DM and MM's Italy Trip Diary

Day 16 - Positano, Isle of Capri

Monday, 14 May, 2001

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Today we thought we'd take a break from long and hair-raising bus rides. Little did we know it would turn into the Day of Disasters.

We rose at 07:00 to be ready for breakfast at 07:30. It was served in a room at the top of the hotel (which was built vertically down the cliff face - corridors and stairways down the back and four tiers of rooms facing out) with a magnificent view. It was the usual basket of hard, chewy bread with packets of jams and a couple of warm croissants with an apricot jam filling. We're really beginning to miss a bowl of cereal. Oh well, at least it was included in the cost we'd already paid.

After eating, we prepared for the day out and headed down the steep paths of Positano to the beach and wharf area. This involved walking along the street a bit, down a long flight of steps to the same street (now switchbacked and carrying traffic its one way in the other direction), along the road a bit more, and down another long flight of steps. This deposited us in the main piazza which was a small pedestrian-only area containing a few shops and the main church - which was topped with a rather distinctive dome of coloured tiles. Since flat ground was obviously at a premium, the square was actually on several levels, joined by broad steps.

Down where?!
Descending steps down the slope of Positano

We stopped in at an alimentari to buy some fruit as well as some lip balm and sunscreen, both of which we were running out of. Then we walked the last few steps down to the quay area, where several jaunty booths with colourful gabled roofs were set up, selling tickets for boats to the Isle of Capri. We figured they probably represented competing companies and went to ask one what their price was. The asking rate was LIT48,000 for a return trip to Capri on the fast jetboat, or LIT38,000 on the slower ship, and they didn't take credit cards. None of them took credit cards they said. I asked where an ATM was and they pointed me up the hill via a stairway near the church.

Eyes on the Tyrrhenian
View of Positano from the wharf

I walked up to get some cash while Michelle waited below. After slogging up many steps I found a bank, with its ATM not working. Next door was another bank, with another dead ATM. I kept going, up more steps, to a third bank which finally had a working ATM. I withdrew some cash and walked back down again. By this time there was only five minutes or so before the fast boat left, and I found that each of the competing companies' prices were identical, so I bought us two tickets at the first one. The boat was typically a little late, and I took advantage of the time to take a photo of Positano from the wharf. Unfortunately, while taking off my sunglasses to use the camera, I fumbled and juggled them, then dropped them and watched in agonising slow motion as they landed on the wharf, bounced, and fell into the sea, to sink slowly as I watched heplessly. This was disaster enough, but with the sun fierce today, it was doubly bad. Sighing in resignation, I could do nothing but watch our boat arrive, and by about 09:15 we were under way.

Approaching Capri
Approaching the Isle of Capri

The trip was scenic, passing along the coast westwards and giving us excellent views of the rugged cliffs and small rocky islands which make up this part of Italy. Then we hit open water and before long the Isle of Capri loomed largely ahead. The island rises steeply out of the water with cliffs a hundred metres or so high, forming a spectacular scene. The boat rounded the end and pulled into Marina Grande, where a slightly less precipitous area of land meets the sea and contains the outskirts of the town of Capri (whose centre lies well up the hill).

Approaching Capri
Entering Marina Grande

There were hordes of tourists obvious everywhere and, astonishingly, taxis that were all convertibles. We wanted to make sure we saw the Grotta Azzurra as our main priority, and noticed a large sign with the words printed on it next to a ticket window. Thinking this would be the place to buy the tickets mentioned in the Lonely Planet, which included a motor-boat trip around to the grotto, the rowboat trip inside, and the actual grotto entrance fee, we joined the oddly short queue and bought two tickets. Congratulating ourselves on managing to organise that so quickly and easily, we boarded the nearby boat, found with some difficulty through milling crowds of tour groups who seemed to be queueing for something, making us unsure where we should be.

Roofless taxis
Convertible taxis at Marina Grande

Once the boat began moving, I checked the Lonely Planet to see if the price we'd paid was in line with what it said. The book said LIT25,000, but we'd paid only LIT16,000. Delight at securing a bargain turned to bitterness when we realised that the tickets bought in haste did not include the rowboat and entry fee, a revelation confirmed when an announcement was made over the boat's PA system that the grotto would cost us another LIT15,500 each. Angry at the blatant rip-off and deception with which it was achieved, we resolved to leave the boat at the grotto and not avail ourselves of the return trip. Fellow passengers also expressed their displeasure at the racket, sharing with us the fact that none of us really knew what we were paying for.

When we arrived at the Grotta Azzurra, an astonishing sight greeted us. Dozens of tiny rowboats rowed by a single man each were bobbing about in the gentle swell, picking up and returning passengers from and to a small jetty on the land and small motorboats. These motorboats each seated about 20 people, and were obviously the sort of boats our guidebook was telling us about, while we were on a much larger cruiser with room for about 70 people. Each rowboat took three or four passengers at a time, disappeared through a tiny hole in the cliff wall, then reappeared and let the passengers off again.

Outside the Blue Grotto
Waiting in a queue of rowboats to enter la Grotta Azzurra

We prepared the amount of cash we'd been told and joined the queue on our boat for the rowboat ride. The rowboats started taking passengers from our boat and before long we were helped on to a boat with an older couple as other passengers. The rower told us to sit on the floor of the boat, rather than the gunwales, then told us the trip would cost LIT16,250 each, LIT15,500 for the official price and the extra for him. Hardly being in a position to argue, lying cramped on the floor of his boat, we rustled up the extra few lire and gave him the money. He stopped off at two other boats, anchored nearby, giving them shares of the cash and returning us tickets which men on those boats gave to him. This bizarre ritual over with, he rowed us towards the ominous hole in the cliff wall.

The swell by the cliff face was much more noticeable, and the hole in the wall made it clear why we had been told to sit on the bottom of the boat. He told us to lie down as we approached, then grabbed a chain and waited for the swell to drop us into a deep trough. Then he pulled us rapidly through the hole in the wall, with barely enough clearance to avoid head damage as we rushed through.

We entered a strange and serene world on the other side. It was initally very dark, our eyes adjusted to the dazzling sunlight outside. As they became more sensitive, we could see the miraculous glowing blue light emanating from under the water, naturally produced by reflection of external light off the white sand of the bottom. The grotto was calm inside and the magical light slowly lit up the walls and roof of the cavern with its luminous glow. The rower told us to dip our hands in the water, which we did, and we saw the almost fluorescent effect of the light playing over our fingertips.

Grotta Azzura
Inside la Grotta Azzurra

Although calm inside, the grotto was far from peaceful, since a dozen or more rowboats were in the large cavern at once, and it seemed the rowers delighted in having singing competitions with one another. The song was always the same, O Sole Mio, and the acoustics of the grotto were as impressive as the lighting, with good reverberation. We couldn't help but laugh and be delighted at it all.

After a circuit of the interior, we had to queue up with several boats in front of us to go through the hole again and back to the outside world, but the wait was very pleasant in this strange and unearthly world. Eventually we were pulled back outside as rapidly as we had passed in, and the bright sunlight assaulted our eyes once again. We had told the rower that we wanted to be dropped off at the jetty rather than back at the boat, so he obligingly stopped to let us off there.

Aspettiamo entrare Grotta Azzurra
View of the boats from the steps near la Grotta Azzurra

From the jetty we had to climb a series of steps to the road where a bus would take us to the village of Anacapri. One arrived almost as we got there, and we climbed aboard, paying the driver as we got on. The bus took us along a street even narrower than the one we'd passed along yesterday - tree branches brushed both sides of the bus at times. The road winded up the hillside and eventually deposited us near the centre of Anacapri.

View over rooftops of Anacapri

We walked along a street until we found a reference point - the chairlift that runs from the main square to the top of Monte Solaro. At and around the bottom station were absolute hordes of tourists. The queue for the chairlift looked long, so we availed ourselves of the nearby toilet facilities first. We entered one at a time, and the other browsed the adjacent shops, noting the dominant theme of lemons and ceramics, mostly blended as ceramic items with lemon designs on them. Lemons, we concluded, were a major crop on Capri.

Mutant lemon
Giant lemons for sale in Anacapri

After we had finished, the queue for the chairlift was gone entirely, so we figured it was a good time to try it out. We considered one-way tickets, but when I pointed out where we would have to walk back from Michelle decided return was the way to go. The ride took about 15 minutes to get to the top of the mountain. The views while on the chair were spectacular enough, but easily surpassed when we reached the top and walked around to get 360-degree views of the entire island, the Bay of Naples, and parts of the mainland including Napoli, Sorrento, and Mount Vesuvius, all easily visible despite being 20-30 kilometres away. Several people were taking lunch at the top, either on the patio or picnicking on the grass. Some people, clearly British, were baking themselves in the sun.

View of Capri
View from top of Monte Solaro

Several photos later, we descended again on the chairlift, then sought lunch. The cafes and restaurants in the area looked either disappointing or expensive, so we located an alimentari and bought some fresh bread, cheese, and beautiful tomatoes, with which we made our own. We wandered the streets of the town a bit before deciding it was time to head back towards the town of Capri and our return boat to Positano.

Marina Grande
View of Marina Grande from the Anacapri-Capri road

The buses which run between the towns were all packed like sardine cans, with long queues of people waiting in the scorching sun at the stop nearby, so we decided to walk the few kilometres. We started along the narrow road, dodging traffic as it came by, and stopping a few times at lookouts which provided more scenic views, particularly of the crystal clear water near the beaches way below us. After a few hundred metres we came to a place where the road was built jutting out of the side of the cliff, and intersected with a set of steps leading down from Anacapri to Capri. We elected to take the steps from here, since it would be more direct and without the risk of being hit by cars and buses.

We climbed down the enormous staircase, 800 steps the Lonely Planet told us, and for a long time the only way between the two towns until the road was built in th 1950s. It was a hard slog on the calf muscles, but a satisfying trip. Eventually we walked into the port area of Capri again, with an hour or so to go before our return boat.

Capri stairs
Climbing down the stairs from Anacapri to Capri

The shops nearby were all very touristy, and there were also several carnival-style stalls set up, with shooting galleries and hot nut stalls. I found a good-looking gelateria which had not only lemon, but also lemon cream gelato, both flavours of which I tried since lemons were the island specialty, and both were very good. Then we went over to the wharf to wait for our boat. After asking a man if this was the right wharf for our boat (there were several wharves with various boats coming and going all the time) we sat at a nearby shady bench to wait. An English couple sat beside us, or at least the man did, the woman complained saying she wasn't going to sit on concrete, then told the man to pick her bag up off the ground where he'd rested it. Then she complained about the boat, and the sun, and about everything basically, sounding like she was having a positively ghastly time and couldn't wait to get back home and off this stupid holiday.

Marina Grande, Capri
Marina Grande

The boat actually arrived on time, we boarded, and it left on time. The return trip was just as scenic as the trip in, but it was clear many of the passengers had had busy days and were a little tired. We arrived at Positano and left the boat. I saw the English couple again, this time the man listening patiently as the woman complained about still more things.

Approaching Positano
Positano view from the ferry

It was about 16:45 by now, and after the hot day I wanted a swim at the beach. Michelle looked in shops while I raced back up the stairs to the hotel, changed into my swimming costume, and raced back down again. The round trip took just over half an hour, and I counted 558 steps on the way down - I was too out of breath while climbing up to do much of anything, let alone count.

I took my dip in the Mediterranean Sea, noting the pebbles of the beach are far less comfortable to walk on than sand, but far less sticky when you come out of the water. The water was not really clean, having a lot of small floating debris in it a few metres from shore, but once beyond that into deep water it was okay. The debris didn't seem to deter anyone else from going in so I figured it must be safe enough, if a bit icky to see. The water was cold, but not distressingly so, and I stayed in for several minutes before climbing out and drying off.

Lion and Lemons
Still life with lemons; Positano shop near the beach

Then it was time to tackle the walk back up the steps to the hotel again. We took our time, taking 25 minutes or so to climb the hill. We checked the time our train would be leaving from Salerno on Wednesday, and found we'd booked a 09:30 train, thinking the bus trip from Positano would take 30 minutes or so! Suddenly we had to (a) make sure we got up and left the hotel really early, (b) check the bus timetable to see if a bus left Positano for Salerno early enough, and (c) if not, arrange an expensive taxi ride instead. Stunned by these revelations, I showered and rinsed the salt water from my swimming costume and watch (waterproof), then dressed to go out for dinner.

We went to the same restaurant as yesterday, this time I ordered bruschetta and risotto di pescatore, and Michelle had gnocchi with a sauce of tomato and mozzarella cheese. Again the food was good.

When we got back to the hotel again, disaster two struck. My watch was dead. It has been a long time since the battery was replaced, but the coincidence of it failing so soon after being immersed in water when it normally isn't makes me suspect the waterproof seal failed and it is completely destroyed. Not only is this inconvenient, and potentially expensive, but my watch was being used as our alarm clock, and we have to be up very early on Thursday to get a bus back to Salerno in time for our next train.

The Day of Disasters complete, we turned in, calf muscles aching and cramping after walking up and down at least 2000 steps today.

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