An intrepid adventure through a country full of surprises.



Morocco always seemed to me to be the epitome of the word ‘exotic’. I imagined bustling souks, camels trekking across the desert, houses decorated with boldly patterned carpets and ornate mosques gleaming against a blue sky. Basically I was expecting a land straight out of the Arabian Nights.

And I wasn’t disappointed – the souks were bustling and the mosques were gleaming. But I would also be pleasantly surprised to discover the many other faces of Morocco, such as the friendliness and humour of the locals, the varied landscapes and the blend of modern and traditional life.  

I’d decided to visit Morocco back in January, when, after spending two weeks of sun and Christmas celebrations with my family in Australia, I’d come back to the depths of an English winter. The only way I could face my cold, dark, desk-bound existence was to book a trip somewhere completely the opposite. Morocco beckoned.

Having recently travelled independently, I decided to switch it up and book onto an Intrepid tour. I was drawn in by the prospect of getting to know a group of like-minded travellers and a local tour guide. I was also happy to leave the organising and the research to someone else. All I had to do was to pick a tour on Intrepid’s website, book my flights, and I was all set for my Moroccan adventure!


The incredible Hassan II Mosque that sits at the edge of the sea

I arrived in Casablanca with a horrible cold (thanks England!) but I was happy to be hauling my trusty (and, as usual, overpacked) backpack onto my shoulders once again. Following Intrepid’s advice, I negotiated a taxi fare of 300 dirhams and was dropped off at my hotel, where the tour group was due to meet in a couple of hours’ time.

I went up to my room to meet my roommate, who I was told had already arrived. She turned out to be Rita, a friendly, funny 19-year-old from China. Rita and I became fast friends and we rushed out to see the sights of Casablanca together.

It was a very hasty self-guided tour of Casablanca. Culture shock hit as we walked through our very first Moroccan souk and waved away dozens of persistent salespeople who offered everything from henna tattoos to carpets and lamps. We hurriedly made our way to the famous Hassan II Mosque, which sits on the edge of the city, looking out to sea.

As I stared up at it, my travel bug came out of hibernation and fluttered excitedly in my chest. This morning I had been walking through a sleepy town in England, and now here I was in dazzling Morocco, looking up at a majestic tower that shone against a backdrop of sea and sky.

The moment was short-lived. Rita and I snapped a few pictures and ran to catch a taxi back to hotel for the meeting that would kick off our tour.

Rabat, Moulay Idriss and Volubilis

Getting lost among the columns of the Mausoleum of Mohammed V

After meeting our friendly tour leader, Hicham, and enjoying a first group dinner the night before, we kicked off our first day as a bunch of intrepid travellers by getting up early and heading to the train station. There were 16 of us, and as we engaged in the normal getting-to-know-you small talk, the diversity of the group became apparent. There were Aussies, Kiwis, Americans, Chinese, Filipino, Dutch and English, ranging in age from 19 to 70. Some people were outgoing, others quieter. Everyone came with different interests, from weaving to cooking, hiking to photography.

Walking through the city streets of Rabat, we looked up and saw this incredible painting on one of the buildings

We were going to be travelling in second class to Morocco’s capital city, Rabat. Hicham had prepared us for a busy, chaotic journey, but upon boarding, I was surprised to find that the trains were modern and comfortable. I spent the journey sitting next to a man in aviator sunglasses and a traditional Djellaba (a loose-fitting robe), who watched music videos on his phone for the entire journey, and occasionally couldn’t restrain himself from joining in with some small, but well-executed dance moves.

Despite being the capital, Rabat is only the seventh-largest city in Morocco. Hicham gave us maps and sent us off to explore on our own. Having terrible map reading skills myself, I stuck with my new intrepid friends, and we somehow managed to find our way to Kasbah des Oudaias, which looks out onto the Atlantic Ocean.

By chance, we stumbled across a breathtaking bar floating on the edge of cliff above the water, and decided to have a break from exploring. It was here, gazing out over the blue expanse, that we were introduced to the standard drink of Morocco – tea packed with fresh, aromatic mint and plenty of sugar.

Wandering by the canal in Rabat

After exploring the spectacular Mausoleum of Mohammed V with its regal guards, it was time to get back on the train (this time in luxurious first-class style!) and nap for a few hours. We awoke to find ourselves in Meknes, but were soon packed into taxis and travelling through stunning green countryside towards the village of Moulay Idriss.

When we arrived, donkeys carried our luggage up the steep steps to our accommodation – a traditional ‘riad’, which, from the outside is just a door in a wall, but upon entering turned out to be a beautiful multi-story house, with the rooms around the edges and a spacious courtyard in the centre that lets you look up through the levels to the ceiling.

The tomb of Moulay Idriss I – this photo was taken over a barrier that stops non-Muslims from entering

Moulay Idriss is a sacred place for Muslims, and many pilgrims come to pay their respects at tomb of Moulay Idriss I, who was apparently the guy who brought Islam to Morocco. As non-Muslims, we weren’t allowed to enter the tomb, but we explored the village, with its maze-like streets that took us higher and higher, up many steps, until we were rewarded with a gorgeous view over the town and the surrounding hills. The day ended with a feast of chicken tagine, meatballs, vegetables and couscous.

I felt like I’d been transported to Italy at the ancient Roman city of Volubilis

We found ourselves amongst these green rolling hills the next day, when we visited the ruins of the ancient Roman city, Volubilis. Amazingly well-preserved, here we marvelled at colourful Roman mosaics and bathhouses.

This was something I definitely hadn’t expected from Morocco – standing amongst the stone columns and serene countryside, I felt like I was Italy. No wonder the Romans decided to build here!


So many olive stalls in Fez’s souks – yum!

Just a short train ride away, our next day began in Fez. Does any name sound as exotic as Fez? I don’t think so. Fez is the second-largest city in Morocco, and it would be extremely easy to get lost in its medina, or old town, which is one of the largest urban car-free areas in the world. Luckily, we had a lovely woman to guide us through this labyrinth. She led us down streets so narrow you couldn’t stretch out your arms, twisting and turning and leading us deeper into the heart of the medina.

A doorway in one of Fez’s narrow streets opened into a beautifully decorated mosque 

When we finally found ourselves getting bumped and jostled in those bustling souks I’d dreamt of, it was everything I’d hoped it would be. The never-ending rows of stalls were piled high with everything from dates, olives, snails, mint, wool, pink flower petals and even mobile phones. Men with heavily-laden donkeys came barging through, shouting “watch out, watch out” for the benefit of clueless tourists like ourselves. It was magical.


Admiring the view over the blue city of Chefchaouen

After an exhausting but wonderful day spent tramping through the loud, smoky, bustling maze that is Fez, it was definitely time for a change of pace. But I could never have imagined how perfect the city of Chefchaouen would be for this change.

The hotel was the first surprise. We were led through to a sparkling blue swimming pool overlooking a city that was also blue, and I think I speak for the group when I say we felt like we’d hit the jackpot. Our rooms were separate little villas sitting high on a hill, with windows that looked out on the beauty below.

I could live in this place and never need to see another colour ever again!

If looking out over the city was amazing, entering it took my joy and amazement to another level. Everything was painted powder blue, from the doors, to the walls, to the floor. Perhaps as a result of the colour, a feeling of calm washed over me like water the moment I stepped inside. I realised that Morocco had again surprised me with something completely unexpected, and this made it all the more special.

Tangier and Marrakech

Tagines for sale in Marrakech

A couple of dream-like days were spent wandering the streets of Chefchaouen and hiking high into the surrounding hills for some stunning views. After which, sadly, it was time to leave, as we journeyed on to the coastal city of Tangier, where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. Here we drove through the aptly named ‘Hollywood’ area, where wealthy Moroccans, foreigners and even the King of Saudi Arabia own mansions that drip with opulence and have views to die for.

Looking out onto the meeting of the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean in Tangier

After a day spent exploring some caves and doing a bit of shopping in Tangier’s busy medina, we arrived at the train station at midnight, ready to board the overnight train to Marrakech.

The train journey was surprisingly comfortable, apart from a few hours in the middle of the night when the air conditioning malfunctioned and it got so suffocatingly hot that I felt like I would drown in a pool of my own sweat. But we all made it there alive, and by that afternoon we were feeling fresh and ready to see the city.

Marrakech gave me a glimpse at the two extremes of Moroccan life. At one end of town, teenagers shopped for the latest western fashions in shiny shopping malls, while at the other, men in Djellabas knelt on the floor of the mosque.

The souks in Marrakech are lit with the glow of hundreds of exotic lamps

After getting lost in the huge souk for several hours, we had our final group dinner in the famous Jemaa el-Fnaa square. As darkness fell, this expansive, UNESCO World Heritage Site became packed with bright lights, snake charmers and smoky food stalls, and filled with the din of jangling music and thousands of excited voices. It was an exhilaratingly exotic assault on the senses, and the perfect way to end our Moroccan adventure.


The busy Jemaa el-Fnaa square, before the smoky food stalls popped up at dusk


Skip forward to Dublin

It doesn’t matter how many Irish people you’ve met before, there’s something magical about immersing yourself in the homeland of this lilting, lyrical way of speaking.

Top of the mornin’ to ya!

Sorry, I know there’s probably not a single Irish person out there who actually says that, but I couldn’t help myself!

My apologies for not posting anything on here for so long. I was planning to continue writing about every city that I visited and somehow catch up to the present, but, guess what, it never happened. I’ve had to accept that I’m just too far behind, so I’m skipping the rest of my travels through Italy, England, France and Spain (I’ll write about them one day), and I’m going to tell you about Dublin.

My favourite thing about Dublin is hearing marvellous Irish accents everywhere you go. It doesn’t matter how many Irish people you’ve met before, there’s something magical about immersing yourself in the homeland of this lilting, lyrical way of speaking. The voice in my head (which I regularly talk to) suddenly became Irish too. Walking down O’Connell Street, I found myself thinking, “Jaysus, it’s freezing. Sure, I’ll just pop in here and find some warmt.” (Apologies to all Irish people for that!)


Molly Malone

As if that wasn’t enough, the inside of my head has also had to put up with a song called ‘Molly Malone’ that’s been playing on repeat. I had never heard this song before I came to Dublin, but apparently it’s pretty famous. This fictional lady not only has a song, she also has a statue, and it was here, on my first day in Dublin that I was introduced to her.

The guide on my free walking tour took us to a statue of a lady with a cart, and, ignoring our embarrassed grins, made us link arms and sing a rousing rendition of ‘Molly Malone’. The chorus goes like this:

Alive alive oh-oh, alive alive oh-oh, crying cockles and mussels, alive alive oh! (Repeat one dozen times.)

Since that first day, I have heard ‘Molly Malone’ played through the speaker systems of souvenir shops, performed by buskers on the street and singers in pubs, and even belted out by my tour bus driver during a day trip to Glendalough. Now I hear it in my head every minute of the day (and also when I wake up in the middle of the night).

St Patrick’s Cathedral.

There’s nothing like an Irish pub

Apart from talking and singing to myself, I have actually been exploring the city. It’s a fairly grey place, due to the ever-present clouds that hang low in the sky and which is accentuated by old stone buildings such as St Patrick’s Cathedral and Dublin Castle. But step inside any pub or cafe and the colour and warmth feels more intense than anywhere else in the world. There’s no way Irish pubs would have the character that they do if it were always sunny outside. Full of dark polished wood, twinkling lights, steaming plates of stew and mashed potato and the softly jangling melodies of Irish folk music, they don’t disappoint.

If I was better organised and if I were staying longer, I would go to places like Kilmainham Gaol where the 1916 rebels were executed and the Dublinia Museum to learn about Vikings. Instead, I have experienced Dublin largely by walking alongside the river, shopping on Grafton Street and sipping Irish coffee in a cosy cafe. And I’ve loved every minute.

A medieval cemetery in Glendalough, only an hour’s drive from Dublin.


Staggering through the opening at the top and out onto the balcony, we panted happily as we took in the dazzling view of Florence that lay below us.

After the chaos of Napoli and Rome, we were ready for a change of pace. Florence was the perfect choice. We stayed just outside the city in a gorgeous Airbnb apartment and the first time we made the 20-minute walk down the hill past fields and trees, we marvelled at the refreshing peace and quiet.

Passing through the city walls was like being transported back in time – there were no flashing signs, no tacky advertisements, just old world charm. The streets were cobbled and the buildings were made of stone. I felt out of place in my practical denim shorts and runners. I wished I was wearing a floaty dress and leather sandals instead.

The tale of the gelati

We stopped at the first gelati store we came to, eager to add another classic element to this Italian dream. A huge variety of flavours was piled into glistening mountains of colour on the counter, and we struggled to make a selection. Finally, we gave our orders and tried not to drool as the lady scooped it into waffle cones. I was thinking about how refreshing and delicious my gelati would taste when the lady’s voice cut through the haze.

“13 euros,” she said.

I looked at the 10 euro note that I was already holding out to give her and from which I had fully expected change.

“Oh,” I said, confused. “Oh ok, just a second,” as I rummaged in my purse for some coins.

We walked away, stunned.

“Thirteen Euros! We exclaimed to each other again and again. Thirteen Euros!”

We agreed that this had better be the best damn gelati ever made, and we took our first taste. Well, I can’t lie, it actually was the BEST damn gelati ever made. It tasted like real fruit, intensified. There were whole cherries hidden beneath the creamy surface that released bursts of juicy flavour when you least expected it. It was absolutely heavenly. But still, thirteen Euros!

Our first, beautiful, view of Florence.

Bloody tourists (not us!)

We wandered on, gelati in hand (and sometimes on nose), through an expansive square, down a winding, shop-lined street and came to a bridge where hundreds of people were congregating. There were large tour groups huddled around their guides’ raised umbrellas, couples holding hands as they peered through the windows of numerous jewellery shops and women dragging their husbands into dress shops to watch them try on floaty, pastel-coloured dresses. Mostly though, there were people taking photos of the gorgeous view from the bridge. As we neared the heart of the city, the crowds became thicker and thicker; a dense mass that had to be burrowed through.

We dug through to the centre and found ourselves staring up at the huge cathedral, known as Florence’s Duomo. I tipped my head back and let my eyes open wide to take it in. I have seen many cathedrals over the years, and they are generally made of stone. But the Duomo was striped like a candy cane; green and white marble giving it a totally unique appearance.

The incredible Duomo of Florence.

The main tower of the Duomo was closed that night, but we bought our tickets and came back the next morning to join the queue. After standing in line for 20 minutes without taking a single step forward, I went to investigate. I followed the queue for what seemed like miles around the outside of the building, and when I found the front, was told that the wait time was likely to be two hours. We gave up and decided to come back later in the day.

We walked all around the town, me stopping in shops to gaze longingly at dresses I couldn’t afford and Richard hovering awkwardly in the doorways. We inspected many leather wallets to see if they met Richard’s high standards for a replacement to his ripped one. None of them did. We ate salami and zucchini paninis for lunch and then took a chance on a different gelati store, thinking it couldn’t possibly be as expensive as the last place. To our amazement, it was 13 Euros again! Thirteen Euros!

Our lucky day

After spending the afternoon in the peaceful Boboli Gardens, where we found green lawns and marble fountains overlooking the city, we returned to the Duomo to see if the queue had become shorter. We were surprised to find that there was no queue, and we rushed to the door, only to be told that the tower had closed early for the day. Crestfallen, we let out disappointed sighs.

“Can we use our tickets tomorrow, then?” I asked the guard.

“Oh, you have tickets?” he asked. “Go in, go in!”

We were ushered through the door, which was quickly shut behind us. Looking at each other, bewildered, we shrugged and grinned. We were in, and there was no one else around! We began climbing, stamping up step after step, heads down and hands skimming the walls of the narrow spiral passageway that went up and up and up.

It was worth the effort. Staggering through the opening at the top and out onto the balcony, we panted happily as we took in the dazzling view of Florence that lay below us. An American guy high fived us as we tried to catch our breath. “You made it!” he grinned at us. “Now take a load off and enjoy!”

Enjoy, we did. It doesn’t matter how many times you look down on this beautiful old city, you never get tired of it. The buildings are cream or pale yellow, and every single one (I mean it – every single one!) of them has a red-tiled rooftop. This sea of red rooftops, broken only by the green of tall fir trees, is like something out of a fairy tale. The best part though, was that there was hardly anyone up there. We were free to gaze wherever we wanted, without being jostled and elbowed.

Red roofs as far as the eye can see!

How romantic…

We had dinner (more pasta – definitely living the Italian dream!) and then walked up a hill (my legs were getting very weary by this stage) to Piazzale Michelangelo. We had been told that watching the sunset from this vantage point is a must-do when visiting Florence. Apparently many people had been given the same advice, because the place was packed.

I sat alone amongst a throng of kissing couples while my brother went off and took a million photos. The river shined gold and the sky lit up with clouds of pink and slivers of red that changed before my eyes. I tried to ignore the soundtrack of wet, sucking noises provided by the couples around me and wondered if maybe one day I would be lucky enough to find someone (other than my brother!) to enjoy sunsets with. The sun sank lower and the colours deepened, streaking through the sky like flames. For now, I decided, I was happy just to experience it.

Add your own kissing noises to get the full effect..



I looked up and saw the Colosseum right in front of me, gleaming golden in the fading sunlight. My first thought, was, “oh my god, it’s so big!”

By the time we reached Rome I was starting to feel like a seasoned traveller. I felt like I was picking up the language, and felt a small thrill each time I managed a successful exchange in Italian, no matter how brief.

For example:

Me: “Due biglietti, per favore.”

Ticket person: “Due Euro.”

Me: “Grazie.”

Ticket person: “Prego.”

It’s not much, but it’s enough to get me where I’m going, and I haven’t yet had any need to say “nello zucchero” (“it’s in the sugar” – thanks, Duolingo app!).

Rome was an exhilarating whirlwind of motorbikes, scooters and Smart cars rushing by in every direction. I soon learned that to cross the road, even at a pedestrian crossing with a flashing green man, you must show no hesitation, otherwise drivers will happily speed through a red light.

After risking our lives on several main roads, we walked down a narrow cobbled street and crossed a footbridge that provided a rare bit of safety from the traffic. As I crossed, I looked up and saw the Colosseum right in front of me, gleaming golden in the fading sunlight. My first thought, was, “oh my god, it’s so big!”

I don’t know why I was so surprised by its size, but I was completely awestruck, and couldn’t stop gaping as we walked up and did a lap around it. I was still looking over my shoulder at the ancient structure as we left and walked up the street to find a restaurant with a view. I don’t care how touristy our restaurant was, the pasta was delicious, the glasses of wine large and the view of the Colosseum as the sun set behind it was amazing. Well, it was for me anyway. Richard unfortunately got the seat with his back to the view. But I told him regularly how amazing it was, so he didn’t really miss anything…

Such a great view 🙂

Learning the important bits of history

The next day, we came back to the Colosseum, intending to buy a ticket and go inside. Unlike the peace and quiet of the night before, in the morning it was surrounded by tourists and hugged by several long queues. We stood for a few minutes blinking cluelessly at the chaos and made ourselves easy targets for a fast-talking tour salesperson. Not knowing what to expect but hopeful at the promise of skipping the queue, we joined the tour, which was a small group led by a jolly guide called Roberto.

Roberto told us that the Colosseum’s pockmarked appearance was the result of people centuries ago digging into the stone to steal the iron bars that held the structure together. They also stole the marble slabs that once covered the seats and some of the walls. He pointed out a crude drawing of a penis carved high into one of the outer walls, explaining that this was a prostitute’s sign, an advertisement to men of the day who were looking for a good time. Roberto said we probably wouldn’t remember much of what he told us, but we would remember this. He was right.

He also gave us some of the gorier details of the Colosseum’s history, such as the fact that the Romans sometimes used live criminals, covered in tar and burned alive, as human torches to light the stadium for evening shows. We all shuddered with a thrill at the horror of it and leaned closer to hear more of the Romans’ barbaric practices.

After a fascinating tour of the Colosseum, we moved onto a tour of the Palatine Hill and Roman Forum, something about which I knew nothing whatsoever. Luckily we had another excellent guide, called Francis, who was funny and knowledgeable, and a little like Chris Rock. He had one rule – he would teach us the history first and we could take photos later, “so we would at least know what we were taking photos of”, he said. After a quick photo break, he would yell, “ok, no more selfies! Too many selfies make you selfish!”

One of the buildings inside the Roman Forum.

Oh my god, we’re at the Vatican

Very impressed with our two guides, we handed over €55 to the same company for our tour of the Vatican the next day. The day didn’t start very well. I wore the wrong shoes for the long trek from our accommodation to the Vatican, so before the tour had even started my feet were shredded with stinging blisters that made me wince with every step. When we joined our group, we found that it was not small like our other tours, but comprised of around 50 people. We were given headphones to hear our guide, but they kept cutting out as he dashed from room to room, losing half the group in the crowds. He was also hopelessly dull, so even when I could hear him I struggled to listen.

Despite not getting much from the tour guide, the Vatican museums seemed to house some interesting paintings and very impressive tapestries and frescoes. The real reason everyone is there, of course, is to see the Sistine Chapel. It didn’t disappoint. I forgot remove my hat, so I was told off as I went in, then guards repeatedly shushed the crowd over loud speakers.

I squeezed into the busy room, found a place to stand and, with a huge amount of anticipation, looked up at the ceiling. At first it was too much to take in, there was so much going on up there. But as I took my gaze from corner to corner, I was drawn to the largest figures. Their legs hung out of the painting so realistically that it was both disconcerting and beautiful at the same time. Their faces were lit by paint, giving them a glow as real as if spotlights were pointed at them. It was incredible.

Shuffling out of the Chapel, still grimacing from the pain in my feet and now with a crick in my neck to add to my woes, I felt pleased that I had experienced one of the world’s great artworks for myself, and instead of simply seeing it and taking a picture (you’re not allowed to anyway) I’d had a real, emotional response to it.

Looking up inside the Pantheon.


Feeling like a confused cow in Pompeii

There were people absolutely everywhere, moving in herds and blindly following the umbrella of their respective tour guide.

The ancient city of Pompeii is just a short train ride from Napoli and somewhere I was very excited to visit. We bought our tickets for the train, which was called the Circumvesuvio, and found a place on the platform among a throng of tourists and locals jostling for a position at the front. After waiting a good while, the train finally rolled in, also packed full of people. I waited patiently at the side of the door, expecting to let a few people off before getting in. Being used to queues and order back home, I wasn’t prepared for the way Italians enter a train.

As soon as the doors opened there was a surge on the platform as every single person pushed to get in as quickly as possible, forcing the poor people who were exiting the train to burrow out, crouched low with their arms over their heads and a determined look on their faces. Old women got knocked aside and a small boy nearly had his arm ripped out of its socket as his mother yanked him behind her.

Richard and I managed to squeeze into a carriage, where it was a body to body crush, everyone swaying together in the hot, trapped air as the old train clattered towards its destination.

Joining the herd

The train ride was just the beginning. Visiting Pompeii allowed to me to fully empathise with how cows must feel. There were people absolutely everywhere, moving in herds and blindly following the umbrella of their respective tour guide. Because of the rocky, uneven ground everyone had to watch their feet, so we traipsed through this magnificent city, heads down, getting shoved from every angle and trying not to get swept into another herd.

Despite feeling like a confused cow, I very much enjoyed Pompeii. Our guide, who introduced every fact by saying, “remember…”, as though we might be tested at the end, was excellent. She showed us the grooves in the street that had been left by carts, the shop counters with deep holes in them for keeping food hot, the bath houses with bathing areas of a variety of temperatures and a huge mansion, where the richest of families lived in luxury.

A bakery.

I couldn’t believe the scale of it. I mean, I had heard that Pompeii was a preserved city, but I was still shocked that it was really like walking through an entire city, with wide main streets featuring pavements and crossing areas, a large main square with a fountain and aqueduct and hundreds of house-lined streets to get lost in.

Ducking into the different rooms of people’s houses and peering into the ovens of the many bakeries, even visiting the brothel with its many rooms, each furnished with a stone bed, really did bring the history to life. Rather than looking at some old vases and pots in a museum, you can walk the streets, stand in rooms and sit in theatres where people walked and stood and sat more than 2000 years ago. It was just so… real.

A shop counter with holes in which to keep hot food.

Too much thinking

All this made me think that maybe 2,000 years really isn’t as long ago as it seems. Sure, a lot has changed since then, but the essence of life is still the same. Work, eat, find entertainment, raise a family, grow old. If you think about it in terms of people’s lifetimes, with the average age of a human from then to now being 50 years, then 2,000 years is only about 40 lifetimes ago. If you thought about 40 individual people, and the changes each would have seen during their life, it gives you a real sense of the speed at which the world has progressed.

I pondered this as I walked around the city. Pondering is always dangerous, and soon I was thinking about the changes I had already seen in my lifetime, and those I will never get to see. One of the biggest issues I have with being a part of human existence (yes, I know I have issues) is that it’s like reading a book but never getting to find out how it ends. Will aliens take over? Will a virus wipe us all out? Will Kim Jong-un launch a nuclear attack on the rest of the world? I really feel like I’m missing out by not knowing (actually, if Kim Jong-un blows us up I probably will know about it – just not for very long). One frustrating question led to another, and soon I was wondering about what is outside our universe, something I try not to dwell on too often, as it makes my mind hurt. I just can’t cope with not knowing things.

So I was walking through the streets of Pompeii, questioning everything I know and don’t know about life, the universe and everything, when the tour ended and I realised I was starving.

The inner garden of a mansion.

A piece of pizza at the Pompeii Cafe and Richard and I were ready for more. We walked until our feet were sore, and then we kept walking, always finding another street to venture down. One of the most evocative images of the day was seeing the plaster casts that had been taken of the voids left by dead bodies in the hardened ash. One man lay on his front, his hands covering his face as he suffocated in a cloud of thick volcanic ash. Another cast showed a baby, its hands held up longingly, probably for its mother, who would never come. We saw the skeletons of a group of slaves who were kept in a cell and their desperate attempts to claw a hole through the wall.

I left Pompeii feeling exhausted and sore-footed, but also extremely grateful that I had been given a real window into the lives of these ancient people. I comforted myself that even though I might never find out what happens at the end of the book, at least I have access to the first part of the story.

Pompeii man
The cast of a man who died in a cloud of ash. (Photo credit: Richard Eaves)


Pacing the pavements of Napoli

As we walked down a dirty, graffitied street, I began to question what I knew about Napoli and why we had decided to come here. So far it seemed busy, dirty and dodgy.

From Bari, we got a bus to Napoli. I’ve never been motion sick in my life, but I spent the entire three-hour journey feeling like I was going to be sick. I stared straight ahead, concentrating on making it to Napoli without having to run to the tiny, foul-smelling cubicle at the back of the bus. I was vaguely aware that there were gorgeous green rolling hills outside my window, but I couldn’t enjoy them at all.

We arrived and, walking shakily along a very busy road, searched for a taxi to take us to our accommodation. A man in an unmarked white car saw an opportunity to exploit a couple of clueless tourists.

“You need a taxi?” he shouted, as we shook our heads and walked on, searching for something more official. This didn’t deter him; he drove after us, pulling up right in front of where we were walking. Getting out of his car and chasing us down the street, he explained, “you need a taxi, I am a taxi,” as if we were a bit simple and hadn’t understood him.

Since I was still feeling wobbly and we couldn’t find any proper taxis, we relented and let him put our bags in the car. As soon as we had started driving we passed the official taxi rank, full of legit taxis waiting for passengers.

He got us to our accommodation and tried to charge €20 for the 10 minute ride. Luckily our AirBnb host had told us that a taxi should cost €8, so Richard stood firm and bargained him down to €10 while I waited weakly.

As we walked down a dirty, graffitied street, I began to question what I knew about Napoli and why we had decided to come here. So far it seemed busy, dirty and dodgy.

After turning a few more corners however, the narrow street opened into a wide square, with a statue in the centre that stretched high into the sky. This was more like it! After a bit of rest in our Airbnb apartment I was feeling better and ready to explore. We wandered through the UNESCO-listed old town, and discovered gorgeously old buildings and a different enthralling basilica or cathedral (I don’t know the difference, to be honest) on every corner.

Getting cultural

We spent the next day in Napoli rushing from site to site. First was the Catacombes of San Gennaro, where our enthusiastic and knowledgeable young guide led us through the eerie, glowing passageways, pointing out hundreds of spaces cut into the rock where people had been laid to rest; the richer bodies with colourful frescoes painted above them and the poorer bodies stacked up, one on top of the other.

The catacombs, with hundreds of burial spaces cut into the walls.

Of course, the bodies had been removed from the Catacombs long ago, so, not wanting to miss out on anything, we marched off to the Cimitero delle Fontanelle to see the bodies themselves. Sounds strange? Yes, it was.

The walls of the underground cemetery were lined with rows and rows of skulls staring vacantly at the tourists who snapped their photos. Thousands of long and short bones were piled high, gathering dust. I thought how strange it was that these bones had once belonged to living, breathing people – people who could never have known that they would one day be part of a macabre tourist attraction.

Weird to think these were once people…

More marble sculptures

From there, we journeyed on foot to the Museo di Nazionale, getting caught in an epic downpour on the way, so that we arrived with dripping hair and squelching shoes. The museum was full of marble sculptures, mosaics and more marble sculptures, and did nothing to improve my opinion of museums. I’m impressed by marble sculptures as much as anyone, but there are only so many you can look at before you start wishing you could go and watch cat videos on YouTube for a while instead. The most interesting part of the museum was the phallus room, which showed (quite clearly) the ancient man’s obsession with sex and the penis. Some things don’t change, I guess.

They are impressive, but there are only so many you can take.

After stopping for a lunchtime pizza (when in Napoli…) our next visit was to the Castel Sant’Elmo, a castle on top of a hill where we were treated to glorious views of the city. With an expanse of warmly colourful buildings – ochre, terracotta and scarlet – it looked like a storybook city, too perfect to be real.

By the time we made it to the waterfront promenade we were spent. My trusty Fitbit showed that we had walked 26,000+ steps and 20+ kilometres. We figured the best way to reward ourselves for our big day and to replenish our energy for the next day was to eat a large bowl of pasta for dinner, and follow it up with a decadent chocolate and strawberry cannolo each for dessert. Perfetto!

The gorgeous view from Castel Sant’Elmo.



Bari – Buongiorno Italia!

“I had thoroughly enjoyed travelling solo. It was a peaceful and introspective time, each experience more intense and special because it was just mine. It definitely wouldn’t be the last time I would travel alone, but for now I was happy to have some company.”

After ten days of solo travel, it was time to meet up with my brother, Richard, who would be travelling with me for the next two months. He had been staying in Zakynthos too, just minutes away from me, attending his friend’s wedding.

Checking out of my apartment, I walked to his accommodation to meet him. The walk was made much harder by my heavy backpack, and more embarrassing by the locals staring curiously at me as I tramped along the road looking like a packhorse.

When I first saw Richard waiting for me, it was a strange moment of ‘what are you doing here?’ but also ‘phew, a familiar face!’ We hugged and laughed at this odd but exciting situation.

I had thoroughly enjoyed travelling solo. It was a peaceful and introspective time, each experience more intense and special because it was just mine. It definitely wouldn’t be the last time I would travel alone, but for now I was happy to have some company. I felt a surge of relief, as though I could now let my guard down a little and pass some of the responsibility of getting from A to B onto someone else (it helps that Richard is much better with maps than I am!).

Look who I found! (Hint: that’s Richard.)

The people you meet

We were booked to take the overnight ferry from Patra to Bari, in Italy. After taking the bus and the short ferry from Zakynthos, we successfully arrived in Patra. We were waiting for a local bus to take us to the port when a short, grey-haired, woman approached us.

“Where are you going?” she demanded, her eyes scanning frantically between Richard and myself. I politely told her that we were going to the port to get the ferry to Bari.

“Good,” she said quickly. “Me too. But people in this country lie to you – you can’t believe them when they tell you where the bus leaves from.”

I employed the standard nod and smile that is reserved for crazy people the world over. This was, however, the wrong move, because from that moment she decided to befriend us.

She was French, and although her grey hair and weathered skin made her look older, she was probably in her early forties. Her clothes were faded and she carried all her belongings in a large sports bag. She talked at us a million miles a minute, bragging about her career as a lawyer (a dubious claim) and telling us about how her credit card had been frozen by her bitter ex-husband who was jealous of her recent success. I knew where this was heading, but I’m weak. I suppose it’s my British DNA that forces me to be unfailingly polite, even to crazy people who are building up to asking for money.

Eventually, when we reached the port, she pounced on us with a request to borrow  20 for the ferry ticket and promised that she would transfer it to us electronically in a few days. Luckily our politeness didn’t extend that far, and we apologetically refused before awkwardly walking away from her and quietly congratulating each other on our escape.

On the high seas

The process to get on the ferry was slightly confusing. Having swapped our tickets for boarding passes and received the keys to our cabins, we wandered over to what appeared to be a security checkpoint, where two guards were chatting. We stood expectantly before them as they continued to chat for several minutes, then one of them walked off and the other turned away from us and busied himself with something. We continued to wait, and eventually, the guard who had walked off came back, glanced at our passports and sent us on our way.

Our bags were put through a clunky old x-ray machine, and then we stepped through some doors and out onto a huge, noisy expanse of tarmac, where large trucks were zooming around delivering goods to various ships. With no signs and no way to get back through the door we had come through, we stood there blinking for a few moments, wondering whether to take our chances on the truck-filled tarmac. Thankfully, just then a shuttle bus pulled up and took us to our ferry.

I felt a tiny bit like I was boarding the Titanic, as we were greeted by white-uniformed staff and led up a red velvet carpet. We were taken down a long, straight corridor with portholes along the side, then arrived in a plush reception area, where a very cheerful attendant showed us upstairs to our cabins. We had each booked a bed in a four bed cabin, but these were separated into male and female. As we had arrived early, there was no sign of our cabin buddies, so we left our bags and went down for a drink.

No sooner had we sat down in the bar than we saw our friend, the crazy (but possibly legal-minded) French woman (evidently she found  20!). We spent the entire trip trying to avoid her, but luckily she seemed to have given up on us.

After a relaxing evening on the ferry, Richard and I said good night to one another and went back to our cabins. I opened the door reluctantly, expecting to find three other women packed into the tiny space. To my delight, I found an empty room! I raised my arm in a silent cheer and grinned at the empty beds. I settled down in my cosy room and had one of the best sleeps I’d had so far on my trip.

My very peaceful and spacious cabin – no need for those top bunks to be folded down!

I woke up and peered out my port hole to a view of bright blue sea, clear sky and nothing else. I had a surprisingly good shower and arrived downstairs to meet Richard, feeling refreshed and well-rested. We would soon be in Italy!

Buongiorno Italia!

The ferry docked and with backpacks weighing us down (me more so than Richard, because he, sensibly, packed way less!) we shuffled into the old town of Bari. It was quite a shock. Suddenly everything was so – well – Italian! Vespas sped past us down narrow, cobbled streets, washing hung from every balcony and old nonnas sat outside their front doors chatting. All the doors were wide open with white lace curtains billowing from them and music and chatter drifting from within.

Upon finding our B&B, the owner gave us a big smile and said, “buongiorno!” I felt like I was in a scene from Life is Beautiful. She mistook Richard for my boyfriend (something I think we’ll have to get used to on this trip) but I quickly corrected her and she went off to make up two separate beds.

We spent the day getting lost in the winding streets of the old town, trying not to get run over and occasionally coming across a church or cathedral to venture into.

These shrines were mounted on walls throughout the old town of Bari.

Attempting to be cultural we went into the Museo Civico, where an exhibition called GeekFest was being held. This exhibition consisted of one room of what I would call cartoons depicting lewd sexual acts, but I suppose others might call ground-breaking graphic art. Whatever you call it, the artist seemed to have an obsession with the words ‘whore’ and ‘slut’. We left after 10 minutes, much to the surprise of the girl who had sold us the tickets.

We had several interesting exchanges with locals throughout the course of the day. One man hurried us out of his shop after we tried to ask where the bus station was, saying, “ciao, no information here!”. When we found a bus station, the man in the ticket window looked at us and then back down at his phone, where he played Candy Crush for a few minutes before reluctantly speaking to us. This rudeness was, however, tempered by a very helpful young waitress who didn’t speak any English but held up various items of food and drink for us, trying to work out what we wanted to order.

After all this, we decided we needed to learn some Italian. Back in our room that night we both downloaded the Duolingo app and spent a couple of hours that evening practicing phrases such as ‘the man reads a book’ (l’uomo legge il libro) and ‘it is in the sugar’ (è nello zucchero), neither of which seemed particularly useful for day-to-day life. Nevertheless, we diligently learnt them, and I relished every rolling ‘r’ and dipping intonation. I looked forward to putting my skills into practice them the next day, and the next, as we now had three glorious weeks ahead of us in Italy.

Walking along the Bari waterfront.