Of Capri’s many scandals — central Italy’s swollen sandbar is dubbed the Island of Pleasure for a reason – the steamiest was in 1902, when German industrialist Friedrich Alfred Krupp staged an orgy that made front page headlines back home.
At least that’s the story that gets Renato Esposito’s vote. As the owner of Capri’s Hotel Gatto Bianco, he’s something of an authority on local naughtiness. Habitués of Capri have been acting dubiously since the Roman Emperor Tiberius fetched up on its shores.
You won’t find an Olympic pool or state-of-the-science gym at Gatto Bianco, but if you’re an enthusiast of decor and drama that serve up local color, you’ll be enthralled by the pastel property and its storytelling staff. Most establishments in this part of Italy have been handed down through generations of the same family, and even four-star charmers like Gatto Bianco bear idiosyncrasies.
My room had a heated towel rack that didn't heat and a TV from an antediluvian era. But I also got to hear Renato recount infamous Capri misdeeds, and to pet Matisse, the latest white cat in a long line of hotel mascots seen as the reincarnations of artists and intellectuals who have adored Capri. (He detects in Matisse the snooty gait and airs of a renowned Italian journalist who once frequented the island.)
And I saw pictures of Renato’s great, great grandmother Carmela di Tragara, whom he claims was the first woman hotelier in Capri. I especially appreciated the history lesson linked to Renato’s last name. "Pregnant aristocrats came to Capri to have their illegitimate baby and leave it at San Stefano Church," he explained, adding that the "orphan’s spot" was "esposito: exposed to the sky and the moon."
That's what'll stick with me most of my stay.
Gatto Bianco's humble owners don't market this privilege, but if you request gingerly, they’ll regale you with the tale of Jackie Onassis' narrow escape from the paparazzi through a secret passageway to a private suite — which still exists, frozen in time, with all the original furnishings. If you're lucky, you’ll even get a guided tour of the two-bedroom Jacqueline Suite.
Gatto Bianco’s location places it within easy walking distance of boutiques, cafes and all the hum of the central Piazetta. Inside, the three-story building echoes the design of the 1950s island villas, with hand-painted majolica tiles and leaf-patterned light fixtures from the Salerno factory of Vietri, for example. Each of Gatto Bianco's 40 rooms is done up in its own color scheme, with Caprese shades of yellow, blue and green as frontrunners.
My blue-and-white room gave onto a balcony with a view of a garden terrace dressed with plants and flowers. Along the hotel's other side, balconies and terraces face Capri's historic center.
I didn't see the room where Russian novelist and playwright Maxim Gorky famously stayed up all night reading his newest work to his revolutionary guest, Vladimir Lenin. Nor did I retrace the steps of other illustrious hotel patrons, from King Farouk and Clark Gable to Brigette Bardot and Leni Riefenstahl.
But while sipping blood-orange-juice in the airy dining room, whose breakfast spread included an assortment of cheeses, pastries and fruits, I could swear I saw a parade of Felliniesque glitterati prancing through the arched door after a Champagne-drenched night of fiestas Romanas.
The hotel dangles the usual creature comforts of air conditioning, satellite television, mini bar, safety deposit box, phone, Wi-Fi service and a beauty center. However, it's the star treatment that you can expect at Gatto Bianco that makes this 19th-century establishment such a memorable experience.
Albergo Gatto Bianco
Via Vittorio Emanuele, 32 - 80073
(+39) 081 837 0446