Capri, the pearl of the Bay of Naples, with its’ grottos and rock formations; home to emperors, movie stars, artists and our Gracie.
When colour TV was in its infancy we used to watch a trade test transmission on BBC 2 celebrating the beauty of the island. On our most amazing Emms family holiday ever we cruised the Mediterranean, embarking at the port of Naples. There was an organized trip to Vesuvius and a Cameo workshop, but with Capri so close Mum was determined to venture out there under our own steam. An oily man in the harbour office was not encouraging; the seas were too rough, the ferries were not running, he had a taxi and could take us to Sorrento and maybe we could get a boat from there. This was November by the way. Undeterred my Mum set out into the port with the rest of us in tow. She ran into a tall policeman holding what looked like table tennis bats, who shouted above the blaring car horns of the nearby traffic that we should not be there, but Mum held her ground until he showed us where to go for a ferry to Capri. It was a small boat with a lower enclosed floor and an upper deck, open to the elements with ranked seats either side of a central cabin from which the Captain steered. We elected to stay out in the open, Mum and I sat to one side watching the cabin and its aerials toss this way and that. Dad and David sat in the center just behind the cabin, theoretically more sheltered and less turbulent. They were both pretty seasick. I felt fine out in the air, though I would not have fancied being enclosed below. I think Mum felt sick but sheer will power kept her from showing it.
Eventually Capri became more than a blue smudge on the swinging horizon and as we approached the small harbour our television window on the world came to life. I had never seen anywhere so pretty with its’ little square houses climbing the lower reaches of the hills like paintbox blocks of pastel colour. On our arrival the only life was a group of taxi drivers chatting on the cobbled dock. We instinctively avoided them, but one little man in a coat and beret stepped forward and tentatively asked if we were from Sheffield. Amazed Dad said yes and the little man turned triumphantly to nod at his friends. It turned out he had been a prisoner of war in Lodge Moor and had happy memories of his time there. He could show us the whole island in just one hour, the Grotto Blue (from above it was not open in such big seas), the Faraglioni Rocks, Gracie Field’s house and many other movie stars homes besides. How could we resist?
He ushered Mum, Dave and myself into the back of his car, Dad sat beside him in the front and we set off at speed up the twisting road, rounding hairpin bends with precipitous drops. Dad asked him what it was like in the summer and our driver made swishing movements with both hands (still driving) and said “oh…I afraidi”. We barely halted at a crossroads, where our driver shouted something at a man standing outside a large shop, who then waved and headed back inside. Up and up we climbed and drove through some pretty streets, which our driver announced was Annacapri, then back down and through the crossroads, the man came out of his shop and shouted and our driver leaned out of his window and shouted back, holding up his finger. He turned back to us and said he had been telling his friend we only had one hour. This time we drove along the coast until he pulled up at the side of the road and fetched us out to look down to a patch of disturbed water fanning out from the cliffs down below. “The Blue Grotto, closed today – too rough,” he announced. Nowadays we would take a photo, but then it did not look worth the film. Back into the car, back across the crossroads and its morose shopkeeper. Once more we climbed and he pulled in to a parking place and gestured us to come out. This time there was a proper railed viewpoint yielding a breathtaking view of cliffs plunging into the azure waters below. ‘This highest point in all of Capri” he announced and, when Dad took his camera out, insisted on taking a photograph of the us in front of it. There we stand the four of us, Mum and I in white fur fabric coats, captured for posterity against the railings, entirely blocking the view behind.
We all climbed back into the taxi. It would not start. There followed several grinding attempts and a fierce barrage of Italian from our driver met with silence from the engine. “Momento” he announce climbing out, at which point he flagged down a small blue bus that came round the corner and disappeared off in it. Silence. Mum announced we might as well eat the picnic we had brought and we all wandered across the road to stand at the highest point in all of Capri with our doorstep cheese sandwiches and wooly red apples. I was still chewing on my first bite of apple when a small cavalcade pulled up alongside our dead taxi. There was another blue bus, from which our driver emerged waving to us, a small orange truck with a tow hook and another yellow taxi. Our driver apologized for having to leave us to finish our tour with his friend, a much younger man with a moustache, who nodded throughout this speech though we were to realize his command of English was limited to place names “Yes, No”and “Gracie Fields there”. Our driver had explained everything to this friend, we should pay the friend as agreed and they would settle with each other later. Fielding sandwiches we were bundled into the second taxi and set off at light speed, down through the crossroads, where the shopkeeper sprang to life again only to be left in our dust. We climbed to another viewpoint, this time overlooking the villas of the rich and famous, including Our Gracie and the beautiful Faragalioni rocks. This time Dad managed to take a picture of the view. This was to be the end of our tour, as we thundered through the crossroads for the final time the shop keeper ran into the road arms out imploringly, the new man took both hands from the wheel to point at his watch and shout back in Italian. We arrived back at the harbour in good time to see our ferry approaching slowly, paid our driver and shook hands with all the other assembled taxi men.
At this point David noticed a small shop with a sign for Coca-Cola and announced he was thirsty. Dad took him off while Mum and I headed along the wooden jetty to wait for them by the ferry stop. The ferry arrived, tied up and lowered the gang- plank, but there was no sign of Dad or Dave. They were still in the shop waiting to pay while the only other tourist we encountered that day, a large American, was ordering an elaborate take away sandwich. Mum and I watched as people came off the ferry and a few others stepped on board, still no sign from the shop, which suddenly looked a very long way away. The Captain gestured for us to board. Mum and I stepped forward and stood resolutely on the gang-plank. The Captain looked puzzled and again asked us to board. “Don’t move Cathy” whispered Mum. The crew assembled, urging us to either come on or get off. They looked a swarthy lot, suddenly like pirates from a Disney movie. “ La Momma come..” groaned the Captain waving to us. At the time I did not know that the Med has little in the way of tide and worried his urgency was because his boat was about to be scraped on the bottom. “Don’t move Cathy”, repeated Mum gripping my hand whilst eyeballing the Captain and pointing at the shop and saying “Little Boy”. Suddenly Dad and Dave emerged clutching a paper bag and legging it for the boat. We all shouted encouragement to them and when they finally arrived, happiness abounded, the ropes were cast and we set off back. The cruise holiday was not going to start with us missing the boat.
Fast forward over forty years and I am again approaching Capri on a swaying deck. This time I have great faith in both Captain and fellow crew. We have sailed here for three hours, over a smooth sea in the sunshine. Capri is still very pretty, though the houses spread higher and further. The harbour is both huge compared to my last visit and tiny in terms of the number of craft it now has to accommodate. There are boats everywhere. Huge ferries, capable of carrying trucks disgorging hoards of people, tripper boats setting off with smaller throngs plucked from queues on the shore, small motor boats vying to capture the odd group and ahead of us another yacht. We have to wait in the far corner of the marina with motor launches buzzing about us, while the marineras deal with the other yacht first. It is a charter boat and its skipper is tentative about cutting across the smaller craft. John holds his ground and shows them no quarter. He knows they can maneuver out of our way and has several tones of boat to back his stance. The marineras are out in force, the head one holding the lazy line and directing proceedings, while shouting at the crews on the motor boats to Cha, Cha, Cha out of the way. We come in with no problems and the marinera moves across to bring in the next yacht, a German boat whose skipper clearly does not fancy joining the melee at this end and is reversing happily into a spot further up the quay. The main man lets out an ear-shattering whistle and waves abruptly; he is having none of this picking your own spot nonsense. Before too long we have German neighbours and can relax knowing we are in and settled. Tomorrow we will set out to explore the island and see if I can fit my memories into it.