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.”

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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!).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Walking along the Bari waterfront.

 

 

Zakynthos

“Life is bigger than my little problems, and more full of possibility than I know.”

I left Patra on a bus that would take me to a ferry and then into the main town of Zakynthos. I dozed a little during the hour it took to reach Kyllini, where we would board the ferry. Upon arriving at the port, everyone hurriedly piled off the bus and started pulling their luggage out of the hold. Unsure of whether I should do the same, I looked around for someone to ask.

The bus driver came over and started yelling something at a woman who was about to get her bag off (I don’t think he was yelling aggressively – some Greek people just seem to yell when they speak). After he finished yelling I tried to ask him if the bags should stay on the bus and he yelled something at me in Greek and motioned for me to go to the ferry. I took this to mean that I could leave my bag.

Once I was on the ferry, a spacious and luxurious vessel with a bar and a couple of shops, I felt very nervous about being parted from my bag. What if I had misunderstood him? What if the buses didn’t even get on the ferry? I started scanning around the other passengers, trying to see if they had luggage. Some had small suitcases, but nothing big, I thought.

I couldn’t help worrying, and spent the hour-long ferry ride in a state of anxiety, waiting to find out if I had lost everything.

As the ferry neared its port, everyone went down to the doors and waited in a huddle for them to open. The doorway to the bus area of the ferry was open, and lots of people went running down into the bowels of the boat, coming back a few minutes later with their luggage. Was this what we were supposed to do? Were we not getting back on the bus? I had been under the impression that we were, but now I wasn’t so sure.

The huge door lowered as the ferry docked and the people bolted, like a herd of cattle being let off a truck. The buses also started driving out, and I desperately tried to remember what my bus had looked like. After panicking for a few seconds as several identical buses drove out, I spotted the driver who had yelled at me. I tried to chase after the bus, as it looked like it was going to drive away, but it just did a big circle before stopping in the car park.

I went and hopped on with a handful of other people, and, without waiting to see if anyone else was coming, the driver closed the doors and drove off. We stopped briefly while he yelled at a truck driver who was in the way (he was a very shouty person) and then we continued the short distance to the town.

The doors opened and I jumped down, eager to see my bag. It was there – exactly where I had left it in the hold! Phew! I had never been so happy to heave it onto my shoulders.

Off the beaten track

I got a taxi to my accommodation, because it was about 20 minutes’ drive from the main town, in a little place called Psarou, which I had been led to believe would be more relaxing and less touristy that the larger resort towns.

It certainly was. After settling in to my studio apartment, I explored the area in search of the town. It was very rural – chickens pecked along the side of the road, fields of fruit trees rustled in the breeze and hardly any cars passed me as I walked. I found a sign pointing to Psarou Beach, and, seeing a glimmer of blue and some large umbrellas, followed it excitedly.

The beach turned out to be about 30 metres long and five metres wide. There was one restaurant (a taverna, as they are called there) and that was it. Too hungry to venture any further, I stopped in at the taverna and enjoyed some dolmades before walking up the path to see if I could find anything resembling a town.

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Stunning view from the only restaurant in Psarou.

After about an hour’s walk and some help from a Swedish woman who was also searching, I finally made it to Alykes, where a huge stretch of beach was covered with sunbathing tourists, and a main street was packed with restaurants, bars and tour companies. It suddenly felt good to be among other tourists on holiday, doing holiday things. I was ready for a holiday.

By this point, my feet were aching and I couldn’t go on. I flopped into a beachside restaurant called ‘Paradiso’. It was everything you could want from an island bar. It was decorated with tiki torches, colourful lanterns and cushioned seats, and it had an English menu.

“Screw being intrepid,” I happily thought to myself as I ordered a mango smoothie and logged on to the free Wi-Fi.

A day on a boat

For my second day in Zakynthos, I had booked myself onto an all-day around-the-island boat trip. I was picked up from near my accommodation at 8.00am, the first person on a 50 seater bus. Being the low season, I was sure it wouldn’t fill up, but as we stopped at more and more hotels it became clear that I was wrong. By the time we got to the docks in Zakynthos town I saw that we were the last of three full buses to arrive at the boat.

There weren’t many seats left, but I found one that gave me a direct view out to sea. Sitting across from me was a girl who also seemed to be on her own. She told me her name was Yun and that she was from China. She had been travelling for almost year, on a long break from her job as a middle-school teacher. I had spent too many days by myself and was happy to make a friend. Yun and I became a team for the day.

The boat pulled out of the docks, and we stood at the side of the boat, the wind whipping our hair around our faces. I towered above Yun and occasionally had to lean down to hear what she was saying. She told me she had been in Australia for a few months at the beginning of the year. I told her about the time I spent in China when I was 14 years old.

As we chatted, the boat began its course around the island, providing lovely views of the coast and cliffs. After a while the scenery turned from simply gorgeous to full-on spectacular. The white cliffs that rose high above the water took on a bluish tinge from the water reflecting below. And oh, that water!

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen such blue water in my whole life,” I gasped to Yun.

It was the colour of pool tiles – bright, clean and aqua-blue. The pristine surface sparkled as shafts of light sliced through its shallow depths. It was too perfect to be real. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if a mermaid happened to pop out of the water to relax on a rock, so surreal was the scene.

The boat stopped at Shipwreck Bay, a stunning little cove at the bottom of the cliffs, where the old, rusty ruins of a ship on the beach only added to the natural beauty.

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Seriously – bluest water ever!

Photo mania

The only problem with travelling to amazing places is that they’re pretty popular. Hundreds of people offloaded onto the beach, all carrying towels, umbrellas and other beach accessories.

I took the opportunity to engage in one of my favourite pastimes; people-watching. I found that it didn’t matter where I looked, however, all I could see was one thing. People taking photos of themselves.

Couples awkwardly held kisses for several minutes, trying to find the best angle for both of their faces. A mother launched into a photo shoot of her teenage daughter, snapping shot after shot of the gorgeous blond girl (who could have been no more than 14 years old) posing like a Playboy model in the waves. Groups of friends flicked their hair and flexed their muscles as they took turns in various combinations.

Yun, herself, was obsessed with her selfie stick (“lots of Asians like these,” she told me as though I didn’t know), and she used it without a hint of self-consciousness – snapping away as she moved effortlessly through a repertoire of poses and facial expressions. When I offered to take a photo of her, so she didn’t have to use the stick, she directed me as to where I should stand and what angle to hold the camera at. Assessing the results, she returned the phone to her stick and took the photo again.

As I sat there watching people pose, click, check the screen and repeat, I couldn’t help thinking what a shame it was. Here we were on this incredible, out-of-this-world beach, and instead of just taking it in, everyone seemed intent on capturing the perfect image of themselves.

In fairness, I have taken hundreds of photos and even a few selfies while on my trip, but after getting my shots, I force myself to put the camera away and experience the scene without distraction. Because no photo is ever going to make you feel the way you did when you were actually there. If you waste the experience trying to get the perfect photo of yourself, sure, you might get a lot of likes on Facebook, but will you have the memory of sitting serenely and gazing in awe at the blueness of the sea?

And with that little rant over, I shall continue to tell you about the day!

The travel life

We departed Shipwreck Bay and wrapped scarves and towels around our shoulders, as the speed of the boat made the wind cold and strong. Next stop was the Blue Caves. These little caves were dotted all the way along the cliff face. Their name is not random – the brilliant colour of the water reflects onto the smooth white rock, giving each cave a mystical glow.

Yun and I both sighed and smiled at the seemingly endless beauty. Luckily Yun’s phone battery had died, worn out by all the selfies, and she turned her attention back to our conversation.

“Travelling has made me so happy,” she told me. “I have so much more confidence than before. I never would have thought I could do all this, but now I know I can.”

I nodded, knowing from experience how she felt. Knowing that after every trip you can see a change in yourself that never would have occurred if you’d stayed at home. I was thinking about my life and how I was ready for such a change, when the jangly Greek music that had been blaring through the boat’s speakers all day suddenly stopped. A moment later it was replaced by a song I knew well.

“Oh, life,” sang Michael Stipe. “It’s bigger. Bigger than you.”

“Yes, it is,” I thought. “Yes, it is.”

Life is bigger than my little problems, and more full of possibility than I know.

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Colourful houses in Zakynthos.

All at sea

As the boat finally came back to port, eight hours after leaving, I was yawning from all the fresh air. I said goodbye to Yun and got on the bus that would take me back to my accommodation. I checked with the driver that he could take me to Psarou, as this was quite far from where everyone else would be dropped off. He said “yes, of course” and off we went. I waited patiently while everyone was dropped off before me, and then when there were only a few people left, he walked back through the bus to check where we were all going. He remembered me and with a point and a smile said, “Psarou”.

Eventually I was the only person left. I tried not to let my eyelids close as the bus juddered down the narrow roads, and it was a while before I realised that this didn’t look familiar at all.

Getting up, I swayed down the aisle to the driver’s seat. As soon as he saw me, he smacked his hand over his mouth with a look of anguish, as he realised that he had forgotten about me and we were going to have to go all the way back.

Half an hour later, both myself and the driver were obviously feeling weary as we told each other, “sorry, sorry!” He dropped me off and I trudged back to my apartment. It was nearly dark, and when I walked into my empty room I felt a sudden rush of homesickness, which was quite unexpected after such a wonderful day.

I felt tired and alone. All I wanted to do was to sit on the couch at home and watch TV with my family. I knew this feeling would pass, but it wasn’t enjoyable.

I tried to remind myself that homesickness is part of the journey, and that I was still transitioning to travel mode. I put on some music, and let the familiar lyrics and melodies restore my resilience.

Although it was tough, I knew I could deal with a bit of homesickness. After all, it’s natural to want what is comfortable and safe. I thought back to what I had been pondering earlier that day and decided that a real change in my personality or outlook on life would not be gained simply through the viewing of beautiful sights (although I’m sure that helps!). It would be earned through the challenge of being out of my comfort zone, in a foreign place, without anyone to fall back on. Travel is not a holiday, it’s an experience, and I had committed to experiencing all of it, positive and negative.

I thought that night of my favourite quote from Jane Eyre (yes, I’m a book nerd). Here it is:

I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils.

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Zakynthos town.

 

Patra

“I passed the bus ride to Patra in a dream-like state, lost in my mind. I replayed memories, analysed regrets and wondered at my future. It was like a therapy session, and it only cost €14.”

The next stop on my trip was Patra, a port town on the west coast of Greece where I planned to spend a couple of days before getting the ferry to an island called Zakynthos.

Full of optimism, I said goodbye to beautiful Nafplio and boarded the bus, ready for a four-hour journey.

One of the things I love most about travelling is that it gives you the time and space to indulge in some serious thinking. Buses and trains are the best place for this – it’s something about the constant movement – you can let your eyes glide over the scenery, sometimes taking it in and sometimes seeing nothing at all. Meanwhile your mind has a chance to run wild, sometimes thinking profound thoughts, and sometimes thinking nothing at all. It’s a luxury we rarely get in normal life.

I passed the bus ride to Patra in a dream-like state, lost in my mind. I replayed memories, analysed regrets and wondered at my future. I won’t burden you with the specifics of my mind (that would take a while!) but suffice to say I had plenty to think about. It was like a therapy session, and it only cost €14.

The hand

After a quick bus changeover, which saw me running desperately for a bus that was pulling out, dragging my backpack behind me, I sat in my designated seat and was just sinking back into my reverie when I became aware of something dangling next to my face. I turned to see a large hand, complete with swollen sausage fingers and dirty fingernails, hanging over the seat, just centimetres from my face. It belonged to the man behind me, who was talking loudly on his phone. I noticed that his other hand was gripping my headrest, so that his large fingers were practically underneath my head.

Shocked at this rudeness, I sat up, turned around and gave him a sharp look that I believe said, “How dare you? Please move your horrible hand at once!”

Continuing to talk on the phone, his brief glance replied, “What are you going to do about it?”

I tried to ignore it for a while, but his hand was waving around while he talked, and eventually I couldn’t take it anymore. I picked up my bag and huffily moved to a spare seat – hoping that no one would get on and make me move. Luckily no one did and I was able to continue my therapy session in peace.

Still no navigational skills

Upon arriving in Patra, I had the address of my hotel but no map. I went into the bus station and asked at the ticket office if there was a tourist information centre.

“No,” was the curt reply from the girl in the booth.

“Do you have any maps?”

“No.”

I had no choice but to go to the taxi rank and get a ride. When I showed the driver the address of the hotel, he gave me a small smile, and said, “sure,” before driving me 500 metres up the road. That cost me €5. I made a mental note to download some offline maps to my phone.

Anywhere but here

Once I had checked into my hotel room, which was cold and soulless after my cosy room in Nafplio, I went back out into the town armed with a map that the hotel receptionist had given me. I wanted to find out if it was possible to do a daytrip to Delphi with a local tour company, so I wandered around in search of a tour company office or travel agent. I passed many offices that were now in disuse, with windows smashed and rubble piled inside. I got the feeling that Patra had seen better days.

Eventually, I stepped inside an open travel agency and asked if they had any tours to Delphi.

“No tours to Delphi,” the man answered apologetically. “I think there’s a local bus though.”

I checked the bus schedule and found that the bus to and from Delphi runs only once a day. I could go for two hours before returning, and if I missed the bus, I’d be facing a very expensive taxi ride. I decided that Delphi just wasn’t going to happen.

Resigned, I sat in a cafe where I was served by a very snooty girl, and tried to figure out what I would do here for another day and a half. Patra so far hadn’t made a good impression on me – it seemed run down, dead and offering nothing of much interest. The thought of spending another day here didn’t thrill me.

Still, according to the map Patra had a castle and a couple of cathedrals, so I thought I had better give it one last chance.

I climbed a very steep flight of stairs (more stairs – my legs were still sore from the last castle!) that led to the castle. When I got to the top I found that the castle had closed at 3.00pm.

I lazily strolled around the streets, passing some nice houses and some derelict ones. I found a nice old basilica and decided to take a look inside. The caretaker observed me warily as I wandered around craning my neck at the ornate ceiling. As soon as I left he locked the door behind me.

I made my way back into the centre of town where the main shopping street was. There were lots of shops – all the high street stores like Zara, H&M and Marks & Spencer – but they were all closed, and only a few people drifted around the city.

“There’s no way I’m staying here another day,” I thought to myself, and went up to my room to lie down.

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Nice street, lots of shops, but so dead.

The golden hour

I spent a couple of hours pottering around in my room before going out onto the balcony, which overlooked the main street. I noticed with surprise that the shops were open now and there were quite a lot of people down there, drinking and laughing. Music drifted up through the air. It all looked very festive. I decided to go and investigate.

I saw with shock and delight that this lifeless city had transformed into a buzzing metropolis. There were people everywhere; groups of uni students, families with young children and elderly couples, all dressed very stylishly and stopping constantly to say hello to friends they met on the street. The bars and restaurants were full, with tables spilling out onto the street and music pumping.

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The city came to life…

The buildings looked better now too, even the shabby ones, as shafts of golden sunlight gave the city a warm, magical appearance. I floated around, feeling happy to be part of the atmosphere. The people seemed friendlier than before, smiling at me as they passed and, as usual, gaping slightly at my height.

I walked down the pier just in time to see the sun set – a red, fiery disc that was soon hidden behind the mountains. I sat on the end of the pier and looked out to sea.

“This place isn’t so bad,” I thought. “I think I’ll stay tomorrow after all.”

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Just after the sun had set.

 

 

 

 

Nafplio

“Only a few days ago I was at home, watching TV. This is exactly what I had been dreaming of for years, except I hadn’t expected to be so overwhelmed.”

I caught a bus to Nafplio – a small, coastal town about two hours out of Athens. The journey was spent sandwiched between a small boy singing and chattering away in Greek (a little annoying, but cute) and a young couple kissing loudly in front of me, their faces pressed together at the gap between the seats, so it was all I could see (NOT cute). When the couple weren’t kissing they were whispering, stroking or tickling each other, the girl giggling shrilly. Occasionally the boy behind me would kick my chair.

I zoned out and let the scenery wash over me. Once we had passed through the industrial outskirts of Athens it was all sea and sky – the sky pale and chalky, blending almost indistinguishably with the sea at a hazy horizon.

After a while a Dutch backpacker got on the bus and sat beside me. We travelled along, me gazing out the window and she listening to her iPod, until I felt something slightly tickling my arm. Looking down I stifled a pathetic shriek as I saw a spider crawling up it. I shook it off as subtly as I could, but only succeeded in flinging it onto the wall below the window.

The Dutch girl gave me a sympathetic smile and offered her water bottle to bash it with. I gave it a go and it fell down into the gap between the seat and the side of the bus, where it couldn’t be reached.

“It’ll be ok,” I said. “I’ll keep an eye on it.”

“I’m ready!” she laughed, holding her water bottle up.

A little while later I was once again gazing out the window, caught up in my thoughts, when a sudden whack on my shoulder jolted me. I turned my head to see the girl peeling her water bottle from my t-shirt, leaving behind a squashed spider, guts leaking out on my shoulder.

She looked at me with an open mouth and a flash of horror at what she had just done.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” she started to say.

“No! Thank you – you saved me!” I told her gratefully.

We managed to flick the dead spider onto the floor of the bus and then, both relieved, we continued our respective pastimes, waiting for Nafplio.

Small town charm

As the bus pulled into the town, I was thinking, “this can’t be right, it doesn’t look very nice.”

It was with apprehension that I got out, but then I looked up and saw a magnificent castle sitting atop the hill. A sign for the old town took me down a charming little street lined with quaint white buildings, sprays of pinky red flowers hanging from balconies and rows of cute cafes. Every turn seemed to bring a more gorgeous scene – steep flights of white steps led up to buildings with colourful shutters and wrought iron balconies were filled with pots of bright blooms.

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The charming town of Nafplio.

I continued through the small town, smiling dreamily at everything I passed, including a small square where restaurants offered cushioned seats and shade from the sun. A patch of blue up ahead caught my attention and I almost skipped towards it in excitement. Turning a corner brought me face to face with a wide, sparkling turquoise expanse.

As I kept walking, it just kept getting better. I followed a narrow path around the coast, with rocky, cactus-filled cliffs stretching up on my left, and a long drop to the impossibly blue waters on my right. Every so often I came across a little shrine, complete with burning candles, flowers and a photo of a loved one. And high above it all was the castle, a trail of steep steps snaking around the hill to its walls and towers.

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The rugged coastline, and the castle atop the hill.

I realised that I was uttering little gasps of incredulity as I rounded each bend. Was I really here? Only a few days ago I was at home, watching TV. This is exactly what I had been dreaming of for years, except I hadn’t expected to be so overwhelmed. This lovely, magical place was fulfilling the need I had for unexpected beauty and unpredictable adventures. I felt completely free and unburdened. Finally.

Queen of the castle

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It looked like a long way up…

The next day, I pulled on my runners and prepared to make the trek up to the castle – Palamidi Fortress. Daypack hanging off my back and skin shining with sunscreen, I walked to the bottom of the steps.

I always find that when I’m about to start something I know will be hard work, my legs suddenly feel heavy and lifeless. Today was no different, and as I lifted my eyes and let them drift to the craggy summit way above, my legs gave a small wobble. Nevertheless, I took the first step and slowly began the winding ascent.

It wasn’t long before sweat was pouring down my face, my legs were burning and my chest was  wheezing, and I chastised myself for not doing enough exercise in the weeks before I left home. Luckily the view made it all worthwhile. Nafplio is stunning from any angle, but it seemed to get better and better with height. As I climbed, the view continued to delight, and I stopped to take photos (and catch my breath) several times along the way. Little did I know that what I was seeing now would be completely surpassed by what was to come.

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Totally worth the sweat!

After what seemed like thousands of steps – but really wasn’t that many, it only took me 20 minutes or so – I stepped through a brick archway and arrived at the fortress. Puffing and dripping, I paid my €8.00 and tottered shakily through another arch into the main part of the fort.

It was as gorgeous as I had hoped it would be. The old fortress was lovely, with an outlook that stretched across the little town on its peninsula and out to sea. There was much to explore, including many walls, stairs, arches and towers – even a tiny, dark room that was once used as a prison. I was preparing to head back down when I noticed a path that looked as though it led further upwards. Leaving the crowds, I snuck up the path and, sure enough, found that the fortress extended much higher that I had originally thought.

Exploring the ruins, I ducked through a small archway that took me outside the castle walls. The view hit me like a bucket of icy water to the face (in a good way, though). I gasped, my breath completely taken away. All I could do was stand and gape at the hugeness of it. I wish I could do it justice with words, but I’m sure I can’t. I’ll just say that it was one of the most perfect scenes I have ever encountered in my life. It was a view that made me feel lucky to be alive. I sat in complete silence, drinking it in for as long as I could.

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The never-ending blue view that took my breath away.

As I sat, I couldn’t help but ponder my reaction. I was so happy, and yet also a little scared that I might never feel this way again. This was the first time on my trip that I had experienced such incredible beauty. I reasoned that if I found it again, I might be so accustomed to seeing amazing sights that my emotions would not have the same intensity. The unthinkable alternative was that I might never again see anything to match it. Either way, I figured this was a unique moment, and I didn’t want it to end.

Sadly, I couldn’t stay up there forever because it was getting hotter by the minute. I carefully watched my feet as I took the steps all the way to the bottom of the hill, my legs shaky as I walked away. I was drenched in sweat.

I did what any sane person would do in this situation. I walked straight into town and got myself a gelati. It was cool and sweet and heavenly.

Would we call that a beach?

Refreshed a little, I decided to go for a swim. I headed to the only beach in Nafplio – an ‘organised’ beach. Coming from Australia, the concept of an organised beach was completely foreign to me. As I approached the area, I could already hear dance music pumping. There were rows of sun lounges and a large bar/cafe. I also saw with disappointment that the ‘beach’ was covered in large pebbles.

The water, however, looked sparkly and inviting, so I gingerly stepped onto the pebbles and hobbled across them, feeling like an idiot and trying not to cry “ow, ow, ow!” Somehow, I made it to the water and felt the deliciously cold waves lap over my skin (and soothe my sore feet!). I swam out and bobbed peacefully in the water, looking up at the rocky hills and the high fortress on which I had stood just an hour before.

When I came back to land, I hobbled back over the rocks and scored myself an empty sunbed. I was lying peacefully in the sun when a waiter came and asked what I would like.

“Oh, I’m ok, thanks,” I said.

He shook his head, crouched down beside me and said – as though to a small child – “the bed is free, ok? But you can’t lie on it unless you order something.”

“Really?” I asked incredulously.

“Really.”

“Ok, can I just have a bottle of water then, please?” I asked.

He gave me a look of open frustration and walked off.

When I thought about it, I supposed it made sense, really. They were providing the sun beds and umbrellas. But I was so indignant that the only way I could enjoy the beach for free was to lie on the hard and pointy pebbles, that I couldn’t accept this rule.

After a while, though, I started to feel guilty, so I ordered a club sandwich, which the waiter brought ungratefully, asking to be paid straight away. He slowly rummaged through his pockets, pretending to find some change, until I eventually told him not to worry, upon which he wandered off smugly.

Bloody organised beaches. I’m not one of those people who likes to find fault in countries other than my own, but we are seriously lucky in Australia to have unrestricted access to such amazing stretches of golden, sandy coastline.

On the plus side, it was a very comfortable sun bed, and the club sandwich was excellent.

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Didn’t want to risk a stolen camera at the beach, so here’s a shot of a lovely Nafplio square.

Athens: Part Two

On my second day in Athens, I awoke feeling refreshed and ready for the day. I walked to the metro station and hopped on a train, feeling almost like a local. There was no getting lost today – I knew exactly where I was going.

I had planned to get to the Acropolis early, before the hordes of other tourists, but I was still jet lagged, and it was about 10.00am by the time I arrived. There were already school groups and tour groups and every type of group imaginable clogging up the paths and clicking their cameras.

I felt weary as I tramped up the hill. The sun was beating down on me and making everything feel harder than it should, but I could see the Parthenon glowing at the top, and knew I wanted to get there.

I’m ashamed to say that I really don’t know anything about Greek history, so I stood dutifully at each sign and read all the information. I tried desperately to take it all in and be better than a typical tourist who comes to gawk and take pictures. Sadly though, I couldn’t focus on the information and couldn’t remember a thing that I’d read, except for some vague snippets about a poet called Menander, so in the end I just gawked and took my pictures.

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The poet Menander – apparently considered the father of psychological drama.

I followed the writhing throng of tourists to the top of the hill, trying not to step on small children or knock over old people, and doing my best to duck out of other people’s photographs.

As I passed through the ancient gateway and caught my first glimpse of the Parthenon, I saw that the entire front was covered in scaffolding. My excitement dropped a little, but it was grand nonetheless. As I walked around to the other side though, I was thrilled to see that it was scaffold-free and glistening gloriously in the sunlight.

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The reality of visiting the Parthenon.

I marvelled at the gigantic columns that are older than I can begin to comprehend. I took dozens of photos that are probably all exactly the same, and then I sat quietly among the crowds and soaked in the scene. For as far as I could see in every direction, there was a sprawl of white and beige houses with red roofs. Against a backdrop of clear blue sky, the Parthenon gleamed proudly above the city. It was with reluctance that I eventually wandered back down the hill, occasionally looking back for one last glimpse.

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The Erechtheion – another temple atop the Acropolis.

I went straight to the Acropolis Museum, which is beautifully designed, with glass floors that allow you to see the ruins of an ancient roman settlement beneath the building. I strolled through with my hands behind my back and smiled pleasantly at the rooms of marble statues and painted ceramic pots.

It was a nice museum, displaying the artefacts excellently, but I couldn’t help but feel that there must be others like me out there, who need a bit more creativity to help bring the period to life. The most interesting signs were those for children, which encouraged you to imagine how life must have been for the people of that time. Why can’t museums have more like this for adults too? Why must the details of history be written in such a dry and boring way?

After looking at as many statues as I could before my eyes glazed over, I wandered into the museum cafe – the best part of the museum, in my opinion – and enjoyed an iced coffee on a balcony where I had an unobstructed view of the Parthenon floating in the sky above.

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The sprawling city of Athens.

After a tiring morning of sightseeing, I was keen to get out of the city for a while. It was hot and busy and too much for my weary, jet-lagged body to bear. I found a tourist bus that would take me to a place called Vouliagmeni Lake where you could apparently swim in mineral rich waters and have your feet pedicured by fish that eat your dead skin. It sounded wonderful.

Although it threatened to rain during the bus journey to the lake, by the time I arrived it was sunny and warm again. The lake was just as gorgeous as I had hoped it would be, with tall cliffs towering on one side and a boardwalk filled with sun lounges and umbrellas on the other.

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Vouliagmeni Lake.

I gingerly waded into the water and gazed up at the cliffs. It was so peaceful. After the crowds of Athens, this felt like a true oasis. There were only a few dozen people there, some lazily breast-stroking across the lake, others sunning themselves on the lounges. I swam a slow lap and then settled down at the side to let the fish do their thing.

As soon as I was still, the fish were there, tickling as they bit softly at my feet. Before long I had a swarm, and could barely see my toes. I don’t know if this is normal or if I have an unusually large amount of dead skin… Maybe I’ll just blame the fact that my feet are very big.

It was surprisingly relaxing, lying there with fish nibbling at me as I enjoyed the view. I’m not sure if my feet were any softer for it, but it was a great experience.

I finished off the day by heading back to Athens, and amazingly I found myself on the street of great-looking restaurants that I had searched for the day before. I took myself to a rooftop restaurant that had a spectacular view of the Parthenon. The food actually wasn’t anything special and I was paying a fortune for the view. But I didn’t mind, Athens had won me over.

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My view from the rooftop restaurant.

Athens: Part One

On my first day of being a traveller, I attempted to walk from my hotel to the centre of Athens. I was prepared – I had looked it up on Google Maps using the hotel wi-fi and taken a screenshot of the map. Google said it would take 30 minutes, and it appeared to be a fairly straight line from A to B. Easy.

I realised about five minutes into my walk that this was certainly not going to be easy. For one thing, none of the streets seemed to have street signs. For another thing, I can’t read maps.

For some reason, even though I know that I’m crap with maps and have no innate sense of direction, in situations like this one, I always seem to decide that I can just follow my instincts. I followed my instincts for about an hour, blindly telling myself that I must be getting there. I walked down desolate, dusty roads where greasy-looking men gave me bemused stares, knowing I was a lost tourist. Passing taxis beeped hopefully at me, offering a ride. But I stubbornly persevered, getting sweatier and more frustrated, until I saw a sign that said ‘City Centre’ pointing back in the direction that I’d come from.

At this point, I decided to give in, turn on my data roaming, and call on trusty Google Maps to give me directions. Eventually, with the help of technology (I will learn to cope without it, I swear!) I trudged into the Monastiraki area of the city. I had never been so happy to see tourists in my life.

This tiring and frustrating start to my day seemed to dictate the rest of it. I walked and walked, never quite knowing where I was or how to get back to where I’d been.

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Monastiraki (Parthenon on the hill above).

I took in some wonderful sites, starting with the heaving Athens Flea Market, which, being Sunday, actually involved more than the usual tacky souvenir stalls. There was an enormous assortment of items, from furniture to religious paintings to cassette players. There were even large piles of dirty old reading glasses and wrist watches. The items were spread out on tables, the ground – even atop vendors’ cars.

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Chairs for sale at the Athens Flea Market.

When I escaped the maze that was the Flea Market, I followed a winding, narrow street up the hill, past the ancient Hadrian’s Library and into the shady, cobbled lanes that overlook the city. Everywhere I went, gypsy women and children tried to sell me things – roses or lace bedspreads – and their main tactic was to pinch my cheek and tell me that I looked like Angelina Jolie. Nice to hear, but since I have been told more than once that I look like Wallace (of Wallace & Gromit), I didn’t quite believe them.  

Along my travels I encountered the Athens Cathedral or ‘Mitropolis’, although I didn’t know that’s what I was looking at until, sitting peacefully in the shade of the cathedral, I found myself engulfed by a large tour group. They gathered around me and I listened to their guide talk about the history of the building. They seemed to think I was one of their own despite the average age being around 60, and when they broke for some free time the man next to me asked me what time we were supposed to meet.

“3.00pm” I told him confidently, having evidently been paying more attention to his guide than he had.

“Thanks,” he said. “See you in a bit, then.”

By the time I accidentally found the Hellenic Parliament building, just in time to see the changing of the guards, I was getting weary, and this is my excuse for finding the guard-changing ceremony a little lacking in pomp and circumstance. There were only two guards, and with a few hops and kicks it was over. I did, however, think it was nice that there was a soldier on hand to make sure the guards’ skirts were falling properly after getting kicked around.

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Guard getting his uniform fixed after kicking it around.

I was tired, sore and starving, so I decided to go back to a long street of restaurants I had passed earlier, that all had a lovely, traditional Greek look to them and smelled like saganaki and calamari. I was so excited for my impending feast that I strode off purposefully, once again following my instincts.

A couple of hours later, still walking and beginning to whimper, I had passed the same places again and again, but had come no closer to finding the saganaki-scented street. Dejected, I settled for a place called Lulu’s Bakery, which, as the name suggests, didn’t look authentic in the slightest and was clearly a tourist trap for those who can’t read maps.

“Oh, you’re back!” said the waitress at the front, who had twice tried to tempt me in as I passed by during my fruitless search.

The meal turned out to be, as expected, nothing special. I got charged for what I thought was free bread, the chicken souvlaki was dry and salty and the proprietor yelled loudly at one of his servers throughout my meal. On the bright side, I was given a complimentary shot of ouzo, which went down very nicely.

I returned to my hotel to rest my aching feet, and would come back with a (slightly) better idea of Athens geography the next day.

The journey begins

After months of planning and years of dreaming, I found myself on a flight to Singapore, the first leg of my journey. Leaving home was as tear-filled and traumatic as expected, but it’s amazing how quickly you can pull yourself together and get on with the task of travelling.

An hour into the flight I was sitting there bopping my head and tapping my feet (literally) to my excellent Aeroplane Playlist that featured such classics as ‘Hungry Heart’ and ‘We Gotta Get Outta This Place’. I was feeling great and looking forward to whatever adventures were ahead of me. After a couple of hours the greatness wore off a little and I became uncomfortable and restless. My poor nose was dried out, my stomach was bloated after the massaman curry I’d eaten (Singapore Airlines…it was a choice of curry or curry) and I just wanted to go to sleep. The joys of air travel! I thanked my past self for having the good sense to reserve exit row seats so that at least my legs weren’t suffering too.

After a stopover in Singapore where my connecting flight was delayed by an hour, I was on my way again, this time headed for London. I dozed on and off for 14 hours next to my exit row companions, who, thankfully, were as uninterested in chatting as I was. The most conversation we had was the occasional ‘excuse me’ as we awkwardly tried to pull our tray tables from within the arm rests.

Killing time in Heathrow

I was slightly worried that the delay in Singapore would make me rushed to make my flight to Athens. I was envisioning buses between the many terminals of Heathrow Airport and long queues at Customs. As it turned out though, the plane landed at the same terminal from which my Athens flight would be departing. I simply picked my bag up from the carousel, walked over to the check in desks and got rid of it again. I spent the next two hours trapped in Heathrow’s Terminal 2 – a small, rectangular space containing a handful of fancy, typically English stores like Ted Baker and Cath Kidston, and an even smaller handful of fancy food joints.

I was hankering for a McDonald’s burger (that’s right – hankering!). It would be cheap, satisfying and I could totally justify it to myself because of the ordeal of travelling. But there was no McDonald’s. There was a Heston Blumenthal restaurant, a mediterranean cafe and a restaurant called the Original London Pub. After doing about three laps of the terminal trying to decide where I would be happiest to part with my money, I settled on the London Pub and ordered a full English Breakfast. The waiter promised fried bread and fried eggs, and I figured, “I’m already feeling greasy from the flight, so what’s a bit more grease?”

When it came, though, I got a small bit of dry toast, one piece of bacon and poached eggs that had a slightly processed look about them. And it cost £12. Twelve pounds! That’s about AU$25! Bloody Heathrow.

The flight from hell

When the time finally came to board the flight to Athens, I was dazed and delirious. I had been awake for about two days. It came as a shock to be surrounded by young couples and families looking fresh and bright, their children running around excitedly at the prospect of a beach holiday. This was very different to the subdued crowd on my last flight, who, knowing their fate, gritted their teeth and boarded in silence. I felt out of place with my oily skin, ratty hair and, probably, vague aroma of sweat.

As the plane took off, dozens of children were either crying, squealing with excitement or watching loud and inane cartoons on their iPads. I was in hell.

I tried to remove myself from the situation by snoozing, but found that impossible as the mother sitting next to me had to keep getting past me to take her child to the toilet or get sweets from the overhead locker. I just smiled politely and willed it all to be over.

When the meal came, the mother and I began chatting and I discovered she was originally from Germany but now lived in England with her Greek husband and three very cute daughters. She and her husband were very helpful, giving me tips about where to go in Greece and how to get to my hotel. I forgave them a little for being so fresh and excited.

Intrepid but lost

When we arrived at Athens Airport I decided to start my intrepid travels off right and get the metro to my hotel, rather than lazily hopping in a taxi. I bought a ticket from a man who waved me away when I asked which platform I needed. The metro turned out to be quite straightforward, it just took a long time and involved changing lines. Upon arriving at the correct station, exhausted, with my huge backpack strapped to my back and my daypack awkwardly hanging off my front, I summoned my last burst of energy and strode off – in the wrong direction.

It was getting darker at this point, as it was about 8.30pm, and the area had a slightly dodgy vibe. I could see no sign of my hotel, so I asked a man at a service station for directions.

“It’s behind you!” he said. I began trudging slowly back the way I had come. I was sweaty, exhausted and wishing I had just taken a bloody taxi. I couldn’t see any street signs and I was getting a little concerned as I passed homeless people and men loitering on the street. And then suddenly it was there – the Hotel Neos Olympos!

I checked in and walked up three flights of stairs, my two backpacks weighing me down so that I thought I would break. I got into my room, sat down on the small, hard bed and gave a huge, exhausted sigh. Then it dawned on me that I was in Greece! My travels had begun.