The art of grafting

I’m getting pretty good at grafting myself to people.

My latest victims are two 20-year-olds, both long-legged runners, studying in the States.

I met them at Rome’s train station as some young punk was trying to distract me, clearly in an effort to steal my bag.

I didn’t have a place to stay in Florence, so they kindly offered to share a three-person dorm tent at the camping ground with me.

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It was actually pretty comfortable, although the outside smelt like piss, our neighbours woke me up one night when I could hear them having ridiculously loud sex through my industrial-strength earplugs, and there was a throbbing all-night, every-night Italian disco just across the fence.

But it was a great base to explore Florence from and as the long-legged runner (who sounded freakishly like Lisa Simpson) had excellent map reading skills, I saw a lot of the city without having to think.

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We even stumbled across some weird exhibition, not sure what the meaning of this piece was, but it even smelt like a cake.

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After all the sightseeing we went in search of a coffee break…and ended up at Mc Donalds.

I know, I know, but the golden arches seem to be the only place in Italy where you can sit down with a coffee without getting slapped with a service charge, which can easily triple the price of your espresso.

After a day of it, we decide to make a night of it and what a beautiful night it is.

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Although on the way we run into a group of pre-pubescent boys.

I had to laugh when one of my travel buddies innocently pondered what they were saying in Italian and I had to break it to her that they were actually saying in English – “come suck my dick.”

We were outraged.

Seriously, they’re like 12.

I decide to start taking photos of them. They bolt.

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We then meet the older cocker waiter version of them at our restaurant.

The first thing he says when we sit down and ask for a menu is – “can I have your phone number?”

Over the course of dinner he starts taking photos of himself on our cameras.

His ego is impressive, but unjustifiable.

And being from New Zealand, the home of Tall Poppy Syndrome and people who don’t toot their own horn I find European men in general very, very strange.

He’s easy to manipulate though, so with a bit of harmless batting of the eyes we get free shots of limoncello.

We’re on a roll and at our next bar we manage to wangle free apple shots, then when we ask the owner what’s the cheapest bottle of wine he can give us, he replies – “how about a free bottle of prosecco?”

All this drinking inevitably leads to dancing and before I know it both of my travel buddies are pashing and grinding on the dance floor to LMFAO.

I refuse to dance to LMFAO and besides I’m also trying to hide from this pasty American who thinks he’s Usher with diamond studs in both ears, waving his hands to the music like he’s from the west side.

No matter where I go – boom – he’s right there.

I swear I have a weirdo radar.

But, in what’s turning into a re-occurring theme for me, the next day I lose my travel buddies when they leave for Lake Como.

I’m alone – again.

This time queuing, while slightly hungover, to get into the Uffizi Galley and then the Accademia where Michaelangelo’s David is housed.

I know, I should have booked ahead to avoid queuing but getting wifi in Florence was a no-go.

And, to make my hangover worse, my iPod runs out of battery in the line to see David, and I’m stuck behind some insanely loud Americans for an hour-and-a-half.

I swear I nearly decked one of them when he finally got to the counter to pay and asked the Italian host in a very patronising voice – “do you speak American?”

One word on Americans…. I find it funny that they seem to be the only people in the world who when you ask where they’re from they tell you the state opposed to the country, as if you should automatically know where it is.

So I’ve decided that next time an American does this to me I’m going to reciprocate and tell them I’m from Stoke.

Anyway, I digress.

Back to David.

I was expecting some sort of build up, like the way the Vatican does with the Sistine Chapel, but no you walk in and he’s right there – all 5.17-metres of him.

And, I was expecting to be underwhelmed given replicas of David are everywhere in Florence but I actually gasped when I saw him. He’s seriously impressive.

I’d show you a photo but you’re not allowed to take any, so the best I can do is the replica of David at Piazza Michaelangelo next door to where I’m staying.

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The romantic city of Naples

I’m trying to think of some analogies for the predicament I find myself in.

When it rains it pours. Feast or famine perhaps?

Basically, after months of solo dining, all off a sudden I find myself going on a date with an Italian man, when I actually want to be going on a date with an Englishman.

It was really just a case of first in first served.

I met the Italian on the train to Pompeii and while he’s not really my type, he’s very sweet and buys me a coffee and asks me out to dinner at Da Michele – the most famous Napoli pizza joint, and yes, the one in ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ where Julia Roberts stuffs her face.

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I say yes, after all it’s better than dining by myself – again.

But as I’m killing time at the hostel I meet an incredibly beautiful English guy, who’s at the end of his cross-continental bike trip.

I would have cancelled on the Italian but he knows where I’m staying and I don’t know how to contact him.

Shit could get awkward.

So I go, reluctantly.

When I arrive at Da Michele the Italian’s not there, so I grab a number and wait (you have to queue outside for at least half an hour just to get a table).

45 minutes later and my number’s called. The Italian’s still not here.

Screw it, I’ve waited this long for apparently the best pizza in the world so I order for myself.

He arrives right as I’m presented with my beer and double cheese margarita pizza (they only do three kinds: margarita, margarita with double cheese and marinara).

Car troubles.

They won’t let him sit down, so he waits outside for me as I dine solo – again. Oh the irony.

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We have a beer afterwards, but he freaks me out when he tells me he’s the next in line of his five brothers to marry.

I abort the date and manage to get back to the hostel in time to go get gelato with the English guy.

Just like in the movie ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ he’s got all the skills I’m looking for in a travel buddy – poached egg cooking skills, map reading skills, road crossing skills, look beautiful in polar fleece pants skills, speak pigeon Italian after only two weeks in Italy skills, make me feel incredibly safe in dodgy Naples skills, and make me laugh skills – although the only joke I got first time round was: ‘what do you call a Mexican who’s lost his car?’

Carlos.

My skills are putting my foot in it, like when I told him I don’t really like my middle name (forgetting it’s the girl version of his first name) and asking if his watch was a genuine Casio.

He just looked at me weirdly, but the reason I asked was it’s the same watch I nearly bought in Cambodia – but that one was a genuine fake.

But after delaying the inevitable he had to go back to London while I headed to the Amalfi Coast and now the only reminder I have that he did actually exist is the genuine Casio on my wrist.

But hey, it’s not all bad when the Amalfi Coast looks like this.

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Ruin fatigue

It was only a matter of time.

Just like in South East Asia when I came down with a serious case of temple fatigue, I’ve now got a terminal case of ruin fatigue.

I did pretty well, I’ve been to Ephesus, Delphi, Olympia, Rome and Pompeii.

Pompeii was the tipping point.

They advised me that if I wanted to do it properly it would take me eight hours.

I did it in three.

The fact I hadn’t slept didn’t help, especially with negotiating swarming crowds and clustered tour groups on uneven cobblestone paths.

But don’t get me wrong, Pompeii does give you a real sense of early Roman life, thanks to the town being preserved under volcanic ash and rock after Mt Vesuvius blew it’s lid in 79AD.

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Although, I’m sure the victims wouldn’t see it that way.

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As for the archeological treasures of Pompeii, they live at a museum in Naples.

Some are even housed in a ‘Secret Room.’

It should really be called the ‘Room of Ancient Porn’ but I guess ‘Secret Room’ is more child-friendly.

No, I don’t have a sick mind and I can assure you even the old academics wandering around were laughing just as much as I was.

I’ll say no more – judge for yourself.

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Why I should not be allowed to travel by myself

Ending up in Salerno was the straw that broke the camel’s back – after four months on the road I’m in urgent need of a travel buddy.

How did I end up in Salerno you ask?

Salerno is where you end up if you don’t get off the train like you’re supposed to in Naples.

In fairness to me, no-one ever came on the loud-speaker announcing our arrival in Naples.

No-one in my compartment moved.

And, it was a direct train from Rome to Naples, so I assumed everyone, like me, would be getting off.

I assumed wrong.

In the words of an old uni lecturer – assumption is the mother of all f$@*-ups.

So a few minutes later the train pulls out of Naples – with me still on it.

Although, I don’t actually click to what I’ve done until the train conductor comes on the loud speaker welcoming everyone to a five-hour journey to some place I’ve never heard of.

My eyes well up and I frantically go in search of a crew member to explain my predicament.

Salt in the wound, the dude laughs at me, as does everyone who overhears the conversation, but he kindly doesn’t make me pay for the journey to the next stop – Salerno – one hour and 55 kilometres out of Naples.

When I arrive in Salerno I buy another ticket back to Naples and wait at platform 3 for it to arrive.

Who knew there are two platform 3s.

I’m at the wrong one.

I miss another train.

The next one’s not for another hour so I skull two expressos, inhale a chocolate croissant and pass the time listening to the most over-the-top happy music on my iPod to try and stop myself from having a meltdown.

The good news is – an hour later I’m at the right platform 3. The bad news is – it’s rush hour and I’m wedged under the armpit of a homeless man with horrific BO and I’m pretty sure fleas, judging by the fact I’m slapping tiny bitey creatures off my arms.

I finally make it to Naples right on sunset – exactly what I was avoiding.

You see Naples isn’t the sort of place a solo female traveller goes wandering after dark.

It’s grubby, it’s chaotic, they advise you not to take your bag with you even in the daytime, you pay the mafia to park at carparks, and you’re never quite sure if the kids playing football in the street are just using it as a distraction to mug you.

But I strangely like Naples.

It’s more real than Rome, it’s lived in, it’s Italy at its rawest – and it’s the home of pizza.

So I spend the last slithers of daylight at a true Napoli pizza joint, before retiring to observe the city from the safety of my dorm room balcony.

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But I don’t sleep.

At first I thought it was a riot.

Nope.

Naples’ football team just won a match and to celebrate there’s a full-on Sunday night street party, complete with celebratory cars backfiring (or perhaps shotguns, it is Naples after all).

Add to that my morbid fear of rolling off my top bunk which is missing a railing, the old guy on the bottom bunk’s pur-like snore, the girl next to me having a nightmare (complete with random fits of screaming) and the fact I can’t seem to find my earplugs and what you end up with is one deliriously sleep-deprived Rachael.

Eat, pray, loving Italy

It was karma.

After all the horrible things I’ve said about Greece it was only fair that it had the last laugh – in the form of a public transport strike and a 35 euro taxi to the airport.

But it didn’t matter because I was going to Italy.

I instantly like Rome, with its distinct lack of high rises and advertising plastered on buildings.

And then there’s the wine, and the coffee (none of this NescafĂ© shit), and the pizza, and the gelato (yes, I know I’m supposed to be dairy-free but it’s Italy).

Of course it helps that I’m also staying with a friend’s mum who lives within walking distance of all the sights.

I was in need of a little mothering, and a queen bed, and a washing machine, and some home-cooked meals, and the company of a fellow kiwi.

My first night in Rome is perfect. There’s gelato involved and there’s a walking tour of the sights by night – which I reckon is the best way to see Rome without the heaving crowds.

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My first full day builds on the amazingness. I buy a Roma pass and smugly skip a massive queue to get into the Colosseum.
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As incredible as it is, I will never quite understand how people could get enjoyment out of watching other people die.

After the Colloseum I do the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill and then the Trevi Fountain.

And yes, I sat on the edge of the fountain and threw two coins over my shoulder – the first to ensure a return to Rome and the second to grant me a wish.

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And no, I’m not going to tell you what I wished for.

Feeling proud of my achievements I go in search of a celebratory gelato and by total accident stumble across the place which Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote the book ‘Eat, Pray, Love,’ calls the – “best gelato in Rome.”

On my travels I can’t count how many times someone has smarmily asked me – ‘is this your Eat, Pray, Love journey?’

You know what, perhaps it is. I’ve sure eaten a lot, I’ve seen more temples, mosques and churches than I care to remember, but this love thing – it still evades me. Perhaps my book would be called, ‘Eat, Pray, get horribly lost.’

Back to the gelato…

From the outside it’s so un-assuming.

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It’s like they thought we make such good gelato we don’t need to advertise.

Inside you can’t even see the gelato. It’s hidden under shiny metal lids and it costs double the price for half the size.

Oh yeah, and they don’t do cones.

But, here’s the thing, it’s amazing.

I’ve now had their Seville orange, cinnamon-ginger, honey, chocolate with smashed up bits of meringue in it, and zabaione (egg yolk, sugar and sweet wine).

It becomes my afternoon ritual, gelato and people-watching at the Pantheon, which is my favourite Roman monument by far.

It’s so medieval looking, it’s so grand, it’s so – I am Rome hear me roar.

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Meanwhile, the bizzarest monument award has to go to the pyramid at the end of my street.

Yes, that’s right – the pyramid.

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Just like how the Roman’s stole all the Greek gods and renamed them, they also stole the Egyptian’s pyramids.

You know what they say – immitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

I’ve got to say the only part of my body not enjoying Rome is my feet. They’ve swollen up like over-cooked saveloys with all this negotiating mis-matched cobblestones in jandals.

They hate me more after I spend a day going the wrong and long way round the Vatican.

However, as a result I did stumble across where they house all the old pope mobiles.

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Of course the grand finale of any Vatican tour is Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. I’d show you a picture but Japanese TV station Nippon own the rights to it. Then again, we should be grateful they donated millions to get it cleaned.

After the Vatican I head for St Peter’s Basilica and on the way spot the ridiculously dressed but quite handsome Swiss guards.

This one is a total poser.

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The interior of the church is very grandeur and very palatial, although I must say I would have appreciated some warning as to the presence of the late Pope John XXIII.

I actually gasped out loud when I stumbled across his wax-like body behind glass – I just wasn’t expecting to see him there.

After I catch my breath I loose it again clambering up the 551 stairs to reach the top of the dome for the best panoramic views of Rome.

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Then as I’m clambering down I meet a woman I’m pretty sure is desperate to be a grandma.

Literally within seconds of learning I’m travelling by myself and that Spain is on my itinerary, she’s taken my photo and has blackberried it to her son who lives in Madrid.

I’m pretty sure I’ve just been set up on a blind date but I’m not complaining, she showed me his picture – he’s a babe.

Sure beats Italian men, they’re too short and nuggety for me.

That aside, they’re way too PDA.

My first vicarious PDA experience is when on the bus at the traffic lights a Vespa pulls up beside us and the couple start pashing.

I’m transfixed, but my friend’s mum whose clearly seen way too much of this just groans – “that’s so Italian.”

The next day on the bus it’s my turn for some PDA. Unwelcome PDA I might add, in the form of a creepy guy sitting opposite me who repeatedly rubs my leg with his. It’s peak hour traffic, I can’t move, I don’t want to cause a scene = longest bus trip of my life.

Apart from that, the only other thing I don’t like about Rome is the hay-fever, which is causing havoc with my contact lenses and making it look like I’ve been smoking a shit load of weed.

Apparently it’s a mix of spring pollen and, get this – sand in the air from Africa.

Oh well, at least it’s exotic hayfever.

Why the Greek islands kick mainland Greece’s arse

If you’ve been reading my blog of late, you’d know that I’ve been hating on Greece.

Well… I’m pleased to report that Santorini has restored my faith somewhat.

You see, tourism is the lifeblood on the islands, so there’s a lot less of this CBF attitude that made mainland Greece my solo backpacker’s nightmare.

My first two nights on Santorini are at a gorgeous little hotel, run by a very sweet Greek woman called Poppy.

My only complaints were that I seemed to be the only guest not on a romantic getaway and Poppy’s directions to get to the main town of Fira failed to mention that I needed to turn a sharp left.

All she said was – “turn right at main road, can’t miss it.”

Let me assure you – you can and I did.

Can’t say I was too happy about it either, fresh off an eight hour boat ride to get here. It was all too hard. I ended up abandoning my plans to treat myself to a romantic dinner with caldera views and went back to my hotel and ate muesli out of a cup.

The next morning I did manage to locate Fira.

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Don’t get me wrong, the view from my morning coffee was spectacular, but it smelt overwhelmingly of donkey shit and the streets were lined with shop after shop selling touristy crap – and come lunchtime pearl-wearing, champagne-sipping cruise-goers.

I must say, I took great pleasure in watching one of them (who clearly had an overly romantic idea of what a donkey ride down the caldera would be like) holding on for dear life while this donkey thrust her around like a baby’s rattle, as the poor thing (the donkey) struggled not to buckle at its knees under her weight and the Mediterranean sun.

After I’d had my fun people watching, I ventured to Oia to see Santorini’s famous sunsets.

Oia is seriously like being in a postcard.

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At one point I became so overwhelmed by this type of view I forgot to hold onto my glass of cherry frozen yogurt and it obliterated all over the restaurant floor.

One word for you – mortified.

The rest of the afternoon I was a rubbernecker at people’s weddings.

I can see why you’d get married here, but to be honest the view is so ridiculously beautiful it can upstage the bride – particularly this one who committed a fashion crime worse than sneans.

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As for the sunset, the clouds decided to roll on in, right in as the sun was going down, so this was about as good as it got.

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The next morning, after some Skype coaxing from my best friend, I moved to Perissa (the beach side of the island) and into a eight person dorm to save myself from another day of talking to myself.

I spent the afternoon on the beach with a Canadian ex-Mormon divorcee I met on the bus and then the early evening sipping 3 euro cocktails from a golden oldies’ bar which played the likes of the Bee Gees and Rick Astley.

After waving her off at the bus stop, half cut, I found myself a cute little restaurant for a romantic dinner for one.

To be honest, I actually don’t mind dining by myself but for some reason it seems to make other people nervous. I got many a stare from the loved up couples and honeymooners strolling past, and more welcome – many a free wines from my waiter.

Needless to say I got myself accidentally drunk and knew it was time to leave when I shaped two napkins into dinosaurs and began having a T Rex fight – complete with sound effects.

Next I went in search of a bar one of my old radio colleagues used to work at.

There I met an Athenian liquor sales rep who also seemed perplexed as to why I was travelling by myself, but most of all, why I hadn’t found myself a Greek lover. According to her this is very, very strange.

It got me thinking, I’ve been here three weeks and apart from the bartender at my hostel (who has a girlfriend) and the guy I saw at a bar shaking his arse better than Beyonce – no-one has caught my eye.

In saying that, I have been wearing a daily contact lense in my right eye, which is actually the prescription for my left eye, for at least a fortnight.

I know, it’s very bad, but seriously Greek optometrists never seem to be open.

The next day the Athenian took me out for the day. It was amazing to have wheels again and to not have to rely on Greece’s crap excuse for public transport. We drank good coffee, we ate good food and we went to Red Beach – famous for its red and black sand.

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That night I hung out with the only other girl in my dorm. We decide to make a night of it, but when we arrive at a popular backpacker’s watering hole it’s like we’ve walked into 2Pac’s funeral. We’re the only ones there and they’re cranking the old school R&B tunes “I believe I can fly” and “I’ll see you when I get there.”

We have an earlier night than intended and when we wake we find the only other person in our dorm (a Chinese guy who speaks little English) eating Cheerios (I’m convinced that’s all he eats) and drinking red wine straight from the bottle. Seriously dude – it’s 9am on a Monday.

I spend my last few hours in Santorini lying on the black sand beach, 30 metres away from my hostel.

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It’s here I can’t help but think to myself about how much I’ve mucked Greece up.

I spent too much time on the mainland trying to see ancient ruins (which you just don’t get when you’re from such a young country) and not enough time on the islands where they actually understand that tourism is a lifeline for their economy.

Who knows, perhaps I’ll come back to Santorini – but not by myself.

It’s a wildly romantic and beautiful place – best shared with someone you love.

NAT: not another tour

Greece is like a toxic lover.

It consistently treats me badly – yet I keep coming back for more.

I was dangerously close to leaving for good, but I knew if I did, I’d kick myself for missing the ancient sites of Delphi and Olympia.

So I begrudgingly book a three-day organised tour. It’s not cheap, especially once they slap me with the dreaded single supplement, but given my track record with Greek public transport it’s the only way.

When I get on the bus my heart drops. It’s predominantly a golden oldies tour, and the only people around my age are honeymooners.

My heart sinks further once I realise the tour is bilingual. Everything our guide says is sentence for sentence in English – then in French.

It’s gonna be a long three days.

Our guide is best summed up by this Australian woman, who likened her to a Greek Judge Judy (fitting, as apparently she used to be a lawyer in America).

Here she is with her trademark umbrella. I choose to use this photo as the other one I have is her in a very unfortunate pair of purple pants. Two words for you – camel toe.

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Put simply, Judge Judy should not be a tour guide. She’s downright rude, intolerant, blunt and doesn’t have any people skills.

For example, when we arrive at Delphi, Judge Judy discovers we’re missing one person and asks – “where is the fat lady?” using her hands to demonstrate her width.

All of us, including the Belgians laugh out of sheer awkwardness and look at each other with an exasperated – did she just say that? – look on our faces.

Luckily the South African woman on our tour takes her on – “she has a name you know, her name is Jane.”

Judge Judy rolls her eyes – “Very well then, where is Mrs Jane?”

In those three long days Judge Judy cracked just one joke, leaving us to make our own fun.

My favourite game was to wander off from Judge Judy’s ridiculously long bilingual rants (I swear no-one listened to her) and take covert photos of lurking angry whistle people.

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I didn’t get whistled at but a lot of people on our tour did, including for leaning over this bar at Delphi to get a photo of what the ancient Greeks believed was the centre of the world.

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I also spent an entire morning trying to take a covert photo of a stocky woman wearing a lacy black bra underneath a see-through black fishnet top. I failed but the image is forever etched in my memory.

As for the archeological sites – they don’t disappoint.

As cheesy as it sounds, I run the 162-metre female track at Olympia (in my jandals) and get the equally cheesy photo to remember it by.

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We were also fortunate enough to be there for a dress rehearsal of the lighting of the Olympic torch, which took place today.

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Mediterranean men in skirts = happy Rachael.

The ruins of Delphi, nestled on the slopes of Mt Parnassos, overlooking the Gulf of Corinth are also stunning.

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Of course, it wouldn’t be an organised tour without a ‘coincidental’ un-publicised stop – this time at a vase factory.

Lunches are equally as sneaky. They drive us out of town to these crappy little tavernas that look like they haven’t seen a lick of paint or a customer since the 1970s and then out of sheer hunger we each spend around 10 Euro to eat some re-heated, dehydrated-looking piece of meat, accompanied with flaccid salad and stale bread.

On the bright side, our first night’s accommodation’s palatial compared to what I’m used to and they make a massive point of not letting us carry our own bags to our rooms.

Perhaps I’m about to be treated to some of this old-fashioned Greek hospitality I keep hearing about.

I get to my room, desperate to have a shower before dinner and wait for my bag to arrive.

I wait and wait, check outside the door, then wait some more.

Half an hour later I give up and go in search of my backpack. I find it outside the lift shaft. It’s like they got to the third floor and just projectile threw it out the elevator.

The next morning Judge Judy gives us strict instructions that if we’re only doing the three day tour (thank God) we must tell the driver our bag is going back to Athens.

I carry my backpack over to the driver and inform him – “Athens please.”

I turn around to get onto the bus and there’s Judge Judy yelling at me – “tell driver, your bag Athens.”

“I did.”

She repeats more forcefully – “tell driver your bag back Athens,” waving her umbrella like a cane.

I walk back over to the driver, point to my bag and confirm – “bag, yes, Athens.”

I ignore Judge Judy’s ongoing rant and board the bus.

Three minutes into our journey she stops the bus and over the loud speaker says, “if you just boarded the bus (clearly she means me) please get off and inform the driver that your bag is going back to Athens, as I just told you (one of her favourite sayings).”

I get off and for the third time confirm that, yes, my backpack is going back to Athens.

Despite all that, my bag still gets put in the wrong pile and if it wasn’t for the vigilance of my Australian friend it would have gone to Meteora with Judge Judy and the other half of the tour group.

We, the lucky half, get left in Delphi to catch another bus back to Athens.

We wave them off gleefully.

Poor sods.

I swear some of them are telepathically pleading with me from the other side of the glass – please, take me with you.