As the ferry approaches slowly, the island’s outline begins to emerge, the green becomes more vivid, and the red roofs appear shyly. As in a painting where the protagonist is the land and not the human presence, even the tiny port of Capraia is dotted here and there with just a few houses and the masts of sails moored on a cobalt blue sea. The ferry approaches the docks and the feeling of being absolutely disproportionate, too big and perhaps even invasive, is strong. The urge to land and begin to blend with the island’s few inhabitants, breathing the same scents of myrtle and sea air, is immediately satisfied when the ship sets sail again – pushing off from the dock as if it was never there.
When you arrive on an island as small as Capraia, it is like entering someone’s home. You ask permission, and then you are welcomed by the host according to his rituals and rhythms. On Capraia, these rhythms are reminiscent of wild, slow-moving life, the scent of long walks in the Mediterranean vegetation, and the fascination of deep dives in waters that seem to be the turquoise ones of other distant lands. Don’t expect to find trendy restaurants or glamorous places. Capraia’s charm does not lie there, but in the few taverns in the harbour, one after the other past the diving centre, the clothes and textile boutique in a boathouse, the gelateria with its excellent pistachio flavour, and the small supermarket just beyond.
There are very, very few cars on the Island: it is the rhythm of your own steps that keeps you company as you climb the only road connecting the port and the old village just up the hill. As you walk along it, you pass villas and private houses with lush gardens of bougainvillea and other climbing plants, and continuing to climb, after two almost breathtaking bends, you reach the old town, in the square of the Church of San Nicola, dotted with benches inhabited by the island’s elderly, a café and a few shops. Continuing on, the alleyways narrow and the walls of the houses become more and more brightly coloured, and at the top is Forte San Giorgio, solemnly observing all the travellers who enter its island. Once a prison, a nightclub and a hotel, the Forte it’s now an extraordinary private residence for rent with a delicate and welcoming style and 17th-century architecture.
Capraia, locally referred to as ‘the wild island’, probably owes its name to the Greek word aegylon, meaning ‘island of goats’, or to the Etruscan word carpa, meaning ‘stone’, and therefore ‘island of stones’. Whether goats or stones, Capraia is a wild and obviously harsh and unwelcoming island, but like all uncommon places, it is rich in contrasts. Tough and barren, it becomes sunny and welcoming in a matter of moments: in just a few steps, it can go from the harshness of stone and high cliffs to the gentleness of green slopes, as on the coastal walk from the village to the Cala dello Zurletto or further inland to the Palmenti delle Tigghielle where you find 16th-century tanks dug out of the rock for wine production. The sea seems distant from here, but the constant breeze is a reminder of its presence. You immediately feel at home, as if it were an ancestral place that belongs to everyone’s past. Perhaps in some ways, it is home as its stones and the sea that embraces it contains stories and legends that have coloured the Mediterranean over the centuries; wrecks with the remains of amphorae filled with Capraian wine or the discovery of the Venus of Capraia during Roman times are just a sign that this place was admired even in days of old.
The legend of the island’s birth involves Venus herself, who emerged from the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea, broke her necklace, scattered seven luminescent pearls and created what we now call the Tuscan Archipelago. The brightest of all the pearls is Capraia, and its particular character still distinguishes it today. It is one-third the size of Manhattan and halfway between the island of Elba and northern Corsica: like an extraordinary non-place where the symbiosis between nature and man has been stronger than Turkish incursions, the wars between Pisa and Genoa, and its status as a penal colony. Its sheer cliffs require care and attention, as do the heather, strawberry tree, and myrtle bushes, and the oleander plants that run along the village alleys.
On Capraia, the magic lies in the unique and indissoluble bond between nature and man, which remains undisturbed over the years because it is stronger than the resorts, beauty farms, and fashionable clubs that look at it from the mainland. There is no place for them here, just as there seems to be no place for the ferry that arrives almost every day from Livorno. Here there is only room for history, mastic trees, and the sea.