Axel Munthe’s “The Story of San Michele”

BLOG #31, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #43
AXEL MUNTHE’S THE STORY OF SAN MICHELE
August 5, 2015

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It is August, for millions a time to vacation, get away from it all. It is because August is, in that respect, such a seminal month that it is a difficult month to marry a book-of-the-month to.

In the end, it was no contest. It had to be the incredible story of Capri’s Villa San Michele, and the man whose dream it was: Dr. Axel Munthe.

On July 10, 2014, Connie and I set eyes on the near mythical Isle of Capri for the very first time. Earlier that morning, we had seen the ancient city of Naples outside our veranda room on the Norwegian Spirit. One more item to cross off our Bucket List: See Naples and die—but we hoped we wouldn’t die too soon. Certainly not before we reached Capri :-). We were one of the first foursomes (Connie, I, our son Greg, and our grandson Seth) to be permitted off the ship. Soon our excursion boat was racing out to sea. About an hour later, there looming above us was the towering Isle of Capri. Shortly afterwards we boarded a minibus for one of the wildest rides of our lives! Our little bus tore up the narrow serpentine road barely missing other busses, autos, motorbikes, etc. by only inches; our driver and the other drivers kept up a running commentary with each other (verbal and arm gestures); again and again you could hear our fellow passengers belting out “Mama Mia!” as once again we escaped a crash by only an inch or so. Especially terrifying was the bus’s hair-raising careening around curves, and seen over the flimsy low brick walls the deep blue Mediterranean far far below!

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When we shakily disembarked in the little town of Anacapri, Greg and Seth took the chairlift to the top of the island and Connie and I were led by our guide to another place on my Bucket List: the world famous Villa San Michele. All my life, at various times, the subject of the villa would come up. Always, how beautiful it was. Soon we reached the villa, paid to get in, ambled through the villa, then walked out under that glorious colonnaded pergola, with verdant gardens and trees on both sides, and then, a thousand feet below the bluest blue one will ever see. Connie and I were speechless. Rarely, in this short lifetime we are given on earth, do we encounter a scene so incredibly beautiful that it is beyond speech’s capacity to describe it in mere words. As for me, it proved to be a time-stopper.

After we had walked through the gardens and taken pictures (so inadequate to capture it all!), we stopped at the gift shop where we purchased two books: Axel Munthe’s best-selling The Story of San Michele (translated into over 40 languages) and the definitive biography of the man who created this masterpiece: Axel Munthe.

Capri, A Garden in the Blue. Carcavallo Editore. Milano, Italy, n.d.

Capri, A Garden in the Blue. Carcavallo Editore. Milano, Italy, n.d.

He was only eighteen, when the young Swede first set eyes on Capri. On shore, he looked up, up, and up the 777 steps carved out of solid rocks by orders of the Roman Emperor Tiberius who lived on the island the last eleven years of his tumultuous life. Munthe was warned not to try to climb it for it was a mighty steep thousand feet to the top. But he ignored the warnings and made the ascent. At the top—well, he never got over that view! Right then and there he vowed that whatever it would take, he’d somehow buy that land and build on it a villa of such beauty it would be the talk of the world.

Many years later Dr. Munthe would tell the riveting story of his life—and what an incredible life it was!—in The Story of San Michele. The novelist Henry James was the one who suggested that he write it. For Dr. Munthe moved in, and received at the villa, the likes of Henry James, Howard Carter, Oscar Wilde, Greta Garbo, Count Zeppeliln, Rainer Maria Rilke, and much of Europe’s royalty, including Sweden’s Crown princess Victoria, who locked in a loveless marriage, was destined to fall in love with Munthe. Russian Czar Nicholas II tried to get Munthe to become physician to his family, and Herman Goering tried to buy the villa from him.

Oh all this is but the beginning of one of the most remarkable autobiographies I have ever read! I was so glad later on that I’d also purchased Bengt Jangfeldt’s powerful life story: Axel Munthe: The Road to San Michele. Reason being that his biography fills in, amplifies, and builds upon the original book. Half of the Munthe story is missing if you fail to also read the biography!

I will be mighty surprised if you don’t conclude (at the end of your reading both books) that your life will never be the same as it was when you began. Munthe’s life story is so quotable, so mind-numbing in its intensity and in the sheer number of people of all levels of society Munthe treated as a physician, the unforgettable stories of improbable but true personal encounters, the menagerie of animals he surrounded himself with, and on and on and on.

Long before you complete reading Munthe’s book, I predict you will yourself vow, “I will see Capri and Munthe’s Villa San Michele myself before I die!”

Will be interested in hearing from you after you read the books—especially Munthe’s, because that’s the starting spot for Jangfeldt’s biography.

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The Story of San Michele, by Axel Munthe (London: John Murray, Publishers, 1929). The trade paper edition I purchased is that edition’s 17th printing. ISBN 978-0-7195-6699-8. 2004 printing.

Axel Munth: The Road to San Michele, by Bengt Jangfeldt (London, New York: I. B. Taures, distributed by Palgrave Macmillan/San Martin’s Press, 2008). ISBN 978-1-84511-710-7.

Making Memories with Grandparents – Part 4 – Seth’s 2014 Cruise

BLOG #45, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
MAKING MEMORIES WITH GRANDCHILDREN
PART FOUR
SETH’S 2014 CRUISE

November 5, 2014

For two years after Taylor’s cruise, the big question was, “Is Seth even interested in mastering the geography of the world?” After all, he’d seen how much work it took for his mother and Taylor to successfully complete such a learning marathon. Furthermore, given that Seth is such an “I’m-the-boss-of-me” individualist, just because

Cezanne’s home in Aix en Provence

IMG_5321his brother did it would not by itself mean much if Seth himself wasn’t equally interested in such a challenge. And, just as was true with Taylor, not until his twelfth birthday did he give the green light to his mother.

Turns out the pace was similar. Not until we were within days of his thirteenth birthday did he clear his last hurdle. When Seth was asked what he’d most like to travel to, he was succinct: “Islands and deep blue sea!” And just as was true with Taylor, his summer sports program was so demanding that we only had a three-to-four-week window to work with; consequently, that reduced our cruise options to a rather small number. We didn’t want to book a cruise that was a carbon copy of Taylor’s because we wanted Seth to feel that there were aspects of the itinerary that were his alone.

In the end, we booked early, in order to get an advance rate, with a cancellation clause that permitted us to back out if Seth failed to complete his challenge in tine. We found a cruise on the Norwegian Spirit that played all the destination hits (from one end of the Mediterranean clear to the other).

Here is the itinerary:

July 3, 2014 – Arrive in Barcelona
July 5 – Leave Barcelona
July 6 – Toulon, Aix en Provence in France
July 7 – Liverno, Florence and Pisa
July 8 – Citavecchia, and Rome
July 9 – Naples, and the Isle of Capri
July 10 – At Sea
July 11 – Mykonos, Greece
July 12 – Istanbul, Turkey
July 13 – Ephesus
July 14 – Athens, Cape Sounion Temple of Poseidon
July 15 – At Sea
July 16 – Venice
July 17 – Return to Philadelphia

As we tested Seth, it didn’t take me long to discover that he was especially susceptible to side-trips beyond the required. In that, he reminded me of my own Grandpa Herbert Leininger, who’d always suffered from an incurable itch to find out what was on the other side of a given hill.

He even expressed his own individuality in his written response to being sent a journal with the trip’s itinerary pasted in at the front of it, and symnopses of each day-trip we had booked.

He wrote,

“Dear Grammy and Poppy,

Thank you for dedicating the last 13 years to save up to take me on a journey of a lifetime. I can’t wait until then. We will have a great time. I wonder what the hotel room on the ship will look like. There are so many things I wonder what will be like. Can’t wait to see you guys.

Love, Seth”

This time, Greg didn’t even try to surprise the new traveler. Of course, he wanted to go along. But no more cramming four people into one small stateroom; he booked an adjoining room for him, and we had Seth bunk with him. Both times, it was great to have Greg along. Of course, the whole purpose of both cruises was the opportunity, at least once in each grandson’s lifetime, to be able to give them our undivided attention. But even so, given that Greg was only one generation removed rather than two (our case), it gave both boys two generational options rather than just grandparent/grandchild.

_MG_5500St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome

This time, we made the transatlantic flight without Greg, as he was flying straight to Munich in order to pick up a brand new BMW there. He later met us at the ship early afternoon of the sailing day.

It didn’t take us long to discover that Seth had three obsessions: science, art, and sports. Words too: from someplace he inherited a love for words—individualized, like Ogden Nash, in his case. Rarely a day in which he failed to coin a new word.

At Barcelona, we were lucky enough to get an early check-in, so after our long transatlantic flight we were able to crash for four hours before venturing out on Las Ramblas. Seth was particularly fascinated with the mime who was impersonating Salvador Dali, complete with long twirly mustache. That evening we played a domino game our family calls either “O’Henry” or “Ah Shucks.”

When we got to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, next day, after ten hours sleep, we had to wait in long long lines over an hour and a half just to get tickets—and then two more hours waiting to get in. It was truly amazing to see how much progress had been made in only three years. Of course, 25,000,000 people a year, each paying a hefty admission price, ought to result in progress!

Later on, I was traumatized to discover that somewhere along the way I’d dropped three sets of very expensive bus tickets. We completed the day’s activity by a visit to the great Palace of Art on the hill. Seth was especially fascinated by the Gothic and Romanesque art.

Next day, finally got into the magnificent Palace of Catalonian Music — hadn’t even been able to get in three years before.

Then, check-out, meeting Greg at the ship, and we were on our way late in the afternoon. No storms this time.

Two days later, in Florence, we lucked out with a much more effective and articulate guide than the one Taylor had lampooned three years before. I’ve discovered over the years that great guides can make a trip and poor guides wreck them.

In Rome, we braved long lines in order to get Seth into Michelangelo’s magnificent St. Peter’s Cathedral.

Next day, high up on the legendary Isle of Capri—first time ever for Connie and me—, by agreement, we separated into two groups of two. Almost disaster! Connie and Seth waited at the Clock Tower rather than the bus stop, so after waiting a time, the other bus passengers left for the fast ship back to Naples. The guide stayed with Greg and me. Finally, Greg was able to get through to Connie’s almost dead cell phone, and the guide put us on a separate bus. We just made the last ship back!

GangFormal(1) Our Formal attire for dinner one night!

Seth’s journal commentary was uniquely Seth-ish:

July 3 – “When we went through security [Philadelphia Airport] Grammy got searched because her bling-pants set off the beep.”

July 7 – Florence and Pisa – “Today was fun. It was tiring though. It took a little more than 10 hours. This was Florence too and not just Pisa. We saw 2 cities! I also got some cool pics of me and leaning tower. We had the BEST GUIDE EVER! She could actually speak English we could understand.”

July 8 – Rome -“Today we had a ninja tour guide, she kept walking away, expecting all of us to follow, leaving about 10 people behind each time…. We only had 10 minutes in the Colosseum. It shtank!”

July 9 – “Capri – O.M.G. Island with clear water. I took a chairlift to the top of the island. I’m still trying to take in the awesome view. It was so majestic.

July 11 – Mykonos – “Clear water! Yah! I went to Greece! The water was as clear as this circle. [He drew a circle]. It was pretty warm too. I stuck my foot in the water… Or accident, with my shoe on. The greek houses were sicik [sic] too, all white and blue highlights.”

July 12 – Istanbul – “Yah, another cool guide. I got 1 spinnything [a top] and we got 4 scarves for Mom and Grammy… Sheese! There was also a cool welcoming band. We went into a mosque where we had to not wear shoes and Grammy had to wear a thing on her head.”

July 13 – Ephesus – “YESSSS! [pronounced with an h sound at the end]. I slept in. Today was okay but we had the best food than the other excursions. Uncle Greg and I got lost/separated from our group, but we eventually found the group again.”

No journal entry for Athens and Venice. A pity. But Seth compensated for it on the last day of the cruise (almost every day he coins a new word): SHMECKLE – for thingees, words, or terms you can’t think of , or any word you want to substitute for.

I had earlier suggested to Seth that he’d be protective of his Grammy as there are so many pickpockets in the crowded streets. He took me at my word, and almost invariably he’d be protecting one side of her, and expecting Greg or me to cover the other. For crowd-control purposes, each bus-load of people is given in advance stickers designating which bus to board for a designated tour. Seth delighted in later planting those stickers somewhere where we wouldn’t notice them – often on our back-sides somewhere.

_MG_6098Our Sticker Boy!

All too soon, we had to bid adieu to the Norwegian Spirit in Venice; Greg flew back to Munich to pick up his BMW for a few days before having it shipped home to him, and we boarded the plane for Philadelphia.

When I asked Seth to rank his experiences, this is how he did it:

1. View from the Isle of Capri [just as Taylor fell in love with the nearby Amalfi Coast, Seth will most likely never ever forget the sight of the incredibly deep blue sea as seen from the ramparts of Capri].

2. Sagrada Familia [like Taylor before him, he was overwhelmed by the interplay of light inside—it literally takes one’s breath away].

3. Free Soft-Serve Ice Cream! [Seth gave Taylor a run for his money in his multitudinous raids on the poor ice cream machine on the ship].

4. Venice. Especially the late afternoon gondola ride.

5. Pool-side Strawberry Daiquiris. [Clearly, the boys are related!]

6. Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

7. Soccer on the ship! [Everyone in Europe, it seemed, was riveted to the World Cup soccer play-offs; besides that, Seth played soccer on evenings or sea days, with other young people on the ship].

8. Pisa and Florence.

9. Beaches of Mykonos

10. Aix en Provence.

As to Seth’s post-cruise thoughts, he too has developed an apparently incurable case of travelitis. Any time we now go anywhere without him, he sulks.

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On Nov. 12, I’ll wind up this series on grandparenting, with some last thoughts and conclusions.

Photos by Greg Wheeler.