Tuesday, 9 July 2013

‘Capri makes you forget everything,’
but is it true ‘it’s best not to linger’?

Small boats and a tiny stretch of beach at Marina Grande, the main port of Capri (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

’twas on the Isle of Capri that I found her
Beneath the shade of an old walnut tree
Oh, I can still see the flow’rs bloomin’ round her
Where we met on the Isle of Capri

She was as sweet as a rose at the dawning
But somehow fate hadn’t meant her for me
And though I sailed with the tide in the morning
Still my heart’s on the Isle of Capri

Summertime was nearly over
Blue Italian sky above
I said “Lady, I’m a rover,
Can you spare a sweet word o’love?”

She whispered softly “It’s best not to linger”
And then as I kissed her hand I could see
She wore a lovely meatball on her finger
’twas goodbye at the Villa Capri

Summertime was nearly over
Blue Italian sky above
I said “Lady, I’m a rover,
Can you spare a fine word o’love?”

She whispered softly “It’s best not to linger”
And then as I kissed her hand I could see
She wore a plain golden ring on her finger
’twas goodbye on the Isle of Capri
’twas goodbye on the Isle of Capri
’twas goodbye on the Isle of Capri


The villa where Gracie Fields once lived at the Marina Piccola in Capri (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Frank Sinatra’s recording of this popular song in 1958 came as mass tourism was about to explode in post-war northern Europe. But his lyrics are much cruder than the version recorded in 1934 by Dame Gracie Fields, who had a villa on the island:

’Twas on the Isle of Capri that he found her
Beneath the shade of an old walnut tree
Oh, I can still see the flowers blooming ’round her
Where they met on the Isle of Capri

She was as sweet as a rose at the dawning
But somehow fate hadn’t meant it to be
And though he sailed with the tide in the morning
Still his heart’s in the Isle of Capri

Summertime was nearly over
Blue Italian sky above
He said, lady, I’m a rover
Can you spare a sweet word of love
She whispered softly, it’s best not to linger
And then as he kissed her hand he could see
She wore a plain golden ring on her finger
’Twas good-bye on the Isle of Capri

Somewhere far away, over Naples Bay
I heard a quaint lover’s story
It’s magic thrill holds a spell on me still
It’s a story old, that’s been sadly told
Down by the shore in the moonlight
How love began for a girl and a man

’Twas on the Isle of Capri that he found her
Beneath the shade of an old walnut tree
Ha-ha-ha-hahhhhhh, ha-ha-ha-hah
Where they met on the Isle of Capri

She was as sweet as a rose at the dawning
But somehow fate hadn’t meant it to be
Ha-ha-ha-hahhhhhh, ha-ha-ha-hah
Still his heart’s in the Isle of Capri

Summertime was nearly over
Blue Italian sky above
He said, lady, I’m a rover
Can you spare a sweet word of love
Ha-ha-ha-hah, ha-ha-hah, ha-ha-hah-hah
Ha-ha-ha-hah, ha-ha-hah, ha-ha-hahhh
She wore a plain golden ring on her finger
’Twas good-bye on the Isle of Capri.


Of course, “a plain golden ring” is more delicate than Sinatra’s “lovely meatball.”

It is still high summer, so I can hardly sing “Summertime was nearly over.” But with the “Blue Italian sky above” on Monday [8 July 2013], I sailed from Sorrento to the isle of Capri in the Bay of Naples.

There are white cliffs, hidden grottos and caves, and blue water all along the coasts of Capri (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Capri is am enchanted isle, with its white cliffs, grottos and caves hidden in the deep blue sea, and the villages of Capri and Anacapri hanging on perilously to the edges of cliffs and rocks.

There is no place in the Bay of Naples that is more sought after, and none that is more glamorous. This tiny island is swamped by day trippers in these summer months, with ferries and hydrofoils from Sorrento, Naples, Positano and Amalfi, taking anywhere from 20 to 80 minutes to reach the island and arriving seemingly every two to three minutes.

In less than half an hour, we had arrived from Sorrento at Marina Grande, the island’s main port, but instead of heading straight into the island’s towns, Capri and Anacapri, we began our day with a boat tour around the island’s rocky coastline, with grotto after grotto interspersing a series of perpendicular cliffs.

Beneath the Villa Jovis, where the Emperor Tiberius threw his enemies off the cliff-top into the sea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

We headed around the Punta del Capo, beneath the site of Villa Jovis, the eastern summit of the island, where the Emperor Tiberius lived a life of debauchery and, according to Suetonius and Tacitus, he threw his enemies off the cliff-top to certain death in the sea below.

Capri has been inhabited since early times. The Greek geographer Strabo, Capri was once part of the mainland, and in the Aeneid, Virgil says Capri was populated by the Greek people of Teleboi who came from the Ionian Islands.

Tacitus records twelve imperial Roman villas in Capri. The soon-to-be Emperor Augustus swopped the neighbouring island of Ischia to the north with the Greek residents of Capri in 29 BC, and made his new Sea Palace his main residence on the island. He built temples, villas and aqueducts, and planted gardens so he could enjoy his private paradise.

Tiberius, his successor, built a series of villas at Capri, including the Villa Jovis, one of the best-preserved Roman villas in Italy. In 27 AD, the Emperor Tiberius moved permanently to Capri, running the Empire from there instead of Rome until his death then years later.

After the Western Roman Empire collapsed, Capri became subject to Naples, and in the centuries that followed it was regularly attacked and spoiled by pirates. In 866, the Emperor Louis II gave the island to Amalfi. A century later, Pope John XV gave the island its first bishop in 987. But the pirate raids continued and reached their peak in the mid-16th century when Barbarossa and Turqut Reis captured the island in 1535 and 1553 for the Ottoman Turks.

The rocks of I Farglioni have come to symbolise Capri (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

We soon came to I Farglioni, passing under the 60 metre long tunnel in the middle arch in the rock stacks that soar to a height of almost 110 metres and that have become symbolic of Capri.

As we passed by Marina Piccola, a lagoon-like harbour, we were pointed to the villa where Gracie Fields lived after falling in love with Capri and deciding to linger a little longer on the isle. She spent a fortnight on Capri with John Flanagan and Augustus John after reading Norman Douglas’s hedonistic novel South Wind, and declared: “I knew that that if only one small blade of grass on this gentle, wonderful, place could belong to me, I would be happy.”

Her wish came true in 1933 when she bought a ramshackle house for £11,000. A year later, she recorded The Isle of Capri in 1934. But Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship was its height, and mass tourism did not develop until the 1950s, at the same time as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and other recording artists were making their own versions of her pre-war hit.

At the Green Grotto or Grotta Verde, the water was still that distinctive blue of Capri. We sailed on around Punta Carena, the south-westerly tip of the island with its lighthouse and along the western coast of Punta dell’Arcera and the Blue Grotto (Grotta Azzurra). There little boats were jostling with one another to take tourists two-by-two or alone into the Blue Grotto.

Small boats jostle with one another to take tourists into the Blue Grotto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

This is the most visited place on Capri’s coastline. The modern fascination with Capri began with the book, the Discovery of the Blue Grotto on the Isle of Capri, in which the German painter and writer August Kopisch describes his stay on Capri in 1826 and his discovery or rediscovery of the Blue Grotto.

By the late 19th century, Capri was a popular resort for European artists, writers and celebrities.
The grave of John Hamill in a hidden corner in the cemetery in Anacapri (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Back at Marina Grande, we were taken by minibuses to Anacapri, where, in a small corner in the cemetery behind the bus station we found the grave of Major John Hamill from Co Antrim, who was killed on Capri in 1808 while fighting against Napoleon’s invasion of Capri. Napoleon captured Capri in 1806, but his troops were quickly dislodged by British forces, and the naval base on Capri became Britain’s “Second Gibraltar” until the French recaptured Capri in 1808. It returned to the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples in 1815 after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.

In the gardens of the Villa San Michele on the edges of Anacapri (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

From the cemetery we strolled on to the Villa San Michele, built by the Swedish doctor and author Axel Munthe (1857-1949), who lived there in the last century and made it the setting for his bestseller The Story of San Michele (1929).

The villa is now owned by the Swedish government and is used as a cultural centre and museum. We whiled away the rest of the morning here over coffee before returning to Capri for lunch.

Forgetting everything in the Augustus Gardens on the edges of Capri town (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

After lunch we also visited Friedrich Alfred Krupp’s Giardini di Augusto (Augustus Gardens), overlooking the rocks of I Farglioni. Lenin was a guest of Maxim Gorky in 1910 in his house near the Giardini di Augusto. There, it is said, he remarked: “Capri makes you forget everything” – an expression that may well have provided the inspiration for Somerset Maugham’s 1945 short story The Lotus Eater.
By late afternoon, there was time for a short walk on one of the two small pieces of sand on the shore line at Marina Grande. But ’Twas good-bye on the Isle of Capri, for the ferries were leaving for Sorrento, and there was no option to remain and spend the evening Down by the shore in the moonlight, nor was there time to find out whether “Capri makes you forget everything.”

In the evening, we had dinner in Ma che Bonte, the restaurant and pizzeria in Seiano below the Moon Valley Hotel, looking out across the Bay of Naples and at the pink, orange and purple streaks left in the sky after the sun had set.

Saying farewell to Capri (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

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