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!).
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.
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!
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.
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.