Thailand, Rio de Janeiro and Budapest may have reputations for wild sex play these days, but they are rank newcomers compared to some ancient destinations in Europe. For over 2000 years, the beautiful Italian island of Capri in the Bay of Naples was renowned for debauchery on a Titanic scale. As I dug up in The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe, the island’s dirty reputation dates back to AD 10, when the Roman Emperor Tiberius retired to his Villa of Jupiter there and (according to his muck-raking biographer Seutonius) conducted secret orgies, dressing little boys up as fish so they could “nibble at the Emperor’s parts” as he swam in island grottos.
Ever since then, the tradition of creative debauchery has proven unstoppable. The island’s reputation was revived in the 18th century, when troves of ancient Roman erotic were found in nearby Pompeii. Soon libertines like the Marquis de Sade were visiting the island on louche holidays (and Capri gets a cameo in Sade’s crazed novel Justine, when his depraved heroine ties up a young shepherdess, ravishes her, then tosses her to her death at Tiberius’ villa). The young islanders of both sexes became renowned for offering their carnal favors for a modest fee, which eager aristocrats nicknamed “the courtesy.” (As in: “The boy and girls of Capri are very beautiful, and they gladly perform the courtesy.”) By the Victorian age, Capri enjoyed a self-conscious revival as Europe’s most free-living artists’ community, with princes, aesthetes and gay refugees like Oscar Wilde regarding it as on par with Paris as an erotic escape.
Today, Capri is an expensive Italian holiday resort, filled with hordes of tourists taking the ferry across from Naples. But the landscape is still breathtaking, and pseudo-pagan rituals are still conducted in the caves and villas once owned by opium-addled 19th century poets as part of an arts festival held every August. (For the schedule, drop by the excellent book store La Conchiglia in town, www.laconchigliacapri.com). But to really commune with the ancient Romans, you should climb down the steep cliff stairs after-hours to the famous Blue Grotto, when the regular tourist boats have stopped visiting. You can actually swim through a narrow entrance into the dramatic sea cave, which is lit from beneath by blue light through a crevice beneath the waves, and rest on the remains of a Roman bath, quite probably used by the Emperor Tiberius himself.