nina on the go

Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe...join me!

Saturday, August 31, 2019

the italian riviera...2 perfect days

Santa Margherita...the perfect home base

On Italy's north-western coast you will find the most gorgeous towns, where the Italian jetset from Milan spend their summers. Some are difficult to see through the wall of yachts filling their coves, but others are, in comparison, more the wall flower towns, ignored due to their glitzy neighbours. For me, Santa Margherita is one of these perfect, 'plain-jane' gems on the Italian Riviera - mostly undiscovered by the masses...and wonderfully situated for two great days of touring.

This area is not called the Golfo Paradiso for nothing.

Day 1: Camogli, San Fruttuoso, Portofino...train, hike, boat


Training around Italy is very easy and affordable. The stations can be crowded, but September is a great time to visit. School holidays in Europe are mostly over, the exhausting heat has moved on, and what's leftover is just dreamy Italian goodness. Let's start with one of my favourites...Camogli.

I have written about Camogli before, and I said I'd be back. Little did I know it would be quite so soon. The train from Santa Margherita to Camogli takes less than 10 minutes, but from Camogli there is a wonderful hike back, which will take you to San Fruttuoso...a hidden cove only reachable by foot or boat.

But first, Camogli. Just north of Santa Margherita nestled amongst the rocky, sea-battered hills, this fishing village, like many fishing villages, has a turbulent past of piracy, shipwrecks, and even Napoleon! His fleet was stationed in Camogli in 1978 according to Wikipedia (the knower of all things true).

But, now Camogli has a peaceful, serene vibe. Sure, there are tourists like me, but it's not overrun. It is quaint; the houses colourful, the caf├ęs outside, and the horizon the bluest of blue.

The trail leading south meanders up many stairs, behind homes dotted along the hillside, towards a chapel high on the hill, San Rocco di Camogli.

As is custom in Italy, the trails are dotted with Christian markers, these here especially large and colourful. I'm not exactly sure of the significance...if they're meant to be signposts towards the a deeper faith possibly, or inspiration, or just symbols of adoration. It doesn't matter to me, I just found them so beautiful among the rocks.

Needless to say, the view back towards Camogli is a treat, but as we kept getting closer to our first goal, I was getting more and more excited. It takes under an hour to reach the hidden cove of San Fruttuoso and I couldn't wait to get there!

San Fruttuoso

Nestled in a deep cove lies the Abbey of San Fruttuoso of Capodimonte, which you reach after many steep, zig-zaggedy steps back down to sea level. The Abbey was built in the tenth century purposefully hidden out of view to protect it from pirates and other sea-faring bandits.

The cove is a lovely spot to bath, drink an aperol and have a bowl of pasta. Most people come and go by boat from Camogli or Portofino, and that is what we chose to do. After a rest, we hopped on a boat, enjoying the view from the water, and jetted along the coast heading south to Portofino.

But, not before passing the site of the underwater Cristo degli Abissi - the Christ of the Abyss. This huge bronze statue (8 feet tall) was placed on the sea floor in 1954, dedicated to an Italian diving instructor, at the place where the first Italian to use scuba gear died. Copies of the statue are located off the coast of Grenada and Florida - Christ's arms and head facing upwards in a blessing of peace.


What is there to say about Portofino? As our boat turned the bend from open sea in towards the bay of Portofino, we were first greeted by a giant of many. I strained to try and make out who was on board: JayZ and B, Bill Gates, Ralph Lauren? I couldn't tell. But, this is apparently the place to be, if you are rich and not currently in St. Tropez or Mykonos.

It is beautiful, absolutely. Portofino has cute, coloured houses surrounding a quaint harbour, and but for the super high-end boutiques among its few streets and the yachts blocking the view of the Ligurian Sea, you won't see much difference from Camogli, in my opinion. The plain fact is all of these towns are gorgeous!

It's also the perfect place for another Aperol! I really need to start including this refreshing drink into my 5 o'clock, after-work routine...if the Italians do it, then everyone should do it.

Apparently, Portofino is still technically a fishing village. But, since the European aristocracy discovered it in the late nineteenth century fishing has slowly taken a backseat to tourism. We were lucky to have visited on a quiet day. It was late afternoon and there were no cruise ships in the area, and so we found the town to be peaceful and pretty. From Portofino it is a 20-minute bus ride or hour's walk along the seashore back to homebase, Santa Margherita....where pizza awaited us.

Day 2: Cinque Terra's Vernazza...train, hike

Pretty much anyone who is on Instagram has the dream of visiting Cinque Terra someday. Any of the 5 villages making up this unique and extraordinary area is grammed hundreds of times a day. 'Picturesque' seems a mundane word to describe Cinque Terra, but nonetheless the term fits.

We chose to visit Vernazza, the second, most northern of the villages, and 1 hour away from Santa Margherita by train. We took our time exploring the little harbour and the narrow the lanes, slowly making our way to higher ground, wanting to get the view from above.

The way people live here intrigued me, and I could've take a million photographs. Whenever a door opened I tried to sneak a peak inside. I'm not sure if the flats are all small and narrow and high, or if beyond the outside walls there are large open spaces inside...something I can't quite imagine.

The homes are built as if among the rocky cliffs, and not just atop them. It is a curious mix of concrete and rock, as if to purposefully blend the two: nature and man. I'm sure this coast experiences some hefty weather and no doubt the rock provides shelter and structure to the many homes and buildings here.

The bright colours and laundry hanging on the lines everywhere can't help but bring joy...again, as if on purpose.

We wandered the narrow trail which connects all of the villages, to the top of Vernazza, and were rewarded with an incredible view. We had perfect weather, as you can see.

 Back to Santa Margherita...swim, eat, eat

Upon our late afternoon return to Santa Margherita we went for a swim and laid out on the beach. It really is the perfect town to rest for a while, while also exploring some fascinating corners of the Italian Riviera.

And don't think for a minute that we weren't enjoying the incredible food. The pizza was to die for, with such simple, fresh ingredients, baked as they should be in a stone oven. We drank wine and ate on outside terraces each evening, taking in all the wonderfulness that Italy has to offer.

If you go:

Training in Italy is easy - book online or on-site for short trips -

Santa Margherita dining - pizza and seafood are excellent options.
Try these delicious options:
-A Santa Lucia Pizzeria
-Trattoria Baicin (Specialty Seafood)

We stayed in a very cute, but apparently illegal suite (common in Italy) and therefore I won't mention it here. The prices along the coast, in the towns along the Golfo Paradiso are higher than inland of course, but for a couple of nights it definitely won't break the bank. Just search and take your time in planning and you will find something perfect.  Have fun! 


Wednesday, July 31, 2019

bath, somerset...5 must-sees and a mistress named popjoy

The honey-coloured houses welcomed me first, as I left the train station and began the walk through town to the inn we were going to be staying in for one night in Bath.

An easy 1.5 hour train ride, this day trip from London should be on your list, not just because it's a pretty town, but because it is full of the most interesting history going way, way back.

Pubs are ubiquitous here, and with names like ‘The Raven’, The Griffin’, 'Home of the best pie!', 'Local Ales!' they offer the most wonderful invitations to stay and rest for a while, which we happily took advantage of every 2 hours or so.

A large plaque caught my attention in the centre of town, dedicated to Beau Nash. With a mistress named Juliana Popjoy how can anything go wrong? The so-called ‘King of Bath’, Nash and his mistress, Miss Popjoy (could there be a better name for a mistress?), ruled the town in the late 1700’s. 

The organized “entertainments” and made Bath the ‘it’ place to be, not just for its healing waters, but for fashion and fun. It is said that Miss Popjoy’s ghost occasionally pops by (pardon the pun) to check if guests of Bath are being entertained to the degree she and Beau Nash would have approved of, over 200 years before.

So, in order that you are as entertained as I was on my recent visit (no mistresses involved), here are the five must-sees in Bath, along with a little story: 

Royal Crescent

The Royal Crescent is where I experienced Jane Austen. I could absolutely imagine her walking the lawns overlooking Bath, and the hilly countryside, as she contemplated her next book or wrote her sister letters. The Crescent was never her address in Bath, when she began spending time here in the late 18th century. Her family didn’t have the means for such a home (few do), but the energy here feels romantic and storybook...just like Jane. 

A fascinating architectural feature of the Royal Crescent is the uniform, terraced housing which one sees from the front, which completely betrays the chaos and unevenness from the back. This design is apparently common in Bath and bears the whimsical name of “Queen Anne fronts and Mary-Anne backs”.

Add to this the fact that the sloping lawns in front of the crescent are cut by a ha-ha, and Bath could really be straight out of a novel (not surprising that it’s the setting for so many). A ha-ha is an actual term for the ditch, which on one side is a steep slope of lawn, betraying the other side which is a stone wall. The effect is one of a continuous green slope. Ha-ha! 

The Circus

Much quieter than, say, Piccadilly Circus, this circus on the north-end of Bath, easily walkable from the centre of town, is a residential square...but yet a circle...and surely not for your normal resident. A completely round circle of elegant townhouses, with 3 entrances into in, the circus was designed in the mid-1700’s by John Wood, to mimic Stonehenge.

The Royal Baths

Be prepared to spend quite a bit of time here if you are inspired by the stories of the past, like way in the past (AD 43). The 3D holographs which appear in the many excavated rooms of the bath describe in detail the normal routines of the Romans, and the importance of these communal places... to catch-up with each other, to visit and share experiences, to rest and rejuvenate together, through hot, cold and healing waters.

At the end of the self-guided tour you can taste the earthy, mineral water for yourself and ponder the worth which was placed upon it over the past hundreds, if not, thousands of years. There was even a Royal Mineral Water Hospital!

Bath Abbey

Founded in the 7th century, the Bath Abbey is home to thousands of people who were buried under the cathedral's stone floor, with over 800 stone tiles dedicated to prominent city members hundreds of years old. The current abbey, which sits on the remains of a Norman cathedral, has been undergoing gentle excavations and reconstruction in order to stabilize the ground beneath, which has deteriorated due to the crumbling bones of upwards of 6000 people. Walking over the engraved stone floor, I felt like a trespasser, treading upon the gravestones of long-gone souls.

Pulteney Bridge across the River Avon

I saved the best for last, in my opinion. As you walk across the bridge it feels like you're walking along a cute lane, with quaint storefronts and a tourist or two (huh!). But, peeking around the side and looking over the waist-high stone wall, you see a construction so beautiful, with the greenest of waters flowing beneath its rounded arches. And, then there is the River Avon...which brings every book-lover's heart to swoon.

Now, back to Miss Popjoy, because I just can't resist. Her paramour, Beau Nash, was a dandy. This is a word that we should absolutely bring back into colloquial language. Do you know what the definition of a 'dandy' is? I didn't! But, oh does it make me laugh. 

A dandy, historically, is a man who places particular importance upon physical appearance, refined language, and leisurely hobbies, pursued with the appearance of nonchalance in a cult of self. (wikipedia)

Mostly, a dandy was a man pretending to be more than he impersonator of the upper classes while actually coming from a much lower class. Essentially, a betrayer...a ha-ha.

By all accounts, Beau Nash was the Kanye West of his time. A fashion innovator, a host of great balls and parties, a bundle of chaos mixing himself up in politics, nobility and the normal folk, and crossing boundaries and pushing limits. Nash was bewondered by many, achieving a high-flying life of women and influence, leaving his last mistress so distraught upon his death that she lived most of her remaining years in a hollowed-out tree. Now, that is what I call leaving a mark on someone! Alas, Miss Popjoy was joyful no longer.

Either along the cute lanes, among the imposing historical sights, or inside the cozy pubs, a trip to Bath will no doubt leave you entertained, and possibly even inspired.

If you go:

- For tickets from London Paddington to Bath Spa - 1.5 hour trip one-way

- Bath is very walkable, with all the sites easily reachable on foot. You don't really need a hop-on, hop-off bus or tour. Stop for a pinto or pie in any of the great pubs whenever you need a refreshment

- If you stay the night, I highly recommend The Griffin cozy, with excellent pub fare, run by super-nice people

- Where to eat, The Raven has the best pies (IMO) having won awards for them! And it has the coolest history. Ale and pie...what could be better!

- We skipped going into the thermal bath in Bath, because let's face it, it's super expensive (36 Pounds for hours, on a weekday). So, we toured the Roman Baths instead (18 Pounds, on a weekday), and were not disappointed! It was an incredible experience, so interesting and pretty. So, if you have to pick one or the other, go with the original :)

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