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One of the most recognized natural wonders on earth–Capri’s Blue Grotto

If I told you there was a place near Naples where elephants, leopards and hippopotamuses once roamed, would you believe me? Well, these exotic animals lived happily and thrived, guess where? On Capri. How they got there is of course, a geologic story.

   
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Ancient Hippopotamus and Spotted Hyena (Crocuta Crocuiu Erxleben) which inhabited Capri, at Museo Ignazio Cerio, Capri

As you know, from the first EarthScape installment, the earth is made up of many plates which are moving around. Italy is being pushed and shoved and crunched by three of these plates. About 250 million years ago, a tropical sea, much like the Caribbean, covered the area in which Italy is now located.  In this shallow sea, limestone was deposited. Over millions of years, the sea receded and the limestone was exposed. With Italy being pushed up by the plates, the limestone was also upthrust and overturned. At the same time the Apennines were formed by from a series of large jolts by the African plate. One of the branches of the Apennines extended down from near the border of Molise all the way to Capri.

At the time, Capri was connected to the mainland so all these exotic animals normally associated with the African plains were living on the peninsula.

Some 20,000 years ago, glaciers eroded the peninsula, cutting Capri off from Sorrento, on land that is. Underwater, they are still connected if you go down 210 feet (70 meters).

When Capri was disconnected from the mainland, the animals died off.  We have extensive evidence of the types of animals which made Capri their home during the Pleistocene (2 million-10,000 years ago) because fossil remains of a number of species were found and are now on exhibit in the Museo Ignazio Cerio in Capri.

Leopard (Panthera Pardus) with piece of mandible at Museo Ignazio Cerio, Capri

The island has been inhabited since Paleolithic times. When construction of the Grand Hotel Quisiana started in the early 1900’s, Paleolithic rock tools were found dating to 100,000 years ago. At LeParate, Neolithic stone tools were found and at Grotta delle Felci (Fern Grotto) millstones, pestles and sacred pebbles painted with ochre were discovered.

The Greeks of Cuma arrived in the VII B.C. and called the island Kaprie. They thought that it was the home of the Sirens, the legendary half-woman, half-bird creature described in Greek epic poetry.

Suetonius relates that when the Emperor Augustus arrived on the island in 6 B.C. and started construction on his villa, stone weapons, fossils and huge animal bones were found which greatly impressed him. He directed his workers to collect them and he exhibited them in a special collection of rarities for his guests.

Molar of a Wooly Mammoth (Mammuthus Chosarius) at Museo Igazio Cerio, Capri

Augustus had traded the volcanically active Ischia for the calming island of Capri. Geologically, Capri is like a marzipan sweet, with a center of white limestone and dolomite, coated with a dusting of volcanic tuff and ash carried by the winds from the ancient volcanoes of the Campi Flegrei. The oldest rocks on Capri are 200 million years old and were formed in an underwater shallow warm water sea. Limestone is calcium carbonate and dolomite is calcium carbonate with magnesium. Dolomite can actually be ingested and tablets are available in health food stores. It is a calming agent. We, like the Emperor Augustus, can find peace and a sense of relaxation on the island because of the type of rock from which it is formed.

Limestone and dolomite are easily eroded resulting in many caves and caverns on the island. Cave formation begins when rainwater absorbs carbon dioxide as it falls through the atmosphere. Rain water must have carbon dioxide to become acidic and as an acid, can leach through the limestone forming caverns. Physical erosion washes away rock and sand. This is what makes a cave larger over hundreds of thousands or even millions of years.

The best known is, of course, the Blue Grotto which is a natural cavern whose iridescent blue color is caused by the reflection of light on the water which is underlain by white limestone. Other lesser known or unnamed caverns dot the coast. Many of them were used by prehistoric man for shelter and worship and subsequently by the Romans who used them for sacred rituals.

Another iconic symbol of Capri is also geologic: the Faraglioni. They are stacks; a geological landform consisting of a steep and often vertical column or columns of rock in the sea near a coast, isolated by erosion. The stacks have been given their own names: Stella (still attached to the main island), Mezzo (after Stella), and Scopolo (or Fuori). Their heights are 109 m, 82 m and 106 m, respectively.

Bradyseism is also found on Capri as shown by the Roman ruins which are submerged around the island. One of the most impressive is the Bagni di Tiberio (Baths of Tiberius) with a marvelous beach which is accessible by boat from the Port of Marina Grande. It is well worth a trip to bathe in the same waters as a Roman Emperor. (See if they will sell you a T-shirt. They are for staff only, but if you are nice, they’ll sell you one. A real collector’s item).

The island is composed of two plateaus: one to the west; Anacapri, and another to the east; the city center of Capri. On the western side, a cable car ride to the top of Monte Solaro (589 m) is a must. The 360 degree view of the entire Gulf of Naples plus the Amalfi Coast, is the most breathtaking panorama in the world (there is no way a camera could capture this entire view).

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An extraordinary panorama from Monte Solaro, looking down on Marina Grande and east toward the location of Tiberius’ Villa Jovis. In the background is Sorrento, and out of the picture, but visible from the top are the entire Gulf of Naples and the Amalfi Coast. A must see!!

To the east, the highest point is Monte Tiberio (334 m), where the remains of Tiberius’  Villa Jovis are open to the public. While it is an extremely long walk to get there, it is worth it, not only to see the massive villa, but the panorama as well. Tiberius loved Capri so much he basically ran the Roman Empire from there for the last ten years of his life. Legend has it that Tiberius was a nasty, kinky kind of guy and would have parties and orgies involving people of all ages and proclivities. After having been entertained, if he wasn’t satisfied, he had his guests dropped off the high cliff at the back of his villa. Guides will show you this location on the boat trip around the island.

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Resconstruction of Tiberius’ Villa Jovis; view from the cliff side, where he allegedly threw off uninteresting or annoying houseguests

Finally, a secret, secret location that I only share with my best, best friends. A beautiful limestone beach that is free. It is called the “Faro” (near Punto Carena on the map above) and you can get a direct bus from Anacapri. The limestone cliffs are conducive to young men diving from incredible heights.

You can rent an inflatable mattress, beach chairs and umbrellas from my friends Angelo and Concetta at “Da Angelo Beach”, a truly rustic place where they manage everything from a limestone cave.