Author: Roman Johnson
Unlike me, my mom is the spontaneous type. So, when she announced we were going on a trip over winter break, I was skeptical. Her itinerary was vague at best: land in Paris for New Year’s, stay with some guy named Frank, and return (maybe) from Madrid (roughly) four weeks later. Somewhere in the middle “we’d see what happened.” Really? Yes.
I’d recommend travel in winter. Empty of tourists and full of rebajas (sales), the holidays brought out the festive lights, outdoor ice skating and open air stalls with nativity scenes and delicious food. I delighted in fromage avec jambon (ham and cheese) sandwiches and crepes chocolat, while my mom loved the vin chaud (hot wine) and beurre sucre (butter and sugar) crepes. We ate so many we were sick, but indulgence in France was the way, n’est-ce pas?
Paris was magical! New Year’s Eve, we bought hats from a street vendor. We went to Versailles – me in my Paris skullcap and her in a fuzzy white Russian clown hat – and we looked hilarious in the Hall of Mirrors. Then, on to Musee D’Orsay, ice skated in front of the Hotel D’ville, and walked to the Pompidou. As the sun set, we climbed the steps of Sacre Coeur to watch fireworks. A breathtaking sight it was over the city of lights, and a perfect way to ring in the New Year.
In the French Quarter, we bought a card game Conquistador! that would become our staple pastime on trains, ferries, and petit taxis in Morocco. In the game, as a 16th century Spanish, Portuguese, or French conqueror, you gather territories, and as we traveled, the game made me feel like I was a conqueror, gathering the riches of a New World.
We took the TGV, the fast train from Paris to Marseilles, and woke up with a whole different vibe than Paris: maritime. We watched the ships come into the port and fishermen scaling their catches of the day. We took a ferry trip to Chateau D’if where the Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned. It was eerie there, and all I could think of was how hard it must have been as a prisoner to look just across the water to freedom. We checked out the world-famous Marseilles Skateboard Park, which was icy, dangerous even for the most seasoned of skaters.
I got into my mom’s spontaneity. I was a conquistador! I saw our train went on to Ventimiglia, Italy, so I said, “Let’s push on to Italy!” We stopped in for some gelato, (Italian ice cream). Then, I suggested we check out Monaco. We went to the Ferrari shop, and marveled at the lights on the rich yachts. For my birthday, nothing but McDonald’s was open after 9 in Toledo, and my mom got the entire place of Spanish teens to sing Los Cumpleanos to me! This kind of traveling was getting exciting!
Tres Reines, Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, took over Barcelona. The Three Kings paraded down the Ramblas in winged chariots, throwing out treats in the streets. I loved the Gaudi architecture, the church/construction site Sagrada Familia (a must-climb to the top!), and the sharks at the aquarium.
As we moved further south, we saw the Moorish, Spanish, Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish cultures all mixed together and overlapping, like in Cordoba at the Mezquita where King Ferdinand had built a Catholic church inside what had been a mosque and once a Jewish temple.
From Granada, we took a 22-hour bus ride/ferry to Marrakesh, Morocco. We were in Africa! We saw snake charmers, monkeys, and the oranges - the best in the world! Our hotel was so cold (Moroccans don’t believe in heat – bad for circulation) we piled on as many blankets as we could. The medina (middle of town) was like a labyrinth, left intact by the French colonials. With no street signs, we marked our way through the souks by what was being sold (turn left at the shoes, then right at the brass, etc.)
One day we were looking for a famous madrassa, an Islamic primary school from the 1300, and got lured into a famous scheme to sell carpets to tourists. Beware! The tanneries were just a couple of goats and vats of dyes. A guy gave me a “present” of a bull’s head – a distinct gift of friendship, apparently. My mom didn’t want to break my heart or seem rude, so we packed it in the bag. Everywhere there were men in hooded cloaks, called Djelleba. We thought they looked like Jawa from Star Wars and found out later that George Lucas had gotten the Jawa from these cloaks.
In Gibraltar, a British territory right by Spain, we changed our money again – this time to the British pound. A big Rock doesn’t seem like much, but when you get to the top, you could see both Morocco and Spain while standing on a third, Britain. In midst of my reverie I heard a squeal. Baboons – they were grabbing at people’s food bags and shrieking!
I loved all the adventure, getting on a train and ending up in a different country. New sights, smells, and languages - Conquistador, indeed! The trip inspired me to learn Spanish and French, and embrace the unexpected without a plan. One last souvenir turned up in my bag when I got home: the bull’s head! Lucky us, we weren’t stopped at customs.