Five years ago (…how?!) I shared an article called ‘The Times it All Went Wrong’, with the hope of showing the, erm, slightly less glamorous side of travelling. Surprisingly, it went down a storm.
What does this tell me about my readers? That you’re all a little bit evil? That you took some kind of sadistic pleasure from hearing tales of my ineptitude? Or, that if there’s one thing we can all identify with, it’s that when things get hard, sometimes you just have to laugh?
I like to think it’s the latter, and if there’s one spark of brightness I can bring to the current state of mire (thank you very much, Trump, Brexit, Covid et al) then I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let a little humility get in my way.
So here you go. Proof that travelling ain’t all leisurely train rides and sunny days on the beach. These are the times it all went wrong – take two.
The time the Quiraing nearly broke us
“I told you I shouldn’t bloody drive!” I wailed, staring at the steep, snaking road ahead. There was no way my car handling skills were going to get us to that summit in one piece.
“You’ll be fine” came the carefully-plucked words of my dutiful partner-in-crime.
We both knew ‘fine’ was not quite the right adjective.
As if on cue, a rogue sheep sprung like a Jack-in-the-box from the depths of a verge and shot in front of the car. I slammed on the brakes and closed my eyes in silent prayer.
A few seconds passed before I dared to open them again, only to find my woolly foe staring languidly back, his jaw swaying from side to side as he munched on a mouthful of grass. It seemed he was largely unaffected by his near brush with death.
I somehow managed to shoogle my heart back into its rightful place before popping the car back into gear and starting again. Ahead, the road was sprinkled with little white dots. The sheep in Skye, it seemed, had little regard for the Highway Code.
It was our second day on the island, and we’d decided to make the pilgrimage to the top of the Quiraing, an ancient landslip on the Trotternish mountain which was rumoured to offer some of the most impressive views in Scotland. Getting there, however, was going to be somewhat of a mission.
Like many of the sights on Skye, access to The Quiraing was not exactly designed with its popularity in mind. The car park was located at the top of a 2.5 mile-long climb, a single track road where passing places were few and far between and kamikaze animals roamed free.
Progress to the top was slow and involved constant negotiation with oncoming vehicles. Every time a little momentum was gained, a bumbling old caravan would emerge around the bend, setting us right back to square one. To add to the equation, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. What had started out as a bright and promising morning had now grown increasingly bleak, with great murky clouds filling the sky and thick drops of rain pooling on the ground.
As we neared the summit, the car groaning at a 45-degree angle to the hill, I could feel the strain in my knuckles from my hands gripping the steering wheel. This would NOT be a good place to meet another car. Cue another car. Cue six more. Cue a great hulking tour bus, with dozens of eyes to add to my audience.
Naturally, I veered to the side. Sadly, it seems that my interpretation of ‘a little to the left’ would also match up with Fraser’s view of ‘aaaaaaand now we’re in a ditch’. With my car sinking, my partner literally biting his knuckles and a cacophony of horns pipping from every angle, I did the only logical thing I could think of; I got out and stomped off into the hills.
Needless to say, it was not my proudest moment. After wrenching my Nissan from the depths of a ditch and miraculously finding a spot to park, I’m amazed that Fraser came back to find me at all, and didn’t decide to replace me for what must surely have been the comparatively better company of a mountain goat.
Fortuitously, he did come back. In time, the mists cleared and we were able to acknowledge two clear facts; that Skye has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world, and that next time, he would drive the hills.
The time I found myself stranded on the Hungarian underground
Ahh, the first trip away as a couple. It’s a tale as old as time. You know how it goes…the thrill of getting lost in unknown cobbled streets; drinking mulled wine in the snow as the city lights twinkle around you; getting to know each other as the sun sets over the town’s spires; finding yourself carted off, alone, on the city’s metro as it draws to a close for the night? No, just me?!
This is a story better explained in depth. For a full insight into the horrors of the night we still can’t fully laugh about yet, check out my feature below:
My expensive fallout with a budget airline
We’ve all heard those horror stories about budget airlines and the traps they can so easily lure you if things go wrong with your trip; but what if the problem really wasn’t your fault?
This is the pickle I found myself in last year.
With the conundrum of Christmas quickly looming, and the insatiable need for a winter getaway chapping at the door, I found myself lured by a certain airline’s flash sale. For the purposes of this article, the business in question shall remain nameless. Half an hour later, I was the smug owner of two pairs of return tickets to Copenhagen, remarkably secured for just £20.00. Yes, really!
As we were only going for a two-night stay, I didn’t need to add on luggage, meaning that this was quickly turning out to be the cheapest trip I’d ever booked. Or, so I thought.
Fast-forward two months, to the day before our departure. I followed all the normal procedures. Logging in to my account online. Checking in. Bypassing the optional extras (really, who needs chicken nuggets at 7am?). It was only as I printed out our boarding passes that I noticed something was amiss.
Passenger 1: Isabel Gray
Passenger 2: Fraser Gray
Fraser Gray?? Where had this fella come from? The Fraser I knew was most certainly a Sivewright.
Immediately, I began to panic that I had mis-typed…but then, how could I have? I hadn’t been asked to enter any details during this process. It had simply been a case of ticking each box before moving to the next page.
I must have made the mistake when I originally booked us in….
Desperately, I trawled through the records of my confirmations, convinced that I must have ballsed up at some previous juncture, but when I looked for the error, there was none to be found.
Passenger 1: Gray
Passenger 2: Sivewright
How had it changed?
I called the airline, where I was met by a sullen operator.
“You must have typed the wrong surname,” they shrugged down the phone, ignoring my evidence to the contrary. “It happens. We can fix it for you, but there’s a £115.00 fine.”
“And if I can’t pay that?”
“Then you don’t fly. In fact, since you’ve notified us of the error, we’ll need to put a block on your flight altogether until the fine gets paid. You won’t be allowed on the plane if your boarding card does not match your passport.”
You can imagine my thoughts on that. Doing my best to keep calm, I asked to speak to a supervisor. Cue an hour-long hold, before the second, equally lacklustre assistant took to the phone.
“Yeah…it’s definitely a strange one.” They admitted. “Your record got updated at some point. Are you sure your partner’s name is not Gray?”
By this point, I was close to developing an eye twitch.
Again, it was the same story. Nobody could answer how the details on the booking had changed, and it seemed that the only solution would result in my paying the £115.00 fee. Chancing my luck, I pressed to be put through to a manager.
A further two hours passed, before finally, an answer was given. Trouble was, it wasn’t quite the answer I could have predicted.
“Yes Mrs Gray, I can see that your records were updated last month. That’s because you got called us to inform us of your recent marriage. Congratulations to yourself and Mr Gray.”
Marriage? Had I missed something here?? Was there some drunken jaunt to Gretna Green I’d forgotten about?
Turns out, the airline had severely cocked up. They had amended the wrong customer’s account. Someone with a very similar name had contacted the airline to change their details after getting hitched and, well, the rest is a shambolic history. Problem was, Fraser and I were still blocked from our flight as a result. The airline were not willing to let us fly until the matter was fully investigated, and this required us to legally prove (how, within 24 hours, I’ll never quite understand) that we were not married. As a copy of our passports would not do, the only answer was to pay the fine to change the names on our boarding passes.
With the clock ticking away, I had no option but to give in. After 6 stressful hours, I was £115.00 poorer and a whole lot grumpier. That is, until I learned that because I had spoken to three different operators, I had been charged three times. A trip which had originally cost £20.00 had now set me back £365.00. That’s 18 times the price…The cost of at least 150 cardamom buns.
Of course, it all got sorted in the end. A few weeks later, the airline accepted responsibility for their mistake and returned my money, along with a half-baked apology. While I appreciate that this was somewhat of a freak accident, it certainly taught me two things: When it comes to aftercare, you get what you pay for…and always, always double-check your spelling.
The time I learned that space cakes and sex museums do not mix
I’m not going to beat about the bush here.
We all know that Amsterdam is famous for more than just windmills and glittering canals. The legalisation of a certain herbal substance…let’s call it marischmana…has long been a draw for those looking to add a certain spiffyness to their travels.
As an early-twenty-something-year-old, I was game to give it a try. After a hazy morning spent in the local coffee shops, however, the only high I could feel coming on was the rising balance on my Mastercard. I wasn’t feeling a thing, other than a sudden and urgent sense of hunger. What better to satisfy that hunger with than innocent wee brownie and a wander through the city’s red light district?
Want to know how that went? Read on…
The time we almost certainly crashed with the mafia
In the interest of not waking up to find a horse’s head in my bed, I think the less said about this one the better. Let’s just say that if you’re going to be reviewing a brand new hotel in the heart of a city well known for its mobster associations, you might want to do a little background check on the owners first of all…lest you fancy sharing the breakfast room with ‘business associates’ during one of their clandestine meetings…
That being said, they did serve up some fine cannolis, with not a body bag in sight. 5 stars all round, kapiche?
The sleepwalking incident
Have you ever had one of those nightmares where you walk into a room only to discover that your clothes have evaporated? Can you remember the rush of panic and embarrassment which floods your body, followed by the sense of relief which hits as you wake up and realise it was all a dream?
Now, imagine those emotions, but take away the part where it was just a dream.
That, my friends, is how it felt to wake up on my feet, mid-conversation and semi-clad, in a five star hotel.
Let’s rewind a little. In December 2018, I was lucky enough to be invited to review a gorgeous boutique hotel in the centre of Krakow. This wasn’t your average digs, either. This was the sort of establishment which had mints on the tables and plush robes to slip into at night. The sort of joint which had a jazz band to welcome you as you walked through the door. The type of place where grown-ups go and behave like grown up people.
I’d like to say that my behaviour in said hotel had been the picture of respectability. I’d managed to go three days without knocking over any trays of eggs at breakfast. I hadn’t trekked mud through the marble reception floors. I hadn’t even started a secret stash of complimentary toiletries…yet.
And then Thursday came along, and the local Wodka bar beckoned.
Now I’m not going to blame this incident entirely on alcohol. Sure, we may have had one-too-many samples at the pub. We may also have helped ourselves to a bottle of cognac from the mini bar afterwards. But certainly, when I went to bed that night, I was veering towards the right side of compos mentis.
Turns out, cognac + wodka + three busy days of sightseeing = the perfect fuel for a night time stroll.
As a side note, I have been known to sleepwalk from time to time. I’ve also been known to sleep sing, jabber and even have the odd 3am spring clean. But even by my standards, this was something spectacular.
Somehow, I must have got out of bed without waking Fraser, left the room, found my way down a long and winding corridor to the lift, travelled down five floors and again, snaked my way through the labyrinth that led to reception.
What I said to the receptionist prior to coming to is anyone’s guess. Perhaps I don’t even want to know. All I can say for certain, is that I woke up with an animalistic snort, clearly engaged in a very animated discussion, with a security guard having been beckoned. It probably didn’t help matters that I was wearing only a vest top and my knickers.
As the awful truth began to dawn on me that I must have blundered into this situation in my sleep, the equally challenging reality hit that I now had to persuade the staff that I was not, in fact a madwoman. Somehow, I managed. I believe I babbled something about checking out the next day, before making my way sharply back to the room…that is, after ten minutes of knocking on the door to get Fraser to wake up.
I still cringe when I think back to that night. The only comfort comes from the fact that it was I reviewing the hotel, and not the other way round. Needless to say, they got a glowing report.
The joys of catcalling in Rome
It breaks my heart a little to say anything bad about Rome, because it’s a city I love dearly. But I have to admit that travelling there alone, as a woman, I was forced to face some truths about this Italian gem. Namely, the way some (and I emphasis some) men responded to women in the street. Of course there’s always going to be cultural differences, but I was shocked by just how forward folk could be, forcing roses into my hand, making crude remarks, attempting to join my table as I sat alone in the piazzas, offering me their phone number. While some might have taken these moments as flattery, I got the sense that the attention I drew had a lot more to do with the fact that I was on my own than my physical appearance. I saw it happen to plenty of other women too. At some of the popular sites, the scale of the problem was just plain off-putting.
Generally, I found that a direct and blunt response back to establish my boundaries was the best way to deal with the catcalling, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t begin to irk me that I even needed to do that. On one occasion, I even had a man grab my arm and try to pressure me in to his car. For a first time solo traveller, it was a pretty intimidating experience.
That being said, the overall experience of visiting Rome on my own, as a single gal, was incredibly liberating, and I would never advise anyone against doing the same. Yes, I needed to have my wits about me at times; yes, it was a shock to the system, but it was also bloody wonderful. You can read more about my adventure below:
The time I ended up in the front row of a Ping Pong show
Bangkok’s Khao San Road is a perilous place for many reasons beyond the questionable cocktails and cockroaches served on sticks. One of those reasons? Men in tuk tuks, who’ll take you down unlit streets to see shows which will make you want to wash your eyes out with a bottle of turps.
Naturally, at the age of 21, that sounded like an offer too good to refuse, and so it came to be that I found myself, two hours later, watching through my fingers as objects designed never to enter a human orifice came flying through the air.
Think you can handle the tale? Don’t say I didn’t warn you…
The worst flight home
If there’s one thing worse than missing a flight, it’s knowing that you’re about to miss a flight. And if there’s one thing worse that knowing you’re about to miss a flight, it’s knowing that it’s through your own stupidity.
This was the scenario Fraser and I found ourselves in at Naples airport, some time ago.
The short version goes like this: We were flying from Naples to London and then on to Edinburgh. Our inbound Naples flight was seriously delayed, which meant that we would miss our connection in London. Now if we had booked both flights with the same airline, this would have been fine; the airline would have found us a new connection. However, being the cheapskates that we are, we had booked the cheapest deal, using two different airlines. Naturally, neither company wanted to comp us into a plane.
Thus we found ourselves with a three-hour wait in a sweltering Naples airport, for an inbound plane that we knew had cocked everything up, and had resulted in the purchasing of new tickets from London onwards. With me so far?
With our new tickets begrudgingly purchased, we had one task, and one task only. That task was to wait patiently in Naples for our plane to arrive. Naturally, we decided to cool down with a trip to the airport bar. We bagged ourselves a table with a clear view of the departures board and watched as the various flights came and went. Several beers later, we were still watching, wondering why our flight remained top of the list, but had not called us yet. We waited, and waited and waited until finally the penny dropped.
“It says Imbarco. That sounds an awful lot like embarking.”
The irony was not lost on us that we might very realistically be the first people in history to miss their own delayed flight whilst still in the airport. A mad dash towards the departure gates ensued, during which Fraser called out the infamous question “Have you got your boarding pass?”. A relevant question, of course, had I not misheard. What I heard, you see, was “I’ve got your boarding pass.” Which made sense, given that he had been looking after them all day.
As our gate grew closer in sight, I stopped to ask him for said pass, prompting a look of complete and utter disbelief.
“I asked you if you had it!”
The reality of our guddle caught up on us quickly. I thought Fraser had our passes. He thought I knew that he didn’t. The only place they could be was the bar…the bar, at the other end of the building…
Without thinking, we split. Fraser was to run to the gate and let the staff know what had happened so they might hold the doors for me. I would run back to the bar and retrieve the missing passes.
This would all have been very well, had I not been working against a sea of people, and had there not been at least three bars with exactly the same name. Lost, sweaty and extremely frazzled, I stopped to catch my breath in the midst of a swarm, and shut my eyes in despair as the hot tears of frustration began to rise.
It was then that an elderly Italian woman caught my arm.
“Why so sad?” she asked me, her eyes full of kindness. Breathless, my words came out in a jumble as I tried to explain that not only had I lost my pass, but I didn’t know where I had lost it, and it was the only thing that could get me on this plane, and that I couldn’t afford to buy another ticket and that I might be stuck here forever….
She held up her hand to silence me.
“Go back to your gate.” She instructed, with a firmness to her voice. “You will get on the plane.”
It was what I needed to hear.
As I sprinted back towards Gate 21c, I could see Fraser frantically gesticulating to the lady at the check-in desk. I could tell that he was begging her to put out a message on the tannoy. Thankfully, he caught sight of me (or rather, was drawn to the sound of thundering hooves) just in the nick of time, and his voice echoed down the corridor.
“Izzy! I’ve got the passes! They were in my bag!”
Miraculously, we made our flight. We even made our new connection in London. And I didn’t knock any of Fraser’s teeth out. Whether we spoke to each other for the next couple of hours is anyone’s guess…
The time it pissed and rained
After months of anticipation, the time had finally come for Fraser and I; we were going to the Amalfi Coast. It was something we’d been speaking about as long as we’d known each other.
We had sailed from Naples to Sorrento, taking in the golden, secluded bays which peppered the Mediterranean coastline. We had wound our way round the perilous mountain bends that bled through the towns of Positano, Praiano and Furore; communities which seemed to tumble from impossibly high cliff walls all the way down to the sea. We had landed in the bustling metropolis of Amalfi itself, before catching our final bus to the hilltop village of Ravello. We had made it, finally, and had barely poured ourselves a glass of something bubbly before a distant rumble permeated the air. It was a sound all-too-familiar…the sound of rain…
It was the same sound we would hear for the next 48 hours; pretty much the exact length of time we had to enjoy the Amalfi Coast.
Now, listen. I’m from Scotland. Not just that; I’m from the North of Scotland. If anyone’s faced their fair share of bad weather over the years, it’s me. So when I tell you it rained, it really rained. Forget cats and dogs; this storm came complete with hippos, quokkas, and at least half the contingent of Noah’s sodding Arc.
Our plans of sunbathing in hidden coves and eating gelato in the piazza were quickly washed down the drain…along with lashings of floodwater too, I’m sure.
But did it ruin our trip? Funnily enough, no. We took refuge in the local shops, speaking to the owners about their hand-crafted pottery and lace designs. We made mad dashes between the cafes, and hid under canopies to eat our gelato as the fat rain drops fell around us. We ate some of the best pasta we’ll probably ever have in our lives, and stayed up late into the night, watching from the safety of our balcony as the lightning crackled over the Amalfi sea and the lights from the towns below shone like beacons of hope through the mists.
“Damn,” I remember thinking, as we watched the wild world below us. “Amalfi looks good in the rain.”
Perhaps this moment is the reason why I think it’s good to share stories like this. Travelling isn’t always going to go to plan. There’s going to be times when you find yourself lost without a map, or on the edge of your seat, or feeling completely out of your depth…but maybe these are good things. Travelling takes us out of our comfort zones and shows us the world as it really is; not perfect and deeply complex; a challenge waiting to be conquered and buried treasure waiting to be discovered. I’ve had my fair share of stressful moments, but they’ve also given me some of the biggest laughs. Hopefully some of the best stories too. So next time you find yourself on a bus going in the wrong direction (true story) or nearly cacking yourself after a dodgy curry, be sure to think of me and my mishaps, and remember that at the end of the day, it might just be a little bit character building.