A mysterious misty blue island stands off at a distance in the deep blue Tyrrhenian Sea, its drama and its romance, desired by the rich and famous, artists, and pirates alike as an exotic paradise ever since Augustus built his luxurious imperial Sea Palace upon its crest, displaying the giant bones of ancient creatures in his gardens.

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Tempesta a Marina Piccola, by Johan Christian Dahl

Our ferry arrives at Marina Grande, an overly ambitious name for the small, colorful harbor on the eastern side of the island dotted with mega yachts and a confetti of colorful fishing boats.  As we disembark, we push through the small crowd that had gathered around our fellow passenger, an American talk show host, to make our way into town.

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Marina Grande

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Marina Grande

We disappear into the small whitewashed alleyways of Capri, the village on the harbor, passing vendors and shops filled with luxury goods for the ultra wealthy. We settle at a table of an outdoor café shaded by grapevines.

Capri

Now nourished, we hail a canopied taxi for our ascent up the mountain to Anacapri, the small hilltop village on the western side of the island. As we wind up the mountain road past date palms and cacti we take in the sea air and tremendous view across the Gulf of Naples to Sorrento and the ancient isle of Ischia beyond.

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Canopied taxi

Lacking the hoards of wealthy tourist that frequent the town of Capri, Anacapri is a respite. The small village is relaxed and unassuming, as though it has failed (or has rather been disinterested) in keeping up with time. Small white washed cobbled streets lined with rustic arbors are occasioned by the flourish of a pink Arabic villa and other architectural oddities.

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Anacapri

Making our way on a small path to our hotel we arrive at the gate of Villa Le Scale, a small villa owned by a Parisian expatriate. The unassuming gate in a whitewashed wall opens into a garden haven of a verdant Mediterranean landscape- worn marble steps through an arbor draped in wisteria leading to the lobby. The villa is like a page out of Elle Décor with its opened hallways and soaring white plaster vaults gently channeling the ocean breeze.

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Villa Le Scale

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Villa Le Scale

We settle in next to the pool and are refreshed by prosecco, carpaccio and melon and fall into a tranquil state among the birds, flowers and trickling fountains.

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Villa Le Scale

The following morning, I awaited anxiously for the subject of my visit to open; a villa and garden, much like Villa Cimbrone across the bay, was the labor of love for expatriate Swede, Axel Munthe. Discovered by Munthe in the 19th Century in ruins at the top of the Phoenician steps was a chapel built upon the foundations of the Roman Emperor Tiberius’ Villa, some thousand feet above the sea. This spectacular site with views to Naples and Vesuvius beyond was the perfect place to build his dream villa and its gardens, Villa San Michele.

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Villa San Michele

Pergolas framed garden paths as they crested the mountaintop, capturing both garden vignettes and breathtaking views beyond. Anchoring the site on the south end of the cliff is the simple white chapel, guarded by an ancient Egyptian Sphinx. An alee of cypress leads one back through the gardens to the villa, with its luminous interiors and intimate courtyards built into and along the precipice.

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View from the chapel

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Dr. Munthe had found his one place in the world, perhaps the most beautiful place. For how can one compare the drama, the peace, or the timeless serenity found at Villa San Michele? I personally know of no other place like it for its simple beauty.

Villa San Michele

Over the next few days we explored the other wonders of the Island by both foot and small boat; places like the Faraglioni pinnacles with their dramatic natural stone bridges and the wonder of the island, the blue grotto.

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Faraglioni pinnacles

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The blue grotto

During this time I visited the villa many times, wandering its halls and its gardens, sometimes sketching, sometimes only sitting contemplating a beauty that is timeless. As an architect, these moments have stayed with me, nourishing my work and my soul.

Villa San Michelle

Watercolor of San Michele cyprus grove by Author