Forty-five minutes from the grit and grandeur of Naples, we stepped off the ferry at Marina Grande on the fabled isle of Capri. It has been 12 years since I visited and I wanted to see how the world of globalization has affected the island of sirens, an island that bewitched and almost entrapped the great warrior Odysseus on his way home from the Trojan War. I needn’t have worried. The main port Marina Piccola with its candy-colored former fishermen’s houses still had that Mediterranean vibe, buzzy not frenetic; the charming taxis with their tops sawn off and replaced with canvas awnings—the better to feel those warm Tyrrhenian breezes—still plied their trade without Uber competition; the good-looking Caprese drivers, as chatty, opinionated and expressive as their Neapolitan cousins, navigated the narrow lanes without their Iphones. Some sandal shops (all handmade to measure please) still displayed photos of Jackie O, in white jeans, a kerchief and those ginormous black shades, happily shopping in these very streets. Piazza Umberto or La Piazetta, probably the most famous postage stamp-sized piazza in the world is still the center of social gravity. Day trippers ascend the Funiculare from the port and flood the island by noon, trooping through La Piazetta in resort fashion, dutifully following someone with a flag, like noisy bands of very senior schoolchildren on excursion. By sundown when the street lamps along the gilded Via Cammerelle start flickering, the daytrippers have receded and the island belongs to an exotic flock who swan around the short, shiny, luxury-shop route from dinner in one of the high-wattage bistros in La Piazetta to the terrace of the Grand Hotel Quisisana (affectionately, “the Quisi”) for an aperol spritz, to eavesdrop nonchalantly on whether it is more fashionable to rent a yacht or a villa for the summer or if the coming Basquiat exhibit in Paris will finally cement his reputation as one of the last century’s greatest.
Capri defies fashion. Nothing has changed. The white-washed villas still nestle quietly aloof along the rocky hillsides, shielded by olive trees, some with modest wooden gates topped by large terra cotta urns and names like La Refugio, La Limonaria or Il Sereno. There are fleeting glimpses of azure pools, always empty. There does not appear to have been any new construction in the last 50 years. No grand architectural vanities nor McMansions here. It is quite possible there are plenty of the nouveau riche but they are not allowed to look too nouveau here. The lobby interiors of the hotels La Floridiana, Villa Brunella, Mamela, Punta Tragara and La Scalinatella, the hotels we all want to stay in have not succumbed to gimmickry of the latest and greatest in the world of hospitality design. Neither shabby nor fashion-y, they have admirably stayed true to their DNA and retained the look of that rarified Jet Set world of the 70’s: a polished insouciance ala Slim Aarons, a time when travel meant adventure, style and surprise. More Pucci than Versace. The flock makes an effort to look good here. I liked that. In my 25 years of travelling, nothing defines a place more than what the locals are wearing.
After lunch at Le Grotelle (where we gorged on the freshest Insalata Caprese this side of Italy), an al fresco restaurant that sits on a rock outcropping close to the Arco Naturale, we hiked up a rocky and untended path to admire a bird’s-eye view of the Villa Malaparte. Curzio Malaparte was a Fascist writer and intellectual who conceived of this extraordinary villa around 1937. A red masonry box with reverse pyramidal stairs, the house is a great example of Italian Modernism and is especially dear to cineastes for its prominent role in JeanLuc Godard’s 1964 film Contempt ( Le Mepris) starring a very pouty Brigitte Bardot. Today, its interiors are off-limits to casual visitors and the local gossip is that the Chinese government owns it.
We trooped up another 150 meters to the hamlet of Anacapri (“top” in Latin), along hairpin turns and more staggering views. I needed to see the Villa San Michele again, the Swedish doctor and art collector Axel Munthe’s labor of love. The villa is smallish even modest compared to its out-sized reputation and I imagine, disappointing to the first-time visitor. Dr. Munthe’s collection of antiquities is still around where he left them. But it is all about the gardens, the pergola and those god-like views to forever. There is a tiny chapel at the end of an allée. This would make a perfect spot for a truly romantic wedding if all you could invite were 8 people. 8 very chic people. As if drawn by a magnetic pull, everyone heads to La Sfinge (The Sphinx), a granite statue of a cat-like figure gazing silently over Capri, the blue horizon where sea and sky meet and Monte Vesuvius (who can devour all this beauty with one epic spew). What is La Sfinge thinking? What does it see? What does it know? Will I come back? But the only thing that answers back is the most beautiful silence.
Photographs by Isabelle Paez