Lyrical charm in Capri

Bellinis by moonlight, grand hotels filled with the ghosts of famous former guests, the bewitching Bay of Naples... Brian Viner can feel a certain Noël Coward song coming on

Just for fun, three young
Bowed low to Mrs Wentworth- Brewster
Said "Scusi", and abruptly goosed her,
Then there was quite a scene,
Her family in floods of tears cried, "Leave these men, Mama"
She said, "They're just high-spirited, like all Italians are"
And most of them have a great deal more to offer than Papa
In a bar on the Piccola Marina

I had wanted to visit Capri ever since I first heard Noël Coward's wonderful song about the matronly English widow "who discovered in the nick of time that life was for living". Specifically, I had wanted to visit a bar on the Piccola Marina, and opportunity finally knocked one sunny Saturday, when my wife Jane and I walked from Capri Town along winding lanes and down a precipitous flight of steps to La Canzone del Mare, the elegant restaurant once frequented by Coward, Gracie Fields and, of course Mrs Wentworth-Brewster, to whom we raised a glass of Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio (the local wine that tastes like nectar within a 30-mile radius of Vesuvius, and like the ropiest supermarket plonk a week later, on a wet Tuesday night in England).

Our admittedly rather overwrought guidebook had described lunch at La Canzone del Mare as an "iconic Capri moment", and we were determined to do something "iconic", having been denied a boat trip to the Grotta Azzurra (Blue Grotto) because of choppy waters.

We dug in for much of the afternoon, cherishing the view of the Scoglio delle Sirene, the rock from which the Sirens supposedly seduced Odysseus and his crew in Homer's Odyssey. I confess that my eyes also rested, just for an iconic Capri moment or two, upon their modern incarnation – a bunch of excitable young Italian women in swimsuits, taking turns to push each other into the sea.

Afterwards, we chickened out of the stiff walk uphill and instead took a crowded bus back up to Capri Town, where the pavements were thick with tourists, not a few of them trudging after tour guides who sweetly held up velour flowers rather than umbrellas. We didn't linger in Capri Town, partly because the crowds evoked Padstow in August, but also because our allegiances were firmly with the rival settlement of Anacapri, located much higher than Capri Town, on the slopes of Monte Solaro.

I use the word "rival" deliberately: even though the island's only two towns are scarcely three miles apart, the centuries-old antagonism between the two sets of townsfolk endures. The Capresans no longer routinely refer to the Anacapresan women as faticatore e puttane ("drudges and whores") as they did only 50-odd years ago, but they still poke fun at the Anacapresan dialect. The Anacapresans, for their part, cling to the high ground both morally and literally, believing that even their air is superior.

We stayed just outside Anacapri at the Caesar Augustus, a swish hotel notable most of all for the astounding view over the Bay of Naples from its huge terrace, one end of which is dominated by a huge statue of Augustus himself. After dark he was illuminated by a spotlight aimed, rather disrespectfully we felt, right up his toga. Anyway, we lingered there for ages, agreeing that a Bellini in the moonlight on the terrace of the Caesar Augustus would have put the romance back into Paul and Heather McCartney's marriage; hell, it might even have done the trick for Basil and Sybil Fawlty.

There was, I should swiftly add, nothing remotely Fawlty-esque about the Caesar Augustus, where the food matched the sumptuous outlook, but on our second night there we fancied something less grand, so we walked into Anacapri and down an unlikely alley found Il Solitario. It looked like, and probably was, somebody's front room, was overlit, and a toddler called Luigi was trucking from table to table. It was almost inevitable that we would have one of the best meals of our lives there, and we did.

The next morning we caught the chair-lift to the top of Monte Solaro, to get a 360-degree perspective of the island, and a majestic view of I Faraglioni, the three enigmatic, pale-ochre limestone colossi (according to our overwrought guidebook) that rise from the sea just off Capri's southern coast. Less poetically, we each had a cappuccino in the mountain-top café and decided, not for the first time, that we could do better at our favourite café in Hereford. If Italy offers only one disappointment to the hopeful traveller, and I've found no other, it is the quality of its cappuccini, which too often taste of UHT milk.

Having watched a succession of elderly tourists making inelegant dismounts from the chair-lift coming down, most of them trying to look insouciant while being forced into a frantic downhill trot, we decided that we would walk the return leg. It took an hour but it was a good decision. We had the long stony path through the wooded slopes entirely to ourselves, and at the bottom we passed a cemetery where my eye fell on the grave of John Hamill of County Antrim, of His Britannic Majesty's Late Regiment of Malta, who fell while bravely resisting the French invasion of Anacapri on October 4, 1808. We toasted him with the mineral water we'd bought to douse the taste of the cappuccino.

Apparently, and despite being inland, Anacapri was hit harder by invaders than Capri Town (another source of competitiveness). The Saracens dragged the menfolk off to sell as slaves, and raped the women, the consequences of which can still be seen today in the faintly Moorish features of many Anacapresans. Their "smouldering looks" and "wild beauty" were certainly appreciated by the visiting German historian Ferdinand Gregorovius in the 1850s, and his enthusiastic, not to say libidinous reports helped to fuel an invasion, this time peaceful, of northern Europeans.

Anacapri became a colony of artists and writers, and still has a bohemian vibe, even if mass-produced tourist tat (I confess that we almost succumbed in the case of the Limoncello bottle in the form of Elvis) is far more in evidence than original art.

The best art in modern Anacapri is in the Villa San Michele, once the home of the Swedish doctor, philanthropist and ornithologist Axel Munthe, who crammed it with antiquities. We spent a beguiling hour in the villa's lovely colonnaded garden, and were delighted to learn that, in 1907, Dr Munthe married an Englishwoman with the stout English name of Hilda Pennington-Mellor. Better still, their two sons were called Malcolm and Viking. What we didn't find out was a) whether Hilda Pennington-Mellor knew Mrs Wentworth-Brewster; and b) whether Malcolm and Viking were hacked off when Munthe, who died aged 92 in 1949, left the Villa San Michele to the Swedish state to promote cultural relations between his homeland and Italy. Still, it was good news for the rest of us.

We left Capri as captivated as we had hoped to be, and caught the ferry to Sorrento, where we spent the last night of our long weekend at the fabled Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria, along with the ghosts of Otto von Bismarck, Oscar Wilde, King Edward VII, Princess Margaret, Enrico Caruso, Richard Strauss and Luciano Pavarotti, all of whom stayed at one time or another, and must be having a heck of a celestial party.

The hotel was built in 1834 on the site of the Emperor Augustus's villa; we felt he was beginning to stalk us. It is a remarkable place, full of enormous potted palms and mottled mirrors, although most remarkable of all is its location: right in the heart of town, it is insulated by magnificent gardens from the bustle of tourists, disgorged in their hundreds all day long from the ferries and cruise ships.

We had lunch in the Piazza Tasso, the main square, and eavesdropped with relish as a gregarious couple from Pennsylvania tried to befriend a taciturn couple from Doncaster, who smiled wanly while the Americans insisted that, as they were cruising on the same ship, they ought to spend the rest of the afternoon together. There is no point, I have found, in lamenting the crush of fellow-tourists in the world's most beautiful towns; you simply have to make the most of the people-watching and listening opportunities it affords. Later, walking along the Via San Cesareo, we heard an English voice exclaiming: "Ooh, it's just like the Shambles in York."

Of course, there comes a point when you need to escape these reminders of home. So we walked down to the harbour, sat outside a little bar in the fading afternoon sunshine, quaffing from yet another bottle of Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio, and decided that the faded terracotta of the old buildings looking out over the bay – "Sorrento Red", as Mr Farrow and Mr Ball might call it – was the very colour of la dolce vita.

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

The nearest airport is Naples, which is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; from Gatwick; by easyJet (0905 821 0905; from Stansted; and by BMI (0870 60 70 555; from Heathrow. Hydrofoils operate regularly between Capri and Naples (00 39 081 428 5555;

To reduce the impact on the environment you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.

Citalia (0871 664 0253; offers three nights at the Hotel Caesar Augustus in Capri and three nights at the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria in Sorrento, with private transfers and British Airways flights from Gatwick airport to Naples, from £1,318 per person.

Staying there

Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria, Sorrento (00 39 081 8777 111; Doubles start at €€303 (£252), including breakfast.

Hotel Caesar Augustus, Anacapri, Capri (00 39 081 837 3395; Doubles start at €€430 (£358), including breakfast.

More information

Italian State Tourist Board: 020-7408 1254;

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager - Bristol

    £31000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the UK, the major project fo...

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Executive - Meetings & Events (MICE) - £40,000 OTE

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: Are you a high achieving...

    h2 Recruit Ltd: Account Executive - Hotel Reservation Software - £40,000 OTE

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: A rapidly growing Hotel ...

    Recruitment Genius: Tyre Technician / Mechanic

    £15000 - £16800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Tyre Technician / Mechanic is...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game