4:30am last Wednesday, I was dragged out of bed by the promise of an island, thronged with the other sleepwalkers onto a charter bus and slowly pulleyed away from Rome. Morning bus rides have been one of my favorite things here – everyone is so quiet and sleepy, it has the peace of night with the light of day. It also has rest stop cappuccinos, which never hurt, although they are not quite as effective in providing energy as a good gaze into the seafoam from a ferry deck, which is where we eventually ended up. So does the effectiveness of a cappuccino even matter? In this case, I guess, it does not.
We were headed to Ponza, a white-and-pastel island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, her cliffs and grottos knee-deep in the bluest water I’d ever seen (I’ve now seen bluer… but that’s beside the point). Because of this, there was sort of a collective gasp as we pulled into the main harbor. Just a slight change of scenery, little different than Rome. Karly and I shared a hotel room with a balcony overlooking that harbor, that harbor being a spectacular stage on which the sunset glowed. I don’t think a Fairfield Inn in central Washington is going to cut it anymore. Take note. I’ve been spoiled. In addition to the balcony, the woman who worked in the little breakfast nook is also to blame – she gave me coffee and chocolate croissants. And a hug when I left. Everyone stay at Hotel Mari!
Going out on boats played a large role in our time on Ponza, as is only appropriate. We rented giant bins of flippers, goggles, and snorkels (you never realize how ridiculous the words are until you type them in succession), donning them when the time was right and plummeting into the water. It was cold. It was also really salty, and I was a little shocked to find that no one else shared my enthusiasm for the taste of saltwater – you know, when you lick your lips, or chew on your hair or whatever. It’s good stuff. Plus, it makes styling my hair so much easier; post-snorkeling, had I wanted to mold my hair into the shape of Italy, I probably could have done so. The actual act of snorkeling is also good, of course. I’d never seen the bottom of the sea before, or swam into a cave, or experienced the tenfold-increased intensity of blue between above-water and below-water. I remember reading a book in a poetry class a couple years ago – it was the only book I liked that quarter – about the color blue. Bluets, by Maggie Nelson. I was introduced to ultramarine, the richest and bluest of blues, but I didn’t actually feel it until Ponza. It just kind of engulfs you, and ten minutes later you can’t remember it. I think blue is my favorite color.
I’ll remember Ponza for the seafood dinners where I didn’t eat seafood, instead opting for half a basket of bread and bouts of laughter which actually made me feel like maybe I was going to die, like my eyes would literally pop out of my head and my abs would catch fire. Not altogether unpleasant, although a little concerning. I’ll remember sitting at breakfast for two hours, and standing in the tide as the sand was swept from under my feet, and finding a cactus that mysteriously captured the same movement of Bernini’s Apollo, and perching myself at the front of various boats, hardly dreading the inevitable struggle of brushing my hair later. A song for Ponza? “Crawled Out of the Sea,” Laura Marling. And as for poems, it will always be “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” as discussed in that cave-like room that smelled of pastries. Next?
Capri. Getting there from Ponza was a jaunt – ferry, train, cab, ferry – and for a few hours there were doubts that we would even make it. With our time constraints, it felt like the Amazing Race. I mean, I’ve never watched the Amazing Race, but a girl can imagine. The eleven of us sat at the Formia train station plotting out the journey: who was going in what cab, who was buying ferry tickets, who was standing off to the side pretending to be an Italian stranger in case our airbnb guy figured out we had an extra person… the list goes on. But we made our train to Naples, and our taxi drivers were quick to get us to the ferry terminal, and no one had to pretend to be anyone else. It was beautiful. And it got more beautiful.
The boat took us across the water, past Mt. Vesuvius, not cutting the waves but rollicking with them. With the salty wind accosting our hair, we stumbled around the rocking ship like drunks, laughing at the bigger waves and trying to capture the sunset on our phones. I tried jumping in one of the aisles to see if the boat would move under me – it did. Not recommended. We were on the boat for about an hour, meaning the last light in the sky was just leaving when Capri started growing on the horizon. Uh HOLY SHIT. This is the kind of stunned-breathless you only feel a few times in your life. We pulled into the harbor sideways, and I could feel the winding cliff-lights reflecting off my glasses just like the myriad lanterns on the docks stretched out and shone on the water. Like damn. Just because I know I can’t carry on this description without swearing myself into oblivion, I will show you a picture:
Starry-eyed (at least in my case), we walked off the boat and routed ourselves to our villa. On a cliff. Overlooking the sea. HOW IS THIS MY LIFE? Anyway, supposedly this journey involved upwards of 35 flights of stairs, and although I did not count, it wouldn’t surprise me. It was a hike. But we got there, and it was incredible. The house slept eleven people very comfortably, there was a garden, plenty of flat rooftop space for sitting and/or passing out from the beauty beheld by your eyes. We didn’t really know how phenomenal our view was until the next morning when we woke up, though – the sea and the valley between the two hills, a cliff behind us, trees too, and an unbelievable number of seagulls swooping over the land below us. I think we were all pretty confused: on the one hand, we are college students, and on the other, we were people staying at this villa. It just didn’t make sense.
Our first morning, we went on an Unintentional Hike Through the Wilderness. We were trying to get to Anacapri by following spray-painted red dots on boulders, but the spray-painted red dots on boulders led us up treacherous paths, narrow and winding, slippery and riddled with metal rods protruding from the ground. Eventually we came to a a giant rock which the spray-painted red dots wanted us to climb – like, vertically – and since none of us had climbing gear/experience, and a few of our band were in flats, we decided to trek back down the mountain and take the less forest-y stairs. Probably a good decision.
A decision which ultimately led us to ritzy shopping districts and quiet beach grottos – no complaints. I remember climbing back to the villa that night, dusk time, and finding my travel mates scattered around the yard, some on rooftops, a few on the patio, others wrapped in blankets on the grass. We were clustered in various places, with our potato chips and bottles of wine, but all were looking in the same direction. And, like that, we watched night settle in over Capri and her salt-spray sky.
Capri Day Two began with a start: I was the first “chairlift to the sky” customer of the day, which meant I was first in line on the loading dock, which meant I had no idea that “loading” consisted of standing on a mat confusedly for a few seconds until a gruff man shoved you backwards into a moving chair and – poof – you were in the air. No warning. I busted out laughing and looked back to see my friends’ faces, still on the ground, all of them equally shocked with jaws dropped ever so slightly. On the way up, I swung my legs and appreciated the invention of chairlifts because, as we all know, this girl loves an aerial view. The view from the top of the mountain was even more stunning, but I’ve probably given you your fill of flowery cliffside descriptions, eh? There were seagulls and, as was pointed out at the time, it kind of looked like Jurassic Park. So there you go.
We also visited a small museum (as we do) and took a lengthy boat tour around the island, which included a pit stop at THE blue grotto. Blue Grotto? It should probably be capitalized. When I offhandedly mentioned a bluer blue than Ponza’s earlier, this is what I was talking about. It’s an odd experience, being pulled from one boat into a much smaller one, practically lying on top of your friends, and being serenaded in the cheesiest way by a man called “Antonio Casanova.” For some reason I was expecting a grotto detached from the mainland, like a giant rock in the sea with a gaping mouth through which these small rowboats could bob, but that’s not what it was at all. To enter the Blue Grotto, which is attached to the mainland of Capri, passengers crouch as the boat magically slicks through the tiniest opening in a rockface. It’s a little unbelievable. And once inside, it is an echoing darkness of black and blue, except in the opposite order you would expect: top half is black, bottom half the most vibrant ultramarine. If you stick your hand in the water, it adopts a similar hue.
Like anything wonderful and fleeting, you leave with the fear of forgetting it. And so I did.
Monday morning, the last on Capri, I woke up and went into the yard to clip my nails. While certainly not being the worst activity, clipping my nails has never been in the running as a personal favorite – it’s pretty mundane. But if I could clip my nails in the yard of a Capri villa for the rest of my life, I would not hesitate to do precisely that. This is what I was thinking as I reluctantly walked through the gate, down the countless stairs, all the way to the ferry port. Back to Rome we came.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I really love islands, although I’m not surprised by this. Humans need water for a reason, not just to drink it but to see it too. And while I found certain things in Capri problematic (you know something is up when there is literally a store called “Snobberie”), my island days here in Italy have been some of the most beautiful of my life, and that probably won’t change. Visiting Ponza and Capri never crossed my mind when I’d dream up travel plans in years past. But I think that makes the fact that I did get to visit them doubly special. It’s like surprise! beauty is in the places you don’t even know exist.
And now I’m down to nearly four days left, which is exciting and heartbreaking all at once. I will try to post again before I leave, but if I get too busy beaching and going on night walks –
This has been the best.