The Irish Times - Walking on air in Capri

Walking on air in Capri

The Irish Times (15/08/2009)

CAPRI IS BEST known as a fashionista’s paradise frequented by celebs such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Beyoncé Knowles. But if you wander beyond the labyrinth of lanes flanked by boutiques such as Dolce & Gabbana and Versace, you can exercise more than your buying power on a variety of challenging hikes. This Italian isle’s pulsepounding potential is immediately apparent as our ferry from Naples approaches the port of Marina Grande. Wedged atop a rocky bluff, above the marina’s narrow strip of trinket shops and pizzerias, perches the town of Capri – a relatively compact maze of exclusive shops and sidewalk cafes populated by beautiful people who have elevated sweater-draping to an art. Visitors can surmount the slope on foot, but most opt for the funicular, which deposits passengers just below a gracious terrace where bougainvillea-draped columns frame views of stucco houses tumbling towards the coast. White sails gleam like giant shark fins slicing the surreally teal water, but more ominous still are the formidable cliffs to the west, scarred by a faint zigzag stripe known as the Phoenician Steps. Until the 1870s these centuries-old stairs provided the only access between Marina Grande and Capri town’s more relaxed little sister, Anacapri, where shops are more likely to stock authentic local wares than the latest runway fashions. These days a narrow winding road skirts the cliff face to connect Anacapri with Capri, providing an adrenalin rush of its own, particularly when riding one of the public buses at night, when the world is enshrouded in inky blackness, save for the marina lights twinkling far, far below. As we round a particularly harrowing bend one evening, even a jaded-looking local is moved to make the sign of the cross, though she coolly attempts to disguise the gesture as a hair toss. Perhaps the Phoenician Steps aren’t such a bad alternative after all, we reason – at least when attempted in broad daylight (and heading down, rather than up). So we find ourselves at the top of this daunting and seemingly endless staircase, with the colourful fishing boats of Marina Grande bobbing 200m below. Lizards scamper with enviable ease between the big stone steps, rustling among dried leaves and disappearing into weeds, but we’re soon huffing and puffing, our thighs and lungs burning. Towards the bottom, as the steps level out into an alleyway leading into town, we encounter a British couple, already red faced and panting as they begin the ascent. “How far to the top?” the wife asks plaintively. “Did you bring a packed lunch?” I reply. Her husband, clearly the instigator of this little adventure, stares daggers at me as I urgently attempt to blink a Morse message to his wife: “Forget what Nike says! Just don’t do it!” But hubby, undeterred, sweeps her along, and if they made it they must have experienced a sense of satisfaction at least equal to our own. If we survived these sadistic steps, then surely we have bested the biggest challenge that StairMaster Island, as my husband, Scott, nicknames Capri, can throw at us. At least that’s what we think until we undertake the Sentiero dei Fortini, a rocky path linking the ruins of several Napoleonic-era forts along Capri’s wave-lashed west coast. We begin with lunch at Add’o Riccio, a friendly little restaurant overlooking the Grotta Azzurra, a cave renowned for reflecting the ethereal blue light of the sea. We had hoped to take a boat tour of the cave, but the water is too choppy, so after sharing a hearty plate of cheese ravioli and a super-sized Caprese salad (“Grande, like me,” jokes our diminutive waiter), we set off towards the fort course a couple of hundred metres down the road. Minutes after descending a short flight of steps to the dirt trail we’re rewarded with a glimpse of Orrico, the most impressive, in my opinion, of the three forts along the way. This orderly stone semicircle seems to have grown out of the jagged precipice upon which it presides, like neatly ordered molecules forming spontaneously from natural chaos. Though the fort is open to the sky, intriguing features such as a brick fireplace remain, and it’s easy to imagine British soldiers gazing pensively out to sea, eyes straining for any sign of the French fleet, which did indeed take Capri in 1808. (The island was returned to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1813.) Continuing onwards, we pass through a cool forest, where pine needles deaden the sound of our steps. Soon thereafter we’re evicted into a grey moonscape, clambering over rocks, in and out of gullies and past bluefingered fjords and caves that pluck at the eroding limestone. Painted ceramic plaques alongside the path illustrate the flora and fauna that hikers might encounter along the way, such as the rather unimaginatively named “wall lizard”, the western whip snake (“not poisonous, but prone to bite”) and, somewhat improbably, the Moray eel. If I find myself face to face with an eel, I think, something will have gone drastically, horribly wrong. Cringing at the unwelcome sound of thunder, I observe that a storm must have been coming. “Or,” Scott whispers ominously, “could it be cannon fire?” Thankfully, the storm (or the French invasion) holds off, and we live to hike another day, choosing a trek to the Arco Naturale, a huge natural stone arch on the east coast, as our grand finale. It’s possible to reach the arch via a relatively short walk from Capri town along the Via Matermania. But we’re seduced by the more scenic, albeit longer and more arduous, Via Pizzolungo, which flirts with the southeast coast. This undulating route proffers fantastic views of the Faraglioni, an array of thrusting pinnacles just offshore, and winds past the Grotta di Matermania, a horseshoeshaped cave that may have played host to ancient fertility rituals. After a final ascent and a jog past the strategically placed Le Grottelle restaurant, we descend one last staircase to view the arch itself. Rough and unpolished, it shines golden in the sun, offering a keyhole view of the aquamarine sea. As the grey skies that had beleaguered us begin to clear, a rainbow forms just beyond the arch - a celestial confirmation that we’re gazing at one of Capri’s greatest treasures, a priceless view on an island of big bucks and bling. Where to stay Hotel Caesar Augustus. Via G Orlandi, 00-39-081-8373395, www.caesar-augustus.com. Balanced on a clifftop 300m above the Bay of Naples in Anacapri, this Relais & Chateaux property encompasses 55 rooms and suites, an elegant bar and lounge with a fireplace, candlelit restaurant, two-tiered infinity pool and alfresco fitness area. Cascading terraces offer spectacular sunset views towards Mount Vesuvius. Rooms from €430.