Arguably the most famous tourist attraction on the Italian island of Capri is the enchanting Grotto Azzurra (the Blue Grotto), and my goodness me, it does attract the tourists. For an island that’s primarily traffic free, I have never sat in a traffic jam for so long as I did in the one that built up outside the Grotto on the day I visited it.
Getting to and inside the Grotto is quite a test of patience. Firstly (and obviously), one has to get to the Grotto, and the best way to do this is to take a licensed tour boat from the harbour (Marina Grande). There are a handful of authorised companies offering this service, clearly signposted with heavily branded payment huts by the harbour shore. A ticket will cost around €15 (2012) per person but this only pays for passage to and from the Grotto entrance, not actual entrance into it.
The motor boat I took joined a throng of other boats, private yachts and small cruisers all crowding around the Grotto’s entrance but not one was making any effort to get inside it. It quickly became apparent why; the entrance to the Grotto is very, very small and none of the waiting vessels had any hope of getting through it. Instead, another company with a floating hut moored just by the entrance to the Grotto, was supplying small manned rowing boats to the waiting vessels. The rowing boats took up to five passengers at a time into the Grotto for an additional €10 (2012) per person.
It was difficult to see whether the waiting vessels were being supplied with rowing boats on a fair first-come-first-served basis and I was getting rather impatient that my captain was making no effort to even indicate he was waiting in line (if there was a line). On arrival, my captain had simply turned off his engine, threw a fishing net over the side, put his feet up on the dashboard and pushed his cap down over his face without uttering a word to me or my fellow passengers. We were left wondering how long we would have to wait and whether the rowing boats even knew we were there. After forty-five minutes my captain woke up (my fellow passengers and I were too polite to disturb him). He had a leisurely stretch and a scratch before lethargically crossing the boat to check his net. Seeing that it was empty he huffed in annoyance and then he caught my eye. He looked at me and my fellow passengers one by one as though it was the first time he’d ever set eyes on us, and then a look of realisation crossed his face. With this he turned to the hut, whistled with the use of two fingers, and in an instant a fleet of rowing boats were heading our way.
It was rather precarious moving from bobbing motor boat to bobbing rowing boat, particularly considering I wasn’t wearing a life jacket. I wasn’t offered one to wear in the first place and no one else seemed to be wearing one on any of the other waiting vessels (clearly not compulsory in Capri). But my designated rower was a true gentleman and with a huge pearly white grin and an utterance of “bellissima” under his breathe (he must have been commenting on the weather at it was such a lovely day), he took a firm hold of my waist and lifted me with apparent ease into his boat. Strangely, he only offered a fleeting hand to the much heavier, older lady that came on board after me and didn’t even bother to assist the two men that followed her.
After paying our toll at the floating hut, we were rowed over to join another swarm of rowing boats in no rush or apparent order to enter the Grotto.
The wait, the cost and the loss of dignity was worth it though because inside the Grotto was one of the most amazing tricks of nature I have ever seen to date.
After around ten minutes being rowed around and serenaded inside the sea cave (all the rowers seem to sing inside the Grotto), my rower made his way back out the same way he came in. Heads down.
Most of the tour boat organisers will say that an all-round trip to the Grotto and back will take one hour. Ignore this. Mine took nearly two (and I almost missed my flight back home as a result).
Some more beautiful sights in Capri …
… and Anacapri