Barefoot nonchalance in the bay of Naples
Capri is a myth. Overly told.
Hideaway for the rich and famous, known to be one of the shelters of the mermaids, the tiny rock nestled in the gulf of Naples from which we can see the languished silhouette of the nearby Vesuvio has always been an object of fascination.
The first feeling you get after the one-hour ferry ride across the bay from Naples has nothing to do with legendary tales though. What strikes are those steep cliffs overlooking the picturesque port of Marina Grande.
Filled with modest wooden boats sporting local names and twice as small as the one in St-Tropez, it limits the presence of mega yachts to a mere minimum. There, some of the most classy cab on earth - all convertibles since a 1996 prefectoral order - wait in line to take you to the heart of the island, the Piazzetta, after an hazardous journey along the cliffs.
In Capri, everything, really, is unique. Its non-welcoming topography made of steep cliffs and rocky coasts, Mediterranean vegetation and crystal clear waters shaped a true lifestyle that is still one of the most prized illustration of the Italian dolce vita. Located 23 nautical miles away from Naples, the island offers the perfect seat to quietly observe the fuss of the coast and feel deeply remote, isolated and protected.
It might be this feeling that attracted the highest industrial, show business and political elite of the 20th century. From Frank Sinatra to Gianni Agnelli and Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Valentino, King Farouk of Egypt, Jackie Kennedy or Aristote Onassis, they all made it their privileged holiday retreat. An inspiring place, Capri also attracted some of the greatest artists and intellectuals of our time including Jean Cocteau, André Gide, Oscar Wilde or Pablo Picasso.
But the very first expatriates to ever elect Capri as their playful haven were a bunch of upper-class intellectuals who settled in the island at the end of the 19th century. Lured by a smooth and hidden life, a crowd of poets, aristocrats and dandies from all over Europe found in Capri the perfect place to lose themselves in an unbridled hedonism they were denied at home. Free spirits and pleasure-seekers such as Lord Alfred Douglas, English poet and Oscar Wilde’s lover, Friedrich Krupp, German industrialist and oceanographer and Jacques d'Adelswärd-Fersen, writer and founder of the very first French gay newspaper in 1909 have all contributed to the legend of Capri. Their villas still proudly reign on the island’s rocky hills and the via Krupp, although closed for years, is still one of the most visible symbol from this vanished era we still observe from a distance in a mix of fear and fascination.
Capri inspired many artists but it’s probably Jean-Luc Godard in his 1963 adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s book Il Disprezzo (Le Mépris) who rendered the deepest and most vibrant interpretation of its unique atmosphere. The second, and most dramatic part of this cult movie shows the progressive estrangement between a French writer and his wife. Widely based on the metaphorical relationship between the scenic landscapes of the southern coast of the island and the live crumbling of the couple, it shows an helpless Michel Piccoli trying to win back a burning Brigitte Bardot at the peak of her career. From the terrace of the Villa Malaparte overlooking the Mediterranean, the horizon is infinite and the sun blinding. Colors are saturated. The perfect prelude to a dramatic end.
Capri’s absolute beauty is intense and wild. With just a few traditional - and somewhat boring - beaches, the island is populated by a series of stabilimenti balneari filling its coves with a joyful mix of colored deckchairs and umbrellas. A local tradition, it shaped the way we enjoy water delights in Capri as much as the aesthetic associated with the island. And turned it to a proper lifestyle.
At the end of the day, as the sun slowly goes down on the faraglioni and the last ferry leaves the port, the island starts looking different. A relaxed, chic and cheerful crowd fills the Piazzetta to enjoy the yellow night, jasmine-perfumed air and timelessness vibe.
This, is Capri.