Week 2 in our review of 2017.
Summer in Sorrento
Italy is one of my favourite places and especially the gorgeous Bay of Naples. The weather there is fantastic, the scenery breathtaking, sunsets that will stop you in your tracks, food to die for and the locals? Well, they seem to have a certain chic I believe can only be achieved if you are actually born with it. I do adore the area, but whenever I visit I always feel a sense of something darker, something you can’t quite put your finger on. It’s almost like everything is fine on the surface, especially for the pleasure of the tourist – and particularly those who give the impression of having cash – but you just scratch at that surface and….
Ah money, money, money… Here you are in Naples, the 3rd largest city in Italy, but also one of the poorest in Europe with a shockingly high unemployment rate. Gritty is a word often used to describe it and despite the best intentions of the Neopolitans, tourists are still reluctant to go there because of it’s bad reputation, and the crime levels. In fact, a local guide told us even some residents from the neighbouring town of Sorrento are afraid to go there.
Yet, hop on a hydrofoil and 40 minutes will take you away from all that grittiness, over the rainbow to the golden, hedonistic island of Capri. Back in AD26 the Emperor Tiberius, packed his bags, waved so long suckers to Rome and headed off to Capri. There he stayed for the next 11 years, ruling the Empire and according to Suetonius, giving himself to “all the vices he had struggled so long to conceal”…. in what people charmingly referred to as the “old goat’s den”. The idea of Capri being a playground in a private paradise stuck. Famous residents and visitors have included the Marchesa Casati, Clark, Rita, Bridget, Audrey, Jackie, Leo, Taylor and Swarovski family…. the list goes on; the blue island still captivates the rich and powerful. “Gritty” can never be used to describe Capri: beautiful people totter beautifully through the most expensive crowded, cobbled streets in the most expensive clothes imaginable. Gorgeous is the only way of life.
Of course, not everyone can live up to Capri standards. Here’s me: hair scrunched up, complete with tourist rucksack, comfy sandals, even comfier cotton shorts, perspiring and stopping every half hour to sit down and fan myself in the heat. No competition for the Capri elite: full make-up (including non-smudge, non-melting winged eyeliner), 3” stiletto heels, not even glowing let alone perspiring, complete with at least 4 bulging pieces of designer shopping bags. This is the place to see and be seen. In Anacapri, a single night (high season) in Capri Palace Hotel with it’s 2 Michelin star restaurant can set you back almost £2k ($2834). Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Naples anymore.
The Bay of Naples may be one of the most beautiful places in Europe, but it comes with a price. Nature will inevitably have the last word – although the weather was awesome (a bit too hot for some, but hey, I like the heat) forest fires burned continually and there was an earthquake on Ischia whilst we were there.
And then of course there is Vesuvius. Of the 3m people living in the area around the volcano (which includes Naples), approximately 600,000 reside in what is known as the ‘red zone’. This area will take the biggest hit should there be a major eruption, so why would anyone even still be there? Yet there they are; all 600,00 of them, many in illegal housing. Those living at the very feet of this threat carry on as though that huge, rumbling rock is just a brooding backcloth. It’s there. What can you do? It brings in the tourists – we’ll deal with it if, and when, it happens. The astute observations of human behaviour in the bestselling series of Neopolitan novels by Elena Ferrante, perfectly encapsulates the outlook here. It’s just the way of things.
Back on Capri is the Villa San Michele. The former home of Swedish born physician Axel Munthe (1857-1949) who declared: “my house must be open to the sun, to the wind, and the voice of the sea, … “ has some of the most stunning views and gardens I have ever seen. However, in the midst of all this heaven on earth, there on the floor by the entrance to the kitchen is a mosaic of a skeleton holding 2 pitchers. Not quite the interior design most people would choose to welcome friends and family to an idyllic dinner, until you realise many ancient dining areas had a similar image as a reminder to eat, drink and enjoy life, for tomorrow you may die. Sound advice for anyone, but especially for the people of this area. Cash may be king and Vesuvius may be quiet today, maybe quiet tomorrow – but just over there, the ruins of Erculano and Pompeii are stark reminders that nature holds the trump card.