Postcard from Sorrento

February 26, 2014 1 Comment


Islanders, when they travel, feel a natural attraction to islands. So almost the first thing we do after getting to Sorrento is walk down the deep gorge from the town to the Marina Piccola and take the first available boat to Capri.

At the port we queue for the little bus for Ana Capri, with a man visiting his aunt. He can’t recommend any cafes there, since he eats with his aunt, ‘for free’. He seems rather vague about Wales, and isn’t particularly interested in football, so the words ‘Swansea’ and ‘Europa League’ mean little too. But he’s genial enough and wishes us well. Inexplicably his friend has a cap with the words ‘Royal Mail’ on it. He understands why we might find ‘Royal’ a problem. Lack of linguistic proficiency prevents us from explaining the recent painful politics of ‘Royal Mail’.

Capri bus drivers must be among the most skilled in the world. The roads mix steep slopes with narrow hairpins, but the little buses, scaled up maybe from toy models, leap like goats up the hills. When they meet they brush past each other fluently with millimetres to spare and without damage.

The winding, traffic-free streets of Ana Capri are perfect for strolling in the warm mid-February sun. Many of the shops are still closed, or preparing themselves for the new season, and visitors are sparse. Carabinieri have little to do. One of them, a young man, slaps his red-and-green lollipop stick idly against his red-striped thigh. He passes the time admiring babies, greeting a friend through his car window and smoking a cigarette given to him by a second friend. Another policeman, evidently his boss, smokes a cigar and offers the occasional avuncular word to no one in particular while surveying the scene with a vague air.

The only vehicles on the narrow streets are tiny cars, three-wheeled miniature trucks (Piaggio Ape 500s) and vespas. This gives an impression of egalitarianism, but the impression is entirely false. It takes a while to realise that it’s impossible for the visitor, or anyone in a public space, to enjoy the spectacular views seawards: all of them have been appropriated by the owners of the large villas hiding behind the walls and gates beside the streets. You can follow the lanes as far as you want, but you’ll never gain a good view without the help of one of these plutocrats.

Capri has always been a magnet for the rich and famous, starting with the emperor Tiberius in 27AD. Tiberius has suffered the same fate as Richard III, king of England, whose memory was irreparably blackened by the Tudor propagandists who followed him. Thanks to Tacitus, Suetonius and other historians he’s remembered as a bloodthirsty tyrant with a taste for perversion and excess, qualities indulged especially during his last years on the island. I suspect the truth is rather more nuanced. Even Tacitus admits that Tiberius started with good intentions and effective policies. He was certainly a competent ruler. I like to think that he eventually despaired of trying to govern an ungovernable empire and was driven to Capri and despair by his impossible contemporaries.

Later we spend time waiting for the ferry in a dockside cafe, where sublime chocolate ice cream is eaten to the accompaniment of the sound of a commercial radio station calling itself ‘Radio Kiss Kiss’.

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  1. Alun Burge says:

    What? No mention of the spirit of our Gracie – still the pride of the alleys of Capri?

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