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Travel: How to visit Capri without breaking the bank

Capri is synonymous with glamour, though these days the island is known for being crowded and expensive. But there's quite literally another side to the island.

Travel: How to visit Capri without breaking the bank
A view over the port of Capri from Villa San Michele. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

There’s a good reason why Capri, the fabled island off the coast of Sorrento in southern Italy, is synonymous with sun, sea and the super-rich. After all, it’s the place where Sofia Loren would go to escape from the crowds at her villa back in the day, as did Gracie Fields, the most (or perhaps only?) glamorous famous person from my hometown. And it’s still known as a second-home hotspot for today’s rich and famous.

No wonder the Italian man who is now my husband thought it would impress me.

But I wasn’t sure if the likes of Loren would still be charmed by Capri today. My brief pre-trip research had led to me believe that the island now was all about overcrowded boat tours and questionable seafood restaurants.

But I had no idea that we’d be seeing a very different side to the island.

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

After the vertigo-inducing drive up the steep, winding road from the port, the bus we’d caught headed west. We were soon very clearly the only people on there who didn’t live on the island, and by the time we got off, there was absolutely no one around.

Away from the port and Capri town, you’ll find Anacapri, located hundreds of feet above the Mediterranean Sea. The prefix ana- in the name comes from classical Greek, meaning “above”.

In Anacapri the quiet countryside has a feeling of timelessness, appropriate for a place where ancient Greeks, Romans and many others have settled.

It was a hot walk up a dirt track to our accommodation, which we took slowly, stopping to watch the lizards darting up and down dry stone walls and behind exotic-looking flowers growing wild along the path..

When he’d said we were staying at an “agriturismo”, I’d expected to be sleeping in a barn. I was not prepared for our farm stay, perched on one of Anacapri’s highest points, to be quite so chic. And miraculously, we had the whole place to ourselves in the middle of July.

The view from our agriturismo.  Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

There are no beaches on Capri. This was my first disappointment – in Capri, I learned that I’m not a fan of sunbathing on a sort of rocky outcrop. There are plenty of great places to swim, though, and the lack of beach makes the water around the rocky coves clear and pure.

We got back on the local bus and made our way to the Lido del Faro where, after sitting on a rock to dry off after a swim in the sea, we walked up the the Punta Carena Lighthouse. Perched on white cliffs high above the sea, it’s an incredible place to watch the sun go down.

A better way to enjoy the coastline is by boat. .Capri is famous for all those private yachts that moor in its marina, owned by the various international millionaires and billionaires who have holiday homes on the island.

We joined a more affordable boat tour and set out to see the caves and rock formations which are the first thing many people associate with Capri.

These are the Faraglioni: the three towering rock formations jutting out from the sea.

The middle one, Faraglione di Mezzo, is the most famous as it has a tunnel big enough for small boats to pass through. The tradition is to kiss as you pass underneath the rock.

Our tour didn’t go to the Grotta Azzurra, and that was fine with me. Visiting seemed to involve joining a long line of small boats and queuing for an hour under the blazing sun before popping inside for a couple of minutes. So I can’t tell you anything about Capri’s most famous sight, other than that visiting in July doesn’t look like a lot of fun.

After that we caught the Monte Solaro cable car from the port area up to the town of Capri.

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

Here you’ll find the smattering of souvenir shops, several pretty, whitewashed churches, the statue of Gracie Fields, and the Piazzetta, or Piazza Umberto, where a simple espresso in any of the cafes will set you back five whole euros.

That and the fact that the square was like a hot, airless oven sent us wandering down a backstreet in search of a cafe. We didn’t find one for about twenty minutes, but when we finally did it had much lower prices, a fantastic view, and even a breeze on the outdoor seating area.

And the unexpected walk through winding, narrow streets filled with whitewashed houses ended up being a highlight of the day. You can easily walk around much of the island, and it’s the best way to see it.

Anacapri has its own “centre”, which is really more like a single path lined with tiny shops, mostly selling perfume, coffee and limoncello.

From here, a walk up the phoenician steps (actually built by the Ancient Greeks) takes you to Villa San Michele. Built around the turn of the 19th century by Swedish physician and author Axel Munthe, this grand villa and its gardens are set across several levels, all with incredible views over the port, the town of Capri, and the sea.

The Sphinx. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

The villa and its gardens are filled with artworks, including ancient Egyptian artefacts. One of the highlights is the Sphinx, which looks out over the bay. You’re supposed to touch it and make a wish – and I can’t tell you what I wished for, but my wish was granted pretty quickly.

Munthe wrote a highly successful memoir titled The Story of San Michele, which describes how he discovered the island, built the villa, and decorated it with the remains of palaces built by the Ancient Romans which he found on his land.

After wandering around the villa, a plate of alici fritti, a salad and a glass of wine for lunch on a tiny restaurant terrace, again with that incredible view, was a very affordable light lunch.

It was so hot and humid in July that during the day, all I wanted was granita and the occasional bit of fried seafood. But the dinners we had there late at night were decadent, and ranked among the best I’ve ever had in Italy: one at Da Tonino, which has panoramic views and the kind of tiramisu you dream about later, and another at our agriturismo, where we sat out on a secluded, candle-lit terrace and I wondered if they were actually trying to feed us to death.

Despite doing things more cheaply, we still burned through our money in just a few days on Capri. It’s an expensive place to live, as the owners of our agriturismo explained, and so things will always cost more than they do on the mainland.

But if you’re careful, I learned, it is possible to have an affordable stay in Capri. 

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

Stay in quieter Anacapri, choose family-owned accomodation instead of a luxury hotel, seek out small restaurants off the main squares, walk or catch the local bus or cable car instead of taking a taxi, and you’ll have cash left over for granitas, limoncello, and the other important things in life.

Doing this also makes your trip more sustainable and means that the money you do spend will be supporting local businesses.

Most importantly it didn’t feel like we were overpaying for things, and it was worth every cent for such an unforgettable trip.

It might be known as the playground of the rich and famous, but there’s no price tag on enjoying Capri’s slow pace of life, or soaking up the air of ancient mystery and decadence.

While I felt like I could happily stay there or weeks, three days was about all my bank balance could handle. And you do need a few days. 

Day trips to Capri are a waste of time, as there’s no opportunity to get into the island’s pace of life, see the side most tourists miss, or experience the magnificent sunsets.

I hadn’t expected Capri to live up the hype. But as we sipped coffee and waited for another incredible home-cooked breakfast at our surprisingly chic agriturismo, taking in the incredible view of the Gulf of Naples glittering below and the neighbouring island of Ischia in front of us, I fully understood what all the fuss was about.

Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

Member comments

  1. I lived in Naples for a year back in the 80s and used to go to the island every couple of weeks in order to regroup my brain from the bustling chaos of the city. It set a trend and I have returned something around 20 times since then but not for the last 10 years as the expense of so doing (I am now retired) precludes a return so it was interesting to read this account. I know all the places mentioned and recognise the description of the humid heat which affects the island for much of the summer. How many times have I too sat at Punta Carena and seen the sun dip below …

    The island has a side to it which most tourists are unaware of and it is a side of considerable wonder. It remains one of my top five places in the world as it brings together history, mystery, food and wine and the still discernible hint of decadence which once gave it a different sort of star quality than today. But one must stay on the island for a few days and one must walk everywhere. Use the Monte Solaro chairlift and walk back to Anacapri and you will begin to know something which can then be followed up with visits to Roman and Phoenician sites near Capri itself.

    Capri is an inspirational place once one knows it better. There’s nowhere quite like it.

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CULTURE

Venice Carnival: What to expect if you’re attending in 2023

After three years of toned-down celebrations, Venice's famous Carnival is finally set to return to its former grandeur. Here’s what you need to know about this year’s edition.

Venice Carnival: What to expect if you're attending in 2023

The historic Venice Carnival – a tradition which dates back to the late 14th century – will be back in all of its splendour this year as the upcoming edition of the festival will be the first one without pandemic-related restrictions since 2019. 

As the undisputed queen of Italian Carnival, Venice will once again put on a full programme of water parades, masked balls, fine dining experiences and street art performances spread over 18 days of sheer carnevale fun.

If you’re planning on taking part in the city’s Carnival celebrations, here’s a quick guide to this year’s main events.

What are the dates?

The Venice Carnival will officially start on Saturday, February 4th with a night parade streaming down the city’s iconic Grand Canal accompanied by music, dance performances and light shows.

READ ALSO: Nine ways to get into trouble while visiting Venice

The parade will kick off two weeks of events, unfolding both in the centro storico (city centre) and on the smaller islands of the lagoon.

As always though, celebrations will peak in the six days between giovedì grasso (‘Fat Thursday’, falling on February 16th) and martedì grasso (shrove Tuesday, falling on February 21st). 

A masked reveller wearing a traditional carnival costume In St Mark's Square, Venice

The 2023 Venice Carnival will start with a floating parade down the Grand Canal on February 4th. Photo by Andrea PATTARO / AFP

The most popular and widely anticipated events of the Venice Carnival are scheduled to take place during those days. However, that will also be the time when the city’s calli and squares will be most crowded. 

What are the main events?

Celebrations will start with the above-mentioned floating parade on Saturday, February 4th, and continue on the following day with another water parade involving traditional Venetian vessels and captained by the beloved Pantegana (a boat shaped like a giant sewer rat).

Apart from that, the Festa delle Marie – a historic beauty pageant during which 12 young local women are dressed up in Renaissance costumes, paraded throughout the city, and then subjected to a vote as to which of them makes the best Maria – will start on Saturday, February 11th. 

The winner of the contest will be announced in Saint Mark’s Square on shrove Tuesday, the final day of the festival. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why Venice has delayed its ‘tourist tax’ – again

Original Signs, a music and dancing show performed on six floating stages set within the iconic Venetian Arsenal (the former seat of the Venetian navy), will begin on Friday, February 10th, with performances running on a nearly daily basis until the end of the festival.

Original Signs will run alongside Original Sinners, a fine dining experience followed by a masked ball at the magnificent Ca’ Vendramin Calergi, a 15th century palace facing the Grand Canal which is also the current seat of Venice’s Casino. 

As with Original Signs, the event will be available to the public on multiple dates.

Masked revellers wearing a traditional carnival costume pose in St Mark Square, Venice

The historic ‘Flight of the Angel’ will not take place this year due to ongoing work in St Mark’s Square. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

Aside from major events, street art performances, workshops, exhibitions and seminars will take place at various venues across the city for the entire duration of the festival. Some of these require booking in advance, which you can do on the Venice Carnival official website

On a rather sombre note, the Volo dell’Angelo (‘Flight of the Angel’), the traditional ceremony in which a costumed woman ‘flies’ down a cable from the bell tower in Saint Mark’s Square to the centre of the piazza, will not be performed this year due to ongoing repair work

How busy will it be?

The 2023 edition of the Venice Carnival is expected to mark a “final return to normality”, according to local media.  

And, with just a couple of days to go until the official start of the festival, it looks like the floating city is about to experience pre-pandemic numbers of visitors – current estimates indicate that around half a million people will visit the city over Carnival.

According to Claudio Scarpa, president of Venice’s Hoteliers Association, local hotels “will soon be all but fully booked for weekends”, though large numbers of bookings are also being registered on weekdays, especially those in “the last stages of the festival”.

Given the expected turnout, local transport operator ACTV will enhance their services for the entire duration of the Carnival to avoid overcrowding on buses and water buses. 

For more details about the Venice Carnival and bookings, see the festival’s official website

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