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Italy’s Isle of Capri (5:30)

Italy

A hit with VIP travelers since ancient Roman times, this resort-type island off Sorrento offers a summit-high mountain lift, the lovely tiled San Michele Church, and the fabled Blue Grotto — located inside a small-mouthed cave accessible only by boat.

Complete Video Script

For a great day-trip from Naples, Positano, or Sorrento, catch the early morning jet boat to the isle of Capri. The isle of Capri was first made famous as the vacation hideaway of Roman emperors. In the 19th century, it was the haunt of Romantic Age aristocrats on their Grand Tour of Europe.

While the island is small — just four miles by two miles — there's plenty to see and do. To get the most out of our quick visit, I'm meeting my friend and fellow tour guide Roberta Mazzarella. Our first stop is the reason most come to Capri: to enter the fabled Blue Grotto.

The Blue Grotto experience is more than just visiting a cave. Getting there, getting in, and getting back is a scenic hoot. You enjoy a fast cruise partway around the gorgeous island, seeing bird life and local fisherman at work all under dramatic limestone cliffs.

Roberta: So most of the isle of Capri is just like this. Limestone cliffs straight down into the beautiful blue water. Look at this cliff, from the water all the way up to the top; Roman emperors loved this, because it was easy to defend.

Arriving at the mouth of the grotto you find a busy "distribution center." As the tourist-laden boats arrive, awaiting dinghies converge and visitors clamber gingerly into their little boats.

The entry hole is small. If the water's too rough, it becomes too dangerous...dinghies can't get in and visitors are turned back.

We're lucky today — there's a little chop, but dinghies are squeezing in. The raffish rowers jostle their way to the tiny hole. Tourists scrunch down safely below the gunwales. And the guides pull fast and hard on the cable at the low point of the swells to squeeze you into the grotto.

Inside the 60-yard-long cave, the sun reflects off the limestone bottom, giving the grotto its famous brilliant blue.

Your man rows you around, sings a little "O Sole Mio," and lets you enjoy the iridescent magic of the moment.

Capri, the largest of the island's two towns, sits in a saddle above the port. Piazza Umberto is the main square of this cute and touristy shopping town. The main drag is nicknamed "Rodeo Drive" for its exclusive boutiques. While prices are steep, the window shopping's free.

These days — especially in the summer — Capri can be a world-class tourist trap, packed with gawky visitors searching for the rich and famous, and finding only their prices. But other times of year — we're here in April — it provides a relaxing and scenic break. At the edge of town, elegant villas and a public garden are strategically placed to enjoy fine views.

On glitzy Capri, everything's done with panache. Taxis are white convertibles. Though expensive, they make getting around an unforgettable part of your visit.

The island's second town, Anacapri, has fewer tourists, a little more character, and a passion for colorful majolica tiles.

Roberta: These are majolica tiles. We can see them everywhere... in Napoli, on the Amalfi Coast, here in Capri, on the domes of the churches, on the floors, on — decorating people's homes.
Rick: On squares like this.
Roberta: And on squares like this one. Just glazed tiles...what's makes them special: the colors. We love colors here.

The town's celebrated San Michele Church has a remarkable majolica floor showing paradise on earth in a classic 18th-century Neapolitan style. Ironically, the church's floor is so gorgeous that pews for worshippers are replaced by a boardwalk for tourists. The entire floor is ornately tiled, featuring a sword-wielding angel driving Adam and Eve from paradise. The devil is wrapped around the trunk of a tree laden with trouble-causing apples. The animals — with curiously human expressions — seem blissfully ignorant of this momentous event.

For expansive island views, ride the chairlift to the top of Monte Solaro — Capri's 1,900 foot summit. You'll float over lush orchards and well-tended gardens.

At the summit, you'll enjoy the commanding panorama of both the Italian mainland in the distance and the isle of Capri. Cliffs are busy with birds — enjoying a little R&R break during their migration, tending scenic nests, and soaring on a steady sea breeze. The Faraglioni Rocks are an icon of the island — with tour boats squeezing through every few minutes. And from here, the hike down is a delight.

It's clear to me why Roman emperors chose this island as their holiday escape, and why today so many travelers include the Amalfi Coast in their Italian travel plans. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'. Ciao.