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; www.ba.com) from Gatwick; by easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) from Stansted; and by BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com) from Heathrow. Hydrofoils operate regularly between Capri and Naples (00 39 081 428 5555; www.snav.it).

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

Citalia (0871 664 0253; www.citalia.com) 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; www.exvitt.it). Doubles start at €€303 (£252), including breakfast.

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

More information

Italian State Tourist Board: 020-7408 1254; www.italiantouristboard.co.uk

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind-the-scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
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
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone