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

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 :)


Tuesday, April 30, 2019

santorini...10 dreamy things to do in 1 day

Santorini was an island that I had long wanted to visit. My mother had dreamed of going there, and had made it a reality before she passed away. So, as we pulled up to the new port and climbed off of the boat, I was excited. 

But, the excitement starts already long before your feet touch land. Basically the moment you catch sight of the white towns perched atop the long crater walls, the feelings of wonder and amazement take hold.

In order to break down the experience, first of all for myself, I made a list of the ten dreamiest things about my visit.

Ten best things to do in Santorini in one day

1) Visit's a dreamy treat like no other.

The little village of Oiá, located directly above the new port of Santorini, or a 30-minute bus ride from Fira (Santorini's main town, located above the old port), is a white-washed maze of lovely dwellings, blue-domed churches, and cute shops, joined by narrow cobble-stoned lanes...with heart-stopping views around every corner.

2) Wander...but be respectful. Meander down from the main paths to get away from the crowds, but always be aware that people work and live here. Do not step onto houses or churches (lots of people actually do!) for some great insta pic...just don't.


3) Stop and take in the moments. There are too many peaceful, reflective spots...even among the tourists. Blend the chatter out and breathe the setting in.

Hundreds and hundreds of years of fishing tradition lie here within the rounded walls of the volcanic caldera. The symbiosis between rock and sea, and Santorini's prominent location on naval routes within the centre of the Aegean Sea, helped create this incredibly unique way of life.

4) Explore the narrow, winding lanes.

There are lots of visitors here, and with treasures like Santorini, Venice, Prague Old Town (to name a few very crowded, very pretty places) you must be patient, blend out the crowds, visit the popular spots early in the morning or late at night, and just enjoy. In Oiá, there are a host of interesting houses, artisan shops with jewellery and art, boutique hotels carved into the rock, and many different churches (more than 250 on the island!).

5) Duck into Atlantis's just the cutest bookstore, which also happens to have great books.

Located on Oiá's main pedestrian street this little shop is a booklover's delight. Climb down the steps into the cave-like rooms and explore. There is everything you could ever want...classics, local flair, history, poetry, fantasy. Such dreamy fun.

6) Keep wandering till you get to the less whitewashed, less expensive area

Much of my advice includes getting away from the crowds, so here's more: Wander to the very end of Oiá, which wraps around the tip of the island, and where you will find one of the old windmills (always a Greek treat). Here you will come across some dwellings which you might even be able to consider purchasing :) Personally, I think 'run down' has often the most character.

7) Stop for coffee...often...and just enjoy the view

Sitting down after lots of walking, especially up and down the hilliness of Oiá, is a must when there are views like this to enjoy with a latte.

8) Enjoy Greek tapas...fried goat cheese, chickpea dip, olives and so much more yummy-ness

We stopped in at Pelekanos, because of its great rating and fantastic view. The food was delicious local fare, not too pricey, and served on gorgeous stoneware. Order a few traditional appetisers to share and you will fill yourself up with mediterranean goodness.

9) Head to a Crazy Donkey in Fira, sit out on the terrace and enjoy a great brew

When you've bussed it back to Fira and wandered its bustling lanes, stop in at any of the restaurants serving Crazy Donkey to enjoy locally-brewed craft ales. At Dionysos, for example, there is a large covered terrace to hang out on if you need to beat the heat or wait for your ferry. The beer is hip hoppy kick-ass ale.

10) And last, but not least...the donkeys. Walk by them on your way down to the old port and say Hi...and then keep walking. God gave you 2 legs so use them.

Or, if you just can't walk then take a bus or the gondola depending on which port you are accessing.

Donkeys are a traditional form of transportation throughout the Greek Islands, like horses in North and South America, and many islands still use donkeys and mules to haul things, but seeing really heavy people ride these sweet things up or down just can't be good for the animals. But, let's face it, if no one used them they wouldn't exist....that's just a fact. I did hear that Santorini is thinking of putting in a weight limit and I would be all for that.

I spent quite a bit of time talking to this sweetest of all creatures, just to see how he's doing. He seemed fine and healthy, as did all of his mates (that I saw). It was a hot day, they had water and shelter, but were just hanging out on the steps, free to roam about till someone needed them.

Seriously, isn't this just the cutest donkey you've ever seen.

If you go:

Try and stay for the night...I hear the sunset from Oiá is a once in a lifetime experience...and then send me a pic :)

Sunday, March 31, 2019 island of fish, flowers and fado

Napoleon's last stop...the flower island

Well-known, not only for being the birthplace of the world's best footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo, Funchal, the capital of the Portuguese island Madeira, has been an important historical stopover for explorers and revolutionists.

Located in the Atlantic Ocean off of the northwest coast of Africa, Madeira is a cluster of four little islands known for its wine, its blooms, sugar cane production, and family-oriented, hard-working fishing culture.

Funchal's amazing the market and on the streets

Mercado dos Lavradores
The Mercado dos Lavradores will entice you into its art-deco, 1930's-designed structure. Over two stories, including a huge fish hall, this market is so beautiful and interesting you will stay awhile.

Black Scabbard Fish

Along with all sorts of exotic fruit and vegetables, fish and food, there are also booths with clothing, music, and leather accessories. A little village unto itself, where locals also come to get shoes repaired, blades sharpened, or to buy lottery tickets...the mercado is full of local flair.

As often is in a cool city, the areas which were once the dangerous, poor neighbourhoods are now the 'it' places to live and visit. In Funchal, these oldest streets are now vibrant, colourful lanes filled with lively restaurants and bars...

With painted doors and murals everywhere you look.

Wandering through Funchal's oldest street, Rua de Santa Maria, which runs parallel to the ocean, there are plenty of options to experience authentic Portuguese Fado. This melancholic music, which translated means 'fate' or 'destiny' is a moody and emotional combination of voice and guitar.

Madeira is also known for its immaculate network of hiking trails. These levadas are the irrigation canals built in the 16th century to supply water to the sugar cane producers. The over 2000 kms of levadas zig-zag and serpentine through the valleys up and down the island, making a hiking holiday here just perfect.

Some levadas are cut into hillsides or tunnelled through cliffs, but most of them offer a fairly consistent view of the wide blue ocean beyond.

Fortaleza de Sao Tiago

Camara de Lobos - A proud fishing tradition

A short bus or taxi ride away from Funchal is the gorgeous little fishing village of Camara de Lobos. Made famous by Winston Churchill who stopped at this spot (see photo below) to set up his easel, needing to paint this cove immediately, Camara de Lobos enchanted me.

In amongst the small lanes spreading out from the port there is a tiny chapel which if you're not looking for it you will most likely miss. This is where traditionally the fishermen have come to pray before heading out into the wild unknown of the sea. It is quite possibly the most beautiful chapel, next to Francis of Assisi's own, that I have ever seen.

Nossa Senhora da Conceição
 Said fishermen you will find out on the boardwalk playing cards or in the dark taverns watching TV.

I loved watching the fishermen work on their boats, or hanging out playing cards together. This craft of building and repairing these fisher boats has barely changed over the centuries. It is pure tradition...but unfortunately more and more difficult to make a living at.

Monte - Traditional Wicker Toboggan Rides

A gondola or taxi ride up from Funchal is the quaint village of Monte. Here, the villas are nestled into the  steep volcanic hillside, surrounded by banana plantations. After visiting the Monte Palace, with its late 1800's exotic gardens and waterfalls, and the cathedral, the most exciting way back down (according to Ernest Hemingway anyways) is by Carreiro-driven wicker toboggan.

These super-cool Carreiros, dressed in regulated white with wicker hat, expertly guide the sleds down  the steep 4 km roads with an average speed of 12 km/h.

The tradition began in the 1850's as an easy way for locals to get down the hill to Funchal. Now, it is a strictly-regulated tourist attraction, taking about 20 minutes...on the ride of your life.

But, before heading down to Funchal we made sure to see the exquisite pilgrimage cathedral of Our Lady of the Mountain (what a name!). Not only a visit worth because of its painted ceiling, it is also the final resting place of the last ruler of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Charles I of Austria, who died in Monte in exile.

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Monte
Built in 1741, this church has survived earthquakes and wild fires. It is a colourful, moving experience spending moments here. The painted wooden ceiling depicts religious scenes and artistic elements making you want to look up as much as towards the altar...and Mary.

If you go:

-flying is tricky...go with Godspeed because the runway is one of the world's most, let's just say, interesting.

-take time on the island to walk the many trails, to hang out close to the fishermen and banana-growing locals

-no need to rent a car: walk or take a is not expensive

-make sure to eat the black scabbard fish...delicious and unique...and drink wine :)
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