Palimpsest Index

Time & the Blue Grotto

came to me in the Blue Grotto, on Capri.

Tides are so important in the development of life on this planet. The existence of a moon in close orbit around our planet created conditions which set our primordial ancestors on their way to a complexity they might not otherwise have attained.

That regular retreat and advance of the shoreline formed a zone of challenge, in which simple living things had to adapt - otherwise they would become simple dead things.

Alternating between the poisonous air and the suffocating water; between the scorching, searing sun and the chilling, numbing currents, an organism had to shape up, or become just another source of nutrients for more successful entities.

This zone of interchange also provided a cornucopia of foodstuffs - not least from the unfortunates who couldn't handle the challenge.

Later in the same evolutionary cycle, the tides may well have played a crucial part in persuading aquatic vertebrates to diversify into amphibious fence-sitting, and thence into fully-fledged air-breathing.

It may not be stretching the point too far to surmise that this lunar pull may have had some degree of responsibility for the emergence of Homo Sapiens itself. After all, we do seem to have a semi-aquatic stage in our curriculum vitae. Quite when and where the moon imprinted itself on the human menstrual cycle, will probably forever remain a mystery.

Whatever possessed humankind to leave its African Eden, and set up branch offices all over the Old World - we will probably never know. We can't even be entirely sure that this was the way it happened at all.

Somewhere in the sequence, civilisation developed - not to the rhythm of the moon, it seems, but to the slower pulse of river-flood and retreat.

So, there were kings and priests and scribes and shamans - a rich brew from which to concoct heroes and villains, warriors and peasants, wanderers and stay-at-homes.

This was the world - both imaginary and actual - of the great flood plains of the Tigris and Euphrates, and of the Nile.

But (and here's where the Blue Grotto comes in) civilisation didn't start to develop an intellectual structure, to think up theories of itself, until it had established itself in a sea with no tides - the Mediterranean.

I ought to explain the Blue Grotto (La Grotta Azzurra).

It's a relatively ordinary limestone cavern on the Northern Coast of the island of Capri, which lies just outside the Bay of Naples. It's really whitish, with some reflective rock crystals. It has been dissolved into existence by the sea, leaving a small aperture at the junction between water and the open air.

The light takes on a blue cast as it enters through and over the sea, which forms a mirror-like "floor" to the cave.

You enter it lying flat on your back in a boat, while an experienced boatman pulls the craft through a low passage by means of a fixed chain. You emerge into a "secret" vault - which has been known about and used since antiquity.

The true nature of the practises carried out in this "temple" have largely been lost - over-written by the exaggerations and confusions of tourist brochures. There are markings and images in there, but most of them are relatively recent - designed to enhance the mystery of the place for the flow of visitors who feed a little industry of Grotto guides.

However, there does seem to be just enough reliable evidence that the coastal navigators of the Mediterranean held this place (and others like it) in some reverence.

But such a place wouldn't work on the Atlantic coast, or on the Red Sea or Persian Gulf.

At one moment, such a cavern would be full to the brim with water. Then, 5¾ hours later, it would be void and dry.

No mystery, you see.

Only in a tide-less sea like the Mediterranean, could such religious/aesthetic confabulations be attached to a hole in a cliff.

It may be stretching associations a bit far to connect the Blue Grotto to thinkers like Plato and Sophocles - but that won't stop me doing it!

Did this kind of epochal pondering require more stability than other shores could offer? Did they need some kind of detachment from this particular natural cycle? Would Plato have seen existence as shadows on a cave-wall, if he had been worrying about getting his feet wet?

I don't have an answer, but I enjoyed my time on Capri all the more, having something to think about.

So, what did I think of the Blue Grotto? Well, I tried to buy a ticket, but that afternoon there weren't enough tourists to fill a boat. So, the boatmen decided to shut up shop an go home for a kip, leaving the Blue Grotto to my imagination. That was probably as it should be. I returned on the ferry to Sorrento, and ate a splendid plate of bream at La Taverna Azzurra instead (and wrote these words between courses).

Reader Jill Domenici is a little upset...

"I'm a little upset. I was searching for web pages on the blue grotto, when my search brought me to your page. Is that it? You really didn't go into the grotto but accepted that not-enough-tourists-for-a-boat excuse? Please tell me it was the middle of winter and freezing and that is why you didn't swim into the grotto, because really that's the only way to see it. So you wrote all that on the blue grotto and yet never saw it? I have to say that I am very disappointed.

I have been to Capri twice, and the blue grotto twice. The first time, in a boat with my highschool Latin class, and the second last October when my college roommate and I were studying in Italy.

We spent a long weekend in Capri and walked to the blue grotto, getting there just after the last boat, which didn't deter us since we had wanted to swim into it. It was the most amazing experience of my life and I will never forget the feeling of emerging (we swam into it underwater) in the grotto surrounded by that awesome luminescent blue.

You could see for miles it seemed, almost to the bottom, which didn't even seem to exist. There were a few other people in the cave with us, mostly students like ourselves, and we all just treaded water silently for a few minutes completely and totally soaking in the beauty and awesomeness of the cave. The color is a color I have never ever seen reproduced anywhere else, and the experience was well worth the horrible cut I got on my foot when I scraped it on the wall of the cave as I swam out. It was very difficult to swim out as the waves had gotten higher and kept pushing us back,and I admit, I had a fleeting moment of panic.

Well, I just had to write and let you know what you missed out on, I hope that one day you will actually get to go into the grotto, and if you are able to, swim into it. It is definitely an experience I will never forget."

OK. I'm a wimp.

1066 and all that British politics...
© David Craig Send me a message