The coast of Italy is what many call paradise. Here, Austinite Dee Covey uncovers her the hidden gems of Capri on a recent journey to the most coveted Riviera of all. Join us for an Italian escapade you won’t soon forget.
THE VIA TRAGARA
“If it’s running, take the ferry then ride the Funiculare up to Capri Town. Walk up the hill until it dead ends at a stone wall. Turn right on Via Tragara and follow the little path to the Villa Brunella and have lunch. The view is the most spectacular on the Amalfi Coast,” enthused the native villager upon our arrival.
Little did I know, when I heard these brief sentences, that I had stumbled upon the first steps to the most enchanting day of our adventure to the Sorrentine Penninsula – the very essence of an ancient and elegant culture, often overlooked by day trippers rushing to the bob in the Blue Grotto before returning on the five o’clock boat.
Ah, Capri. Only twenty-five miles from the much-heralded Amalfi Coast, the forever-chic isle in the Gulf of Naples conjures up 1959 Italian Riviera glam, with sleek high-varnish ski boats and a windblown Sophia Loren at her most decadently ravishing, perhaps beaching the Chris Craft (a collectible later dubbed the “Capri Runabout”) in a secret cove, to make out with the impossibly handsome Cary Grant. It’s timeless appeal still seduces.
I daydreamed this scene from blazing hot Texas, while planning our (much) delayed October honeymoon, drinking Diet Cokes-with-lime and sending online queries through Trip Advisor for Rome, Sorrento, Positano—and, possibly Capri, for lunch and a stroll if we had time. I never expected this optional adventure to yield moments so moving and magical that I would burst into tears that day – twice – because this kind of experience comes so rarely in a lifetime. (I’m talking real magic. The kind with ghosts and visions and dreams-come-true, as well as magnificent scenery.)
Upon recommendation, I made a lunch reservation at the hotel restaurant, the Terrazza Brunella on the Via Tragara. In my email, I told the host, Vincenzo, that this was our “luna de miele” (honeymoon) and we would appreciate a romantic table with a view. Little did I know what might unfold.
My new husband Jim and I pictured the Via Tragara as some kind of dirt goat path, with a ristorante run by a cute and charming family who served up something with marinara and mozzarella – like everywhere else. Maybe they would have passable wine, and something sweet and lemony – like everywhere else – and maybe the view would make the exorbitant Euro tab worth it.
We took the hydrofoil ferry over, and jumped on the musical-sounding Funiculare (foo-nick-you-lahrrrray) for a ride up to Capri Town, where we asked around for the Villa Brunella. All fingers pointed uphill. We strolled past the tony shops and hotels on Via Camerelle, when suddenly, we were the lone visitors at what looked like a very dead end.
Oh-kaaay, now what?
Jim was the first to see a blue and white ceramic handpainted tile, with “Via Tragara” and a cerulean arrow. We turned right… right into an absolute paradise.
The imagined “goat path” is a long and lovely and well-worn pedestrian promenade (wide enough for two golf carts) where the spectacularly wealthy have villas only partially obscured by intricate ironwork gates and bougainvillea cascading over ancient stone walls. It is a quiet, hidden-in-plain-sight stretch of architectural and gardening glory – I could easily picture the Jolie-Pitt family residing here among notable Europeans, visiting royalty and people of astonishingly good taste.
It was, hands down, the prettiest little walk of my life.
When we reached our stunning destination, the Villa Brunella, we were led to its restaurant, perched high above the sparkling bay. Clearly, “luna de miele” also, luckily, translates into “best table” in Italian. We were practically suspended in air in a corner made of windows, which opened to a dazzling view of sea. My back was to the highest peak of the island, enveloped by clouds, with the whitewashed village sprinkled along its green and rocky slope.
“What’s wrong, Sweetheart?” said my alarmed groom, when he saw my tears.
“I just know that I will never sit anywhere as beautiful as this.”
Afterward the delicious wine-soaked meal, we wandered down the road to the lookout point, saw Capri’s signature twin “sea stack” formations, I Faraglioni. Here is a tiled homage to the great poet Pablo Neruda, the secluded Hotel Punta Tragara (originally designed as a villa by yesteryear modernist designer Le Corbusier), and a culturally significant and historic spot. Apparently Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Dwight Eisenhower held a secret meeting to plan the endgame to WWII there as well. A loft history indeed.
Then Ike or no Ike, it was time to leave Cloud Nine in search of a sphinx.
THE SPHINX AND THE MINX
The Villa San Michele sits high in the western hills of Anacapri. It is reachable by a rickety red bus that races through hair raising mountain turns, spitting out white-knuckled passengers at an captivating chapel and home to one of the 20th Century’s most influential personalities – author, acclaimed physician and art collector Axel Munthe.
The temperature that day was a mild, yet I shivered upon entering the property; the lone visitors since it was near closing time. Goose bumps happen when a place speaks to me for unknown reasons, like the castle in Edinburgh, the first time I walked into my classic 1920s pied-a-terre on East 52nd Street, or Kathy Sosa’s extraordinary Cinco Estrellas in Alpine, Texas.
There was something eerily magnetic about Villa Saint Michele, too, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.
As we approached, I thought I heard a few notes of richly evocative music, and followed them into the stark white private chapel, with its exquisite artifacts and instruments left as if their players had just stepped out of the place. In reality, it was completely silent.
We went outside and followed the trellised walk to the house to the elegant house of Dr. Munthe, with its surprising light, marbled columns, sarcophagus fragments and beautiful busts from ancient times. The hand-carved furnishings, the copper-filled tiled kitchen, the open beamed ceilings and magnificent paintings and sculpture… it felt like a living space just left by extraordinary beings, like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s home in Mexico City. I was completely enchanted.
Time was short, so we hustled outside and followed the path paved with ancient Roman stones, to the walled overlook of the sea.
And there it was…. the sphinx. It guards the promontory with the most astonishing panorama of the sparkling sea surrounding Capri.
But how did it get there?
The experience was profound, ancient, so powerful that again, I was moved to tears. But there was no time to ponder, linger or read the signage, as we were practically swept off the place by a tired Italian cleaning lady with a broom.
One the way to the exit, we saw a photograph of… wait, is that Sophia Loren?
Yes, she was posing with an elderly man, circa 1950s, and looked, well, reverential.
The intensity of the experience was soon forgotten after we went back to the mainland to enjoy the splendor of Positano, and our bougainvillea- and lemon-filled terrace at the charming Villa Gabrisa, until we went to Leonardo da Vinci Airport, and my own little miracle happened.
I walked into the bookstore, where there it was (in English, no less), The Story of Saint Michele, by Axel Munthe, a scientist whose message about the magic of following intuition and dreams resonates today as powerfully as ever. What was the chance of that? It was an international sensation when it was published in the 1920s, and has never stopped being one of Europe’s most popular true life tales. The book has been translated into 45 languages, and many believers have made the pilgrimage to this place of mystery and miracles ever since – such as the world’s most famous Italian movie star.
The autobiography of the person and place is a fascinating, vivid, and mindboggling tale. It follows young Axel, a brilliant young Swedish medical student studying in Paris, who took a cheap trip to Capri and hiked up to a little village in the mountains. There, a vision came to him of a sphinx, which stayed with him for years. Later, when he was one of Europe’s most sought-after physicians, he went back to purchase the crumbling house and church – and discovered – ah-ha! – it sat on a villa built by the sphinx-loving Roman Emperor Tiberius.
Enter a cast of kooky guys with shovels, and you have a story amuses as much as it enlightens. Just like all of Southern Italy.
Ah, Capri. We will never forget thee.