Why We Travel – Isle of Capri
Isle of Capri, Italy
|The Main Docks at Capri|
Prior to my off season visit to Italy, I was making plans to meet up with a friend, Brandy Stark, who is a classics major and humanities professor. Brandy had visited Rome but had not had the chance to see Pompeii or Herculaneum, cities destroyed by Vesuvius in AD 79. We managed to match up our schedules and had a few days in Sorrento, which would be our base of operations.
My preferred method of travel is to line up possible things to do and to make up the actual schedule as I go. Still, realistically, between checking out the sites in Sorrento, and visits to the cities buried by Pompeii, there was really only a day of our trip for which we had not accounted in advance. Discussing this in advance, Brandy was dead-set that whatever day that was, it would be a historical site we visited. While history is a passion of mine, compared to my friend, I’m an armchair quarterback at best. We debated the reasons for travel awhile. I wanted to do some touristy sight-seeing or just soak up the atmosphere somewhere at least part of the trip.
By the time of our last day in Sorrento, it seemed as if we had done it all. Brandy had survived the twin trip-killers of missing a connecting flight and losing her luggage. Still, we had visited the ghosts of two long lost cities and even survived the streets of Naples on a visit to the National Archaeological museum there. After all this, on that last day we had a late start. We meandered through the shops of Sorrento, gradually making our way down to the steps and sidewalks leading to the docks. When we finally reached bottom, I looked back up at those steep cliffs and resolved that I would foot the bus fare to get us back to the top when we returned. For no reason did I want to climb that far uphill. Little did I know…
We had in mind a visit to the nearby Isle of Capri. It seemed to fit the bill. For Brandy, high atop the island sits Villa Jovis, home to the Roman Emperor Tiberius during the last years of his life. For me, it was a resort island of some renown. I had some concern given its reputation a major tourist stop that it could be a little too much of a tourist mecca, but it was off season and worth the risk.
We missed the first boat off and discovered that there was only one more boat to the island. Further, we had only one boat that evening to get back to Sorrento. We decided to go anyway. All told, we would only have four hours on the island and could not miss the return boat, but our whole trip had been about near misses, so it seemed appropriate. As it turned out, the boat was just what the doctor ordered. Slightly after noon, the deck of the boat was crowded, and we made our way to the front of the boat’s cabin. There, we found two seats bathed in light from the mother sun.
As relaxed as we were, the moment, the first leg of the journey ended, it was time for the adrenaline to start. We immediately set out in search of the funiculare we had read just a little about the night before. This conveyance is essentially a vertical railway for traveling up mountains. While the ticket booth was slightly hidden, the entrance to the funiculare was in the heart of the dock area and looked virtually as if it was the entrance to a carnival ride. As we prepared for our first ride, we relaxed feeling certain our goal was at hand. Brandy could smell history above, and I was enchanted already by this beautiful island, which at least in the off-season, was not so crowded.
Reaching the summit, we exited into what appeared to be a main piazza. Brandy stepped into a shop to get batteries for her camera and struck up a conversation with the shop-keeper, who was among the friendlier people we had met so far in the area. Hearing our plans, she looked a bit skeptical and told us that Villa Jovis was indeed a must-see, but that we still had an hours walk to get there. She gave brief directions and we headed out. For just a moment, we debated ending the trek here. But the ultimate destination wasn’t as important to me, I figured that the journey itself involved walking through a drop-dead gorgeous island in the Mediterranean Sea, why not? And we reckoned that if we jogged a bit, then maybe we could beat the hour walk the local had quoted.
And jog we did. We would only slow as we approached people. When we met other English speaking people, we’d puff out the words, “Villa Jovis?” And we were generally greeted that we were on the right track and that it was worth the effort. And we’d speed up. At some point, the path began to curve down, which should have been cause for alarm, but we ran into an Italian family, the father of whom when we asked, “Villa Jovis?” nodded and said “Si, Arco Naturale!” Now, I’m not sure if he misunderstood our question or what, but this should have been another warning. We pressed on, propelled at an even greater speed by gravity.
Abruptly, the most beautiful sight came into view. I slowed and pulled out my digital SLR and Brandy understood that I had to take pictures of the huge rocky arch that stood in the blue sea ahead of us. It was a true testament to the beauty that nature can create. I snapped a string of pictures wishing with each one that I had a wider angle lens to really take in what I was seeing. Resolving that I had the best I was getting, I holstered the camera and turned back to the path… And that’s when we realized, this is where the path ended. What??
It had taken half an hour to get there at a full trot and now we had to turn around and revisit an unknown amount of that path. Brandy was determined and I was pliable. I had definitely gotten in my sight-seeing quotient already. As we climbed up the steps that Brandy felt the need to verbally count off, I suddenly had that coherent moment, where I understood that “Arco Naturale” meant Natural Arch, the one we had just seen. My comprehension of the conversation now 15 minutes past was of little consolation. Shortly we would run into more travelers. We confirmed the Natural Arch was ahead, and they described the turn we had missed earlier. Half our jog had been in the wrong direction.
Finally making that correct turn, and noticing the decidedly uphill nature of the trail, I pointed far to the peak of the mountain and seeing a steeple of some sort piercing the canopy of trees, I commented, “I think that’s where we’re going.” Brandy, whether in denial, trying to spare me the truth or what I don’t know said it, “Can’t be, just run!” So, now, we had gone from a trot to an all out death run when both of us already had layers of blisters. My body, unused to this level of abuse, decided it was doing my brain a favor by cutting off the oxygen supply. I tend to agree. Little villas tucked into every nook and cranny of the mountain sped by as locals dodged the ascent of the insane Americans.
Soon, the top was in sight. Hours later, I would point out that I had been correct about our destination. At that point, however, my brain could only register the locked gate at the entrance to Villa Jovis. We slowly stared at it in disbelief and then took turns taking pictures of each other standing at the gate. Having come this far, we figured we needed proof. As we turned around to head down, we came face to face with a little old man who I vaguely remembered passing earlier. Either he knew a short cut or we were not moving so fast as we would like to think.
Having overheard us talking he knew we were American and asked in broken English where we were from. I answered, “Georgia,” and Brandy responded, “Florida.” The old man’s eyes lit up as he commented that he had a brother in “Mee-ami” (I.E. Miami). Upon hearing that we were just there for the day and had missed our chance to see Villa Jovis, he shook his head and said, “I am from here, I do this everyday. You follow me by side.” We looked at each other with a degree of disbelief, but followed him as he stepped off the trail and walked through some bushes into a hidden hole in the fence. Essentially, we traveled 4,000 miles so that we could add breaking and entering a national historic site to our list of accomplishments. As we followed our kindly benefactor, he asked where we were staying. Hearing Sorrento, he asked if we were taking the boat back that evening. We commented we were cutting it close and he said, “No. Plenty of time, you will make boat.” Well, he was a local and what the heck!
So, we got a personal tour of Villa Jovis, possibly better than had it been actually open for business. He pointed out where Tiberius threw his prisoners to their deaths, where the baths and pool for the villa had been, and more that Brandy would surely remember better than I. And we got some awesome views of the Amalfi coast and the place we were staying across that little stretch of water. Everything either of us had asked for appeared on that last day. And I noticed something interesting. Every time we turned a corner, there would be more people. Each time, I was confident we were about to end up in an Italian jail. Yet, it was always just more locals enjoying a stroll. Apparently after the tourists are banished from the site, those who call Capri home all scoot behind the fence and enjoy the beauty that prompted an ancient Roman emperor to build his last home on that peak. And we were sharing that with them.
Making the full trek around the site, our anonymous ally met up with friends and directed us the path back to the gate. We bid adieu and began the full tilt run down that mountain. We didn’t stop moving until we had cleared our second ever trip on a funiculare and were back at the docks. As we sat there feeling the new blisters forming, we were already reminiscing about our awesome day there and the incredible kindness of that old man to complete strangers. Some days later, after I was again traveling solo in Rome, I made good on a promise we made sitting on those docks and made a donation to a church I visited. This was repayment both for the kindness and the entrance fees we avoided that afternoon.
Travel is about so many things. For some it’s about seeing and learning the history of a place. Other times, it can be about beautiful vistas. Often it involves experiences one could not or would not have at home. And sometimes it’s just lazing in the sun far from the responsibilities of home. But every so often, the experience of travel is about that one moment, about the kindness of strangers, and making even a momentary connection with our fellow human beings. We had that moment at Villa Jovis on a mountain peak in Capri.