- The Washington Times - Friday, June 16, 2006

ANACAPRI, Capri, Italy — When Swedish-born physician Axel Munthe abandoned his successful medical practices in Paris and Rome for the ruined Villa San Michele on the small island of Capri, a puzzled friend inquired: “You mean to say that you are going to spend your life in this wretched little village all alone among these peasants who can neither read nor write?

“You who are a man of culture, who are you going to communicate with?”

“With myself, my dogs and perhaps a monkey,” Munthe replied.

“You always say you cannot live without music,” the friend protested. “Who is going to sing to you, who is going to play to you?”

“The birds in the garden, the sea all around me,” answered Munthe, who had grown weary of administering to royalty and needy alike during early-20th-century outbreaks of cholera, typhus and other dreaded diseases.

“Listen,” said the doctor. “Do you hear that wonderful mezzo-soprano, it is the golden oriole. Do you hear that solemn andante of the waves, isn’t that more beautiful than the slow movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?”

Before visitors set foot on Capri, they should read Munthe’s still magical 1929 memoir, “The Story of San Michele.” Then they can climb the island’s thousand stone steps — the Phoenician Stairway— to the mountaintop village of Anacapri and tour the ancient Tiberian villa he painstakingly rebuilt by hand.

If not, like me, you’ll yearn to set sail again for Capri before you’ve earned your next vacation to discover everything you missed during your first visit.

Today, more than half a century after Munthe’s death at age 91, his Villa San Michele, which overlooks the shimmering Bay of Naples, is a museum with spectacular grounds sprinkled with early Roman artifacts, many of them unearthed by the doctor himself.

And talk about restoring history: The villa is one of a dozen on the island built by the Emperor Tiberius, ruler of the Roman Empire from A.D. 14 to 37.

For that matter, why not describe San Michele as his guesthouse.

Tiberius’ most prominent if not notorious island getaway was Villa Jovis, where, when not conducting official Roman affairs, the quirky ruler indulged in his many sexual encounters, best left for the Capri tourist guide to explain. Mind your step around Tiberius’ Leap, where, legend has it, the paranoid emperor tossed his young sex slaves to their watery graves.

Visitors now find Capri a far safer place to find romance. Yes, there is the occasional danger, such as when former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson was fined last summer for riding his jet ski too close to shore.

My single brush with misbehavior was when a brazen island cat scarfed a mouthful of sea bass from my plate as I stood to pour another glass of chilled 2003 Fiorduva on the sun terrace of the breathtaking Hotel Caesar Augustus.

“We don’t have the common menu; everything here is a special,” says Giuseppe Marra, maitre d’ for the five-star hotel’s La Terrazza di Lucullo, perched on a cliff 1,000 feet above the bright blue bay.

“With our seafood, we have a marriage with the Mediterranean,” he says. “With our meats, we keep out the fat. We use only fresh vegetables, new-age style, many of them grown here in our gardens. And we use extra-virgin olive oil; everything is extra-virgin.”

Oh, if only my local Domino’s could deliver a bowl of Mr. Marra’s fried eggplant balls, smothered in fresh tomato sauce.

Like Villa San Michele, an easy walk away, the 56-room Caesar Augustus is tucked cliffside along the winding road to Anacapri.

In delightful fashion, the property (portions of the site can be traced to the ninth century) mixes Roman architecture with traditional Italian furnishings, but with all the 21st-century amenities.

The boutique hotel’s elegant salon stretches almost the entire width of the main property, with reading rooms, a bar and piano and a cozy fireplace.

The equally spacious main terrace is a wonderful spot for enjoying the island’s endless sunshine or, as I found, an evening cocktail while viewing the distant lights of the Italian coast.

In this location, it’s a given that the hotel’s newly renovated guest rooms are Mediterranean style, complemented with dark wood furniture, terra-cotta floors and handmade beds.

One of my travel companions, however, opted for a larger suite, with several rooms graced with arches and columns, and found herself jumping into a four-poster iron bed.

There’s an amazing infinity pool one sun deck below the main terrace that literally blends into the bay, giving waders the sensation they might float over the edge of the cliff if they aren’t careful.

Everywhere one turns are fragrant gardens of lavender, rosemary and jasmine, orange and lemon blossoms, descendants of what grew here when Russian Prince Emmanuel Bullak made the Villa Bitter (as the Caesar Augustus previously was called) his exile home in the early 1900s.

The biggest sell of the property, however, is the panorama, my favorite vantage point being the spot where a life-size statue of the Emperor Augustus, commissioned by the Russian prince and still the focal point of the property, scans the colorful harbor below.

When Prince Emmanuel eventually was lured to England, he sold the villa to the Signorini family, which retains ownership.

“The prince sold it to my grandfather, who then leased it to a guy who was milking the cow but not feeding it,” says a very handsome Paulo Signorini, who regained control of the neglected property in 1995 after filing numerous lawsuits.

“When I retired from my own company [on the Italian mainland], I looked forward to sailing around the world and meeting people,” Mr. Signorini says

“How lucky I am. Because now, instead of sailing around the world to meet people, they come here and I meet them.”

• • •

Hotel Caesar Augustus, Via. G. Orlandi 4, 80071 Anacapri (Na), Italy; phone 39/081-837-3395; fax 39/081-837-1444; visit www.caesar-augustus.com; e-mail: [email protected]

Caesar Augustus is affiliated with the Relais & Chateaux association of establishments offering luxury accommodations and excellent restaurants.

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