Trekking the Casual Side of Capri

By Kristin Harrison
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 9, 2009

On a Sunday morning last May, my boyfriend and I strolled through a field of pink and yellow wildflowers on the island of Capri, following a dirt path that seemed more suitable for goats. There wasn't another person in sight. We scrambled up rocky bluffs and hiked along a grassy meadow until the path ended abruptly at a steep drop-off to the Mediterranean Sea. Yachts and sailboats dotted the waters below, small flecks of white on a canvas of azure, turquoise and aquamarine.

Down an overgrown path, we discovered the 14th-century Church of Santa Maria a Cetrella, nondescript except for its precarious grip on the cliff's edge and the jaw-dropping view. I peered into the small, dark sanctuary and hesitated before entering. A few candles flickered in the depths, and it was so calm, quiet and serene that I felt as if I was trespassing.

This is certainly not what I had expected during my three-day visit to Capri, 17 miles south of Naples. Famous for its celebrities, hordes of day-trippers, high-end boutiques and overpriced accommodations, Capri has been attracting decadence seekers for millenniums: Those dangerously beguiling sirens in Homer's "Odyssey" reportedly lured sailors here, and Augustus Caesar visited the limestone outcropping in 29 B.C. and became so enchanted that he traded the island of Ischia for it.

But instead of deadly femme fatales, I'd found one of the most beautiful, spiritual places I've ever visited. The little church was so old and remote; for reasons I can't quite explain, my boyfriend and I felt compelled to drop a few euros into the donation box and walk around in silence. I understood why the brooding author Graham Greene visited Capri annually for more than 40 years, tucking himself away from the glitz by staying in Anacapri, the small town to the northwest of its fashionista big sister, the city of Capri.

We'd come to the island after a whirlwind tour of Florence and the hilltop towns of southern Umbria. On Capri, just over four miles long and not quite two miles wide, we'd hoped to slow our pace and hike off a few pounds of pasta and gelato.

We took a hydrofoil ferry from Naples to reach Capri's bustling Marina Grande, where we boarded a crowded minibus to make our way up the heart-pounding switchback roads to the main town. (The island's roads are so steep, narrow and busy that nonresidents aren't allowed to drive on the island seven months of the year.) The bus nearly emptied at the Capri town stop, but we stayed on with the locals to ride up to Anacapri. Leaving the bus at a deserted stop, we walked past whitewashed houses covered in hot pink bougainvillea and gardens full of citrus trees. Down a pedestrian-only maze of streets, we found our hotel, Villa Eva.

Surrounded by lush gardens, Villa Eva has been owned and operated by the husband-and-wife team of Vincenzo Parlato and Eva Balestrieri for more than 50 years. Balestrieri greeted us warmly and showed us to our room, which boasted a frescolike painting on the vaulted ceiling and a patio with a partial view of the sea.

She recommended dozens of hikes, from walking to the island's most famous attraction, the Blue Grotto, a sea cave carved out of the steep limestone cliffs, to exploring the nearby Roman ruin, Villa Damecuta. Or we could simply wander down the road to dinner. "Just walk," she said to my boyfriend in Italian.

We planned to hike a different route each day, but to do it Italian style: starting after a leisurely breakfast, hiking to restaurants accessible only on foot for lunch, and leaving plenty of time to soak in Villa Eva's pool and catch the ample rays of the warm Mediterranean sun. After all, we were there to experience "la dolce vita."

The next day, we fueled up for our hike with a breakfast of pastry and cappuccino at Villa Eva. At a corner newsstand near the bus stop in Anacapri, we bought a book with a pull-out hiking map of the island and asked the shop owner if there was a trail connecting Anacapri to Capri town. "Si, si," she proclaimed, and gave us a flurry of directions in a mix of Italian and English. We thanked her -- "Grazie mille!" -- and headed off, betting on our chances of finding the trail (slim to none, I thought).

To our surprise, we did find the trail head -- in fact a series of more than 800 stairs known as the Scala Fenicia -- but it was closed for repairs. Undeterred, we asked a vendor selling handmade sandals whether there was another way down. Again we were animatedly assured that there was, and we followed the turns as best we could. But we got off-track when we saw a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary tucked into a cliff up a set of stairs. Her hands clasped together, she seemed to be praying fervently for drivers on the narrow road below. Alas, she didn't bring us hiking protection. We ran out of trail and ended up on the busy road, gagging on diesel fumes.

In Capri town, we regrouped and crossed through the town's heart, Piazza Umberto I, known simply as the Piazzetta. The surrounding blocks were crammed with shoppers peering into the windows of such fashion outposts as Fendi and Prada. The fragrant scent of lemon and jasmine nearly lured me into the perfume laboratory of Carthusia Profumi, famous for celebrity clients including Naomi Campbell, but I resisted the sirenlike call to shop. We were here to hike! About 10 minutes past the piazza, the crowd thinned. By the time we reached our lunch destination, we had the quiet, flower-lined Via Tragara to ourselves.

Despite our hiking outfits, we scored a table at the elegant Terrazza Brunella. From our seats, we could see Anacapri perched on the rocky bluff in the distance, hundreds of chic white villas and yachts moored in the lovely Marina Piccola below.

After a delicious lunch of eggplant parmigiana and lemon risotto, we followed the road to the Hotel Punta Tragara, built on yet another bluff with to-die-for views. From there, we followed a dirt path that quickly became rugged and wild. Rising out of the water like Poseidon and his men, the three Faraglione sea stacks -- rock formations so large that boats can drive through the natural arch of one -- loomed just off the coast. Half an hour later, we entered a quiet forest and climbed a series of stairs to reach Grotta di Matermania, a Roman ruin inside a natural grotto. Although local lore holds that this cave was a site of Roman orgies and cult rituals, historians believe it was used for something less sensational: as a nymphaeum to honor the water gods.

We continued our climb up to the Arco Naturale, which soars 60 feet above the coast and provides a lovely frame for the Mediterranean below. Then we looped back into town and ate lemon and strawberry gelato in the main piazza, watching ferries rush the last of the day-trippers back to the mainland.

* * *

In Anacapri, a 12-minute chairlift ride carries tourists up Monte Solaro, at 1,932 feet the highest point on the island, but on our second day, we opted to walk, following an uphill trail past quiet houses and through a pine forest. After 45 minutes, we reached the Church of Santa Maria a Cetrella; then we climbed on through knee-high grass to reach the top of the mountain. From our perch on the pinnacle, we could see across the Bay of Naples and spot the Pompeii-burying Mount Vesuvius in the distance.

We continued on, following a footpath along the ridge. To my left: tall grass and wildflowers rustling in the wind. To my right: a nearly 2,000-foot plunge into the translucent sapphire sea. It was stunningly beautiful, and we didn't see anyone else on the trail all afternoon.

Our hike ended at Da Gelsomina, a restaurant accessible only by foot. We sat on a patio that overlooked a hillside vineyard and the sea. Next to us, a large group of Italians celebrated a birthday, and it felt as if we'd joined the family party. We seemed to be the only tourists there. We topped off our spectacular hike with a meal of insalata caprese, made with fresh buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes from the restaurant's garden; aumm aumm, a dish of eggplant, tomatoes and pasta; and local wine. After lunch, we strolled lazily through Philosophical Park, a quirky nature walk with 60 quotes from Western philosophers displayed on majolica tiles. Our favorite: Delphi's simple and direct adage to "Know yourself!"

On our last night, we returned to Capri town's Piazzetta, marked by a clock with a blue-and-yellow face and twinkling lights strung high across the courtyard. At night, Capri's wealthy engage in the grand Italian art of the passeggiata, strolling slowly around the piazza to see and be seen. We sat at the Gran Caffe under a blue-striped awning and watched the fashion on parade until the clock tolled well past midnight. After our action-packed vacation, we savored "il dolce far niente," the sweetness of doing nothing.

Kristin Harrison is editor in chief of Women's Running magazine and a freelance writer based in San Francisco.

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