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Italy Diaries: Santa Margherita

This week Nadia El-Awady talks about the last leg of her trip to Italy - land of sexy men, borderline orgasmic desserts, and bathrooms with bidets.

Santa Margherita Ligure is a small seaside port town some 35 km southeast of Genoa, Italy. My husband Colin and I were invited to attend a friend’s wedding there in late October of this year. But first we had other things to attend to.

Santa Margherita Ligure has a population of just over 10,000. Photo credit: Nadia El-Awady

We made a big trip out of our wedding visit to Italy. We spent two nights in Florenceseveral hours in Pisa, and three days in the scenic Cinque Terre. We saw world famous art, marveled at the architecture, ate great food, hunted down a nudist beach, hiked in mountains along the Italian coast, and visited medieval fishing villages.

Now it was time to go diving!

The Portofino National Marine Park was established in 1999. Colin and I are both Red Sea divers. I have only limited experience diving outside of the Red Sea and I wanted to catch a glimpse of a different marine environment.

The Red Sea is characteristically warm. Divers rarely need to wear more than a 5mm-thick wetsuit when it gets really cold in the winter while diving in the Red Sea. This is not the case in the Mediterranean. We arrived in Santa Margherita in late October. This was a dry suit diving environment for divers. Dry suits are made in a way that almost completely prevents water from reaching the skin. A diver who wears a dry suit wears very warm clothing underneath and can thus tolerate colder waters than the typical wet suit diver can. Both Colin and I have dry suit certification but the diving center in Santa Margherita did not rent out dry suits. We would have to dive in 7mm-thick wet suits. We got into a rubber boat with five other divers and three guides and set out from the port of Santa Margherita.

I wouldn’t have minded if that was the whole trip; just being able to see the coastline between Santa Margherita and Portofino was magical. As we left the tranquil port town of Santa Margherita, we passed green cliffs with small villas and palaces scattered along their sides. The boat continued in the water for some 15 minutes and settled at the bottom of a sheer cliff.

We did a backwards sommersault into the water. It was cold even with the very thick wet suits on. My first dive into the Mediterranean was fulfilling. The visibility was much better than I had expected. We were swimming in the rocky underwater environment of the cliff above us. Huge underwater boulders were strewn over a silty bottom with sea grass waving in the cold water in between. Red corals, violet gorgonians, and yellow anemones were scattered on the hard surface of the boulders. Groupers swam past us in large groups.

Because the lack of sunlight drains color the deeper you go, these vibrant colors only came to life behind the flash of my camera. Photo credit: Nadia El-Awady

Colin and I surfaced, both now shivering from being in the cold water for too long. The sun came out from behind the clouds and warmed us once we got out of the wet suits.

This is where I need to sidetrack a bit. I just have to tell you this one thing. But to tell it to you I have to do some explaining. Divers need to drink lots of water before a dive to avoid dehydration. Divers will frequently spend about one hour underwater diving. Simply by being in the water and also because it can be cold, divers frequently feel the need to urinate while underwater. Most divers will not wait until they surface and get onto a boat and they simply pee in their wet suits in the sea. So what do dry suit divers do? They have one of three options: they suffer with severely expanding bladders until they surface; the men buy a special tube that allows them to pee into it while wearing the wet suit, emitting the liquid into the water; or they wear adult diapers. How do I know this information? I looked it up because I was extremely curious about how dry suit divers manage the underwater urge to pee. But even though I knew this information, I was shocked when I saw one of the dry suit divers who accompanied us take off his dry suit, then his warm clothing, and strut into the bathroom at the diving center in front of everyone wearing nothing but an adult diaper! That’s it. That’s the story. I just had to tell someone about this. If you know me at all, you’ll know I love to tell a good pee story.

The following morning we cycled to the adjacent town of Portofino for breakfast. The sun was out. It was warm. The view was amazing. It couldn’t have been more perfect. The road from Santa Margherita to Portofino is winding and narrow, barely allowing two cars to cross each other going in opposite directions. On our right were the green sheer cliffs with beautiful villas scattered throughout. To our left were the calm blue waters of the Mediterranean. Turn after winding turn we took until we reached the small village of Portofino. On its edge two policewomen instructed us to leave our bikes behind as bikes and cars are not allowed in town after 10 am. We locked them to a post and walked down to the small but very exclusive marina. We had a small breakfast, drinking our tea and coffee, watching the boatmen cleaning the boats getting ready for the day ahead. Everything was perfect, even our young Italian waiter. Yummy!

The exclusive portside down of Portofino. Photo credit: Nadia El-Awady

On our way out of Portofino I stopped at a small bakery and bought an assortment of biscuits. I started with a small coconut puff. It was moist and tasty. I then tried the marzipan biscuit. I will pine for another for the rest of my life. One bite and a burst of sweet almond exploded in my mouth. My throat uttered loud sounds of appreciation.

We cycled back to Santa Margherita and found a nice spot on the beach and took a dip. The water was icy cold. I grit down on my teeth and went in, waiting for my body to adapt. Once it did, I really enjoyed our short swim. The sun kept my face warm above water and the swimming and wading kept my body from getting hypothermic below water. We stayed in for some 15-20 min and cycled back to the hotel to get ready for the wedding.

We were in Santa Margherita to attend the wedding of one of Colin’s childhood friends. The bride was Scottish, the groom was Swiss, and the setting was a posh villa on the northwestern coast of Italy. I’m told Rod Stewart got married in this same villa once. Friends and family flocked in from the UK, Switzerland, Australia, Italy, and of course Egypt. These were normal people: good friends and dedicated family who would go anywhere and dig deep into their pockets to celebrate the marriage of this handsome couple. Although the Villa Durazzo was a stunning wedding venue, I was most impressed by the strength of the bonds of friends and family. Particularly impressive was the 70-something group. These were life-long friends of the bride’s father. They were neighbors and golf buddies whose children grew up together and moved on into the world. No matter what changes happened in their lives, this group of Scottish friends from Edinburgh stuck together through thick and thin. This group witnessed spouses and children passing away. They attended the weddings of children and the births and birthdays of grandchildren. During dinner, where there was a wide selection of great Italian seafood, meats, cheeses, and pasta, a sound rose from the 70-year-olds table. They were singing a Scottish song together. A cheer and a toast followed. All night long this group danced like there was no tomorrow. They danced with each other and they danced with the young crowd. They went from one dancing partner to the next, never tiring, elated throughout, enjoying this moment of joy with dear friends. There is so much I could write about this wedding: the Scottish kilts against the backdrop of the Italian Ligure, the exquisite food, the villa with its gardens and fountains, the beautiful bride and groom and their angel-like 7-year-old daughter. But the memory that will last with me will be one of lifelong friendships, what they mean, how they are protected, and how important they are. This group of septuagenarians had lived very full lives. And they had no plans to stop living their lives, properly living them, anytime soon. And they would do it together.

As I conclude my diary of our visit to Italy, I’d like to send out my Jimmy-Fallon-like thank you notes to Italy:

Thank you, Italian hotels large and small, for always having a bidet.
Thank you, Italy, for having free wireless Internet almost anywhere one goes.
Thank you, Italian men, for always looking so sexy.
Thank you, Michelangelo, for sculpting men in such FINE intricate detail.
Thank you, Italians, men and women, young and old, for being so loud and emotive when you speak. You make what I’m sure is the most mundane conversation sound so exciting.
Thank you, old Italian women, for showing me that fun has no age limits.


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