The island of Capri is alluring and capable of enchanting anyone who comes for a visit. One look at the rugged cliff walls and rock formations will convince you that Homer’s sirens do exist and still sing their seductive songs. We learn from Homer’s mythical book, “The Odyssey,” that it was brave Odysseus himself who ordered his crew to stop their ears with wax as they passed. He had himself tied to a mast with strict orders that no one release him regardless of how much he begged. As a result, they were able to escape the siren’s wail and shipwreck on the calamitous rocks.
High above the sea stands the Villa of San Michele in Anacapri. A long and winding road leads upward into the clouds where you will find the white villa, magical and unique in its ancient setting. Read more →
High above thesteep rock walls of Capri stands a lone figure. Rays of sunlight dance and shimmer along the golden embroidery of the garments covering his large, well-built frame. Obsidian eyes search the green-blue sea laid out before him, coming to rest on a distant land – his own empire. His eyes narrow as he slowly inhales. Emporer Tiberius turns sharply and passes quickly along the cliff wall of his villa and into its sunless interior. The year is 32 AD.
Forward to the 20th century……a new villa sits upon the very site where Tiberius once stood.
“Open to the sun and wind and the voices of the sea, like a Greek temple, and light, light, light everywhere…” Axel Munthe
Setting high above the Mediterranean Sea like an exotic pearl, Villa San Michele majestically adorns the island of Capri. Her stately architecture and elegant whiteness shimmer exquisitely under the warm Italian sun. Beautiful green gardens climb and wind their way around the bleached walls and the colonnaded pergola. Lovely white columns follow the edge of a cliff offering a breathtaking view of the sea and sky. A wonderful blending of art, nature and architecture has inspired this villa unlike any other.
Swedish doctor Axel Muntheacquired the estate and devoted himself to rebuilding the ruined Tiberian villa of Capodimonte. Beginning in 1896, the new villa of San Michele encompassed the old villa floor plan of Tiberius. Originally, Emperors Augustus and Tiberius had built 12 palaces and villas on Capri since the time it was established as an imperial estate in 29 BC.
On a cool spring morning walk, I find myself standing at the doorway to Axel’s exquisite villa. Over the arch I read the inscription San Michele in gold mosaic accompanied by marble friezes with animal and plant motifs. I learned that at his passing, Axel Munthe willed his villa to the Swedish government, who have kindly preserved it as a museum.
The linen-white villa with its dark wooden furniture gives way to an atmosphere of seraphic delicacy. Imbedded in the walls are sections of artifacts, predominately funerary articles, inscriptions and bits of pottery found on the site. Several intact ancient pieces of sculpture adorn the walls, the oldest an Etruscan votive head dating from 450 BC. The large head of Medusa dresses the wall above the modest writing desk, which Axel apparently stumbled upon while exploring the ocean floor! Mounted on another wall is a copy of the head of Tiberius, the original having been stolen. All of these sculptures, I discover, are from the mainland.
I enter the dining room and see a Pompeian replica of a skeleton floor mosaic in stark black and white. Long and spindly, it holds a carafe of wine in one hand and a jug of water in the other.
I interpret the message as one of moderation in all things, or encouragement to enjoy life to the full while there is still time.
The villa and garden stand 300 meters above sea level with a striking view of the Sorrento Peninsula, the Gulf of Naples, and Mt. Vesuvius. At times the isle of Ischia is visible to the north. Below me from the garden wall I observe the Marina Grande, busy with hydrofoils and ferries that deliver crowds of passengers while taking others back to the mainland.
The ambrosial gardens of the villa fill me with wonder. Lovely displays of camelias, flowering ash, azaleas, Chinese wisteria, hydrangea, roses and many other varieties enhance its timeless quality. The air is astir with the fragrant perfume of flowers. Statues of antiquity adorn the walkways and peak through the greenery. Tall and stately pine, palm and cyprus trees bring a culmination of palatial elegance.
A small chapel resides on the gardens with fragments of the original Roman wall and pavement used in its construction. A quick tour through, and I find myself impatient to return to the garden. I inhale its fragrant beauty, hoping to capture the spirit of San Michele.
As I slowly wind my way back through the colonnaded pergola with its elegant white Capri columns, I catch site of the 3200 year old Egyptian Sphinx perched majestically on the terrace parapet. There she proudly sits, watching over her island and the sea in timeless immortality.
Just north of the city of Naples lies ancient Baia. It is a quiet little town on the Mediterranean with a small bay of sailboats and motor yachts. Life is laid back and simple here. Families gather at the waterfront park to cheer on a game of water polo while friends and couples share a meal of pizza and espresso at a small cafe. The single lane roads wind up and down over the hilly terrain accompanied with walkers more often than cars. A mecca of peace. But this wasn’t always so.
Did you know that Baia was the playground of the extremely rich and wealthy from the first to the third century AD? Baia far surpassed Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Capri as a desirable resort full of hedonistic temptations. Rumours of scandal and corruption filled the palace halls and baths. Julius Caesar, Nero, Hadrian and Caligula had spacious pleasure palaces built along the shoreline. Much of the town was considered imperial property under Augustus.
What was the big attraction to Baia? To begin with, Baia sits on an active volcanic area known as the Phlegrian Fields. During the Roman empire, engineers constructed a complex system of chambers that brought heat beneath the surface into bathing facilities that became saunas. These baths were used for medicinal purposes as well as relaxation. Remains of a thermal bathing complex can be seen today close to the water where the land rises on a hillside.
Remember the Trojan Horse? It was Baius, also known as Oddysseus, who came up with the whole strategy of building and hiding his Greek warriors inside the wooden horse. After they entered Troy, they came out from hiding and fought. Baia was named after this heroic figure, who is believed to be buried there.
Have you heard the legend of Baia? It was in 39 AD that the new emperor Caligula ordered a temporary floating bridge to be built from Baia to the neighboring port of Puteoli. Roman historian Suetonius states that the bridge was over three miles long. Sand was poured from various ships in the area to make the bridge passable. It is said that Caligula, clad in a flowing gold cloak, crossed the bridge on his horse in defiance against the Roman astrologer Thrasyllus who predicted that he had “no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across the Gulf of Baia.”
Whether the legend is true or not, what became of Baia? Where are all those luxury palace ruins?Because of the volcanic activity of the area, most of Baia is now underwater in the Bay of Naples. Very little is left of these palaces, but a glass bottom boat operates regular excursions out to view these ruins in shallow water.
Today Baia is an archaeological playground. It was here the renowned Roman writers Virgil, Cicero and Horace hobnobbed with the wealthiest. Baia, the metropolis of hedonism, washed away by the waves of time.
Oh welcome gentle sea breeze and bright Capri sunlight! Oh rest and beauty, come to me…
Experiencing Capri with my husband for the first time. Great expectations. Weather looking questionable…will it rain or shine?
The days have been filled with non-stop dashing, bustling, climbing, darting, hastening and scurrying through the gritty grandeur of Naples. We are ready for a warm retreat.
We dock with the ferry, gather our backpacks, and wind our way through Capri’s Marina Grande. All is white everywhere…white buildings, white clothing, even a white sky….but the sky over Capri should be blue!
As we climb the steps toward the village, I watch the wind gently tease the little white sails on the harbor boats. Small whitecaps begin to form on the green-blue sea.
We check our map to mark our route, then cram ourselves onto a tiny overcrowded bus that will take us up, up the winding little back streets to Anacapri, the smaller of the islands two main villages.
After getting off the bus, we begin our fifteen minute hike through orchards and lemon groves. As we pass a spattering of small country homes, our pathway brings us to our lodgings for the night. The building was large and spacious, with rooms off the hallway. All was quiet as we seemed to be the only ones there. The clouds begin to hem us in like the batting of a quilt.
We awake the next morning to the sound of wind blowing against the glass. Stepping outside, my heart sinks. No warm exotic weather for us! The wind has changed from playful to billowing.
“When life hands you a lemon….”
We decide to brave the storm and walk down the winding pathway to the little village. The rain begins its banter, giving expression to the swirling wind. My cheeks feel its cool sweep as I lean into it, determined to make our destination.
“Know’st thou the land where the pale citrons grow…thither with thee, O, thither would I wend!” Goethe’s ‘Mignon’s Song’
Finding shelter under the lemon trees was sweet!
Passing through an orchard we find ourselves in the open, taking in the tumultuous sea. The thick-set heather and myrtle was all around us, frisking in the wind along the open terrain, holding tightly onto their plot of earth like rocks. Cypress trees sway and dip. My hair quickly morphs into a tangled mess.
We find a small store and buy bread, prosciutto, cheese and gherkins to make sandwiches back in our room. Choosing a couple of books on display, “The Story of San Michele,” and “The Twelve Caesars,” we retrace our steps back through the elements of the raging gods. Heads down, enduring the pelt of rain and buffeting of wind, our pilgrims bodies once more find the comfort of ‘home.’
We dry off with warm showers, make our prosciutto, cheese and gherkin sandwiches, and find hot chocolate from the kitchen. Tucking ourselves into our magnificent bed with airy white comforters, we begin to cherish the simplicity of the day. It was not what we had hoped for, but better than we could have imagined. Our sandwiches were the best, the hot chocolate delightful, and our books kept us engaged with some of Capri’s most illustrious former residents–the generous Axel Munthe (click for my article on this amazing man) and the unforgettable Caesars of the early Roman empire.
We made lemonade….
In the land where the pale citrons grow.
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