milestone moments.

“it seems that the more places i see and experience, the bigger i realize the world to be.  the more i become aware of, the more i realize how relatively little i know of it, how many places i have still to go, how much more there is to learn.  maybe that’s enlightenment though – to know that there is no final resting place of the mind, no moment of smug clarity.  perhaps wisdom, at least for me, means realizing how small i am, and unwise, and how far i have yet to go.”

— anthony bourdain —

“you haven’t been to spain?  what? why not? you have been to azerbaijan and not spain?! you’re so weird.”

yes. it’s true. my first time to spain was may 2018. i had just turned 15 when i first went to europe, now fast forward 22 years and i was finally on my way. took me long enough…..

i ended up finding an amazing deal on a one-way, direct ticket from boston to barcelona, not knowing when or where exactly i would be when i was ready to return. for me, one-way tickets are really the best way to travel. it makes your plans more flexible and when something ends up happening and you need to make changes (and something will happen, trust me) you only have to adjust one flight, not several.

despite my preference for solo travel, i asked my best friend from growing up if she had any interest in meeting me somewhere in europe since she lives in denmark now and is always up for a little girls trip. she had already been to spain and portugal so i threw out the idea of morocco, half expecting her to question my sanity. to my surprise, she immediately said yes and then minutes later began sending me links to beautiful riads all over marrakech. i was booked for spain, planning a day trip to andorra, would then meet my bestie in morocco – my 50th country in the world – and finally end in portugal, which would be my 40th european country. milestone moments indeed!!

on a warm night in may, i fell asleep in boston and woke up in barcelona, not a terrible way to spend seven hours of your life. the weather in barcelona was beyond beautiful, but the traffic was not. i was itching to get out and start roaming the streets but the gridlock i was currently stuck in had other plans for me. did i accidentally take a flight to LA because it certainly feels like i could be california dreaming on the 101. i always try to book a centrally located hotel so i have the ability to walk to most of the places i have an interest in seeing, and barcelona was no different (hotel regina http://www.reginahotel.com/en/). i was able to walk to the beach, to the la sagrada família, and was steps away from all the sights in the gothic quarter.

as much as i love being on the ground experiencing a city for the first time, one of the highlights for me in barcelona was sitting on the very small balcony of my hotel room watching the traffic and people go by. the view wasn’t necessarily anything to write home about but taking a few moments to just relax and enjoy a local beer in the sun is as important as trying to fit as many places of interest in during a trip, maybe even more. everyone has pictures of themselves outside la sagrada família and in park güell but i was just as happy with a balcony selfie in the sun as i would have been with any of the others. the magic of the unplanned, the unexpected and the quiet tourist-free parts of my trip really are the moments that keep me happy and content.

a day passed and then i was off again for a day trip to higher elevation.  andorra was a short, rainy adventure that had me on an early bus from barcelona to andorra la vella through the windy roads of the pyrenees mountains – it felt a world away from the sunny beaches of barcelona. outside of the occasional feeling of car sickness, the ride was stunningly beautiful. flanked by green valleys and mountainside villages, i arrived in the capital to grey skies and misty weather. wandering the small streets, i went up a lonely rocky staircase and followed a very slippery, wet stone path through some small local vegetable farms and chicken coops. up and up i went, unsure where i was going and where this path would lead. part of me was hoping i’d end up at someone’s front door and they would offer me lunch, i was pretty hungry after all. although a lunch invitation never did happen, i did see the whole valley from the end of the path i followed. the view was as good as a full stomach, maybe better. guess there is something to be said about taking the path less traveled.

i arrived back in barcelona early enough from andorra to have almost an entire day of sightseeing ahead of me. while i walked by the endless lines of the must-see spots in the city, i proceeded to fall in love with the charm of the building facades. barcelona, the city of beautiful buildings. beyond the buildings adorned with catalonian flags, were cafes filled with happy, cheerful patrons enjoying coffee, beer and desserts. everyone seemed so relaxed and stress-free, i think i need to spend more time in spain going forward. barcelona, you now have my attention.

an early flight the next morning and i was finally making my triumphant return to africa. i wrote an earlier article for we are travel girls that detailed my mishaps and experiences in western africa back in october, so i was hoping with every fiber of my being that this trip would be much smoother than my last visit to this amazing continent. much to my relief, morocco was everything i thought it would be, and more. winding alleyways in all shades of pink and peach leading to beautiful restaurants, shops, riads and magnificent hotels behind giant wooden doors.

everywhere i looked there was something to see. shops selling everything from waxy brown soap to brightly colored shoes to hand hammered lanterns just waiting to be lit for a cozy nighttime glow. there were people going and coming in every direction, mosques beckoning the call to prayer, and donkeys pulling their daily hauls. it was chaotic magical perfection.

the riad we were calling home for the next four nights was a decorators dream (riad les yeux bleus https://marrakech-boutique-riad.com). beautiful shades of blue, pops of pink, traditional moroccan wooden doors and gorgeous lighting in every corner of each room.  it was hard to imagine something so lovely being hidden behind so many plain and simple walls. for a girl with long blonde hair, this was the first time in my life i felt like princess jasmine from aladdin. i was just missing my pet tiger.

we enjoyed couscous for lunch at nomad (https://nomadmarrakech.com) overlooking the rooftops of the city, got lost in the winding maze that is the medina, and did our best haggling for some moroccan treasures to take home with us. for me, the souks were so overwhelming that i was only able to withstand them for an hour or two before we found a less aggressive shopping area called the artistic ensemble marrakech. i should mention, however, that during our souk wandering we came across a very small shop where a lone man was selling his oil paintings. they were all so beautiful and extremely inexpensive. i was ready to buy the entire shop when my friend reminded me i only had a small carry-on for luggage – the downfall of travelling light. i only know his name by the signature in the corner of the painting i purchased, but if you come across matise, stop in and buy something. you will not regret it.

one of the best nights we had in marrakech was spent at dar rhizlane for dinner (https://www.dar-rhizlane.com/). we walked in and it was something out of a dream. full moon shining, flowers blooming and pathways weaving in and out of tables that were perfectly decorated for dinner. i have been lucky enough to have stayed and dined at some of the nicest places around the world and i had never seen anything like this place. we enjoyed a wonderful three-course meal and local wine for 65€. the food was absolutely fantastic, and considering our surroundings, it was worth every penny.

as the night wore on a desert chill swept in and the staff graciously provided black hooded robes to all the guests who needed a little warmth. while most of the diners were happy for the cozy snuggles the robes provided, my friend and i immediately went into fits of giggles comparing ourselves to characters from star wars, twilight and harry potter. we laughed so hard we were in tears. these are the moments that i miss when i am travelling solo. spending time in a foreign country, my milestone 50th, with your best friend is something you will always cherish.

and speaking of memories with your best friend, things between me and her were about to get uncomfortably close. first of all, americans don’t get naked in front of people, even friends they’ve known for years. she and i always talk about this because in denmark she is literally the only one going into a sauna with a bathing suit on. coworkers are naked together, family, friends, you name it, so when the lovely woman administering our hammam told us to remove our bathing suits in full we both looked at each other nervously. my full body was steamed and scrubbed by hand and i had my hair washed while being completely topless by a stranger, in front of my best friend. sitting completely naked in a marble room filled with dissipating steam with someone you have known since middle school was definitely a mt. everest-sized leap out of my comfort zone. at this point the only thing left to do was to laugh because anything less than that would just be awkward. if you find yourself in morocco with a friend and have a sense of humor, you should definitely enjoy a hammam. i know i will always remember my first time…

the days passed too quickly in the sunny sahara and soon i was off to portugal, my last stop and my european country number 40. this was my second attempt at lisbon. the first time i planned to stop by the city of seven hills was on my way back from senegal, but when your passport, cash, credit cards and cell phone all get stolen, you have to make adjustments. but as with spain, better late than never.

the second i arrived in lisbon i fell in love. the beautiful tile adorning the facades of buildings, the colorful houses on the steep streets, and the views from são jorge castle – it was like being in san francisco but with a european twist. i ended up walking around mostly during the evening my first day here because there were so many people visiting this wonderful city that it made it impossible to really fully explore. it’s always funny because the majority of the pictures i take, and have subsequently posted on instagram, have drawn in comments about how it looks as though no one else is there and i am the lone visitor. while this was true when i traveled to astana, kazakhstan in march, the same cannot be said for busy busy lisbon.

my plan was to find a grocery store first to grab a few beers and snacks and then to get to bed early so i could be up with the sun to avoid the afternoon crowds. i had no problem procuring beers and snacks, but it became a problem when i realized my hotel room did not have a refrigerator or an ice machine. plan b: fill my sink with cold water and submerge the warm beer until it was cold enough to consume. while my beer chilled, i snacked on all the perishable food i purchased that could not be refrigerated, and can highly recommend trying the local cheese and chorizo. both are phenomenal, and i should know, i ate about five pounds of each since it was either eat it or waste it at that point.

my favorite part of my trip to lisbon, besides the beer and my makeshift sink cooler (it worked, by the way, a new travel trip) was getting up as early as i planned and feeling like i had the whole city to myself. the crowds from the day before were gone, nestled in their beds dreaming of pastel de nata and i was up and out the door taking in the charm that is lisbon virtually alone. i roamed the streets all morning and was not done even as afternoon came around. there was so much to see and so many alleyways that deserved their moment of pictorial glory it was difficult to call it a day. i loved everything about my time in lisbon and my only regrets were not staying longer and not coming sooner.

this trip was memorable for me in so many ways. i hit the big five-oh with my countries of the world and i reached 40 of 51 for countries in europe. one of these milestones i was able to spend with my best friend and the other i spent alone, and i wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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