15. June 2005 · Comments Off on The Enchanted Island · Categories: Domestic, General, Memoir

The enchanted island was a place of cliffs and grottos, and vine-hung pergolas, open to the soft sea-breeze and a view of the blue Mediterranean, a place of tiny footpaths and stone staircases rather than roadways and sidewalks. Only a tiny fraction of it could be described as level ground; like swallows’ nests, all the buildings clung tightly to slopes that sometimes achieved nearly vertical, the windows of a house looking down on the mellow terracotta roof tiles of it’s next door neighbor.

“Pffui, Capri,” remarked the wife of the owner of the Casa Albertina. “They pay six times over, just to have the cachet of a house there.” Blondie and I were staying at the Casa Albertina in Positano, on the recommendation of a guidebook to small pensions and hotels. The three stories of the casa, set back like stair-steps, overlooked the dome of Positano’s main church, a gorgeously colored riot of colored tile, and the lounge-chairs on the pebbly beach below. From the little terrace outside our room, we might have almost been able to drop pebbles onto the dome, or the sunbathers down below; Capri proved to be even more precipitous.
Three days before, my daughter and I had watched the town of Patras, and the mountains of the Peloponnesus grow small, as the car ferry to Brindisi churned a white wake out behind. Goodbye to Greece, where we had lived for nearly three years, as long as my almost-five year old daughter could remember. Good-bye to the lovely, sunny first-floor apartment on the corner of Delphon and Knossou, our landlord and his family, to Kyria Penny and Kyrie George. Goodbye also to three years of a disintegrating political situation, of strikes, and graffiti, of vandalism, the incessant grinding worry about terrorism, of the ever-touchy Greek politicians’ hair trigger propensity to take offence at nothing at all. Goodbye also to sharing ill-marked roads with the worst drivers in western Europe. I had discovered on the drive from Brindisi to Bari, and over to Salerno that Italian drivers were several magnitudes of improvement, and they were acquainted with the function and use of the turn indicator— terra incognita to Greeks. But we were on our holiday now, a long, leisurely holiday, almost the first one I had taken in over four years. I could indulge myself, for the next six weeks. I didn’t have to report in until mid October, and it was only just now the beginning of September, a mild southern September of blue skies, and leaves only beginning to turn crispy and golden.

Early on one of those mornings, with the morning overcast turning everything pearl and gold as the sun burned it off, Blondie and I walked down to the quay and bought tickets at the little window for the motor launch that made regular runs across the bay to Capri. While we waited, Blondie scrambled down to play on the beach. She gathered water-tumbled scraps of glazed tile, terra-cotta bits all worn to rounded edges by the tide, a single facet of it glazed all colors, brown and yellow, red and blue, little bits of builders’ rubble the size of a quarter, a nickel, half of her palm. She buried the trove in a hole in the sand below the edge of the quay when the motor launch roared in.
“There is a Green grotto, of course” said the wife of the owner of the Casa Albertina. “It is on the coast, as beautiful as the one on Capri… “She shrugged, “The tourists do not know of it, so it is not as popular.” But we were tourists. We could ignore the tacky souvenirs for sale where the launch docked at Capri, where the little funicular climbed up the steep hillside to the saddle between two rocky promontories, but I had to buy tickets for us to go by motorboat out to the grotto, and negotiate the transfer into a small, low-riding boat with a single oarsman.

Blondie and I sat nervously in the small boat, while the oarsman waited for the tidal-surge, and made one mighty dig with his oars and roared “Down!” We ducked down, below the level of the gunwales, the oarsman flattened himself expertly as the boat glided through the stony-roofed passage and into a world of blue, deep blue like the heart of a sapphire. There were other boats, with other nervous tourists circulating in the grotto. We admired for a while, and then it was the same in reverse and out in the open air with the boat bobbing like a cork. All in all, I was rather relieved to return to the quay, and walking up the little road that zigzagged up to the heart of Capri, the little paved square at the center of it all. We walked by pocket villas with tiny orange trees and lemon trees leaning out from behind low walls, tiny gardens behind ornate wrought iron fences, full of tomato plants, lushly hung with bright red fruit. The owners may have had to pay six times as much for the privilege of such a select address, but they still saved a bit by growing their own salad vegetables. In the little square, a terrace railing offered a view, as if from a balcony.

I had it in mind to see the villa, the ruins where the Emperor Tiberius had lived with his books and madness and perversions. The ruins were at the end of the island, and the various little paths led to it through what counted on Capri as the suburbs— more little houses and gardens, on either side of a paved path that climbed higher and higher until we were in the tree-grown, haunted ruins at the top of sheer cliffs, fanned by a cool breeze. Whatever evil had been done here was long gone, the sharp edges of it worn to insignificance, as harmless as the shards of tile Blondie gathered from the beach. Here was nothing but peace and quiet, and the soft air stirring in the pine branches overhead, and for the first time I could feel grateful for it.

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