If you're planning a vacation in Italy, don't start with Capri. You might never leave the island.
We were already jet lagged when we reached Naples, traveling only with carry-on baggage so as to make the tight connection from Rome. By the time we had weathered the wild taxi ride to the Naples dock from the airport, the thudding hydrofoil to the island and the trip up a funicular from the harbor to the Capri town square, we were a bit punchy but glad to be walking. You walk in Capri. It's part of the charm.
In fact you can walk up from the port if your knees are good. The road zigzags through small vineyards and under people's flapping laundry. Everything is pretty much up and down on this jagged island.
The fancy hotels will carry your luggage on carts, but we hauled our own the half-mile to the Villa Krupp, a quiet, modest and civilized place run by a schoolteacher couple. We took one delighted look from our balcony at the verdant park beneath us, the hillside with its villas, hotels and church towers, and the incredible rocks jutting dramatically from a glimmering blue sea. Then we sacked out in the high-ceilinged bedroom.
It's amazing how fast you recuperate in a place like this. All afternoon we explored the crooked alleys with their wine shops, groceries, cheese and fish stores, ceramic tile shops, restaurants, gelato booths and chic boutiques -- from Ferragamo on down.
Avoiding the formal ristorantes and their "tourist menus," we discovered a variety of tiny trattorias, each with its own character. Sometimes the character was the waiter who did parlor tricks or the headwaiter who spoke five languages flawlessly. Sometimes it was the superb seafood. At one hole-in-the-wall, Il Tinello, run by two young brothers, we ate our way through the menu. It was a casually friendly place where people seemed to come mainly to talk, ordering one item at a time. On the wall I noticed an ancient bronze platter with a figure dimly inscribed on it. Looking closer, I saw the figure was Walt Disney's Dopey. Mysterious.
After dinner one saunters up to the town square, where four rival sidewalk cafe's offer coffee, liqueur and superb homemade gelati. The best place, by the steps of the cathedral, has an impeccable maitred' with white jacket, eloquent eyebrows and a starched Continental bow -- from the waist, with head tilted just so.
In the mornings you walk some more: around the amphitheatrical village of Capri to the point overlooking the Faraglioni rocks, the spectacular trademark of Capri, rising from the water like gigantic teeth, and beyond, to the famous villa used by Jean-Luc Godard for his film "Contempt." As we strolled down the path, a woman was singing a Handel aria somewhere. The voice seemed to come from the trees themselves, from the little grape arbors at the foot of the town, from the crumbling stucco farmhouses whose shuttered windows were open to the sun.
Are there many tourists on Capri? Are there mice in a haystack? All day, by the hour, they arrive in boatloads and are escorted through the main streets in great pulses of humanity. You quickly learn to avoid their routes, and like the natives you tend to do your window-shopping in the evenings. I am told Capri is really bad in midsummer, but then, what isn't?
One day I walked about two miles to Tiberius' Villa Jovis on the ridge. From here you can see across the shining water to the mainland and back over the village to the far side of the island. Beyond the partly excavated ruins is the sheer cliff from which, according to legend, the naughty emperor disposed of people who bored him. When Tiberius dropped you, you did indeed fall from grace.
A taxi or bus takes you from the Capri square to the Marina Piccoli, a small pebble beach with hot sun, cold, cold water (this was in May) and a fine fish trattoria, an open-air restaurant on a deck out over the water. You can rent a changing booth for about a dollar.
Another bus gives you a short but hair-raising trip along the island's very edge to Anacapri, less touristy than Capri, less busy, where you take a chair lift to the island's highest point, or inspect the marvelous 18th-century majolica floor of St. Michele showing Adam and Eve in Eden. From Anacapri you can walk or ride the two miles to the Blue Grotto.
Now, this is something you have to see. There are grottoes of various colors all around the island, and tour boats take you to them one by one, a trip of several hours that gets you out of bed at dawn (it is a morning phenomenon because the sun has to shine in to create the effect) and costs accordingly. But you don't need to do that. You can simply get yourself to the site and beckon to one of the scores of rowboats circling the dock outside the grotto. The cost is about $5 for a 10-minute look, or longer if your boatman is in a good mood.
Going in, you duck your head because the hole in the rock face clears the water by only a few feet. Inside, the cave balloons out to a great rock chamber 20 feet high in places. The light is night blue. The water is ice blue. The oar splashes turn into showers of sapphires. You float on a lake of light. You trail your hands in liquid sky. No one can speak.
This is one of the very few natural wonders of the world that utterly, absolutely lives up to its reputation. You don't really know your planet until you have seen the Blue Grotto of Capri.
When we tore ourselves away from the island they were having a Procession of the Virgin, with a band and lines of schoolchildren and the local people we had come to recognize walking solemnly through the town.
They say Capri is spoiled. Capri is a cliche'. I don't care. We've got to go back.