Hotel Caesar Augustus
Bown's Best - web site (01/05/2009)
If I were a deposed monarch, I would need a bit of cheering up. A good idea might be to go to one of the most beautiful islands in the world, select the hotel with the very best views, move into a suite on the top floor and then try to look on the bright side of life. Thus, in the 1950s, did King Farouk find himself at the Hotel Caesar Augustus on the island of Capri, after Mr Nasser had obliged him to leave Egypt. His apartment is now called The Farouk Suite, and can be yours for 1,075 euros a night. It boasts not only a charming semi-circular terrace, but also several pictures of its former royal occupant. I reproduce one of them for you. You will note that His Majesty was not a man for dressing down. The King and I would have agreed on that, I think – just as we would have been at one in our opinion of the Hotel Caesar Augustus. For there is something seriously idyllic about this place.
On this particular cliff-top have been found traces of buildings dating back to the 9th century, and there is no doubt that it was regarded as a special plot even before then – given the love of Capri shown by the rulers of the Roman Empire. The views are just wonderful. In the 1850s a wealthy German built the Villa Bitter here. This was purchased in the 1900s by Prince Emmanuel Bullak of Russia. He it was who installed the life-size statue of Caesar Augustus, pointing out to the sea. If you look carefully at the photograph, you may discern the shape of your correspondent, imitating the imperial pose. In the 1930s the villa was purchased by the Signorini family from Naples. The Signorinis turned it into an hotel, and it is they who still run it today.
At one of the cocktail parties laid on to welcome guests, I met Paolo Signorini, the current owner. He and his wife have made the Caesar Augustus one of the most stylish and comfortable of Italy’s small hotels (it has just 55 rooms). The pristine public areas and the gorgeous terraced gardens ooze sophistication and elegance. And there is humour, too. Some members of the waiting staff are dressed in striped blouses and red bandanas, an outfit which I found reminiscent of those productions of The Pirates of Penzance to which Auntie Maud took me as a boy. And nothing pleases me more than to be reminded of Gilbert and Sullivan.
I arrived on the island at the Marina Grande in the sunshine, as one should, and was met by the hotel’s smart people-carrier. This whisked me up, past Capri town. Then, just at the approach to Anacapri, the driver turned right, into the grounds of the Caesar Augustus. Moments later I was inside, sipping a glass of lemonade – the hotel has its own lemon trees – and being greeted by the friendly folk at the reception desk. Before being shown to my room, I could not resist walking out onto the huge terrace at the back of the building. I knew, of course, that the panorama would be wonderful, but I was still obliged to catch my breath. The island of Ischia, the distant mainland, the absurdly blue water, the clarity of vision so charmingly distorted by the heat… This was the beauty of serenity and harmony.
And, to my delight, it was there again from the balcony of room 204. I would recommend strongly that you secure an apartment with this life-enhancing panorama. This was a ‘junior suite- sea view’ and therefore 710ε a night, bed and breakfast for two. At about 16 feet by 13 feet, this was a bedroom of comfortable size, given a feeling of spaciousness by its 10 foot ceiling. Its terra cotta floor tiles, pristine white-painted walls and touches of green in the curtain and drapes created an air of cool sophistication – reinforced by the walnut writing bureau in a curvaceous 18th century style. The prints on the walls, as if to remind me of home, showed Windsor Castle and ‘A Lake in Cumberland’. It was of course, air-conditioned. A two-seater sofa provided comfortable seating and 3 table lamps and 2 wall lights gave decent lighting. As I was at the corner of the building, there was a second balcony and another delightful view – less dramatic than that from the first balcony, but showing more of the island.
In the white-tiled bathroom were two wash basins, a bidet, a properly placed shaving mirror and bathrobes by Frette – but no telephone. Here I found one of the oddest shaped bath tubs I have ever encountered, with a stepped interior. It also had a jacuzzi facility (something which I never use). Initially, I was rather nervous of this machine, but – to my surprise – once filled with hot water, it proved very comfortable. This was yet another lesson for me – how many do I need? – that I should not judge bath tubs before I try them.
I was truly content in this accommodation. Each morning, I awoke to birdsong, drew the curtains and looked out in wonder. And each morning my thought was the same: ‘This is how every day should begin.’
And with a good breakfast, of course. In the dining room I sat next to an open French window, so that I could have an unobstructed view of the swimming pool and the sea beyond. Here I was looked after very well by Lucia, who brought my pots of coffee and directed my attention on the buffet to the delicious sfogliatella – a Neapolitan speciality, consisting of a crisp pastry case filled with sweet ricotta cheese. Other items which afforded me much enjoyment were the crusty bread, the marmalade (made from oranges grown in the hotel grounds), the scrambled egg, the prosciutto and melon and the fruit salad. You will gather that I did not go hungry in the mornings.
In the evenings this demi-lune restaurant, named La Terrazza di Lucullo, was softly lit by candles. As the sun retired, through the windows the outline of Ischia slowly merged with the darkening sea, until both became one equal night. Within, Restaurant Manager Domenico Grande ensured that all ran smoothly and well. His waiters, in black aprons, were courteous and efficient. Chef Giuseppe Resta from Puglia (pictured) takes ingredients of high quality and applies his considerable expertise to produce enjoyable, tasty dishes. One dinner began with pieces of cod – fried, marinated and tartare – with salad, cream of eggplant and candied tomatoes. Then came lobster risotto – the rice slightly al dente, the lobster precisely cooked, followed by fillet of beef with grilled potatoes. But the star of this show was the concluding baked Alaska. I always love this delicious indulgence when – as here – it is done well. (Allow around 100 euros for four courses.)
Most of the 90 offerings on the wine list are Italian. Prices start at 22ε for a chardonnay from Friuli and go to 2,100ε for the 2000 vintage of Mr Gaja’s ‘Costa Russi’ Nebbiolo. Of the super-Tuscans, 2005 Tignanello is 95ε, 2004 Solaia is 215ε and 2002 Sassicaia s 245ε. I found a chardonnay from Sicily (La Fuga, Entinella, Donnafugata, 2007 - 25ε) medium-bodied, with an elegant structure, and a local aglianico (Donnaluna, De Concilis, 2007 - 15ε, half) full of ripe damsons and cherries. After a decent meal and a glass (or two) of such wines, I would go to the main terrace and sit in the coolness of the evening, gazing across at the faint lights of far-off Naples.
This hotel cheered up the deposed ruler of Egypt and it delighted me. Its hospitality is gracious and its location is remarkable. And then there are those views… At last I know what it is like to be a king.