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(Daily Mail – 1998)
Preposterously picturesque ...

'Capri,' enthused a friend, 'you lucky thing! Where is it?'

Is it because of the Ford marque, or perhaps the brand of American cigarettes, that this rocky little island in the Bay of Naples sounds so familiar? Maybe it's just one of those places that you feel, in an ideal world, you should have visited - along with Cap Ferrat, the Cote d'Azur and Monte Carlo. Along the terrace Roger Moore sips a martini with Sophia Loren, as Brigitte Bardot wanders through with a poodle to match her white minidress, Clark Gable grinning toothily in a blazer on the one side, Tony Ferrino in wraparound shades on the other.

Well, the heart of Capri certainly lives up to the swankiest fantasy. Emerging from the steep funicular that brings you up from the preposterously picturesque little port of Marina Grande, your first sight is a view too spectacular for any mere postcard to capture. Beneath the precipitous off-white limestone cliffs of Monte Solero, the centre of the island is a jumble of white villas and deep green vegetation curving down in terraces to an alarmingly azure sea. On the far side of the wide bay, Naples snakes along towards the mighty silhouette of Mt. Vesuvius, the Amalfi coast receding behind.

Round the corner, the parasols, cane chairs, yellow tablecloths and white-coated waiters of the tiny Piazza Umberto are swarmed over by an international crowd whose collected credit limits would surely finance a small African nation.

Cartier rings, Prada handbags, Gucci shoes, Alberto Ferretti suits, Dolce e Gabbana sunglasses, loafers by J.P. Tod - the gear you need to fit in can all be purchased in the narrow, pedestrian-only street that runs gently downhill to where a mass of white begonias nicely sets off the mahogany-tanned facelifts on the terrace of the Hotel Quisisana.

Despite this extravagantly ritzy veneer, Capri manages (just) to hang on to the old island magic that has entranced everyone from the Roman Emperor Tiberius, who moved his Imperial headquarters to a villa on the towering eastern cliffs, to the wartime singer Gracie Fields, who fell in love with a younger man and, an early Shirley Valentine, spent her last days above the bite-sized beach of Marina Piccola.

Just five minutes from Piazze Umberto you are in a network of lanes where the costly pong of Chanel or Dior has been exchanged for the altogether subtler fragrances of broom and jasmine. The ostentatious trill of mobile phones is replaced by discreet birdsong. Through fences and over walls swamped with bougainvillaea, wisteria, plumbago and morning glory there are glimpses of yet more flowers in wonderful secret gardens.

These steep viales are too narrow for cars, and mopeds and bicycles are banned. The only transport is a series of all-but silent electric carts, colour-coded red for masonry, green for luggage, blue for food and white for the occasional old aged pensioner. So everyone walks. To ears battered with English levels of car-noise, the peace and quiet is wonderful.

Another five minutes brings you out onto precipitous cliffs, where there is nothing at all but seagulls wheeling above the steep slopes of ilex, myrtle and pine. Looking down to the sea the view is exhilaratingly dizzying. You can stick to the main paths, and check out the famous Faraglione rocks (as seen on the front of every brochure) the 'natural arch', and Tiberius's ruined Villa Jovis, or venture off up tiny verdant back ways where you will meet nothing but the occasional wide-eyed Capri cat.

Monte Solero, as well as providing the focal point for a thousand terrace views, divides the island neatly into two. Beyond, down a road that clings terrifyingly to the sheer cliff face (look out of the bus window at your peril) is Anacapri: greener, larger, and altogether less glitzy than its sophisticated sister.

Perched at the entrance to this alternative kingdom is the Villa San Michele, built by the celebrated Swedish doctor Axel Munthe. This dazzling white 'citadel of the soul' became the subject of a famous international bestseller. As a result you need to get there first thing in the morning if you want to catch the full lonely glory of its spectacular clifftop position.

Beyond the horde of day-trippers who throng to see Munthe's unusual collection of Roman bits and pieces, and another magical garden, the tangibly different flavour of Capri's less hectic alter-ego is quickly revealed. No Prada or Hermes here. Unpretentious shops sell real things for real lives. Mopeds carrying exquisite Italian teenagers roar and putter past. In the little square by the church of Santa Sofia a gaggle of schoolkids chase a huge purple balloon, screaming their heads off with unpretentious delight.

Beyond the little villa where Graham Greene regularly stayed (the writer was made an honorary citizen of Anacapri) the long viale out to the viewpoint above the pink lighthouse at the island's western tip is altogether wilder. Brambles and bindweed tangle on land that would surely long ago have been developed over the other side.

If you want wild adventure in wide open spaces, Capri is not for you. But if you prefer a thoroughly lazy time, with nothing more taxing than a stroll down car-free lanes to an interesting church or villa, followed by a long lunch on a terrace with an exquisite view, before a dozy afternoon by the pool, I would recommend it.

Try the wonderful pasta (and view) at the Belsito on Via Matermania, or if you'd rather eat pizzas in the shade of a lemon grove, Il Solitario in Anacapri. If you can still manage dinner the Capri Moon will give you a view of just that, while the best food I found on the island was at the Biberius on Via Sella Orta, which has the most unusual Capri view of all - the floodlit local football pitch. Nothing like watching a bunch of the lads in training to sharpen your appetite for the finest ricotta-stuffed ravioli.
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