My year in review

I promise this is not going to be a big philosophical wanky blog post about how 2012 changed my life, although in many ways it did.

But being the dawn of 2013, it seems wrong to not at least reflect a little on what an amazing year its predecessor was.

In fairness, how could it not have been – I blew my entire life savings on backpacking and, hands down, it was the best decision I ever made.

So because I love bulletpoints here’s my 10 best and 10 worst travel memories of 2012.

I’ll start with the worst, in no particular order:

1. Greece in general – from the numerous forms of public transport that never showed up, the pre-booked accommodation on a derelict island that turned out to be deep in winter hibernation, getting kicked out of the bus station in a dodgy port town in the middle of the night and left to fend for myself with some homeless guys, and my favourite – being sold an expensive backpackers’ tour of Delphi and Olympia, only to discover when boarding the bus (bar the newlyweds) I was pretty much the only person under 50.
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2. As in the number of seriously strange massages I had – the first in Vietnam where the masseuses’ hands got dangerously close to my lady bits, and the second at a Turkish bath in Istanbul where the lady led me (basically butt naked) by the hand over to a group of Turkish woman, before pointing at me and exclaiming – ‘like a baby, my little baby’ – to which I’m still not entirely sure what she meant.

3. Getting mistaken for being pregnant at Thai boxing in Bangkok, at the beginning and I would deem skinny phase of my trip.

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4. While I’m on the subject of pregnancies… Being by myself and a blubbering mess at a camp ground in Florence and feeling like a crap sister for not being in Wellington while my sister had an emergency c-section and hopelessly waiting for news while the internet and phone lines kept crashing.

5. Making the same mistake numerous times – falling for tortured artists, in particular Casio Watch Boy (though the watch is still going strong) and the Gypsy.

6. Being locked in a token booth for 13 hour shifts and deprived of the human right to pee at Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park in London.

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7. The worst hangover of my life in Cambodia, which was the product of drinking an entire pitcher of vodka and orange at dinner because it came with a free t-shirt, the novelty of drinking beer while getting a Dr Fish massage and then finishing the night drinking buckets and shots of absinthe and then having the delayed hangover kick in while visiting Siem Reap’s temples in 40 degree heat.

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8. Getting food poisoning from an under-cooked burger in Barcelona and it rearing its ugly head eight hours into a nine hour bus trip, where I sat helplessly as spew began trickling down my legs from the sieve-like holes in the plastic bag and then arriving in Madrid to the brutal reality of checking into my non-refundable pre-booked 14 bed dorm in a party hostel.

9. The tomato coloured eye bogey incident at the Tomatina food fight in Spain.

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10. Getting lost, everywhere, all the time, usually on travel days when I had my 15kg backpack on and it was upwards of 30 degrees.

As for my best 10 travel memories of 2012…

1. The food: the coconut milk curries of Thailand, the water buffalo of Laos, the ‘Fanny’ icecream of Vietnam, the everything of Turkey, the pizza and gelato of Italy, the fromage of France, the M&S salads of England, the free tapas of Spain, the frites of Belgium, the langos of Hungary, the burek of Bosnia, the schnitzel of Austria, the hard boiled egg soup of Poland and the fried tarantula of Cambodia.

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2. Waking up on my 25th birthday on a Vietnamese junk boat in Halong Bay.

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3. Hanging out with elephants in Thailand and Laos.

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4. Never being prouder to be a New Zealander than watching the sunrise at Anzac Cove in Gallipoli on Anzac Day.
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5. Getting to be an Olympic reporter for the London Games.

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6. All those moments where I felt like I was living in a postcard.

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7. Every day getting better at this backpacking thing and realising that you really don’t need a lot of money to have a hell of a lot of fun.

8. All the wonderful people I’ve met along the way, and in particular, those who helped make it possible for me to live out of a backpack for a year. I love you guys x

9. This blog, which without a word of a lie has kept me going and when things have gone wrong I’ve been able to rationalise it and say ‘oh well at least it will make a good blog post.’ This is the first time I’ve ever had an avenue to write not for a radio news network or for a politician but for me. The only issue now is getting it to start paying the bills… suggestions welcome. Although if you’re that pestering company trying to make me advertise online gambling on my blog, for the umpteenth time I am not interested.

10. Saying farewell to 2012 and farewell forever to The Castle Pub in London where I’ve been bar wenching for the past couple of months, which is sadly about to demolished to make way for an apartment block.

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And finally about 2013.

I am coming home and arrive pretty much a year to the day I left.

There’s a few factors in that decision.

Firstly, I’ve run out of money.

Secondly, I have the chance to work with the New Zealand Olympic Committee for the Australian Youth Olympic Festival in Sydney on the way home, which I am incredibly excited about.

And finally, I desperately want to spend some time with my friends and family and in particular meet my first ever and favourite nephew.

But that doesn’t mean this blog will end, it just means it may be about adventures a little closer to home – well for awhile at least.

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My holiday away from my holiday

It’s become a given that if I have an early flight I can’t sleep.

But actually, even if I didn’t have an early flight I probably wouldn’t have slept this night anyway, thanks to the high maintanance girl in my dorm getting the hostel manager in our room at 1am to ask what the sheets were for.

Seriously, what the f$*# did she think the sheets were for?

She then threw a hissy fit and refused to sleep in them.

Why exactly she decided to stay at a hostel I’m not quite sure.

Anyway, given my tone you’d understand why I was in need of a four-night retreat from hostel life.

And what a retreat it was.

Four nights on the Italian island of Sardinia with a bunch of 11 girls – 9 kiwis, two Australians and one South African.

The girls aren’t roughing it like me, so they pay for a transfer to the hotel.

I take two public buses.

And, in what is perhaps a sign from God that I need to work out what I’m doing with my life, the guy sitting next to me is a life coach from England.

Here he is mulling over his next 10-year plan while I’m mulling over what I want for lunch.

But I ditch lunch plans in favour of a nap on my queen-size bed, followed by a shower where I don’t have to wear jandals and, get this – the shower nozzle is for once actually attached to the wall.

Pure luxury.

As for my company, I can’t even describe how nice it was to have people who just get me – to not have to explain my colloquialisms, translate my accent, or wonder why people are laughing at me because for some reason still unbeknown to me I am apparently very, very funny – particularly to Germans.

And, my mind’s further at ease once I learn I’m not the only one who suffers from awkward ‘lost in translation’ moments.

My favourite is the girl who was trying to explain to her foreign companions how she injured her foot.

Unfortunately, as kiwis don’t really differentiate their vowel sounds, I’ll leave it to you to figure out what they surmised when she said – “I fell off the deck.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be a girls’ weekend away without a girls’ night out and in typical kiwi fashion we all end up pairing our outfits with jandals.

It’s all downhill from this point on.

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Before long we attract the attention of a nuggety car salesman-looking Italian who grabs one of my companions to dance and starts ramming his clearly massive boner into her back.

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Needless to say Italian men just don’t do it for me.

As for the island of Sardinia, I can’t tell you much about it because I barely moved from my sun lounger on the beach.

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As a result, I am officially the brownest I’ve ever been and I swear the parts of me that haven’t seen the sun now glow in the dark.

But all good things must come to an end – mine when I have to get up at 5am to catch the first of two buses to get to the airport.

If you’ve been following my blog for awhile, it will come as no surprise to you that I’m at the wrong bus stop.

Fortunately, a Robert De Niro lookalike (who spoke no English) spots my mistake and leads me to the right bus stop a good kilometre up the road.

If it wasn’t for him I would have missed my flight to Venice.

What a good sort.

People watching in Pisa

When you’re a backpacker you’re constantly in search of free entertainment.

People watching has become mine.

I’m a particular fan of watching couples take sexy photos of each other – like sexy photo in front of a Roman ruin, or sexy photo in your bikini perched precariously on a rock at the beach.

Pure gold.

But people watching at the Leaning Tower of Pisa is my new favourite.

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In saying that, you can’t come to Pisa and not get a cheesy photo.

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As for the tower itself, it really is a shocking sight.

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And for some weird reason, perhaps it’s an optical allusion, I swear nothing around the Leaning Tower is at 90 degrees either.

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But what surprised me about it most, is that it’s surrounded by this amazing lawn which you’re not allowed to sit on.

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Seriously, it’s the most famous tower in the world, attracting thousands of tourists every day and there’s nowhere to sit.

Like many other tourists I ignored the signs, jumped the low railing fence and sat on the grass anyway.

And it was very pleasant, until enough of us formed to attract the attention of angry whistle people who shooed us off.

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We all just moved to another lawn, thus repeating the process.

I depart Pisa the next morning to spend a couple of days exploring the Cinque Terre – five tiny Italian fishing villages linked by a coastal walkway.

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The disappointing thing about the Cinque Terre is that last year’s floods have wiped out two of the four walking tracks, so it’s pandemonium on the two that are open.

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And I actually lived to regret walking from Monterosso to Vernazza – having to share a track only wide enough for single file with numerous people who thought they were climbing Everest with their walking poles, woman dressed like they’re going out for a fancy dinner, and the seemingly never ending lines of tour groups.

In the end I only stayed one night, thanks to my own lack of planning which saw me back in Pisa to catch a very expensive last minute flight to the Italian island of Sardinia for a friend’s birthday.

I have an afternoon to kill so I wander back to the Leaning Tower for some more people watching.

It’s there I discover dozens of other solo travellers trying unsuccessfully to take their own cheesy photos.

I’ve got nothing else to do so I decide to play photographer.

Here’s hoping they pay it forward because I always feel like a dick taking selfies and being me I hate asking for help.

But I guess that’s hardly surprising given my Plunket book records my first full sentence as – “I’ll do it myself.”

An expensive cure for homesickness

Apparently if you drill a hole through Italy you would eventually hit New Zealand.

That’s not very comforting for me at the moment.

I’m a bit homesick.

Without going into details, I am now a first-time aunt to a tiny but healthy baby boy.

No-one was expecting this day for a couple of months, so it’s a bit of a shock and I can’t help but feeling like a crap sister for not being there.

I’m a bit of a wreck and I don’t know how to cheer myself up, so I try some good old-fashioned retail therapy.

Before I tell you what I bought – let me justify it by saying I have not bought anything for myself in four months.

I also blame the smell of Italy’s leather, it really is intoxicating.

My first purchase is a black leather jacket from the Florentine leather markets.

I knew when I saw my jacket I’d know.

It truly was love at first sight.

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Although, I returned the next day to ponder the label on it, as the guy told me he made it, but after a bit of Googling the label came up as an Italian woman’s clothing line.

He assures me he did make it but I’m skeptical – it’s the journo in me.

I’ll guess I’ll never know.

My next purchase is a leather wallet given I’m still using my moneybelt.

Justifiable.

But it’s my last purchase which is riddled with the most complications.

I want to buy a leather handbag given I only have my backpack which screams dorky tourist.

I find the one, but it’s expensive.

I nearly buy a cheaper satchel but it looks like every other bag I have ever owned. I have a habit of doing that.

After thinking about it obsessively, I go back the next day to buy the expensive one, but the lady in front of me buys the last two in the colour I want for her daughters.

There’s only one other place in Florence that sells them and the guy’s a total jerk.

I went in yesterday and he looked and treated me like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, he even snatched the bag out of my hands – apparently I was zipping it wrong.

On principle I don’t want to buy it from him, but if I don’t, I know it will plague me.

So I decide to treat him like he’s treated me.

I go back in, tell him I want this bag, but don’t want to buy it from him given the way he treated me, but have no choice because the other place has sold out.

He actually went a bit red.

Good. Jerk.

I also stretch the truth a bit, exagerating the discount the other guy was going to give me, thus ensuring a good price and thus freaking him out and making him think the only other retailer of this bag in Florence is undercutting him.

Sweet revenge. Although not quite as sweet as in Pretty Woman.

Here are my babies.

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And no, I didn’t realise how colour co-ordinated they were until I got them back to the luxury of my dorm tent.

I can’t say my leather purchases cured my homesickness, but what it did do was make me go on a diet, because now I can’t really afford to eat.

Mind you, that’s probably not a bad thing, four months on a backpacker’s diet really does do rude things to your body.

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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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.