The Best of...: Capri (UPDATED!)

I've been sending news items and commentary over the internet to family and friends for a while now, long before the advent of blogs! Going through my "archives," I found more fun old pieces that I thought might be worth recycling here. I hope you enjoy! :-)

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Date: Thu, 7 Apr 1994 11:49:27 +0100 (CET)
The following is a batch mailing, because I'm just too worn out to live through it again more than once. I'll send out individual notes later!

QUOTE OF THE DAY: He didn't really like travel of course. He liked
the idea of travel, and the memory of travel, but not travel itself.
For once I agree with Du Camp, who used to say that Gustave's prefered form of travel
was to lie on a divan and have the scenery carried past him...

- Julian Barnes, Flaubert's Parrot

Whew! I'm back! I've just spent nearly a week in lovely Southern Italy. My folks really liked it, I think, but I had hoped it would be far more relaxing. I guess that was probably too much to hope for in a metropolitan area with a population density that rivals Hong Kong. Yes, my parents really liked Southern Italy, despite the fact that the Italian transportation system conspired against us.

It all started on Easter Monday, the day we decided to go to Pompeii. (The next day, we were going to go to the Archeological Museum of Naples where they had trucked off all the good stuff. You really can't do one without the other, if you want to get the most complete picture of Pompeii.)

Anyway, we get to Pompei, which still is a real city and is hustling and bustling like every other business day. There, we grab lunch in the Pompei McDonald's. (No joke! But not to worry, it's not built in the ruins or anything! There, a state-run snack bar is...) Afterwards, we walked to the gate and discover that it was CLOSED! The most popular museum/historical complex in all of Italy is closed on Easter Monday! By then, it was almost noon and there was no time to go back to Naples to catch the museum before it closed at one.

So, to salvage the day, we decided to take the train to Sorrento... and from there caught a hydrofoil to Capri. Capri was the pleasure-island resort of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. (Some people even suggest that the name of Capri, derived from the word for "goat," was actually a commentary on Tiberius' lasciviousness.) Ok, no problem. We get to Capri and it's lovely, a small island with a town in the valley between two VERY tall volcanic cliffs. But it certainly did seem to be crowded with a lot of people...

Then we tried to leave Capri before the last boat out, and learned that it turns out Easter Weekend is the single highest-volume travel weekend of the year in Italy... and that, more specifically (as we read in the newspaper the next day), 13,000 Neapolitans (all apparently under the age of 25) typically day-trip to Capri on Easter Monday, break a lot of glass bottles, knock over trash cans, and after such a rewarding, relaxing day, attempt to catch the last boats off the island. When we made the descent down from Capri town to the port, we were just in time to see the penultimate boat to Naples leave, looking not entirely unlike news footage of the American withdrawal from Vietnam. It was absolutely packed! And, believe you me, you may think you know what packed means, but it takes on a whole new significance in Naples. Well, I think, at least that means that most of the kids are gone. And then I glance at the ticket window...

Lines as we know them don't really exist in Italy, and even less in the South. "Lines" are much more semi-circles, really... with people wedged up against one another, trying to needle their way through the crowd. It's a system that works, strangely enough, because the people with the highest degree of desperation to get to the front of a given "line" usually summon the strength of a salmon swimming upstream and scrape their way to the front. This method, however, doesn't work when everybody is desperate to get a ticket for the last boat out, which was scheduled to leave in about 40 minutes. (And, needless to say, there were no hotel rooms left on the island should we have been left behind!)

There was nothing else to be done. I parked my folks at a cafe, and--sharpening my elbows--I plunged into the crowd. Of course, there was only one ticket window open, but while the "line" crawled slowly forward, I did make a lot of headway. After twenty minutes, only about 4 people had been sold tickets, but I'd managed to scrape my way to within 4 people of the front... and then, just as I began to breathe a little sigh of relief (I say "little" because I had NO room to expand my lungs... this is the closest I'd ever been to several hundred people at once!) the ticket computer broke down. For the next twenty minutes, no tickets were sold, and I was compressed against the building as more and more desperate people piled in from the back of the line (or all sides of the semi-circle, as the case may be...) Luckily, however, Neapolitans are really used to this, since services break down there all the time, and they have a lot of patience... so I didn't have to worry at all about the crowd getting ugly.

Nobody got really upset, that is, until the last minute when the boat was actually beginning to raise its gangplank, despite the fact that the ticket computer was down. That's when people started to get a little excited, and the guy who'd been smushed at the very front and tapping patiently on the ticket window for the last 20 minutes suddenly got really upset and actually started to climb up the front of the building, shouting something in very agitated Neapolitan.

My father appeared and asked me, a little concerned, how everything was going. Fine, I wheezed, but I asked him to run around to the other boat companies and see if another boat, any boat, was leaving anytime soon. He soon reappeared with 3 tickets back to Sorrento (which is about 2 hours away by train from my friend's house, where we were staying, but was infinitely better than nothing...) He then had to pull me physically out of the crowd, because I was so wedged in that I couldn't move. Sigh-of-relief time!

And then I see that the local police have erected a barricade to keep ticketless Neapolitans from rushing the boats. Sprinting, I turn around and grab my folks and navigate them through a back way, around boats through the port, until we reach another police line for the boat we want. We wedged our way through, with our tickets held aloft for the cops to see, until we get to the boat. Sigh-of-relief time!

But no, we're too late! Though we and about 20 other people were physically standing on the gang plank, the sailors pushed us off, raised it... and sailed off without us! As you can imagine, the Neapolitans were getting a little excited by this time. In these situations, one summons whatever strengths one has at hand... and I squeezed through the crowd, which was now collectively shouting in Neapolitan and gesturing wildly, to the source of their frustrations, the Port Captains. And, going up to the guy who looks the most important, I say in my most plaintive and broken Italian, "Excuse me, signore, I don't understand what is happening. Where do I go? What should I do??..." If this doesn't work, I think, the next thing I'm going to do is break down and cry helplessly right in front of him... But I don't have to. He takes pity on such a helpless foreigner and says, "Okay, follow me."

He grabbed my hand, and I grabbed my Dad's and he grabbed my Mom's and together, in some strange Italian version of Make Way for Ducklings, he leads us through the crowd, through yet another police line, and tells the owner of another company's boat that's leaving for Sorrento that he's going to honor our tickets and take us out on the next boat. After a lot of characteristic shouting and haggling, the guy gives in... and we are escorted onto the boat before the hordes of people who then lunge forward, packing the boat. As we leave, several thousand people are still left on the quay behind us...

In Sorrento, by now, I'm cautious with my optimism. We grabbed a cab to take us on the road up the cliff to the train station to try to beat the teenagers who could only afford to walk the trip. But there we ran into the crowd left over from the last boat, and I dived in to procure the train tickets. I get them in 5 minutes flat, and together we run to the platform... JUST as the train pulls away. So much for timing! Well, I think, at least we can rest a minute. My poor mom had had surgery only about 3 weeks earlier, and while she was fine, her stomach muscles were a little strained and all this running around didn't help. (I'd have hated for her to blow a gasket or anything!) And then I hear the announcement that they'd switched the track, and the train we wanted was coming into the station on another platform. We have to run for it, and this one we manage to catch. Whew! Sigh-of-relief time!

We rode the train for the next hour and a half into Naples, toward Piazza Garibaldi where we had to switch trains to get to my friend's part of town. At a stop in downtown Naples, I ask a guy getting off, "Is this Piazza Garibaldi?" No, he tells me, it's the next one. The doors of the train close behind him, and the train pulls out of the station, just as I see the sign which essentially says, "You are now leaving Piazza Garibaldi."

Damn. I knew this was getting too easy. We caught a train at the next stop which was going in the opposite direction, and beat a path back to the Piazza Garibaldi station. There, I finally had a moment to call my friend from a pay phone. The last she had heard was that morning when we were going to Pompeii, and Pompeii was supposed to close an hour before sunset. It was now about quarter to ten. (We had first tried to leave Capri about 4 hours before!) When I finally reached her, she was just beginning to worry that she was going to have to go identify our lifeless bodies in the city morgue. Then she informed me that the last commuter trains stopped running at 10. We run for another train.

And this is the last leg of our journey. I sink into the train seat, and, for the first time in 4 hours, I relax. I'd held my wits about me in the face of adversity for just a little too long, and I'm exhausted... And then the train pulled to a halt four stops away from the one my friend was to pick us up at, and the lights went out. They were shutting the train down!
They made some announcement over the loudspeaker, but it's in dialect and I can't understand. However, fortune smiles upon us at the last minute yet again: some American boys who were doing Mormon missionary work tell us the announcement said that another outbound train was coming in on track 4. We stand and wait... and then the train pulls in instead on track 2! We had to run down the underpassage to the other platform, leapt onto the train, and the doors literally closed just behind us.

This time, though, I have no optimism. There is no such thing as a sigh of relief. Even if we do ever make it to see my friend, I'm sure that something else will go wrong: her car will break down, the gate around her apartment complex will be stuck shut, Vesuvius will erupt... or some unlikely yet inevitable combination of all three. After having held it together all day, my nerves had now been totally shot.

But we made it! I nearly kissed that icky ground in the station, like the pope getting off an airplane, when that train stopped and I hit the platform running. My much-relieved friend was there waiting for a much-relieved us, and together we made it back uneventfully to the house. And the next day, we even made it back to Pompeii, for good measure!

All of this just served to show me how non-Italian my mentality still was, not to mention my blood pressure. But every other minute was truly lovely. Really! And now that I'm home, I really have to pass out now.

Later, when I come to...
Love, Michelle


UPDATED: July 26

One Capri for 'Only Visiting' and One for 'Don't Even Ask' - New York Times


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