Sojourn on Tuscany’s Wild Capraia

Jaqui, Jake and Mike

I have so much to catch up.  I want to write and say that we are here in Hong Kong but the sensory flavours of Italy are still filling my palette and I can’t yet settle down to the low down on Hong Kong. Sorry. My heart is still in Capraia.

coast line of Capraia

It’s Mike’s birthday and what do we give to someone who says they have everything.  Jake and Jaqui call me down to Jaqui’s shop and together we huddle over the computer, scouring the internet for cheap holidays, cheap flights to exotic countries – after all, we are all going to go and help Mike enjoy himself so it’s all multiplied by four! But in the end there are only a few days that Jaqui can spare and we start looking closer to home.  We find the island of Capraia.  From photos it looks like a small and wild island, once a penal settlement, definitely not touristy.  We click,click click buttons and we’ve organised a two bedroom apartment and the boat trip and the map to the Livorno port and we all wear secretive grins on our faces for a whole day while Mike is bemused by it all – sure he has sussed out a trip in a plane somewhere and convinced that it has to be tropical because I have packed bathers and T shirts.  Bagni di Lucca is enjoying spectacular weather, but it is autumn and the mornings and evenings are chilly now, and even in the day the shadows are cool and long – it’s not in your head to swim at this time of the year.

Five o’clock Sunday morning we clamber out of bed.  I was going to drive to make Mike feel it’s all special – but it unnerves him so much that he begs to drive – surely I can’t be that bad! – and we head off up into the dark valley to pick up Jake and Jaqui staying with her mother near Lucca.  They sleep in.  It’s a small panic.  They pack whatever they can lay hands on in the sleeping house and make their own sleepy way to the car and then truly we are on our way, directing Mike through Lucca, then onto Pisa where by now he is convinced we are going to the airport, but we pass it, he is really not sure anymore till we get to Livorno and direct him to the port.  Then at last Mike sees the signs to Capraia.  His face lightens with revelation and laughter fills the car.  We go and have coffee in the little bar opposite the ship berth, stepping over luggage and dogs, the light gently breaking over the tall masts and cranes of the docks.  Jake out there with his cold cappuccino and cigarette, camera snapping snapping as the golden light wraps itself softly around the blackness.

Jake and Mike on board the ferry to Capraia

We are all tossing gently on the old ferry boat.  Jaqui goes below deck to sleep – she’s feeling queasy.  It’s chilly, the wind blowing against us in the morning air, the diesel smoke, acrid. I wrap myself in absurd layers of cotton clothing and revel in the wind and the new sky and the deepening blue of the sea, the rails of the boat, white and stark and clean.  It feels liberating to have left the shores, like some old life was being forgotten.  Only a week to go and we must leave for Hong Kong, so much to do, but today it’s as though scissors have separated us from all that knowledge and all we have left is Now.  Amazing.  Mike and I are really not Now people.  We are people who are always heading somewhere – what is that saying about stopping to sniff the flowers?  Well here we are, sniffing and forgetting.  We all feel so happy.  It’s beautiful to be with Jake and Jaqui like this.  Mike can’t stop talking with Jake, millions of ideas between themselves spilling over, the two hour journey, swiftly over.

Old Tower on Capraia

Capraia emerges before us, hilly, old rock towers on outcrops of more rock, rocky landscape smothered in low foliage.  Interesting.  The island looks really fortified, with ramparts older than the existence of the gaols.  It must have been an island that was always invaded.  We step off the boat into the port and make our way up the hill to the old town.  It’s lovely.  The season seems to be over and lots of places have closed down, but you can tell there has been a buzz here over the summer, lots of eating and drinking places.  Lots of holiday places.  We are in one.  It is full of warm light and is comfortable, a good little kitchen, good beds, we are sorted. We proceed to eat and walk and walk and walk all over the hills discovering the old gaols, ruins amongst the wild mint and thyme and giant Mediterranean pines. A feeling still of oppression on this side of the island, it is after all only twenty or so years since the closure of the island as a penal colony.  We are utterly exhausted, feeling already that we had experienced several days in this first introduction.  We eat expensive pizzas that night and die in bed not to waken ’till morning when the sun pouring through the windows has us bathed in sweat.

Mediterranean Pines over Mike, Jaqui and Jake

It’s the smell.  Pungent.  Sweet.  Minty.  We are clambering along paths on the other side of the island.  Fennel – it’s fennel.  We love fennel.  It’s so good for you.  So good for the digestion.  We start picking.  We pick fennel.  We pick thyme, rosemary, nepitella, peppermint.  We are so excited.  We feel like the ancient people of the land scouring the terrain for our special condiments and teas.  Fish wrapped in fennel.  Chicken with thyme and rosemary, mushrooms and zucchini in nepitella, peppermint tea.  Oh yum.  And it’s Mike’s birthday and it is all such a savoury delight.  We are hours walking the hillsides over the cliffs, scrambling through the scratchy harsh vegetation, old stone walls, remnants of ancient farming days, foraging in another world, forgetting to swim, forgetting to go Somewhere, forgetting to even Look and See.  It is hours of perfect contentment and when we get home we are still silent.  Jaqui slips into the kitchen and prepares a gourmet feast.  Jake and Mike at different ends of the table are carefully sorting out their herb collections making little bunches to hang in the sunny window.  I am sorting my little gathering and trying to help Jaqui but managing to be very un-useful.  The afternoon wanders away and eventually we walk on our full tummies and find an old tower down by the sea in the cliffs.  The boys swim in the evening shadows and scale up the stoney sides of the tower to peer inside the black empty windows.  Jaqui and I shiver slightly on the rocks, looking up to where the sun still spills over the cliff face and urge them to come along.

Capraia landscape at sunset

Up. Up. Up. Come on you guys.  We’re going swimming.  It’s our last precious day and the day is gorgeous.  Scrambling inelegantly out of bed, into showers and in go mode, we pack our things quickly while munching on bread and jam, left over birthday cake and slurping milky coffee. The day Is absolutely gorgeous. We are elated as we bounce along the stoney ancient paths, wondering how they could possibly farm the land – grape vines, surely grapes need soil.  The wine is probably like the herbs, the taste condensed and aromatic and full of sun. In the middle of a path an old wriggly tree bends obligingly into a love seat and our young lovers cosy up and wish we would go away.  Caves in the rocks above and the boys can’t help themselves, more impetuous scrambling over boulders and through brambles to get in there, pirate kings of a severe domain.  We are in love with the land.   It gets to you.  Its wildness.  Its tough abundance.  Eventually we descend into a rocky cove and before we know it we are all in the sea, bobbing buoyantly up and down in the transparent turquoise water, little fish and waving sea grasses gently caressing our passing bodies.  So, so beautiful.  We are full of promises to ourselves to return here again in the early summer, perhaps come over on the vespa even though we would never torment it on these hostile paths, pitch a tent, rent a sea canoe, or a motor boat for a day, investigate these tiny little coves and play in this miraculous water.  Our spirits have returned to the earth and we feel so rejuvenated.

rocky coast

So here we are, fresh and ready for a couple of months sojourn in Hong Kong with new wonderful projects to create at the Yew Chung International School.  Capraia, for all the time that it was only brief, created an oasis of rest, joy and family love.

sorting herbs
reflection of the old fort in ancient vats
Jaqui overlooking the port of Capraia
Leaving Capraia


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