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Gap Year Odyssey

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Homeward Bound

Plymouth, United Kingdom

I have heard that if you have nothing nice to say about someone, you shouldn't say anything at all. If I am to follow this, mention of my fellow passengers on the Santander-Plymouth ferry would be conspicuous only by its absence. However, I also know that what people don't hear can't hurt them, and I have promised to give a full account of my trip, up until the last hour.

Simply by waiting at the port, you could tell things had changed. At least 90% of the passengers were British, and those that weren't were mostly English-speaking. (Although, 'what sane Spanish person would holiday in Plymouth?' would be the obvious response to this.) People just walked up to the checkin and started speaking English without even asking if the person behind the desk could understand it, a big breach of travel etiquette. They headed straight for the duty-free and bought cases of cheap wine, beer and spirits. They sat, moaning about this and that, talking as if they hadn't just spent a week or more on holiday. It turns out that many of them hadn't. Later I was to discover that many people just travel from Plymouth to Roscoff to Santander to Plymouth as a sort of economy cruise, sometimes not getting off the ferry, and if they do only to make the most of the duty-free. Extraordinary.

On board the ferry, I was at first very impressed. With the exception of my Marmaris-Rhodes disaster, the ferries I have travelled on have got progressively better over the course of the trip, and this completed the journey in style. A couple of good restaurants, bars, and half a shopping mall meant getting bored here would be quite difficult. Some people, however, seemed to manage it. Soon after boarding, there were calls for 'Bingo!', and it was promised by the onboard organiser of 'entertainment' that this would be played in due course. First, however, was the football: Man U vs Barcelona. I found a nice private table from were I could keep an eye on one of the many large flatscreens and my fellow passengers and bought a paper and a magazine to read. I tried to walk downstairs to get some food, and ended up spilling much of it due to the unsteadiness of the floor, so I returned to the football. This of course finished with the British getting angry and the few Spanish crew members jumping up and down in glee. Hooliganism averted, however, the bingo began. I'm no bingo-expert, but the rules seem pretty easy to follow. But by the end, half an hour of listening to random numbers combined with a worsening seasickness, made me feel like I was stumbling drunkenly through a game of NumberWang. I went to bed. Sleep was just out of reach, however, and after about an hour in this state I was alarmed by an awful wailing, as if a mother had lost her child over the side of the ship. But gradually, it settled into something resembling a 1980s ballad and I concluded that it must be one of the onboard entertainers.

The next day was difficult to get through. I couldn't make myself sleep through it, and so I had to endure an aching tiredness and dizziness, not helped by further games of bingo and a second outing for the entertainers in the background. These latter were no better than a mediocre karaoke performer, but might have got through to the second round of X-Factor if they had been young, charismatic and attractive. They were neither young nor charismatic nor attractive.

Thankfully, by mid afternoon the shore of Southern England became visible on the horizon. I walked outside and stood in the sun as the last minutes of my trip slid away.

permalink written by  BenWH on May 28, 2009 from Plymouth, United Kingdom
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
tagged Spain and UnitedKingdom

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The Rain in Spain

Santander, Spain

Having heard that the rain in Spain falls mainly in Santander, I was not surprised to arrive into a dark and drizly afternoon in the town bordering the Bay of Biscay. I had survived another train journey, which became gradually more and more interesting as the weather became gradually less and less pleasant until, about two hours from Madrid, we disappeared into a cloud and didn't pass through the other side for some time. Luckily, there was a film to watch; more specifically, the same film dubbed in Spanish and with Catalan subtitles. I learnt one or two more Spanish words and phrases from it including a couple of jokes at the expense of the Scottish (it wasn't a very good film), rather hoping that the journey would be long enough for the weather to change.

I asked at an information point how long a walk it would be to my apartment from the station and was told 20 minutes. But she didn't exactly look like an athlete so I reckoned I could do it in 10. After about half an hour of walking in circles in the rain and several requests of help from strangers, each of which required miming - incidentally, if anyone has a good mime for 'traffic lights' I should like to hear it - I arrived. I was staying in a small self-catered apartment, as here this was going to be cheaper than anything else and gave me the freedom I wanted. I had just misjudged the size of Santander, meaning this was a little further out than I thought it would be.

Next day, armed with a beach towel, sunscreen, music, reading and everything else, I went the 30 minute walk to the beach. Unfortunately, it kept trying to rain and when it wasn't, there was barely any sun. Having promised myself that I would stick to my self-catering rules - no cafes, no restaurants and no non-food shopping -, there wasn't an nawful lot to do. So I did a lot of walking. The next day, my final one in Spain, was much better. I went to the beach early, walked around the town, and sat in the parks waiting to board my ferry. Santander reminded me a little of Plymouth, not only as a port town, but also in aspects of its layout and character. It is not a particularly classically beautiful city, nor is it incredibly ugly, but probably the only reason to come here is for the beach, one of the top 8 (allegedly) in the EU. I was therefore glad to have one day to make the most of it.

In the evening, I made my way to the port, checked in, and sat down to wait to board the ferry. Every time I looked at my watch, I could for the first time in two months count down the number of hours until I would be home. First, however, I had to endure my worst sea voyage yet.

permalink written by  BenWH on May 25, 2009 from Santander, Spain
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
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The Real Madrid

Madrid, Spain

Trains in Spain, I soon discovered, trump those anywhere else in Southern Europe. Taking a mid to long-distance train journey is very much like taking a flight for the Spaniards, and with this come many advantages and associated disadvantages. For example: you have to 'check-in', passing through impressive security and waiting in a lounge for them to call you up to board, when you again pass through two levels of identification/ticket-collecting before you can access the train. Time-consuming, but reassuring. Once on board, you can recline in big comfortable seats, listen to a number of private radio stations or even watch the film. This last option was played in Spanish with subtitles in Catalan, but I think I understood most of it; Lord knows how. I also took the opportunity to steal the headphones provided as my MP3 ones had broken the day before. However, I don't mean this as a bad joke when I say that every word spoken or sung through them sounded like it was being lisped. Dodgy headphones aside, the whole experience contrasted sharply with having to walk over the tracks in Montenegro, Serbia or Turkey just to get to a train that looked like it was last used to carry soldiers to the Eastern Front in the early 1940s.

Like Barcelona, Madrid also has a good metro system, so once there it was easy to find the hostel. If anything, however, fewer people here speak English, making it difficult to locate yourself with the help of the locals, and I found myself employing my few Spanish phrases more often than their fluency deserved. I had nearly no previous knowledge of the city, so after getting settled, I looked at the metro map and decided to go to Gran Via, this sounding like a fairly central location. From here, it was easy to walk around the centre of the city, from the palatial gardens in the west, down to the older streets and squares of the city, and back up to the more modern commercial centre. As a city it is interesting but not inspiring, and particularly after Barcelona I was struck by the lack of history and culture. Later that evening, I also noticed another problem: food. Tapas, the famous dishes of Spain, are rarely vegetarian, and on a budget it is difficult to eat anything else here. I walked around for some time, and eventually settled on Starbucks and a thoroughly American salad.

Having decided that the city itself could probably not occupy me for a further two and a half days, I aimed to spend as much time as possible in the world-famous art galleries. On the second day it was raining, so I went to Del Prado, the grand and expansive gallery housing everything from portraits of imperial families to, irritatingly, rooms and rooms of Goya of whom Spain is particularly - and in my opinion unjustly - proud. The next morning, needing something a little more expressive, I went to the Reina Sofia, Madrid's premier modern art museum. Spain apparently had its renaissance last century, artistic expression bubbling over the supression of Franco's regime, and it shows. This is one of the few art galleries I've been to where you literally stumble upon works you know or recognise in every room, surrounded by similar pieces that make you think even more deeply about what is familiar to you. The one problem was that the museum is simply too big for one day and doesn't have any sort of narrative to string the various exhibitions together.

In the afternoon, thoroughly tired of walking inside, I went to walk outside in the city's extensive parks. They feel somehow timeless until, suddenly, you're standing before a garden built in remembrance of the victims of the terrorist attacks Madrid suffered a few years ago, a tragic reminder that history is a living process. The weather began gloomy, but gradually brightened throughout the afternoon until it was too hot to walk around. Back at the hostel that evening, I was greeted by yet another set of roomates. These had been changing every night of my stay, making it difficult to get to know people, and the hostel itself was one of the biggest I'd stayed at, modern and impersonal. It was time, I knew, to move on and begin my journey home.

permalink written by  BenWH on May 22, 2009 from Madrid, Spain
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
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Barcelona, Spain

As the herds of elderly and young alike were driven away on their various tour buses, only a handful of us remained standing by the ferry. I had asked a guard and found out what bus to take, but some of the other travellers either hadn´t been travelling for as long or simply thought they could work it out for themselves, and stood there helplessly. They formed a group, led by nobody in particular, and walked to-and-fro to investigate their surroundings like the confused survivers of a natural disaster. I was tempted to intervene, but there were enough of them to manage on their own, and instead I reflected on the difference that over seven weeks of being constantly on the move had made to my ability to adapt to a new environment and get to where I needed to.

I saw a little of Barcelona that evening, but was mostly too tired from my time in the sun, and went to the hostel, found some food, and met the other travellers there. It was an interesting crowd, including two Estonians, now Londoners, who I would spend the evenings and mornings with over the next couple of days. One of the Estonians, it turned out, worked in a McDonald´s in London I had been to a number of times, and to which, after hearing some of his stories of kitchen hygeine, I shall not be returning to again.

Knowing that effectively I only had two full days in the city, I got up early the next morning with a busy schedule planned out. I started on La Rambla, the bustling street in the centre of town that attracts 250,000 people every day (though only a fifth of these are native Barcelonans). At once, I loved Barcelona. Dozens of street performers, musicians, human sculptures line the street, while flower stalls break up the usual souvenir and newspaper stands. The centre of the street is built for pedestrians only, and in spirit it feels like a medieval city centre rather than one of the biggest tourist destinations in 21st century Spain. Every time I turned around, I hald expected to see dancing bears. (To challenge my first impressions, a few days later I read that a great ´clean-up´ of the street is being proposed to deal with the - apparently - ubiquitous prostitution, violence and drugs. These seemed to escape my notice.) The market, too, was incredible: a cavernous and energetic Catalonian take on food shopping. I just bought a smoothie and looked at the more interesting examples of Spanish cuisine.

Next, a walk down to the beach. It is some distance from the top end of La Rambla to the nice part of the coast, but the sights are worth walking past: Christopher Columbus stands high above the harbour area; nearby, a strange abstract structure that is mostly just empty space also hangs overhead; and finally, what must be the more financial district of the city, a sort of Spanish Canary Wharf. The beach, when I arrived, was too crowded to enjoy. I sat for a while, then got up and admired some sand castles along the path. My mistake was to stop and photograph one; a stout and until then motionless woman immediately got up and started indicating to a cardboard box containing a few coins. Again, I must reiterate: absolutely nothing is free. I give some change and moved on. My final sightseeing before a quick siesta at the hostel was the Gothic quarter. When she found out that I knew London, the woman behind the desk at the hostel had compared each district in Barcelona with an English counterpart. This was supposedly like Notting Hill. Really? I couldn´t see the similarities, but the area was certainly fascinating, with a bohemian feel and an atmosphere of being alive as well as historical.

Finally, and later in the afternoon, I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art. There is too much here, and the collection is too eclectic, to do after a long day of sightseeing and in a couple of hours, but I sampled the areas that looked interesting. In one exhibition I noticed that, unmistakably. a picture in a series of geometric designs was upside down. The more I contemplated it, the more obvious it became, but I was afraid of pointing this out, not wanting to be the fussy foreign tourist who takes issue with the way the locals display their artworks. I kept silent, but lingered by it painfully long, hoping that somebody would ask me what the problem was to give me an excuse to vent. The opportunity never came.

During talks in the hostel, I had discovered that Mt. Tibidabo was the best place to see the city from, and being a fan of that great sitcom Friends I naturally had to make the pilgrimage. I had to get two tubes, a bus, and a cable car to get to the top, but once there you can see across the whole bay area and it was worth it to see how the city fits together. However, the top has been ruined by efforts to draw more tourists and an amusement park takes up most of the space. From here, I went to another of the city´s main attractions: Guell Park. There being no metro station bordering the park, I spent around an hour just wandering; gradually the heat started to dehydrate me so I made serious attempts to locate it. It was an interesting and certainly worthwhile stop, but the masses of tourists made it difficult to enjoy. Parks, for me, should be for relaxing, not keeping your hands in your pockets and dodging between crowds. Finally, I made for probably the city´s most famous architectural work: Gaudi´s Sagrada Familia. A strange combination of the Gothic and the Modern, somehow otherworldly like something out of Lord of the Rings, this unfinished cathedral towers over the surrounding buildings. I didn´t go in as the line was long, the weather hot, and the entrance expensive. I think I will wait until it is completed in 2020 and get my money´s worth.

My remaining time I spent lazy, soaking in my last hours in the city. More than anything else, Barcelona had surpassed my expectations. I had come here merely as a stopping point on my journey home, but somehow it turned into an adventure of itself and will remain one of my favourite European cities for a long time.

permalink written by  BenWH on May 19, 2009 from Barcelona, Spain
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
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Lost At Sea

Civitavecchia, Italy

A thirty hour journey was ahead: first, a train journey from Naples to Civitavecchia, from where I could take a direct ferry to Spain. (I decided not to go to Rome, expensive for backpackers and somewhere I have already been to and will hopefully get the opportunity to go to again. I also decided not to stop at either Sicily, Sardinia or Corsica, as these are difficult to see without a car and I felt that I had done enough island hopping and wanted to see as much of Spain as possible.) The train was not too bad, and I managed to have a short conversation of broken Italian-English with a family who got on at Rome seemed fascinated by my trip. I arrived into Civitavecchia in the warm late afternoon and sat down looking out onto the calm water.

The ferry, I soon realised, was going to be a different beast to those I had been using for the first seven weeks of my trip. It was bigger, comprising 11 decks (which, I later noted, was two more decks than hell had circles and the tortures here were even more imaginative), and there were at least five times as many passengers as on any of my previous crossings. These could be roughly seperated into two categories: the 18-30s and the 65 and overs. The latter group occupied the lower decks: the more sedate bars, the casino, the fancy restaurants, etc. The former group mostly occupied the upper deck, a half-in-half-outside expanse complete with bar, seating and empty pool, should you wish to lie by it and pretend you could go swimming. If you wanted to spend time in the sun, this was your only option, and you had to endure the crowds, the sweaty sunbathers, the drunk Italians and Spaniards and the heavy Euro-trance that kept hitting a scratch on the CD and replaying a beat over and over in some kind of epileptic, hypnotic purgatory of sound.

I managed to sleep surprisingly well on the lower decks, surrounded by the elderly and those few younger travellers who were not part of the Italian/Spanish trans-European pub crawl. Indeed, when I woke up, I was shocked to see that it was past midday and I had spectacularly missed breakfast. So, in order to make the most of the sun, I headed upstairs. Yes, I chose to endure the aforementioned hell, but only because I wanted to make the most of a day I would be spending entirely on a ferry, and the only way to do this would be to spend as much time in the sun as possible. Fortunately I managed to find a corner away from the crowds and spent the day relatively quietly.

The day passed quickly, and by early evening we could see the Spanish coast. The sun was just threatening to creep behind the mountains when we disembarked in Barcelona.

permalink written by  BenWH on May 18, 2009 from Civitavecchia, Italy
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
tagged Spain and Italy

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In the Golfo di Napoli

Napoli, Italy

The first indication that we had arrived at the hostel was an Italian man calling my name and gesticulating wildly (as is the stereotype) from a third storey window in a back-alley in the old part of town. We followed his instructions and were welcomed into the hostel: his home and the top-rated hostel in Naples, a fact of which he is very proud. We understood that he would be feeding us and the smells from the kitchen hinted that this would be something spectacular, but before we could eat we were put through a brief Italian lesson, and were afterwards asked to sing along to a number of Italian songs. The food was beautiful and the wine, although coming from a 5 litre plastic container, was equally good.

The three of us decided to get up early so that we could make the most of what the Bay of Naples has to offer. We planned to climb Vesuvius before the heat of midday, which we managed, getting a taxi most of the way up as is the custom and then walking the final 270m or so. It is a tough walk, over sliding pebbles and up a steep slope, but the views from the top down into the volcano make it worth it, as do those on the other side out over the bay. Unfortunately, it was misty so we were unable to see as far as on a clear day and we were prevented from climbing to the very top by a man blocking the way who informed us that, for insurance reasons, he could not let us go to the top unless we gave him 100 euros between us. I think this may have been a con, but his friends were willing to back up his claims and there was no other way to the summit.

Next stop: Pompei. So many people written so beautifully about this haunting place that I hardly feel qualified to. Personally, it was the fulfillment of years of anticipation. I first discovered the city aged 11 through the Cambridge Latin Course, saw the pictures of the victims frozen in time and eagerly read and watched all the books, documentaries and dramatisations of the city´s tragic end. Pompei is different to all the other ancient sites I had ever been to, both because of the state of preservation (paint is still vividly visible on many walls) and the nature of what is actually preserved: normal homes, taverns, shops, baths, the places where ordinary citizens went about their daily lives nearly 2000 years ago. The site is so vast that we did not get the opportunity to see all of it, but I know it is somewhere to which I will return.

We explored some of Naples itself in the afternoon, looking at some impressive churches and soaking up the atmosphere, and in the evening the three of us went to a pizzeria that Giovanni, our host had recommended as the best in Naples. Included on the vast menu were pizzas named after each and every one of the owner´s 21 children. ("Great man," Giovanni had said, "... great woman. Their television was broken.") Finally, we got icecream, and sat to eat it on the steps of one of the city´s famous churches as the cars careened past us wildly.

The second day I was on my own. The weather had improved, but most of the city activities are indoor ones so I could not justify finding a park and lying in the sun. Giovanni, very proud of Naples and obviously still bitter that Rome had been chosen as Italy´s capital after unification, provides his guests with brightly annotated maps and insistent advice on where to go. Following this, I took a tour of what was beneath the city. The first part was a Roman threatre, found some years ago underneath someone´s house - interesting, but there are better examples of theatres across the Roman world and you don´t have to descend beneath a trap-door to see them. The second half, however, took us through a bigger system of ´caves´, originally the underground water system and more recently used as bomb shelters in WW2. These were fascinating, and carrying a candle for light through a 50cm wide passage was strangely atmospheric. The one downside, was the tour guide, a Neapolitan Manchester United fan who insisted on speaking in a bad Glaswegian accent. On a tour that included Brits, Americans, French, Italians and Germans, he also insisted on telling several uncomfortable and long jokes about the war, seemingly oblivious to his both audience and the passage of time. Finally emerging from under the ground, I headed for the archeological museum. It is well stocked and even includes a ´Secret Room´ - I´ll let your imagination do the work here - but after several hours it can get a little monotonous.

That evening I was again treated to a Giovanni home-cooked meal, and again had to sing afterwards. Some new and noisier people had moved into the room which made sleep difficult, so I took it easy the next morning, walking around town and then returning for my bag and making for the station.

permalink written by  BenWH on May 15, 2009 from Napoli, Italy
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
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Italy Again

Bari, Italy

I walked to the port and stood, watching the ferry pull in as the sun was setting behind the Kefalonian hills adorned with wind turbines. It would be my last view of Greece for some time, and I would be returning into a little more familiar territory and truly beginning my journey homeward. The ferry was more luxurious than any I had been on so far, boasting two pools, two saunas, two restaurants, shops, numerous bars, dozens of lounges, a large hall, and I have no idea what else. Of course, it was completely out of my league. I realised this after being charged nearly 4 euros for a small coffee that actually had writing squirted delicately in chocolate sauce onto the foam. I was going to resist the 5 euro/half hour internet rate, but having read an article in my paper that infuriated me I even paid for this just for the satisfaction of not having to wonder if my letter might have got published had I actually sent it. I later complained, as the internet kept cutting off, but was told that the reason it was so expensive was that it was a poor connection - seemed like faulty logic to me, but I have found it's a lot harder to make a convincing case for a refund in a foreign language and I didn't want to be hit with the peculiarities of Greek contract law so I settled down to watch a preliminary round of Eurovision. Again, I met a group of school children - this time Italian - who seemed fascinated by me and wanted to know more than my tiredness could cope with.

Sleep was predictably interrupted. Despite there being so much space it was impossible to get away from televisions, which were for once playing films in English. Thus, whenever I woke up, I started to get into a film and had to watch to the end. But by late morning, the ferry had pulled into Bari in southern Italy. The port at Bari is arranged fairly counter-intuitively, and I was at first concerned that I found myself out in the open without having gone through passport control. Checking that this was ok, I then sat to wait for a bus. The local taxi drivers, however, had other ideas: I accidentally managed to get a 20 euro fare down to 5 euros and still rejected it, and one man even tried to convince me that the bus had broken down and a taxi was my only option. But I stuck to my convictions and eventually the bus for the station arrived.

After I had purchased my ticket I made for an internet cafe. Incredibly, the first one I walked into had two familiar faces standing at the counter waiting for a computer: the two Americans I had met just four days before on the way to Kefalonia. They were also going via Naples and needed somewhere to stay so we decided to stick together and they made reservations at the hostel I was booked into.

Although Bari looked to be surrounded by some interesting sights, we didn't have long enough or the means to fully explore them so settled into a cafe. The area was not as bad as I was expecting, and there was some impressively complex graffiti, but the city centre itself was a fairly nondescript Italian city. The four-hour train journey that followed was hot and stuffy, but the scenery was interesting and a complete contrast to that of northern Italy that I know so much better: greener, with gently rolling hills, rather than the jagged valleys of the north. The time passed quickly enough, reading the paper and playing cards. We had to change at Caserta, and once we were in Naples we needed to get the Metro and walk through the now dark streets to get to our hostel. It had had been 28 hours since I left the beach at Kefalonia, and I was exhausted.

permalink written by  BenWH on May 14, 2009 from Bari, Italy
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
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On the Trail of Captain Corelli

Argostolion, Greece

When I arrived into Sami, the main Kefalonian port, it was completely dark and all I could see were the shadows of the hills and the lights flickering on the surface of the water. I would have to wait until morning to get a proper glimpse of the island I had read and dreamt about for so long.

When that chance came, it was worth the wait. The scenery of Kefalonia is probably more beautiful than any I have seen so far. It also earns the title of being the only place I have been to to which I would move unhesitatingly if given the chance. Like the other Greek islands, Kefalonia is rugged, montainous with beautiful calm blue seas and rocky beaches. It differs, however, in that it is so green and lucious; so alive. I started the morning by going for a walk to explore and get a feel for the island's landscape. I didn't have a destination or route in mind, but I headed inland, walking at first along a track and then veering off onto a country path. For nearly three hours, I didn't see another human being, a welcome break from the bustle and chaos of Athens. If you blink here, you might think you were walking through fields in southern England; there are small paddocks, mossy walls, arboreal paths and hundreds of coloured wild flowers. Beneath the surface, however, everything is more dramatic and impressive: ants three-quarters of an inch long, flying insects as thick as your thumb and sheer peaks replacing the rolling hills of England. Walking back along the path between shade and sun, I could almost picture Pelagia hunting for snails - either you'll know what I'm talking about, or you won't. Everything about this landscape is timeless.

Back down on the coast, I found a nearly private beach and settled down to read. Every time it got too hot I could go to the waters edge and sit on a rock with my feet dipped into the tepid water. This, I think, must be what the Greek islands are all about. In the evening, I went to an internet cafe, this being the only deficiency of the place I was staying. I had opted for self-catering in a small town on the coast, aiming to save a little money on food. The plus side of this was that my studio apartment was so close to the beach I could easily walk back for a snack or a drink; the down side was that I ate nothing but bread, cheese and fruit for three days. I bought a newspaper, as I have started to do to keep track of the British news in preparation for my return, and spent a relaxing evening on the waterfront and on the balcony of my apartment.

After a long-anticipated good night's sleep, I was ready to explore even further afield. I decided I would leave some of the other towns on the island for another time as the bus journeys can be long despite the short distances and in this weather I wanted to make the most of where I was staying. I walked inland again, up a road the led me round a hill and to a small village. Like most of the island, this was mostly made up of modern and uninteresting (though not ugly) houses that were built after the immensely destructive earthquake last century. Further up the hill, however, I discovered the ruins of what must have been the old village until 1953 - stone buildings, now desolate and overgrown. This made the journey worthwhile and strengthened the links of what I saw with the book that had introduced me to the island.

Again, I spent the afternoon at the beach, and this time ventured to swim. I chose a rocky cove because it was deserted and later discovered why. After half an hour swimming in the warm water and another fifteen minutes drying on a rock, I looked down and saw a trail of blood trickling from my foot down towards the sea. Given the length of time this must have been open, I could not work out how much blood I had lost, but on closer inspection the wound was fairly deep, giving the appearance of my having tried to carve myself a sixth toe. Reluctantly, I limped back to the apartment and dressed the damaged foot, sadly acknowledging that this would put an end to my doing any swimming for the next few days.

The final day of my peaceful rest arrived, and so I went to soak up as much sun on the beach as I could. In a complicated and prolonged conversation with a woman who worked at the place I was staying I had managed to get a free load of laundry done, which considering the extorniate laundry rates in this part of the world was particularly welcome. After a lazy, but nonetheless productive day, I took a late-afternoon taxi back to Sami. Two Greeks shared the cab with me but for some reason weren't willing to share the cost and I wasn't really in a position to argue, outnumbered as I was. So to save funds, I bought a 1 euro meatless Greek kebab and sat by the port in the evening sun.

permalink written by  BenWH on May 12, 2009 from Argostolion, Greece
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
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Cross-Country Greek Journey

Patrai, Greece

The day was a stressful one. I woke up not knowing where I was going to be spending the night; I had some idea that it would be Greece, but other than this I was lost. I had stupidly left all my arranging until the previous day, forgetting it was a Sunday and that all the places selling ferry tickets would be closed. Therefore, I had to get up early to confirm that my preferred route was possible, buy ferry and train tickets and notify my accommodation that I was going to arrive in the middle of the night. Fortunately, everything worked out alright; someone must have been placating Metra, the little known Greek goddess of public transport, on my behalf.

I had to get a train from Athens to Patra, which was fairly uneventful excluding a frantic 15 seconds at the station as two trains pulled in next to each other at exactly 12.06, the specified time for my departure. And then there was the fact that I had to change, having not been notified by the unhelpful and grumpy gentleman at the ticket office. Other than this, however, it all ran smoothly. In Patra, I went to a cafe with two college freshmen from Colorado who I had met on the train, and sat there talking for the greater part of the afternoon.

The ferry was a nice one - no restaurant and no WiFi, but it was less than three hours. On it I met a group of Kefalonian school students, who began the conversation, as is the norm I have found, with 'what football team do you support?' Within minutes there were nearly twenty crowded round me. What was my starsign? What did I think of the Greek entry to the Eurovision song contest? Did I know Zac Effron? And so it continued. Whilst I enjoyed talking to some authentic Greek islanders, especially getting the chance to actually meet a 'Iannis' from Kefalonia, and learning some Greek phrases, I was so tired that I couldn't help but be a little relieved when the ferry arrived and I could clamber into a taxi.

permalink written by  BenWH on May 11, 2009 from Patrai, Greece
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
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Best and Worst of 40 Days

Athens, Greece

For my 20-day mark I did the 20 most important lessons I had learned so far. I know it's a little late, but I thought I would compile, from my 40+ days' experience so far, the 20 best and 20 worst things about travelling in this part of the world. So here goes:


1) The fact that Sundays in Catholic countries are miserable. Unless you are big on Mass and don't mind fasting.
2) Hidden costs and people always trying to rip you off.
3) Local customs that prohibit the wearing of weather-appropriate clothing.
4) 'Transit days' and having to move on as soon as you get settled.
5) People who snore.
6) Having to pay half a day's budget just to get your clothes cleaned.
7) Traffic that is an all too constant reminder of your fragile mortality.
8) Understanding how much we rely on people to speak English and trying to deal with it when they don't.
9) The Pound to Euro exchange rate.
10) Showers that are broken/cold/slow/dirty/non-existent.
11) Last minute panics of the 'Oh-God-where-am-I-going-to-sleep-tonight' variety.
12) Places that have more Brits than locals.
13) Most fellow travellers younger than about 16. Especially in groups.
14) Having to keep your hands in your pockets, lest somebody else slips theirs in to steal something.
15) Having to remember to charge everything, and creating a rota in your mind so that you don't suddenly find yourself with no working MP3/camera or worse: phone.
16) The unprecedented number of injuries you manage to sustain.
17) Carrying around a backpack for two months.
18) The constant and unwavering fear that you are going to lose your passport.
19) The one or two occassions when it actually rains and you feel like you deserve a refund.
20) The guilty feeling that creeps up every so often when you know that really, you're just having too much fun.

But if I'm being honest, there's nothing in the Worst section that I can't cope with. I would endure a bad shower, the risk of pick-pocketing or even expensive laundry just to spend a day with interesting people in an interesting country doing something I've never done before.


1) The weather: so good it feels like it must be bad for you.
2) Sitting in cafes, reading and sipping a cold drink without a care in the world.
3) The realisation that all people, no matter what language they speak, are essentially the same.
4) Swimming in the sea without getting hypothermia.
5) Meeting so many interesting people doing travels of their own.
6) Seeing places you have always dreamt about/read about and them exceeding your expectations.
7) Talking to strangers on public transport.
8) Sharing stories.
9) Understanding your place in history.
10) Trying the local cuisine, but being able to rely on the fruits of globalisation should you need to.
11) Looking again at everything you take for granted about your life.
12) Feeling, in a way, healthier and more relaxed than you ever have before.
13) Hearing new music (and hearing old music in a new place).
14) Waking up to days you know won't be ordinary; ones you will never forget.
15) Living in the present, fondly remembering the past and excitedly anticipating the future.
16) Seeing the lives affected by the politics and current affairs you hear about every day.
17) Learning so many new things every day and realising that there is so much you can never understand.
18) Views that take your breath away.
19) The satisfaction of doing something that is completely yours and that proves your independence,
20) Knowing that, if all goes to plan, you will get so many more opportunities to do this again.

permalink written by  BenWH on May 10, 2009 from Athens, Greece
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
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