ἐκκεκώφωκε τὰ ὦτα καὶ ἐμπέπληκε Λύσιδος
Tuesday, 5 December 2017
I’ve made a lot of mistakes in the past few months.
Here’s one. I’ve been booking the cheapest possible hotels on trivago.com and booking.com. I can’t afford to stay in lovely five-star hotels every night for two months: I need to find cheap hotels reasonably close to the action in whatever city I’m staying in.
It took me a little while to properly get the hang of these sites, and so the hotel I booked in Amsterdam ended up being outside the old city, across a big bridgeless lake called the IJ.
The only easy way to cross the IJ is to take a free ferry from Amsterdam Centraal station to a place called Buiksloterweg. It’s free and it only takes five minutes. People board the ferry on foot, on their bikes or by just riding their motor scooters straight onto the deck.
The first night I tried to cross the IJ, I caught the wrong ferry and had to walk 45 minutes back to the hotel. Which was fine: I like walking, and I had podcasts to listen to.
But after the results of the non-compulsory non-binding postal survey, I had some very, very late nights out, and ended up having to catch the ferry, tired and emotional, at 3 o’clock in the morning. Or later.
It would have been much easier if I had booked a hotel in the Kerkstraat. Or somewhere else in the centre of Amsterdam.
Today, I went to Capri.
This wasn’t a mistake. I’d been there before, in 2008. It was spectacularly beautiful. Obviously, after my day off yesterday, it was going to be the first place I would visit during my stay in Sorrento.
I bought my ferry ticket from Sorrento port at 9 AM today. It cost €30. I had to choose a time for the return trip: 1:30 PM or 6:45 PM.
I chose 6:45 PM. There was no way I would get everything done by lunchtime, so I would have dinner on Capri and then head home after that.
I arrived on Capri, and, for the first time this trip, I checked in on Facebook. Lots of likes, which was nice, and a gratifying response from a beloved teacher from university. “Glorious place,” said Dexter. “(if expensive).”
He’s right. I’ve been travelling for over a month now, and today was the most glorious day so far.
I headed off towards the Villa Jovis, which was the biggest of the twelve villas on the island belonging to the Roman emperor Tiberius, who retired to Capri in 26 CE, leaving Rome to the tender mercies of Patrick Stewart’s Sejanus.
My first mistake was to take a wrong turn. I ended up at a place called the Arco Naturale.
Happy accident. But I was still keen to visit the Villa Jovis. I walked back, took a right turn at the Via Tiberio, and headed off in the right direction.
I found myself walking behind a talkative young American couple. I had been enjoying the silence, and I really didn’t want to follow them around Tiberius’s villa. So, at a fork in the road, I decided to head off to the Villa Lysis. There would be time for the Villa Jovis after that.
Tacitus mentions Tiberius’s twelve villas, but I know nothing at all about them. I supposed that the Villa Lysis might be one of them, but somewhere in the back of my mind I thought it seemed like an unlikely name for a Tiberian villa. (Who is Lysis? Why isn’t his name in the genitive case?) In any case, I was expecting some ruins.
I was wrong, of course.
There’s an early Platonic dialogue called the Lysis, about the nature of friendship. At the beginning, Socrates runs into Ctesippus and Hippothales and a bunch of young men who are hanging out with them. Socrates quickly realises that Hippothales is in love, and when Hippothales blushes and hesitates to tell him who he’s in love with, Ctesippus buts in and tells him that it’s Lysis: Hippothales won’t shut up about him — “Indeed, Socrates,” says Ctesippus, “he has literally deafened us, and stopped our ears with the praises of Lysis.”
That’s the Lysis that the Villa Lysis is named after. The villa was built in the first decade of the twentieth century by a man called Jacques d’Adelswärd Fersen. Fersen was born in Paris in 1880 to an incredibly wealthy family; at the age of 22 he inherited a bunch of money from his grandfather’s steel mills. After some kind of scandal involving tableaux vivants of schoolboys (whatever that means), he fled Paris; he settled in Capri in 1904 and built the Villa Lysis.
Fersen killed himself in 1923: glamorously, he dissolved 5 grams of cocaine in a glass of champagne and drank it. But he spent nearly two decades living in the Villa Lysis, smoking opium in a dedicated room, and sharing his life with an attractive young man called Nino Caesarini.
The inscription at the front of the Villa reads DOLORI ET AMORI SACRVM: sacred to pain and love. It’s totally camp and dramatic, of course, like the life of Fersen itself. He sounds like a truly terrible person, of course, but what would it have been like to be gay a hundred years ago, even in Europe, even for someone ridiculously privileged?
Okay for a while at least, I guess.
There was a ridiculously ramshackle path from the Villa Lysis to the Villa Jovis, which took half an hour and left me out of breath and disoriented. But I got there.
The Villa Jovis was a massive palace, bigger, I think, than any other villa I’ve ever visited. It’s right at the top of the Monte Tiberio, on the easternmost part of Capri. The unenthusiastic ticket-selling-guy gave me a horrible ASUS phone with an app on it to help me find my way around. The villa was massive and glamorous, perched on top of a cliff, eight stories high in places, with baths and kitchens and reception areas, and a massive dining room overlooking the sea.
Tiberius died there in 37 CE. According to an inscription in the main square of Capri, the elders of Capri don’t believe the infamous stories of his tableux vivants, and are proud that he ruled the Empire from their beautiful island.
I got back to the main square at about 2:30 PM. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. But there was still four hours to go before my ferry back to Sorrento.
What was I to do? There are any number of things to do in Capri, but now, hours later, back in my apartment in Sorrento, I’ve already walked over 28,000 steps and met 173% of my move goal. I was tired and hungry.
A toasted sandwich and an aperol spritz in the main square cost €20. So I settled up and headed down to the Marina Grande, where my ferry would be leaving in three and a half hours.
There’s a whole mistake theme to this post, which I should be circling back to now. But screw it. I regret nothing.
My Kindle easily fits in my jacket pocket, so I spent hours sitting at various bars and restaurants, eating expensive food and drinking expensive drinks and reading and looking out over the water. It was dark soon enough — time to leave. The ferry was enormous: unlike the ferries that travel across the IJ, this one was full of luxury cars driven by attractive Italian men. I started writing this post there: but now it’s finished, and I’m back in my apartment. And tomorrow I can do anything I want.
I’m planning to sleep in.