Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Experiencing the Blue Grotto in Capri

My first visit to Capri was in September of 2000. We were staying in an apartment in Rome and had taken the train down to Naples for the day. Our goal wasn’t to spend much time in Naples, but rather to experience the island of Capri and all of its character and beauty. Capri sits off the coast of Italy in what is known as the Tyrrhenian Sea – part of the Mediterranean which is bordered by Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the mainland of Italy.
We took a rocking-and-rolling ferry ride to the island and went about the business of exploring. The biggest attraction on the island, and the primary thing I wanted to see was the Blue Grotto. Unfortunately the seas were too rough and the Blue Grotto was closed.
Returning again to Capri in 2006, we were happy to learn that the Grotto was open and we went straight there. We didn’t want to take the chance that conditions might change.
The Blue Grotto is a unique cave-like impression in the side of a stone cliff, with a vertical opening to the sea. Only the very top of that opening is above the water, so the cave is dark except for this incredible blue light which gives the Blue Grotto it’s name. Once you pass through this tiny opening above the surface, you enter a large “room” with a high ceiling. The sun’s rays shine on the water outside, through underwater openings, and onto the white limestone floor of the grotto – this is where the Blue Grotto’s illumination comes from.
We took a taxi to the location and descended a cliff-hugging staircase to sea level. Other folks were there from different parts of the world, and we waited in line for our turn – all the while watching the boats and the men who rowed them.
The boatmen at the Blue Grotto have a unique style of rowing which involves standing, facing forward, and rowing with both oars. It’s a bit like the Venetian style known as “valesana” but in Capri they don’t cross their oars, and the oars are fastened to the rails so the boatmen can let go from time to time without losing them.  I'm sure some of my readers know plenty about this style of rowing. Once in the grotto, some of them continue to row while seated on a thwart. The boats are little, maybe 10 or 12 feet long and many have the same color scheme. In truth they resemble old-fashioned lifeboats more than any other craft. These little rowboats are all over the place, there’s at least one large boat with a sunshade in this floating mess that seems to lack any order. Someone might show up in their own large vessel and rowboats will go over and take them to the grotto. Large tour boats also come by with plenty of passengers – hungry for the Blue Grotto experience. It seems pretty out of control at first but by the time you get to the bottom of the stairs, you’ve seen enough to recognize the order of things.
Right then, some barefoot guy rows over with a big smile and an empty boat.
He tells you to get in, how to get in, and what order to get in. The surge of the Tyrrhenian Sea makes boarding the boat a challenging and sometimes wet affair. Your boatman rows around to the big boat with the sunshade, and everyone in your boat gets to buy a ticket. After buying the tickets, your boatman circles around, jokes loudly with some of the other boatmen, and seems to just be aimlessly rowing. Then you see more little boats coming out of the grotto and you realize that he and all the other boatmen were waiting for the last group of boats to come out of the grotto.
Now it’s time to enter the most famous cave on the island. As your boatman approaches the opening, he is telling you in a heavy Italian accent, to lie down, as flat as you can, “NO, FURTHER! STILL FURTHER DOWN!” You feel like a human pancake on the log ride at an amusement park. The opening is right in front of you and you understand now what all the fuss was about – it’s a tiny little crack! You think to yourself “no way, there’s no way we’re gonna fit through that”. Right about then your boatman grabs hold of a chain which feeds through that tiny crack, and with an Italian “heave-ho” between waves, you’re through.

Now, all that craziness of prepping for and getting through the crack is replaced by a dark calm place which is illuminated by an indescribable blue light. I could spend a paragraph or two trying to describe the blue light that makes the Blue Grotto famous, but I could never do it justice.

I’d have to have a much better camera to capture the true blue hue inside.

Once in the grotto, your boatman rows you around in wide circles, tells you a little about it, and some of the boatmen sing Neapolitan songs like “O Sole Mio” and “Santa Lucia”. Being a gondolier, I couldn’t resist singing my own “Santa Lucia”, which surprised some boatmen, and probably irritated others.
After your visit to the grotto, your boatman brings you back through the tiny opening and back into the world. He pulls the boat next to the same platform you boarded from, you tip him, and you make your way up the hill again, probably to sample far too many different types of Limoncello before buying a few bottles and stumbling back onto the ferry that brought you to the island.

1 comment:

Tamás said...

The water is said to be 150 meters deep in the cave and the bottom has lots of discarded marble decorations from the time of roman Emperor Tiberius, who used it as a bath-house.

I guess, we should be grateful he didn't try to dig a more majestic entrace, possibly ruining the cave experience.

Some say the magic sea cave with the tiny rowboat, depicted the last chapters of Harry Potter 6, is based on this Capri Grotto.