Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Italian sketches - I



Intending to spend some time in seeing all that was best worth visiting in the neighbourhood of Naples, we were advised to make Sorrento our head quarters in the first place: though only a village, it can boast of excellent accommodation for travellers. The inn, known by the name of La Bella Sinena, is equal to any hotel that I have visited: it was a gentleman’s country-house, and sold by him to its present master, who spares no pains to make it an agreeable resting-place to the numerous visitors of that lovely spot.

As the road winds along the shore from Castellamare to Sorrento, elevated as it is above it, the most enchanting views of the sea succeed each other, while the whole coast to the right seemed like a succession of the most luxuriant gardens. The great affluence of beauty, so to speak, almost overpowers one. Would that the whole world could see these glorious scenes! No storm from the north or east brings coldness or winter to these blooming gardens; the breezes are all from the balmy south,—the warm scented air from the regions of palms, oranges, and myrtles,—across that beautiful sea. At each fresh turn of the road new and striking points of view disclosed themselves; seen, perhaps, to greater advantage in the soft mellow light of declining day, than in the more glaring light of the gorgeous sunshine. Long before we arrived at Sorrento, those fairy-like creatures, the fire-flies, were darting quickly by, flashing in the air like brilliant sparks endowed with the power of motion. Beautiful, most beautiful Sorrento! What words can do justice to such exquisite loveliness!

On arriving, we at once sauntered into the balcony of the inn, which was built of stone and looked out over the garden. What a scene was before us, richer far in beauty than any of fancy’s numerous creations! Below us was a wood of orange, lemon, and citron trees, which were over-laden with golden fruit and scented flowers: cypresses, gigantically tall, formed the boundary of the garden, and seemed doubly dark against the clear heaven-blue sea, which stretched itself away behind them, while boats, with white sails, floated past. I gave myself up to the full enjoyment of the scene, and could not resist going below under the tall orange trees, that I might gather the tempting fruit and lovely flowers for myself.

The following morning we were awake at five o’clock, as we were anxious to start at six, having a long day’s work before us. How glorious the morning was—the sun shining in the cloudless blue sky, the nightingales’ making the very air resound with their joyous song, and that wondrous sea causing even the very heavens to look pale in the comparison! We were to proceed on donkeys, as it was only a narrow mountain path that we were about to follow. At that early hour the warmth was delightful, and the elasticity of the air was most exhilarating: earth, sea, and air alike seemed to rejoice.

At such a moment one felt what it was to enjoy life with that degree of intensity that makes mere existence so joyous to the dwellers in southern climes. The greater part of our way lay through orange and lemon groves. The broad-leaved aloe bordered the road, in some places rising to the height of eight feet, and making a most impervious fence.

Many picturesque groups met and passed us. Women, with red cloaks turned over their heads, one or two babies slung in baskets in front of them, while their husbands led the donkeys on which they were seated; then there were peasant girls in the picturesque dress of the Sorrentines, their baskets piled up with a luxuriant mass of fruit and flowers, arranged with a degree of natural taste that made each basket a picture.

Our path led across very steep hills, the ascent occasionally so abrupt that stone steps were cut out of the rock; and it was curious to see how well our donkeys managed to climb up them, though I cannot say the proceeding was a pleasant one to the rider. In about two hours we came in sight of the little town of Massa. As we wound down the last hill we saw our boat lying at the little landing, and very shortly we were making our way to the far-famed cave. The beautiful sea extended before us, stretching away to beautiful Sicily and to the far continent of Africa, while we were leaving behind us the rocky coast of Italy, with its singular caves, hollowed out, as many think, by the unceasing action of that tideless sea. One effect produced by these caves is very curious; it can only be perceived by anyone moving close along the shore (as I have frequently done), and then, on a still day, you hear a sort of harmonious sound somewhat resembling an Eolian harp, but a fuller sound, and not so deeply melancholy: it is for ever rising into fullness and distinctness, and then again dying away. I could listen to these sounds by the hour together, so indescribably attractive are they. The boatmen, who are full of imaginative ideas, attribute them to the spirits of the departed, condemned to abide in these caves as a penance for faults committed while in this world.

The boatmen told us we were most fortunate in our day; for if there is the slightest roughness on the sea, or even a swell, the entrance to the grotto is very difficult; in some cases adventurous travellers have led themselves and their guides into no inconsiderable danger by persisting in making the attempt. One party who succeeded in getting in were unable to return, and were kept prisoners there till the want of provisions and all other accommodation led to most serious privations; fortunately a change in the weather allowed them to make their exit before a worse result than mere inconvenience befell them.

On the day when we visited the Blue Grotto, there was not even a ripple on the water, it lay glittering in the golden light. The deep blue of the sea, as we looked close down upon it, surpassed anything I could have imagined, in spite of all I had already seen of its lovely colour. Our hands when plunged in the water appeared as if carved in blue marble, the shadow which the boat threw upon it was of the purest, darkest blue, the reflection of the oars formed moving streaks of every shade of blue.

The view of the shore we were leaving was very striking: the clearness of the atmosphere in that country brings everything so near to one that the hills covered with luxurious fruit trees, the picturesque vines falling in the most graceful festoons, the magnificent ilex and olive trees contrasting so well with the brighter greens, the white houses of the town, the terrace gardens a gorgeous mass of colour, the trellised walls covered with a profusion of pink and red china roses, the pretty fishing-boats,—all together formed a beauteous panorama apparently close to us, and, by some strange illusion, it even seemed to move with us.

The island of Capri, on which the cave is situated is approachable only on one side; around it ascend steep walls of cliff, which, towards Naples, stretch out, amphitheatre-like, with vineyards and orange-groves covering their sides. Upon the shore stand several fishermen’s huts; higher up, amid the green gardens, is the little city of Anna Capri, into which a very small drawbridge and gates give admittance. Towards the south of the island are lofty portals of rock, which rear themselves, in solitary grandeur, out of the sea. After rowing along the shores sufficiently to see the general aspect of the island, we approached that side where is situated the entrance to the far-famed grotto or cave, called by the country-people the Witches’ Cave. Before entering, it may be well to say something respecting its discovery, as for many centuries it was entirely unknown, at least to travellers, though strange traditions respecting it existed amongst the inhabitants from a very remote date.

In the year 1831, two young Germans, named Pries and Kopisch, travelling in Italy, spent some days in the islaud of Capri, and heard rumours of the Witches’ Cave, of which they, after great difficulty, discovered the entrance and persisted in visiting it, in spite of the strong prejudices of the boatmen, who firmly believed that, whoever entered it, would be swallowed up in a flaming caldron. Nothing could induce the men to go one step further than the entrance; but the two adventurous youths thoroughly explored the grotto, and conquered the superstitious dread of the people by the fact of their return alive and uninjured; and ever since that period it has been the resort of every traveller to these beautiful regions.

Kopisch was born at Breslau, and is the author of a beautiful novel, called “The Bald Rocks of Capri,” and of many poems published in 1837. Ernst Pries was a landscape painter of extraordinary promise, the son of M. Pries, the well-known banker of Heidelberg. He spent many years in Italy, and his finest pieces are scenes from that beautiful countiy. He died suddenly, while yet quite young, at Carlsruhe, and lies buried under a beautiful monument at Heidelberg.

Only when we were close to the island did we remark the extraordinary purity and clearness of the water; it was so wonderfully transparent, I had never seen anything like it. As we glided along, every little stone, the smallest substances, were visible. The depth of the water close in shore was very great; it made one dizzy to look down from the edge of our boat into the profound depth over which we were passing. We began to look about for the entrance to the cave, and presently one of our boatmen, called out, “Eccola, signora!” I looked and looked in vain; nothing could I see but the dark face of the rock and the deep waters rippling against it; still his finger remained pointed in the same direction, and again I looked more steadfastly than before, when at length I espied, close to the very edge of the water, a small oblong opening; a slit would give a juster idea of its appearance. I own that, at first, I did not believe the man was serious, it seemed to me so fearfully out of the question, for not merely human beings, but a boat to enter by such an aperture; but, in spite of my incredulity, the information was quite correct. As soon as we were quite close to the rocks, we saw a tiny, almost flat, boat moored quite close to the rocks, and into it myself and one other of the party were desired to get; no easy matter stepping from the larger boat into this very fragile, unsteady one; but at last it was achieved, and then we were told to lie flat down, not even raising our heads in the slightest degree, for fear of a blow from the overhanging rocks. The next step was, that one of the boatmen got into the water, only his head and shoulders appearing; then he seized fast hold of our boat, watched his opportunity (after the other men had shoved it almost within the opening), and drew the boat into the cave, aided by the slight swell of the sea. So urgent was the necessity for perfect stillness, that the boatmen kept saying, “Lie still, lie still; don’t move hand or foot,” until our boat was fairly through the arch; and then he cautiously helped us out, and we were able to look around.

Many of my readers may never even have heard of the Blue Grotto; and even those who have heard it spoken of, may still not have the very least idea what it is really like; and very difficult it is to give a really good description of it—indeed so difficult that I shall partly adopt the poetic language of a gifted writer, who was a frequent visitor to this enchanting spot. Thus he writes: “Far below me, above me, and around me, was the blue ether; electric sparks, millions of falling stars, glittered around me. It was as though the infinitely blue heaven vaulted itself above me: singular ball-shaped clouds, blue as itself, floated in the air. My very clothing seemed intensely blue; I extended my hand down into the strangely shining air below me; it was water into which I thrust it, silvery, blue, cold as the sea. Close beside me stood a column, tall, and of a sparkling blue; after some moments I ventured to touch it: it was as hard as stone and as cold also, and, similar to all else in this fairy-like place, intensely blue. I stretched out my hands into the half-dark space behind me, and felt only hard, rocky wall, but dark blue as the bright heavens. Where was I? Was that below me, which I had taken for air, a shining blue sea, which seemed to burn of a sulphurous hue? Was the illumined space around me, light-diffusing walls of rock, and arches high above me? Every object was illumined in every shade of blue. I myself seemed enveloped in the same exquisitely-transparent blue light. Close beside me was a vast flight of steps which seemed to be made of vast sapphires, every step being a block of this beautiful stone. I ascended them, but a wall of rock forbade further advance. Where were the boatmen? I was alone, or seemed to be so. The glorious beauty which I beheld was, like myself, actual and physical. Close to the surface of the water, and not far from where I stood, I saw a clear blue star, which cast a single ray of light, pure as ether, over the mirror of the water, and while I yet looked I saw it darken itself like the moon eclipsed; a blacker object showed itself, and a little boat glided onward over the silvery blue water!”

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“It was the opening to the outward air that had more the fancied resemblance of a star. Others of the party now advanced to take their share in this exquisite and most unrivalled spectacle, and my solitary dream was at an end.”

I can add but little to this beautiful description; and I will only say that, however fanciful it sounds, it is strictly correct in every detail. The spot is in itself so unlike reality, that, short of seeing it, a more perfect impression could scarcely be given of it than these eloquent words I lay before the reader. The silvery water is one of the great curiosities of the cave: a man in a suitable dress plunges into it, and you seem to see a moving silver statue. The silvery flooring is formed of the most beautiful silvery-looking white sand, quite unlike anything I have ever seen, as indeed everything in the cave is. The bright blue light, reflected on your own dress and on everything within the cave, is most accurately described. One feels when in this grotto as if it was but the creation of some fairy’s hand, that would disappear and leave you to sober reality. None have ever been able to account for it, though it has been examined by numerous scientific men. Whether it is the strong power of reflection (through the singular-shaped aperture) of the blue sea and the still bluer sky, or whether it is any inherent property in the grotto itself, yet remains to be discovered. The same enchantingly clear atmosphere pervades it that renders all these southern regions so delightful.

The boatmen entertained us with many a curious legend respecting the enchanted cave. Some of the older inhabitants of the island still believe in the evil influence that a visit to the cave exercises over the ill-fated person who is so rash as to penetrate into the witches’ domain. There is a very curious fish to be found in the beautiful silvery water, very small, and with an odd, square-shaped head; and there is one odd thing to be remarked in these fish, viz., that they are all blind; what makes this fact the more singular is, that in the water that runs through the wonderful caves of Adelsberg, in South Germany (which I may some day describe to my readers), there is also to be found a curious fish, and these fish are blind as well as those in the Blue Grotto, though the fish in shape, size, and almost every other particular are perfectly different. The superstitious Italians look upon these fish as the evil genii of the place, and if by any unhappy chance they should happen to kill one of them, it is looked upon as a grave calamity, and threatening every sort of misfortune to the unlucky individual. They catch them in a small net, and when visitors have satisfied their curiosity, they are carefully restored to their silvery home. A very pretty species of coral is found in the silver sand, only it is not really coral, though it resembles it; it is also of a bright orange colour, instead of the pinky red of coral.

But we have lingered long enough at this beautiful spot, and depart, however loth to leave so much loveliness. We made our exit in the same way in which we had entered; and as another proof of the wonderful brilliancy of colouring in the grotto, when we were again in the larger boat we could scarcely believe that we were on the same blue sea we had so recently left, though the sun was shining as gloriously, and the heavens were as cloudless. To our eyes the sea seemed to have lost every tinge of blue. I never saw so extraordinary a difference—caused, no doubt, by the vivid depth of colour our eyes had become accustomed to, so that every other shade of colour looked pale in the comparison.

Of our journey back to Sorrento it is needless to speak; we returned along the coast instead of going by land.

Wishing, I suppose, to crowd as much beauty into our day as was possible, we took an evening stroll to explore some of the beauties of Sorrento. This walk shows all the finest points of view, and it does not occupy more than two hours—at least, a good walker would do it in that time; but the ascent is very steep, and lasts for at least half the way. But who has time to think of fatigue or difficulty when every step brings out some fresh beauty. The path winds round the face of the high hill or cliff, on part of which Sorrento is placed. The most luxuriant myrtles in full flower embalm the air with their fragrant smell. The coronella, which with us is a green-house plant, mixes its bright golden flowers with the dark green of the myrtles. The varieties of the cistus tribe are innumerable; especially I noticed a rare wild one, with a very beautiful large lilac flower. The arbutus, the most ornamental of all that class of flowering shrubs, grows in profusion all along the coast. The pale silvery green of the olive shows well when mixed with the richer tints of other foliage; and everywhere the eye rests on a profusion of luxuriant vegetation that language would wholly fail to do justice to. It is indeed a land richly endowed by Nature; for the smallest possible amount of cultivation causes the teeming earth to put forth her abundance.

As we returned home the moon was rising, as it can rise in Italy,—looking like a solid globe of silver, so clear is the air; and the light, though soft, was most brilliant, spreading over all the beauteous scene her refulgent light. We lingered, and yet we lingered, so loth were we to turn away from a scene that one might perhaps see equalled, but assuredly never surpassed.