Capri - walk in the footsteps of emperors
TimesOnline uk (22/05/2008)
Perched on a cliff 1,000ft above the sea, looking down the island and across the Bay of Naples to the city and Mount Vesuvius, the Caesar Augustus hotel is stunning even by Capri standards. And, because fears of recession and the images of rubbish littering the streets of Naples during a labour dispute this winter have deterred some tourists, it is affordable. Roman emperors, medieval peasants and visitors on the Grand Tour passed this way but it was a Russian Prince, Emmanuel Bulbak, who bought this site in the early 1900s and created an inspirational summer mansion, which has been skilfully restored and extended to form today's 59-room hotel. Guests arrive, mostly via Naples, on modern fast ferries and are transferred in vehicles specially designed to pass each other on the narrow cliffside roads. After the bustle of the port and the mayhem of Capri Town, the hotel entrance is a haven of peace and leads to an airy and comfortable lounge. However, this is no place for people with a fear of heights. Peer over the terrace railings, the balconies of many rooms, the side of the infinity pool, from little alcoves in the cliff, and there is a sheer drop to the azure waters below, where fishing boats anchor and island cruisers pass by. Out to sea, ferries continually arrive and depart. The most striking feature on the terrace is a larger than life statue of Caesar Augustus. Prince Bulbak believed that the emperor played an important part in bringing Capri to the world's attention than his adopted son and successor, the Emperor Tiberius, with whom the island is associated. To emphasise the point, he commissioned the statue with Augustus pointing imperiously across the island to the Villa Jovis, the vast clifftop pile which Tiberius made his home from AD27 to AD37 and from which he ruled the Roman Empire. The hotel does not have sunloungers beside the statue - or on the terrace above the pool and garden at the opposite end of the property - it has canopied swing seats and solid wooden beds covered with comfortable cushions and mattresses. It does not have one swimming pool, it has two, beside and parallel to each other. It does not have obsequious staff but quietly attentive personnel. Keeping a gentle eye on them and engaging guests is Paolo Signorini, the third generation of the family who have run the hotel for decades. He checked that all was well during my first meal in a restaurant that specialises in Mediterranean dishes, especially fresh fish. Delightful as the facilities and staff are, it is the location of the Caesar Augustus that makes it extra special; not just its clifftop perch but its proximity to Anacapri, the quieter of the island's two towns and home to the island's two must-do attractions. A few yards up the road from the hotel, a passageway leads to a broad path lined with a few shops and cafés on one side and the splendid Villa San Michele on the other. This simple and elegant white building is the home created by Alex Munthe, the Swedish doctor, writer and philanthropist, towards the end of the 19th century. It has been preserved with memorials, mosaics and paintings from Munthe's collection and with sculptures in a loggia that leads to a colourful and colonnaded terrace garden with a chapel at the end. In the centre of Anacapri, a chair-lift carries visitors over terraced gardens and scrub to the 589m (1,932ft) peak of Mount Solaro, for a fantastic view over the island, the Amalfi coast and the Bay of Naples. Seek Paolo's advice to find a path back down the mountainside past a hermitage and the former home of the Scottish writer, Compton Mackenzie. Three nights' half-board are now available with Citalia at this Relais & Chateaux hotel from £559 including BA flights from Gatwick and transfers. A week will cost from £1,025, but Citalia can also arrange two centre breaks, combining the Caesar Augustus with hotels in Sorrento, Positano and Amalfi, which all have ferry links with Capri.