to the world of the marvel he had admired on that bright morning in April 1826, and history rewarded him, honouring him as the “official discoverer” of the celebrated grotto, even though, as a local news item pointed out, the humble fisherman Angelo Ferraro, known as “Il Riccio” had swum among the blue reflections four years earlier, revealing the secret passage to what was soon to become the second most famous grotto in the world after that of Bethlehem.
To the legendary fascination of the island there was added, that day, the magic of an extraordinary place, buried for centuries in oblivion, one which from that moment sent the island’s tourism fortunes soaring. Capri soon became a fashionable resort that no one would willingly renounce.
On its famous Piazzetta, no larger than an oratory courtyard, rites were imposed and extravagant and exclusive fashions were launched.
In the shadow of the clock tower above it, which rings the quarter, half and full hours twice, to give time for those leaving to reach the funicular, an ancient usage dating from the time when no one had a wrist watch), in this “perfect setting for an opera by Donizetti" as Somerset Maugham wrote, there passed princes, kings, singers, rich travellers, victorious generals, writers, actors, poets and painters, “lost souls” and dandies eccentric to the point of folly: who perhaps went walking with two tame leopards on a leash, as a Russian noblewoman was wont to do, or with a crow with red lacquered talons perched on a shoulder, the bold exhibitionism of a Roman prince in the ‘fifties.
In delirious verse "Capri, ultima stazione della terra tradizionale, con i tuoi raggi binari lanciati a infilare la luna lassù bianco tunnel del paradiso diaccio sognato roventi pazzi” (Capri, last station of the traditional earth, with your binary rays launched to thread the white tunnel up there of paradise ice dreamed red hot crazy). Was how Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, founder of Futurism, saluted the island when from the Hotel Quisisana in the summer of 1924, he launched venomous darts against traditional cuisine, defining pasta as "passatista di pesantezza" (a weight of the past) and hymning in its stead an unconvincing salami immersed in boiling coffee perfumed with eau de cologne. Fortunately, no trace of Futurist cuisine has remained in the island’s restaurants, which continue to follow the Mediterranean tradition, using the fresh products of fishing, hunting and farming.
THE GOOD LOCAL FLAVOURS
The times will not return in which the migratory flight of the quail was halted with the nets erected at Le Parate, and every bounty of nature was cultivated in the little vegetable plots where today there grow, without demanding much attention, rocket of the pungent taste, basil, the legendary oregano of Capri and marjoram, the essential Prima Donna in the mix for the celebrated ravioli. Not much is grown, and a great deal arrives from the Naples wholesale markets. However hunting for wild boar and quail (the classical Capri winter dish with a side dish of peas) still continues, but with the rifle.
Fishing, too, is flourishing, as the port of Marina Grande testifies, coloured as it is by the fishing boats that come back from the sea laden with scorpionfish, greater amberjack, garfish, mackerel, squid, calamari and pezzogne (a fish similar to the sea bream), a fish typical of Capri that loves deep water. Before the hit-and-run day trippers arrive in the Piazzetta, offloaded by the ferries that arrive at Marina Grande every twenty minutes, there is a moment in which the island still belongs to its inhabitants, and that is the early morning, when one buys a newspaper from Salvatore, the Piazzetta newsagent for 45 years, drinks a cafe at the "Bar Funicolare”, "Bar Tiberio" or at the "Gran Caffè" of the legendary Vuotto family. And it is then that a pleasing smell of fresh bread descends from via delle Botteghe, where the "Sfizi di Pane” bakery opens, famous for its cakes, bread with olives, pies with zucchini and tomatoes, Danubio (a brioche filled with salami or ham and cheese) and tarallini (typical of Capri in the old days, when they were the only frivolity that accompanied the glass of white wine of the toast to newlyweds) with thirteen different flavours, all handmade. A few steps from the Piazzetta, the "La Capannina" restaurant has a bright hall to the walls of which the history of the mythical Capri of the ‘fifties and ‘sixties is affixed in a series of flash photographs, From 1931 the De Angelis family has been continuing the tradition of meticulous know-how: hors d’oeuvres of stuffed calamaretti, ravioli alla caprese (homemade pasta without egg wrapped round a filling of fresh caciotta cheese, egg and marjoram, the whole fragrantly seasoned with tomato sauce) or. alternatively, linguine pasta with seafood and scampi or the inevitable Capri salad (fiordilatte cheese, tomatoes, basil and a pinch of oregano). The inventor of this dish, which by now has entered world cuisine as “caprese”, is unknown, but many people say that it was a gourmet mason who lived in the post World-War II period who liked to put the “colours of the Italian flag” between two slices of bread.
Enclosed by the alleys of riotous light that separate white houses with barrel-vaulted roofs, and just behind the Piazzetta, Serafina Alberino’s "Buca di Bacco" has reigned for 25 years.
A real Caprese, with a yellow headscarf holding her black hair in place, and the open smile of one who loves life, she remains faithful to the tastes of the “inexpensive recipes” of her mother who managed to invent the best dishes in the world for her twelve children, using quite modest ingredients. Very little butter, olive oil, the perfumes of fresh greens and wild herbs for the long list of her menu, served in the open hall with its magic Capri panorama: scarola stuffed with capers and olives, squid and potatoes, squid stuffed with tentacles fried and chopped with caciotta cheese and marjoram, beans and scarola, aubergines with little mushrooms, pasta and cicerchie legumes, peppers sautèd with capers and olives and cianfotta caprese, an earthy recipe that mixes onions, artichokes, new potatoes, zucchini, wild asparagus, cherry tomatoes and skinned broad beans with homemade bread, parsley and basil.
It was the dish preferred by the Emperor Tiberius who, in 27 AD, moved court and offices to Capri, built ten villas dedicated to the gods of Olympus and, in the place of an old temple, wanted a greenhouse where Serpullus, the vegetable gardener from Avellino could cultivate his preferred herbs. From the centre of Capri by via Longano, via Sopramonte, via Tiberio and viale Amedeo Maiuri, the itinerary for the discovery of the restaurants, the tastes and the beauty of the island leads to the most famous imperial residence, Villa Jovis: an immense fortress-palace (today in ruins), right above the sea and the scene, according to some biographers, "of the vile infamies and the foul licentiousness of the emperor”.
Not far away, Villa Lysis, better known as Villa Fersen, jewel of pure Art Nouveau style, has a dark legend that contrasts with the whiteness of its marble. It was the residence of the Baron Fersen, a dandy, snob and pervert who hated Bougainvilleas, the floral masterpiece of the island, and descended to the Piazzetta dressed in white and carrying his Malacca cone to look for blond catamites. He killed himself one night in a storm, drugged by absinth and wine. In contrast, one finds a serene peasant atmosphere under the pergola of oranges and lemons that shades the nearby "La Savardina" restaurant, run by the Tarantino family for the last forty years. In the hall, the children Claudia and Eduardo, in the kitchen, mother Liliana and father Mario. The former produces the handmade gnocchi and ravioli, the latter sees to the cooking of the rabbit “alla Poppea”, browned with rosemary and cooked in white wine, or of the linguine pasta with lemon an ancient recipe from grandfather Edoardo.
TOWARDS THE FARAGLIONI
Resuming the return journey by via Lo Capo, and turning left at the end of via Tiberio onto via Matermania with the sign indicating the Natural Arch, one finds one of the most fascinating and demanding of the island’s walks.
The nature that surrounds the Grotto dedicated to the Roman Mater Magna is strong and wild, and the left fork that leads to the Natural Arch, a geological survivor perhaps of the collapse of a very ancient grotto is impressive. From the "Le Grottelle" restaurant, the lonely and interminable steps that lead down to the sea flank, on the level, the Villa Malaparte, refuge of the writer Curzio Malaparte who fell in love with the spectral solitude of the rocks of Capo Massullo, then descending behind the celebrated Faraglioni.
On the sea shore, the "La Fontelina" restaurant has for fifty years been offering its guests the priceless view of the twin rocks, which are also important from the point of view of natural history, because they are the home of the “blue-bellied lizard”, an emblematic ‘Darwinian’ example of evolution of the species in conditions of isolation. On the table, on the other hand, the principal attraction is the very fresh fish (seafood salad, sliced raw fish) and the "cuisine of poverty", such as aubergine balls and scarola rolls. On resuming the walk, one finds belvederes, luxury hotels and dense gardens alternating along the via Tragara. The route snakes between the cloisters of the fourteenth century Certosa di San Giacomo (St James’s abbey), where the friars first distilled the famous Capri perfume, the luxuriant Gardens of Augustus, and also touches the Marina Piccola if from the gardens one takes the incredible vertiginous via Krupp, cut out of the rock in the early 1900s by the German steel baron. Near the Hotel Quisisana in a white limestone alley, "Biberius" gives lovers of fine cuisine a taste of happy creativity signed by Pasquale Romano: a basket of parmesan cheese with salad and prawns, pezzogna in a case of salted bread with stewed scarola, garganelli pasta with crustacean meat and tomato filets, in an atmosphere of refined minimalism. One returns to the Piazzetta by via Vittorio Emanuele, where the fronds of the legendary palm of the Hotel La Palma wave in the breeze, the symbol also of the island’s first hotel, erected on the site in the mid eighteen hundreds on the successful initiative of Don Michele Pagano. If one has not already been captured by the bright coloured call of the ice-creams, by the soft drinks and water ices of the historic "Scialapopolo" sign, it is just the moment for a stop at the "Caffè Caso" to renew the tradition of the subretta, a sorbet ante litteram. Seventy years ago it was made by hand crushing lemons, oranges and strawberries, and today the “cold tradition” continues with the water ices of an unlimited variety of tastes, flavours and colours: orange, coffee, prickly pear, limoncello (lemon liqueur), mulberry and cucumber. One has to descend towards Marina Grande and follow a country lane to find the Capri cult bar. "Da Paolino" takes its name from the host whose overwhelming charm has seduced clients from all parts of the world. In the shadow of his magnificent lemon garden, he “caresses the palate” with an explosive hors d’oeuvres (pasta stuffed with ham, mozzarella cheese and "chiummenzana" a chopped mix of tomatoes and oregano), Capri salad, scialatielli with seafood, cicerchie legumes and pasta, tuna and potatoes, every kind of grilled fish and lemon delight, a sweet that is a hymn to the rough, yellow "femminelli" lemons of Capri. For centuries, only a difficult path across the Passetiello pass permitted communication between Capri and Anacapri. Now, taking the coast road built in 1885, in a few minutes one reaches Anacapri from the “city” as the oldest inhabitants still call Capri. "The countryside " of vineyards and crops, however, is best admired from above, taking the astounding Monte Solaro chairlift, which emphasises two very different, practically opposite, worlds. Axel Munthe, the Swedish doctor who ‘went crazy’ about the island in the early nineteen hundreds, chose to build his refuge, Villa San Michele (today a museum), in a peaceful agricultural corner. "The house was small, the rooms few, but there were loggias, terraces and pergolas all around, where one could stay and look at the sun, the sea, the clouds; the soul needs more space than the body”, he wrote in his book "The Story of San Michele", which in those years was translated into more languages than any other except the Bible, and revealed the island’s charms to the world.
THE TEMPTATIONS OF GLUTTONY
The magical atmosphere of Anacapri still today inspires Sergio Rubino, ceramist and water colour painter, known from China to Manhattan. He creates his works inspired by the colours and atmosphere of the island in a small studio looking onto an enchanting garden, enlivened by Pulcinella and hand-painted tiles. Another outstanding personality is Gunnar Adler Karlsson, Swedish economist, who conceived the Philosophy Park where one is taught to attain happiness of the spirit. Developed from Mediterranean maquis vegetation, in a secluded corner of via Migliara, the Park is the place from which to set out to enjoy the breathtaking view of the lighthouse, or to reach the "Da Gelsomina" restaurant and taste its rustic cuisine: ravioli or gnocchi with mozzarella and tomato, scialatielli (pasta) with prawns and pumpkin flowers, pennette pasta 'a umma 'a umma (with fried aubergines and tomatoes), grilled fish, chicken “al mattone”, rabbit “alla cacciatora”. The via dei Anacapri continues, to mingle with art and natural beauty. Just a step from the church of San Michele and the splendour of its 18th century Earthly Paradise, depicted in ceramics on its floor, the Brunetti brothers’ hundred year old "Tiberio" winery produces the island’s wine in very small quantities and from vines indigenous to the island, including the red "Antico Convento" from the piedirosso vine. In contrast, with their Capri limoncello, the Canale brothers have only put Granny Vincenza’s ancient recipe into a bottle; she was already offering it in the early nineteen hundreds as a digestive at Christmas to guests of the legendary Mariantonia Pension. The restaurant "Add'ò Riccio" with its spectacular terrace above the sea, just over the entrance to the Blue Grotto, also knows how to win over its own fans, with fish just caught, risotto or linguine ”alla pescatora” with seafood, “pezzogna all'acqua pazza” and Capri tart, based on almonds and chocolate. The recipe for this sweet, similar to a Sachertorte, was a jealously guarded secret in the ‘thirties, whereas today it has become the property of gluttons all over the world.
But Capri was experiencing its golden age at that time. It attracted the world that counted as the Homeric Sirens did Ulysses “Come ... stop the ship, listen to my song ".