List Of Contents | Contents of Saunterings, by Charles Dudley Warner
< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

road.  For there lay the sea, and the plain of Sorrento, with its
darkening groves and hundreds of twinkling lights.  As we went down
the last descent, the bells of the town were all ringing, for it was
the eve of the fete of St. Antonino.


"CAP, signor?  Good day for Grott."  Thus spoke a mariner, touching
his Phrygian cap.  The people here abbreviate all names.  With them
Massa is Mas, Meta is Met, Capri becomes Cap, the Grotta Azzurra is
reduced familiarly to Grott, and they even curtail musical Sorrento
into Serent.

Shall we go to Capri?  Should we dare return to the great Republic,
and own that we had not been into the Blue Grotto?  We like to climb
the steeps here, especially towards Massa, and look at Capri.  I have
read in some book that it used to be always visible from Sorrento.
But now the promontory has risen, the Capo di Sorrento has thrust out
its rocky spur with its ancient Roman masonry, and the island itself
has moved so far round to the south that Sorrento, which fronts
north, has lost sight of it.

We never tire of watching it, thinking that it could not be spared
from the landscape.  It lies only three miles from the curving end of
the promontory, and is about twenty miles due south of Naples.  In
this atmosphere distances dwindle.  The nearest land, to the
northwest, is the larger island of Ischia, distant nearly as far as
Naples; yet Capri has the effect of being anchored off the bay to
guard the entrance.  It is really a rock, three miles and a half
long, rising straight out of the water, eight hundred feet high at
one end, and eighteen hundred feet at the other, with a depression
between.  If it had been chiseled by hand and set there, it could not
be more sharply defined.  So precipitous are its sides of rock, that
there are only two fit boat-landings, the marina on the north side,
and a smaller place opposite.  One of those light-haired and freckled
Englishmen, whose pluck exceeds their discretion, rowed round the
island alone in rough water, last summer, against the advice of the
boatman, and unable to make a landing, and weary with the strife of
the waves, was in considerable peril.

Sharp and clear as Capri is in outline, its contour is still most
graceful and poetic.  This wonderful atmosphere softens even its
ruggedness, and drapes it with hues of enchanting beauty.  Sometimes
the haze plays fantastic tricks with it,--a cloud-cap hangs on Monte
Solaro, or a mist obscures the base, and the massive summits of rock
seem to float in the air, baseless fabrics of a vision that the
rising wind will carry away perhaps.  I know now what Homer means by
"wandering islands." Shall we take a boat and sail over there, and so
destroy forever another island of the imagination?  The bane of
travel is the destruction of illusions.

We like to talk about Capri, and to talk of going there.  The
Sorrento people have no end of gossip about the wild island; and,
simple and primitive as they are, Capri is still more out of the
world.  I do not know what enchantment there is on the island; but--
whoever sets foot there, they say, goes insane or dies a drunkard.  I
fancy the reason of this is found in the fact that the Capri girls
are raving beauties.  I am not sure but the monotony of being
anchored off there in the bay, the monotony of rocks and precipices
that goats alone can climb, the monotony of a temperature that
scarcely ever, winter and summer, is below 55 or above 75 Fahrenheit
indoors, might drive one into lunacy.  But I incline to think it is
due to the handsome Capri girls.

There are beautiful girls in Sorrento, with a beauty more than skin
deep, a glowing, hidden fire, a ripeness like that of the grape and
the peach which grows in the soft air and the sun.  And they wither,
like grapes that hang upon the stem.  I have never seen a handsome,
scarcely a decent-looking, old woman here.  They are lank and dry,
and their bones are covered with parchment.  One of these brown-
cheeked girls, with large, longing eyes, gives the stranger a start,
now and then, when he meets her in a narrow way with a basket of
oranges on her head.  I hope he has the grace to go right by.  Let
him meditate what this vision of beauty will be like in twenty ears.

The Capri girls are famed as magnificent beauties, but they fade like
their mainland sisters.  The Saracens used to descend on their
island, and carry them off to their harems.  The English, a very
adventurous people, who have no harems, have followed the Saracens.
The young lords and gentlemen have a great fondness for Capri.  I
hear gossip enough about elopements, and not seldom marriages, with
the island girls,--bright girls, with the Greek mother-wit, and
surpassingly handsome; but they do not bear transportation to
civilized life (any more than some of the native wines do): they
accept no intellectual culture; and they lose their beauty as they
grow old.  What then?  The young English blade, who was intoxicated
by beauty into an injudicious match and might, as the proverb says,
have gone insane if he could not have made it, takes to drink now,
and so fulfills the other alternative.  Alas!  the fatal gift of

But I do not think Capri is so dangerous as it is represented.  For
(of course we went to Capri) neither at the marina, where a crowd of
bare-legged, vociferous maidens with donkeys assailed us, nor in the
village above, did I see many girls for whom and one little isle a
person would forswear the world.  But I can believe that they grow
here.  One of our donkey girls was a handsome, dark-skinned, black-
eyed girl; but her little sister, a mite of a being of six years, who
could scarcely step over the small stones in the road, and was forced
to lead the donkey by her sister in order to establish another lien
on us for buona mano, was a dirty little angel in rags, and her great
soft black eyes will look somebody into the asylum or the drunkard's
grave in time, I have no doubt.  There was a stout, manly, handsome
little fellow of five years, who established himself as the guide and
friend of the tallest of our party.  His hat was nearly gone; he was
sadly out of repair in the rear; his short legs made the act of
walking absurd; but he trudged up the hill with a certain dignity.
And there was nothing mercenary about his attachment: he and his
friend got upon very cordial terms: they exchanged gifts of shells
and copper coin, but nothing was said about pay.

Nearly all the inhabitants, young and old, joined us in lively
procession, up the winding road of three quarters of a mile, to the
town.  At the deep gate, entering between thick walls, we stopped to
look at the sea.  The crowd and clamor at our landing had been so
great that we enjoyed the sight of the quiet old woman sitting here
in the sun, and the few beggars almost too lazy to stretch out their
hands.  Within the gate is a large paved square, with the government
offices and the tobacco-shop on one side, and the church opposite;
between them, up a flight of broad stone steps, is the Hotel Tiberio.
Our donkeys walk up them and into the hotel.  The church and hotel
are six hundred years old; the hotel was a villa belonging to Joanna
II. of Naples.  We climb to the roof of the quaint old building, and
sit there to drink in the strange oriental scene.  The landlord says
it is like Jaffa or Jerusalem.  The landlady, an Irish woman from
Devonshire, says it is six francs a day.  In what friendly
intercourse the neighbors can sit on these flat roofs!  How sightly
this is, and yet how sheltered!  To the east is the height where
Augustus, and after him Tiberius, built palaces.  To the west, up
that vertical wall, by means of five hundred steps cut in the face of
the rock, we go to reach the tableland of Anacapri, the primitive
village of that name, hidden from view here; the medieval castle of
Barbarossa, which hangs over a frightful precipice; and the height of
Monte Solaro.  The island is everywhere strewn with Roman ruins, and
with faint traces of the Greeks.

Capri turns out not to be a barren rock.  Broken and picturesque as
it is, it is yet covered with vegetation.  There is not a foot, one
might say a point, of soil that does not bear something; and there is
not a niche in the rock, where a scrap of dirt will stay, that is not
made useful.  The whole island is terraced.  The most wonderful thing
about it, after all, is its masonry.  You come to think, after a
time, that the island is not natural rock, but a mass of masonry.  If
the labor that has been expended here, only to erect platforms for
the soil to rest on, had been given to our country, it would have
built half a dozen Pacific railways, and cut a canal through the

But the Blue Grotto?  Oh, yes!  Is it so blue?  That depends upon the
time of day, the sun, the clouds, and something upon the person who
enters it.  It is frightfully blue to some.  We bend down in our
rowboat, slide into the narrow opening which is three feet high, and
passing into the spacious cavern, remain there for half an hour.  It
is, to be sure, forty feet high, and a hundred by a hundred and fifty
in extent, with an arched roof, and clear water for a floor.  The
water appears to be as deep as the roof is high, and is of a light,
beautiful blue, in contrast with the deep blue of the bay.  At the
entrance the water is illuminated, and there is a pleasant, mild
light within: one has there a novel subterranean sensation; but it
did not remind me of anything I have seen in the "Arabian Nights." I
have seen pictures of it that were much finer.

As we rowed close to the precipice in returning, I saw many similar
openings, not so deep, and perhaps only sham openings; and the
water-line was fretted to honeycomb by the eating waves.  Beneath the
water-line, and revealed here and there when the waves receded, was a
line of bright red coral.


At vespers on the fete of St. Antonino, and in his church, I saw the
Signorina Fiammetta.  I stood leaning against a marble pillar near
the altar-steps, during the service, when I saw the young girl

< < Previous Page     Next Page > >

Other sites: