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!)
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).
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
Me: “Due biglietti, per favore.”
Ticket person: “Due Euro.”
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…
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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!).
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
“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.