Traveler’s Notebook: Home

After bouncing back and forth between two continents for nearly 3 years, I – and lots of people around me – have a lot of questions about what “home” even means any more.

I bought another one-way plane ticket (the fourth in three years). I’m going “home” again. May 29th, at 9:00 pm, I fly out. For “good” this time. Well, for residency (and hopefully work), at least.

I haven’t written about it much – I like to pretend it isn’t happening, to put my nose down, work as much as possible and try to squeeze in significant conversations with all of my friends in between – but I’m not actually in Italy these days.

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The central square in Legnano, the city in Italy I’ve been calling “home”.

I’m “at home”. Which is to say I’m in St. Paul, Minnesota. Living in the country which issues my passport, where I am a legal resident and currently allowed to work, and to whom I will always pay taxes, apparently. Living in the house I’ve lived in before (shout out to friends who have their lives together, have bought houses and offer me affordable rent without a long-term contract!), working at the restaurant I worked at before and waiting for my time on my tourist visa to renew again, as well as saving money for my wedding and the first few months in Italy when I’ll be job hunting.

This time, though, most of (or at least half of) my stuff is officially in a closet in Italy. My backup jeans. My favorite shoes. My camera (that one was actually an accident, but whatever). This, time, when I go back to Italy, I’ll be becoming a permanent resident, really living in Europe. Expatriating. Or immigrating? Which am I doing? What do they each mean? Semantics matter.

Which is making me consider my language a lot. There are a lot of subtleties that mean a whole lot to me right now, and which no one seems to notice but me. All of my coworkers asking me how my “trip” to Italy was when I got home in January, for example. (Not a trip! I wanted to shout: I lived there. I celebrated Christmas with a family that is becoming my own, I took the same bus every day! I’m going back! Life! Not vacation!) And I just don’t know what to say about the many meanings of “home” in my life. I can already hear my Papa, assuring me that he will always keep the fire lit in my childhood home in the forest of Northern Minnesota when I need it. And, of course, as anyone who had a beautiful and fulfilling childhood, I will to some extent always need it. But I’m also an adult woman who recently promised to marry and redefine family with another adult man, and home is shifting and changing yet again because of it.

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The yard of my parent’s house, January

This last week I went to visit friends who just bought a house in Fargo, North Dakota. While going around the table, trading stores over coffee, I was asked the question I’m getting asked over and over again lately: “What are you most excited about for going back to Italy?!” (Besides the obvious answer of seeing my fiance, everyone quickly giggles.)

I looked around at my friends who are truly doing amazing things. Buying homes. Starting graduate degrees. One has begun an impressive and essential career which involves trying to bring biodiversity back the prairies of North America in the face of climate change and invasive species. It’s so hard for me to grit my teeth and tell them that I am a waitress right now. OK, some days it’s great and I make amazing money. I appreciate the restaurant I work for, and with my current lifestyle – zipping in and out of the country for months at a time – I couldn’t be doing that much to build what I had of a career anyway, given my life choices. But most days (I should say nights), I’m working when my friends are free. I’m feeling physically tired, degraded and ready to do something bigger with my life.

I feel like I’ve watched my career, a career I was proud of and excited to see continue to grow, fizzle and slowly die out in the corner. Yes, yes I know: left. I quit and walked away, and chose to keep dating the handsome foreigner, which ultimately lead me to all of this. I’ve had agency all along. And I know there are flames I can coax back to life there. After all: I grew up in a house in northern Minnesota without an automated central heating system. I’m really good at building fires (aka finding a way to make the next step work), but for the moment, this is what I must keep doing. This is how I make my next step work.

And I get to say it: this part of the process really sucks.

The answer to the question my friend’s asked really is: I’m most ready to feel like my life is starting again. After the transition between place to place. The inability to fully commit to anything (besides a marriage) for the last three years. I’m ready to have routine and new purpose. To know how much money I’ll make in a given month and budget. All those boring things I had at 24, the things I walked away from and let slowly die and which I am now craving at 27.

Maybe all of that is what home means.

One reason travel works for me is that I’m good at adaptation. I’m good at nesting, getting comfortable, building routine and making myself “at home.” This is both beautiful and confusing to myself and those around me.

So, is home where I grew up, or where I most currently live? Is home where your blood flows through the people around you or where the love of your life sleeps at night? Is home where my Facebook profile tells you I live? Where most of my stuff is? Do I have to speak the language fluently to say it’s my home? Can I call the airplane seat or hostel bed I’m trying to fall asleep in a home?

I guess the simple answer is that lately it’s been all of that.

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A Two-Week, All-Jordan Itinerary

From relaxing on the Dead Sea, to exploring Roman ruins; from the ancient city of Petra to the magical Wadi Rum desert, there’s so much to fill your time in this small country, and this two week itinerary covers it all.

Yes, many people balked when my fiance and I told them we were planning a two week trip to Jordan, leaving the day after Christmas and staying into the new year. “The Middle East?” They asked. “Two weeks?” They questioned. “Is there even anything to do other than Petra?”

Beyond the most famous attractions, including Petra, the Dead Sea and Wadi Rum, there is so much to see and do: for the history buffs, to the adventure junkies and the spa aficionados. And after researching and planning a full two weeks, once we were on the ground, we found ourselves consistently amazed by what we experienced. In nearly every aspect, Jordan exceeded our expectations.

It should also be noted that we felt safe while we traveled. The locals were extraordinarily friendly, engaging and respectful and the police and security presence was obvious, but not overwhelming. It should be remembered that the government of Jordan has a vested interest in keeping tourists safe and comfortable, and considering their neighborhood, they’ve done a fantastic job. I would recommend Jordan as a tourist destination to anyone who loves desert landscapes, history and cultural immersions.*

Laid out below, in all it’s detailed glory, is our FULL two week itinerary in Jordan, for you to copy or cut from as you like! If you don’t have that much time, you can still hit a lot of the highlights in just a few days, thanks to the small amount of miles between sites and the density of incredible places within this historic country.

*I would of course recommend keeping up with the news and current events ANYWHERE in the world you’re planning on visiting in the weeks leading up to your trip, and exercise caution and good judgement when you are in the country. This guide was written based on experiences and conditions in December 2016, and in this part of the world much is subject to change quickly. But don’t be afraid just because a place is different and the biggest risk you’re taking is breaking down prejudices. There’s already too much fear flying around for that.

Day 1 – 2: Arrive and Explore Amman

Land, get that passport stamp (be prepared for the 40 JD visa you’ll need to purchase upon arrival!) and catch a taxi to your hotel in the center of the capital (about 25 minutes away from the airport). Stretch out your legs as you up and down the steep streets (just like Rome, Amman was originally built upon 7 hills) and eat some hummus and falafel before sleeping.

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The remains of the hand of Hercules, a part of the ancient Citadel complex in Amman, the city sprawling out beyond.

On your first full day in the country, really explore Amman. It’s a sprawling metropolis which has grown incredibly in the last decades and is filled with modern, hip Jordanians, displaced Palestinians and, increasingly, Syrian refugees. Visit the historic Citadel and the Jordan Museum to get a sense of the wide array of history packed into this tiny country, walk Rainbow Street and sit in some smokey, exotic hookah cafes sipping espresso. There are plenty of traditional restaurants, as well as modern, internationally-inspired places that would seem outright American if you were dropped into them without context – English Christmas music playing and all!

On the one hand, Amman is where most Jordanians actually live, and by being here you get a sense of what life is like for those who live here. On the other, (and we happened to visit on a particularly cold, rainy day, which didn’t help us love the city) Amman is a little dirty, very chaotic and doesn’t exactly set the stage for all of the amazing sites and activities Jordan has to offer. But it’s a good place to kick your tour off.

Day 3: Jerash

On the morning of the 3rd day, pick up your rental car and head north. The city of Jerash lies 30 miles north of Amman and the main highlight of the town is the ruins of the ancient Roman city.

With the fertile Jordan River Valley nearby, the ancient city of Jerash flourished and was among the Roman Decapolis cities, allowing the inhabitants to build and maintain some truly incredible structures. With several temples still mostly erect, two theaters, a hippodrome arena (featuring costumed, historical re-enactments if you come at the right time of year) and an impressively-long Cardo Maximus (paved road lined with columns), this huge ruin is truly magnificent and should be on anyone’s must-see Jordan list.

Give yourself at least 3.5-4 hours to fully appreciate and explore these ruins.

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You can sleep in Jerash if you want, but there is only one hotel in town (right across from the ruins) and we opted to drive another half hour to the city of Ajloun for the night.

Day 4: Ajloun, Jordan Valley & Salt

There are many different ways you can spend your fourth day in Jordan. The city of Ajloun may not be the most impressive, but the Muslim-built castle atop the hill is absolutely worth a visit. This impressive fortress controlled and defended the trade route between Damascus and Egypt, and provides incredible views of the surrounding valley, to Israel, Palestine and Syria.

You can spent the day hiking at the Ajloun Forest Reserve, or if you’d prefer to take a driving tour and see more of the countryside, head towards the Jordan River Valley, stopping at the relatively un-excavated, but impressively ancient ruins in the village of Pella, then drive south along the river, through the heavily populated towns and markets in the fertile valley.

If you have time, stop for a few hours in the city of Salt, a pretty market town featuring Ottoman-era architecture.

Arrive in your hotel in Madaba, where you will spend the next two nights.

Day 5: Madaba and Mt. Nebo

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Part of the incredible mosaic map of the Holy Land on the floor of the Greek Orthodox church in Madaba.

Spend the morning exploring the pleasant town of Madaba, visiting the ruins of incredibly well-preserved Byzantine-era mosaics unearthed throughout the region, including a beautifully detailed map of the Holy Land from Jerusalem and the Dead Sea to Egypt and the Mediterranean on the floor of the church of Saint George. Also walk to the Roman Catholic Church of Saint John the Baptist and descend underground to the ancient well, then ascend the bell tower for views of the region.

Before the sun sets, drive 15 minutes to Mount Nebo, the place where Moses first and finally saw the Promised Land, a place he knew he was destined never to reach. and some more impressively preserved and displayed mosaics in the hilltop church.

 

During this day, if you really want to take a Biblically-inspired tour, you can also use the afternoon to head south to Mukawir, the site of Herod’s palace and the beheading of John the Baptist, or seek out one of the spring said to have emerged from a place Moses struck the ground with his staff.

Spend this night in Madaba again, sampling another of the many excellent restaurants in town for dinner.

Day 6: The Dead Sea

Make time to stop at the Dead Sea Panoramic Complex on your way to the Dead Sea resort of your choice. Even if you don’t need the geology lesson, the views of the lowest point on earth are worth it.

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All of that said, check into your resort (and yes, even budget travelers: it’s worth it to spring for a resort here!) on the Dead Sea as early as you can, and spend at least the whole afternoon bobbing in the water, relaxing in the pool and reading on the beach. That night, get yourself a spa treatment, or at least pop into the sauna.

Day 7: Bethany Beyond the Jordan to Dana

On Day 7, you can either spend another half day lounging as long as you can in the salty waters of the Dead Sea, or you can get up as early as possible and visit Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the site of the baptism of Jesus. For us, it was January 1st, and it was a bright, sunny morning and we just couldn’t tear ourselves away from the beach and pool: no matter how wonderful and worthwhile everyone told us Bethany Beyond the Jordan is.

This afternoon, drive south along the Dead Sea Highway, enjoying the spectacular views at 400-plus feet below sea level. At the southern end of the sea, you’ll head east and meet the Kings Highway, an ancient trading route lined with olive trees and clustered with towns and cities.

We had planned on stopping in Karak to tour the crusader’s castle here. Unfortunately, there had been a recent standoff here between locals and police and we opted to avoid stopping in town.

As you drive south, the landscape becomes increasingly more desertous and you start to appreciate how important the fertile Jordan River valley really is to the region. Plan to arrive in the village of Dana before the evening settles in and find a spot along the dramatic cliff side to watch the sun set.

Day 8: Dana Wildlife Reserve

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Get up early and enjoy a big breakfast before descending for the day into the main wadi of the Dana Nature Reserve. The picturesque village of Dana perches upon the side of a cliff which looks down into this dramatic valley and a local revitalization project is aiming to bring villagers who left in the past decades back and rebuild the town. In the reserve, there are plenty of hikes, the most distinct follows the clear path that switchbacks up and down into the valley.

As you walk, keep an eye out for shepherds, wild animals and hawks.

Just remember: unless you’re going all the way to the Eco Lodge 16 kilometers on the other side of the valley, however far you go down, you’ve got to go back up!

It’s about an hour drive from Dana to Wadi Musa, the village outside of Petra, and if you have time and energy, make a stop to explore the crusader castle in Shobak.

Day 9: Petra

There is so much to say about this incredible Wonder of the World, and it deserves a post all on it’s own.

Here’s what’s most important: Prepare yourself for the 50 JD entrance fee (only 55 JD if you’re staying an extra day and going back into the ruins). Get up early to walk the kilometer through the cavernous Siq and see the sun rise over the Treasury, then give yourself at least a full day for exploration of the ancient city. There’s a lot of steps and a lot of walking involved in exploring Petra, so don’t plan to be anywhere other than your hotel in Wadi Musa for a hot shower and a relaxing night once you leave the ruins.

Day 10 – 12: The Red Sea

The drive between Wadi Musa and Aqaba takes about 2.5 hours and is incredibly barren. In fact, all of the landscape right up to the shoreline of the Red Sea are disconcertingly desolate, making the unbelievable diversity of the reef just below the surface that much more impressive.

Spend the afternoon of the 10th day relaxing by the sea at your hotel in the city of Aqaba or Tala Bay (slightly more remote, and closer to the reefs, which was what we opted for), enjoying that now you can see not only Israel, but also Egypt and Saudi Arabia from your window. On the 11th day, hire a guided snorkeling or diving tour, or rent wet suits and flippers and explore the array of aquatic diversity in the reefs here. We snorkeled from the Japanese Garden south about a kilometer to our hotel and saw some incredible marine life.

Day 13: Wadi Rum

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Wake up early and drive one hour to Wadi Rum village, where you’ll meet with you pre-arranged tour guide for a day and night in Wadi Rum. This dramatic desert landscape was first given notoriety by Lawrence of Arabia and has been at the crossroads for the nomadic Bedouin tribes who still live here for centuries. On a one-day tour, you’ll hop in the back of a jeep to see interesting rocks formations and ancient petroglyphs featuring camels and directions to springs, climb dunes and hike through canyons. At night, you’ll head to a traditional Bedouin camp for tea and stories around the fire, dinner and music into the night. Take some time to stand outside and appreciate the incredible night sky once the sun has set: there’s truly nothing like this landscape at night.

Day 14: Depart

The overnight tours of Wadi Rum should bring you back to the village early in the morning (check with your tour provider before booking, if you have doubts or a flight to catch), and it’s about a 4-hour drive on the relatively smooth Desert Highway back to the airport near Amman. You can fly out that evening, or opt to spend your final night back in Amman – or quieter Madaba, as we did. On our final morning, we purchased souvenirs and stretched our legs a bit more before heading home.


No matter how much time you can spend in Jordan, and no matter how you choose to spend that time, this small country – so full of history, culture and adventure – is sure to enchant and excite travelers, no matter their interests!

Did we miss your favorite spot in Jordan? Is there a better way around? Tell me about it in the comments!

Jordan Itinerary

Exploring the Italian Alps in Valley D’Aosta

Italy’s smallest region is packed full of incredible mountain vistas, rewarding hikes and historic castles, and it is definitely worth the visit.

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OK, so you’ve heard all about Rome, Venice and Tuscany. Possibly, you’ve even had the pleasure of seeing why these are the most popular tourist destinations in Italy. When you’re ready for a whole different take on la vita bella, however, I suggest the small, mountainous region of Valle d’Aosta. Tucked into the northwestern corner of Italy, with France and Switzerland (geographically and culturally) hugging close by, clusters of castles lining the valley floor, sweeping Alpine vistas everywhere and enough hiking or skiing to keep anyone busy outside, Valle d’Aosta is a rejuvenating divergence from city life.

You can still get view of the Roman Empire in the regions capital city: Aosta, Parco Gran Paradiso – the first national park in Italy – is filled with unique wildlife, and blocking the end of the valley is the monstrous Monte Bianco: the tallest mountain in western Europe.

Whether you want to wander historic cities, take a week-long trek or sample the hearty mountain food of the region, this off the beaten path destination will keep you busy. Here’s a run down of the must-see stops and attractions in the area from our four day weekend in October.

Forte Di Bard

As you enter Aosta from Piemonte, highway E25 makes a 90-degree, westward turn into the main valley. As the road twists through the mountains, suddenly the impressive stone Forte Di Bard rises before you, guarding the entrance to the strategic valley. Napoleon’s encroaching armies were held up by the castle’s defenders for more than two weeks, a resistance which frustrated him so much, he destroyed the entire structure after finally winning it.

Luckily, it has been rebuilt to it’s former glory, and it’s possible to climb the road through the charming Medieval town of Bard, then up the winding side of the cliff the fort perches atop. Alternatively, there is a modern, glass elevator you can ride up to visit the various artistic and historical exhibits throughout the many halls of the fort.

Castle in Fenis

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As you continue your drive through the valley, castle spotting becomes almost too easy. There were times when up to four castles could be seen at once along the road side! It’s hard to know which to take the time and stop for.

If you are looking for an easy answer it’s the castle in Fenis village. With turrets, guard wall and surrounded by cattle pens, there’s something quintessentially Medieval about this structure that made my heart sing. We missed the timing for a tour, but it’s possible to go inside and explore for 7 Euros.

Aosta

The largest city in the center of the valley is full of easily accessible Roman ruins, colorful houses and good food. When we walked into the central piazza of Aosta, I turned to The Fiance and said “I feel like I’m in Torino .” Beyond the fact that we happened to be visited durring the annual chocolate festival, Aosta has a similar sense of refinement and elegance, the mountains just happen to be a lot closer. There’s plenty of shopping here, and the historic center is easy to wander in a few hours.

For dinner, stop into the Osteria dell’Oca for traditional Aostian fare which is rich, hearty and perfect for a winter’s evening in the mountains.

After leaving Aosta, I recommend staying off the highway because though you’ll be traveling a little slower, the main road leads you through long, dark tunnels and you’ll start missing many of the incredible vistas.

We stayed near the village of Aymavilles, which allowed us to easily reach all of the following valleys easily and head back to Aosta for dinner every night, while still enjoying the mountain serenity we were looking for.

Valnontey, Gran Paradiso & Rhemes Notre Dame

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Entering Parco Gran Paradiso

With thick larch forests, dramatic glaciers, lots of wildlife and picturesque villages, Parco Gran Paradiso should be high on the bucket list for anyone who loves mountains. We took two drives into the park from the main valley of Aosta: towards the village of Valnontey at the more popular entrance of the park then towards Rhemes Notre Dame on the western side of the park, which we slightly preferred, perhaps because it was a little less touristy.

Both drives took under an hour, were filled with beautiful vistas that made me increasingly happy I don’t know how to drive a manual transmission car and could just look around me and were filled with hiking trails to branch out onto. From Valnontey, we climbed a few kilometers up the side of the mountain, spotting Alpine Chamois, past a waterfall and towards incredible vistas at the mountain summit.

Just past Rhemes Notre Dame, we walked on a more even-graded path along a river bed, through the brilliant fall colors of the larches.

No matter what, in solid European fashion, you are certain to find cute cafes to enjoy an espresso as you savor the views while considering your next move.

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The tiny village of Rhemes Notre Dame, where we seriously considered just buying a cabin for a lifetime of weekend getaways.

Mont Blanc

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No matter the language you’re discussing this impressive mountain in, the color descriptor is on point. Mont Blanc/Monte Bianco is the tallest mountain of the Alps, is situated in both France and Italy, and features some unique choices for traversing its imposing position. There is a 7.2-mile tunnel running directly through the mountain if you’re in a rush, as well as an incredible cable car which you can ride up and over the glacier that spreads across the wide summit, eventually touching down again in France (get in line early! Wait times can be tedious.)

Alternatively, the Tour do Mont Blanc (TMB) is an 170-kilometer, 11 day trek, passing through villages and mountain refuges across France, Switzerland and Italy, circling the entire mountain. It’s officially on the Bucket List for a future summer.

The city of Courmayeur is a little pricey – being a haven of ski resorts – but there are more valleys to the north and south along the imposing line of peaks along the range before you that offer plenty more hikes where you can spot glaciers and stop for a hot chocolate at a mountain refuge. We had hoped to go south to Val Veny to see what are some apparently amazing glaciers and lakes but the road was closed for the season. In the end, we were not disappointed by turning north and the hike to Rifugio Alpino Walter Bonatti, which took a little more than a hour to reach from the valley floor.

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Looking south to the peaks of Monte Bianco from the hike to Rifugio Walter Bonatti.

Even if you only have the time to drive through the spectacular Valle d’Aosta on your way to France or Switzerland, this tiny Italian region provides a unique divergence from the more traditional Italian tour, and you will certainly be rewarded for your divergence from the beaten path.

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Off The Beaten Path in California

Sometimes it’s still hard for me to believe that I lived in Los Angeles for three years. It was the sort of place I never really considered visiting, much less making a home, but I’ve come to appreciate that life’s curveballs often offer the greatest rewards.

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An  evening in the Hollywood Hills

During the time I lived in California, I spent at least one weekend a month out of the City of Angeles, visited almost all of the National Parks in the state, tasted a lot of wine and climbed up a lot of mountains. I also went clubbing in Hollywood, took studio tours, went to live tappings of late-night talk shows, attended fancy rooftop parties and hiked to the Hollywood Sign (though I never did make it to Disney Land). Suffice to say, I made my way around the place.

If you are planning a trip to the Golden State, the most obvious tourist activities of Southern and Central California may be jumping out at you. But I’ve got a few off-the-beaten-path suggestions to get you away from the hordes of tourists and into the heart of California.

A Night at The Moth Story Slam

So I’m a bit of an NPR junkie. No matter where I am in the world, I’m usually streaming a live broadcast or have a horde of podcasts downloaded to help me pass the time. I’m also obsessed with real life stories and think radio is an incredible way to share common humanity (there’s just something about listening to someones voice – I hate, as a writer, to admit – that can be specifically impactful). Naturally, The Moth is one of my favorite things on the radio: random strangers getting on a stage and telling true, unscripted stories. In Los Angeles you can attend a live Moth Story Slam and listen to an hour and a half of these incredible stories in an intimate setting. It’s a different, more raw take on the many forms of entertainment that you can seek out in Los Angeles: you never know what you’re gonna get, but you’ll always be surprised.

For more information and schedules check out The Moth’s website. Do make sure to get in line early if it’s not a ticketed Main Stage event, as the smaller venues fill up pretty quickly.

Paso Robles Wineries

Ok, you’ve heard of Napa Valley. It’s elegant, the wine is delicious: it’s the it place. But there are many reasons my friends and I opted for many a weekend trip to the vineyards of Paso Robles over California’s more well-known wine regions.

Firstly, location. Paso Robles is situated exactly between LA and the Bay Area (about 3.5-4 hour drive from either direction) making it pretty convenient for a long weekend away. It is surrounded by beautiful rolling hills, which happen to be perfect mirco-climates for wine cultivation.

Secondly, it’s totally accessible to a burgeoning wine-o. When I first came to Paso, I knew I liked wine, but I didn’t know a darn thing about tasting, making, or the wine itself. Over the next two and a half years I learned so much from the wine makers here, partly because I felt like I could ask them even simple questions and get nonjudgmental answers. These people are proud of their craft. The cost is also accessible, ranging closer to $5 for a tasting of 5-7 wines rather than $15 or $20 as a starting price.

A few of my favorite wineries (there are so many, you could drive around for a week and not stop at them all) are Midnight, Cass and Whalebone, partly for ambiance but mostly for the wine.

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Cambria

Thirty minutes west of Paso Robles is the town of Cambria, a picturesque village along the coast. Not only is the drive through the hills between the two cities stunning, I also just love the cute, artsy vibe of this town. It’s full of amazing restaurants, unique B&B’s, crafty shops and beautiful walkways along the rugged coastline.

From here you can also travel just a few minutes up the coast to the spectacularly strange Hearst Castle and marvel as the monstrous elephant seals that congregate all year long at Piedras Blancas beach near San Simeon.* You can also find the tiny town of Harmony (population 18) just to the south, nestled between the hills.

*Peak Season for seal viewing is December-March, and depending on when you come, a whole different group of seals might be hanging out, from juveniles, to terrifying males ready to mate, to new mothers with infants. I’ve never NOT seen seals here, though. 

Malibu Beaches

Say Malibu and images of wealth, luxury and movie stars come to mind. And it’s true: you’ll find some of the highest-priced real estate value in the country in this stretch of a “city” up the Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Monica. You’ll also find some really dramatic beaches, like El Matador State Beach with it’s intriguing cliffs and rocky outcrops (and possibly find a photo or music video shoot – sorry, I mean almost definitely walk into one).

The water in Malibu is usually a few degrees colder than Santa Monica – and I get it: I’m from Minnesota and grew up swimming in Lake Superior, but if you can brave the water here, I’ve found it to be much cleaner than to the south. As a bonus, while I’ve swam here, otters and dolphins have popped their heads up within 10 feet of me. Not to mention, from the shore at Zuma Beach, I’ve seen pods of whales feeding all afternoon.

King’s Canyon National Park

Often overlooked in favor of Yosemite or Sequoia National Parks, King’s Canyon is a little harder to get to (ie: a longer drive) but it is truly magnificent. The High Sierras should be on anyone’s California bucket list, and though there is certainly a reason Yosemite is the most popular of the National Parks, if you’re looking to break away from the intensity of the crowds in Yosemite Valley, I would highly recommend Kings Canyon as an alternative.

You still get the towering, majestic Sequoias. You still drive into a valley surrounded by granite cliffs. There is camping, lodges and tons of back-country exploration, pristine mountain lakes and rivers dotted across the landscape. In particular, my friends and I enjoyed the hike to Mist Falls, a moderately challenging but rewarding walk that leads through the valley floor, up the cliffs to an incredible waterfall, and beyond.

California is an American classic, and there is plenty to explore in the big cities, movie studios and theme parks. There are also hidden gems across the state, where the locals are vacationing, and they are absolutely worth your stop, too.

The Bernina Express: An Alpine Rail Adventure

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For many travelers, the daydream of a European adventure is not complete without the image of themselves relaxing on a train, looking out across rolling vineyards, church steeples on the horizon and Alpine cliffs shinning in the background. Especially if you grew up in the USA, where those brave enough to embark upon an Amtrak adventure might easily end up stuck on the tracks outside of Albany, New York on a freezing December day for 7 hours while a raging, redheaded conductor from Boston reminds them that she has no idea when we’ll be able to get a move on because the freight trains get preference on the tracks, OK? (Yes, I am speaking from experience here).

Since my first trip though Europe, this image of adventure while riding the rails has intrigued and excited me, though with the realities of real life travel (and admittedly, the notorious difficulties of the Italian train system), some of the romanticism has worn away.

It was on a chilly, Thanksgiving holiday to visit friends in Switzerland that I found myself swooning for rail travel once again.

Through 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges, the Bernina Express train through southeastern Switzerland is not just an example of incredible engineering, it is the highest rail crossing in Europe, traveling through magnificent Alpine scenery the entire way. It’s even listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

“Express” is a bit of a misnomer: this bright red train moves leisurely, twisting and turning up mountainous switchbacks, crossing through tunnels from an incredible vista on one side of the mountain to another. You don’t want it to go any faster though: there is so much to look at as the train sways and whistles, traveling from quaint Swiss villages to glacial valleys.

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Looking down over Poschiavo on the train down from St. Moritz

From Milan, it’s easy to catch the hourly train from Centrale station to Tirano: a 2.5 hour trip along the eastern shore of Lake Como (grab a window seat on the west side of the train if you can!) In Tirano, exit the train station and take an immediate right into the other station in the square: towards the red trains.

Ascending quickly up the narrow, village-lined Poschiavo Valley, you spin around the famous viaduct of Brusio before going up the mountain side, above the tree line and to the sweeping vista over Alp Grüm, where you can stop and eat at the restaurant overlooking a magnificent panorama. From here, it’s a glacier spotting adventure, past the grand Lake Bianco, ringed by snow-capped mountains and through the high Bernina peaks.

After about 2 hours of breathtaking travel, the train pulls into St. Moritz, an elegant ski resort city in the heart of the Alps. From here you can continue north on the Bernina Express towards Chur, the oldest town in Switzerland, crossing the 90m high Solis viaduct and through the area with Europe’s highest density of castles. Alternatively, you can head east or west from St. Moritz along the Glacier Express and glimpse the Matterhorn and Rhine Gorge.

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St. Moritz in the off season: mid November and it’s still lovely.

In the summer, the area is full of hiking excursions and in the winter some of the best alpine skiing in the world can be found throughout the region. And it bears mentioning that on a Wednesday afternoon in November, I found myself completely alone on the train, allowing me to unabashedly rush from one side of the car to the other in order to take in the best views as they shifted.

It was on my way home, back down to Italy and near the village of Poschiavo, that I realized I had found my childlike love of riding train all over again. I wasn’t checking my watch, or even getting lost in a podcast. I was present, watching the scenery go by and feeling the movement of travel. I felt adventurous, cosmopolitan and amazed all at once, like I always dreamed I would when I was a little girl, pining away for Old World adventures.

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Find more information about the Bernina Express, as well as schedules and prices, by clicking here.

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My Favorite Place to Ring in the New Year

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We’re past the hump of Halloween, which means Christmas decorations are hitting the stores and Americans are in for two full months of seasonal music. Luckily, so far in Italy it appears that they don’t jump on the bandwagon quite so fast and I’ll be spared the onslaught until December.

But let’s move past Christmas for now, and jump straight into the next big thing: New Years Eve. I’ll be celebrating the beginning of 2017 in a resort on the Dead Sea in Jordan, and perhaps you’ve already got a plan as well. But just in case you’re not booked up and the travel bug has been getting under your skin, might I make a suggestion?

Edinburgh, Scotland

I’ve spent New Years Eve in my fair share of amazing places. I’m a sucker for significant moments, and the transition from one year to the next hits all the right notes: looking back, dreaming forward and making a ritual out of Midnight on a cold winter night. And I’ve done a lot of cool things to ring in the new year: At the beginning of 2011, I stood on the side of the Mississippi River in New Orleans, dancing to a live jazz band while the New Years Baby got thrown from the roof of Jax Brewery. I passed the first night of 2010 in New York City (but not in Times Square – who has the stamina to wait all day and night for the ball to drop?) I’ve rung in the New Year most often at a good friend’s house in Northern Minnesota, surrounded by my dearest family and oldest friends, popping champagne while my dad plays Auld Langs Syne on his guitar and a bonfire burns outside.

But there was nothing in the world like the Hogmanay Festival celebrated in Scotland’s beautifully rugged, historic – albeit sometimes deary – capital city. When I suggested to my British friend (who had so wonderfully invited me to spend Christmas with her family while I was solo backpacking through Europe a few years ago) that we make our way north for New Year’s Eve, I had no idea that we would be taking part in one of the biggest New Year’s Eve parties in the world.

The traditional Hogmanay (New Years Eve) celebration has been revived in the city of year-round festivals in the last decades. With traditional dances, pop superstar concerts, Christmas markets in full swing, fireworks all over the city and even a 8,000 person torchlight processional to begin the festivities, the party in Edinburgh is truly once in a lifetime.

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The festivities begin on the 30th of December with a torchlight procession of 8,000 people carrying real torches with real fire through the historic center for about a mile. First of all, I’m shocked that they still allow 8,000 (not entirely sober) tourists to walk through the city with live fire in their hands – “This is a grand way to burn down your city,” my friend’s dad noted as we set off behind a crew of particularly rowdy Frenchmen. The tradition of the torchlight procession ties back to the Solstice and signifies burning away the old year while carrying light with you into the new. The cool factor and authenticity of actually carrying a real torch (I kind of expected to be given a plastic flashlight shaped like fire for liability reasons) really made it a highlight of the trip for all of us. We were lead by a group dressed as Vikings, bagpipes were playing all along way and the fire in our hands warmed us against the cold breeze. Looking ahead and behind, we created a river of fire through the hilly city.

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After everyone made their way through the city center, the group gathered at Calton Hill, where fireworks begin the real party.

On December 31st we visited the Edinburgh Castle and spent an afternoon trying to decipher exactly who Mary, Queen of the Scots was in the royal lineage. We ate an excellent dinner – in which I almost tried haggis, but backed out, opting instead for delicious lamb – then headed to the ceilidh: a traditional Scottish dance. This was another one of my favorite parts of the trip because I’m also a sucker for learning traditional dances, specifically those with fiddles and drums. The Scottish waltzes felt just similar enough to those I used to attend to as a child that it was a flashback to some of my happiest memories. Of course it was also complete chaos (no one knew what they were doing) but it was an awful lot of fun.

At Midnight, as one year passes to the next, the whole city lights up again with simultaneous fireworks shows over the castle and Calton Hill. From our place just between the two hills, we were awash with lights, cheers and celebrations. As the colors and bombs die down, everyone crosses their arms, grabs someone nearby’s hands and at least mumbles the first line and the tune to Auld Langs Syne. Even if you don’t know exactly what you’re saying in old English, you can appreciate singing the tune in its place of origin with thousands of others.

There were lots of different street parties during this part of the night, including concerts, bumping discos and general eating and drinking everywhere. Basically, the whole city was out celebrating in the streets one way or another late into the morning.

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Inside the Edinburgh Castle

The next morning, if you fancy, there is a rowdy dive of a thousand costumed swimmers into the freezing water or the Forth River. Significantly less, but still a notable amount, of people participate in this activity – though I imagine it helps with the hangover – and probably makes you almost as tough as any given Highlander out there.

Other highlights of the city included: Edinburgh Castle, The National Museum of Scotland, the Cathedral, Arthur’s Seat and a Ghost Tour with Auld Reekie Tours.

Expanding outward: the beautiful danger of getting off the beaten path

Two months and some change since I arrived. My consciousness seems to pulse in and out: from the sharp pinpoint of a long evening when I ache and ache for routine, to the strange sensation of looking backwards at the week on Friday afternoon and realizing five days somehow slipped through my fingers. I’ve gone from grasping at anything that will make this place feel real – like my life, like my home – to suddenly realizing time has spun out around me and become what I hoped for. I am here. I live here. With a man. It is at once the most natural and strangest thing in the world for me. Suffice to say that all is well. Between the inter-continental move, living situation changes and even the job hunt, I’m making this new path clearer and clearer each day.

The Italian language has suddenly become exhausting to me. It’s as if one day, I went one toe farther than where I could reach the bottom of this ocean and slipped into the water. My head went under and I feel as overwhelmed and lost as I ever do in language class. But even as I struggle, I’ve come to realize that I’m actually conversing, albeit simply. I see my own progress stacking up around me, count each small victory as I integrate a new word effortlessly into my vocabulary. One day, just a few weeks ago I walked with a friend for nearly and hour and we spoke Italian the whole time. We talked about travel, living abroad, her 9 month old daughter who slept on her chest while we walked and her work for an NGO. I heard myself do the thing that a million people have done to me while on the road: “Scusa per il mio Italiano…” And just like I always have always said when others apologize to me for their English skills, she politely smiled and assured me that I’m doing just fine.

It has been interesting, as someone who has always found a home and played confidently with language, to return to the base of it. The place where a simple intonation or mispronounced sound can change the meaning of the whole sentence, where tense and conjugation is still drilling their way into the grey matter of my brain. To be rendered helpless, but to slowly pick myself up, to watch myself string each sliver of a rule together and make something whole is incredible.

And after two months, my time in the little Italian class has come to an end. This was always the plan – in fact, I ended up buying more weeks than originally planned because it was going so well. But between the cost of the class, some opportunities pick up some freelance work (thereby stop dipping so deeply into my savings account) and my own developing abilities, I’m branching out on my own now.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I got to this place, how my decisions and happenstance has brought me to this couch in a suburb of Milano. Another city (much like Los Angeles) that I never imagined even going out of my way to visit but where I am now living. In many ways, this little life I’m building up for myself is astoundingly close to the quiet dream I’ve always harbored but never actually believed could come to be. I’m living in Italy, I have found an incredible partner, I seem to be pulling things I need to make a life out of thin air once again: friends, routine, jobs. How does that happen, I ask the wish fairies, or The Universe or the God and army of saints I was raised to believe in…

How did I pull this off?

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An utterly spectacular weekend spent in Valle d’Aosta – Italy’s tiniest region which includes clusters of castles, the tallest mountain in Western Europe and lots of stunning side valleys to explore.

It’s true that I’ve ridden the coat tails of a fair amount of luck to get myself here, and I’ve also got a deep love for planning and goal setting that I know bewilders some. But I’ve come to think there is a missing step that especially as we get older, more and more people skip (and for many good reasons: I can certainly see why some people find this lifestyle utterly irresponsible and terrifying). But if I’ve learned anything, it’s this:

You need to show up in the first place.

The whole story of my life so far seems to be some version of showing up where I’m being quietly asked to. For example, I was living in California. Everything was, honestly, amazing. I was happy. So utterly happy. But I knew that my time was coming. Every time I met someone who would say “Oh, I used to think I’d leave LA at some point too. But that was 35 years ago” or when I would look at the actual cost of living (buying a house, sending children to school) in the long run, how most of my friends appeared to not have long-term plans in the city… I could go on with the logical lists but in the end the real truth is: I was being called away. Something in my heart was pulling me towards the Next Big Thing, and while it praised my ability to live my life in SoCal to the fullest, I felt constantly reminded of the other things I wanted to do in this one, precious little life of mine.

So I left, I went away with an opened heart, followed the call to the Next Big Thing. I walked through a door that lead to hundreds of other doors and suddenly found myself sitting on a beach next to a man that would open the next set of doors and change my world completely.

Now, I’m not suggesting that fate or the universe is required to provide a Handsome Italian to everyone who would like to move to Europe, or that the doors which open on the other end of a big risk are going to have sunny, comfortable endings. (Nor do I want to insinuate that every day or everything about my life right now is sunny and comfortable). I recently heard someone say that if you’re going to jump off a cliff, you should do it because you like the fall, not because of what you hope to find at the bottom. And let’s face it, even if I had returned to Minnesota in early 2015 and restarted my life there without an Italian boyfriend waiting for me back in Europe, that wouldn’t have made my trip any less worth it. Even if something horrible had happened to me, if I’d have “failed miserably”, broken every figurative bone in my body landing on the hard ground at the bottom of a steep, steep cliff, I wouldn’t give up the fall I’d taken to reach that ending.

And who knows guys, I could still “fail” in someway. In fact, I’m sure I will, as we all do once or twice throughout life, in a dramatic and difficult way. We are not guaranteed happiness, only constant change.

I guess what I’m trying to say is: no matter what, when you step off the beaten path you are in danger, but not in the way that you think. You’re in danger of being pulled even farther away from the norm. Of realizing there are millions of ways of making life work. Of realizing that you can, in fact, start over again and again in life. Of a door opening before you in the most beautiful way that you cannot refuse and changing everything.

Or not. Maybe you come back home and have some incredible stories and memories instead. But every time I’ve followed a call and jumped off a cliff, the circle of my life has widened, some sort of updraft has caught me and pulled me somewhere else that I never, ever expected.

The heart doesn’t shout, but it has always served me well to hush up and listen when it starts whispering. I think it might just be tapped into something bigger than I could ever really know.

Touring Morocco, From Marrakesh On (Part 2)

I just spent a week in Morocco – my first time in the country and my first time in Africa – and for such a comparatively short amount of time, I have a lot to say about this incredible place. This is my third post on the matter, so if you need to get yourself caught up, check out Touring Morocco Part 1 or enjoy some travel-log-style writing with this post.

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To continue with my advice and thoughts on my own and any future journeys into Morocco, here are some lists, because who doesn’t love a good list in a blog?

Morocco Tips

  • Find yourself a good riad or hostel, because you’re gonna need an oasis as you acclimate. I stayed at Equity Point Hostel which was AMAZING. For 12 Euros a night, I had a bed in an all-female dorm, access to a pool and rooftop terrace and hung around in a beautiful riad setting. The hostel has a hammam, organizes daily excursions to surrounding areas and had some of the friendliest staff I’ve met in a long time. No matter where you stay, you’ll be headed back there to regroup after a day in the heat and chaos of the city, so consider papering yourself a little.
  • Have plenty of small coins in your hard-to-break-into purse for tips. From street performers who catch your eye to a local who helps you find your hotel (trust me, you’ll probably need this the first time so it’s better to just let it happen), to restaurants and bathroom attendants, tipping is an integral part of life here. And really, with 10 dirham being about $1, you can probably spare a couple of coins here and there to show your appreciation.
  •  No matter who you are – but perhaps especially as a woman – it’s best to cover your knees and shoulders in deference to local customs. Yes, even men. Yes, even though it’s god-awfully hot out there. Especially if you are traveling outside of the tourist centers of major cities, you’ll blend in a little better and show respect to the locals (and hide more skin from the hot sunlight) with a little more fabric.
  • One of the many delights of Jamaa el-Fnna in Marrakesh is the nightly extravaganza of restaurants which spring up out seemingly of nowhere. They don’t have names, just a number, and all the food is priced the same, so there’s no need to try hunt for a deal. The eager menu-brandishing staff members of this area were some of the most intense salesmen I came across in the country, so it’s tempting to just sit down at the first place you get swept into, but look for where the Moroccans are sitting. The stalls that start empty tend to stay empty through the night. I don’t think any of the food here is going to blow you away, but by following the crowd you’ll find the best that’s out there.
  • This is an untested hypothesis, but if you are generally allergic to farm animals and/or dust, bring some meds. I was sneezing and sniffling my face off and there wasn’t much plant life to be found which would make my allergies flare. I have been allergic to horses for a long time (much to my personal horror since I adore bareback riding) and with the donkeys wandering the souks, horse-drawn carriages clopping around and general dust of the desert concentrated on such small streets, some Claritin might just have given me some relief.
  • Let yourself get lost in a Medina. Trying to keep yourself straight is probably a hopeless cause anyway, and part of the experience is letting yourself get swallowed in and thrown back out somewhere new, like a tannery, or a neighborhood clean on the other side of town, or the place you were looking for yesterday that you gave up on finding. Also, yeah, there are signs pointing out some landmarks, but I found those pretty unhelpful and often sent me on very roundabout journeys.

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Here is perhaps the question I’ve been asked the most since I’ve come home: Would I recommend Morocco for another woman traveling alone? If you had asked me my first full day there, after a hot afternoon of wandering lost through the Medina and being cajoled and shouted at and even followed for several hours, I would have told you that I honestly didn’t know. Now that I’m back at home, safe and relishing the challenge and adventure of it all though, I’d say: yes of course you can.

No matter what, no matter who you’re with, no matter how seasoned of a traveler you are, Morocco is one of many countries in the world where you’ll need a thick skin. Everyone will talk to you, give you unsolicited directions, try to pull you into their shop, walk up alongside you tell you about a market or a museum you need to visit nearby (“But I’m not asking for money! I promise!”) or just outright ask for money.

And yes, I even got the dreaded “Mademoiselle! You should be smiling! You’d be more beautiful if you smiled!” calls from shopkeepers while I made my way through the maze of streets.

Perhaps it was my inability to understand any Arabic slurs thrown my way, perhaps I got lucky and perhaps as a tourist I was shielded from the worst of it, because this article came out (and was shared with me more than once) while I was in the country. It’s worth a read for a better understanding of the situation Moroccan women face daily, which I think even a tourist should take a moment to recognize.

Trying to balance not being rude with actually moving from place to place without getting sucked into any sort of scam or pushy conversation was hard for me. In the end, all of the advice I heard beforehand was right: the best thing to do is answer politely but forcefully “No, thank you” and walk away. This didn’t mean I was actually left alone. Sometimes, there were shouts from behind, usually there was a moment of pleading, of false promises, then a scoff. Once a faux-guide followed and followed me, asking followup questions about my dismissal of being shown to an argon factory nearby.”But why? Where have you seen something like this? You must. You are in Morocco. Don’t you like Moroccan people?” Showing a vague interest and implying that I’d come about around later didn’t really help. (However with a Minnesota, the real meaning behind “Sounds interesting. Maybe I’ll come back” couldn’t be more clear.) When I finally said “I feel sick and I’m going to my hostel” he insisted he had medicine for me. I finally got away and, though I was flustered, shook it off. I was going back to the hostel anyway and could breathe a bit. But Marrakesh isn’t that big of a city, and I ran into said local every single day. He would come up behind me, inquire about my heath, thank me for finally coming back, accuse me of being an ungracious guest in his country, demand I acknowledge him, follow me asking questions for several meters. I couldn’t help but think that even if I had a girl friend with me, it would be more of an annoyance we could roll our eyes at and less of a daily gut-level worry of how long it would take to shake the guy and his comments.

I will say sincerely that even in the annoyances, the Moroccan people felt genuinely kind. They usually told me “Welcome, you are most welcome to your second home!” and it didn’t feel like they were just saying that. But I also just wanted to shout “Listen, can you just give me a second to enjoy your country?” If I had followed every direction or answered every call shouted in my direction, I’d still be in Marrakesh right now. I felt like I couldn’t pause and take anything in, or so much as glance at a shop (dark sunglasses were my best friend) or snake charmer or juice stand without being cornered and it was exhausting.

Though I never actually felt in danger, got pickpocketed or was groped, in the end, I did spend a lot of the time I was alone wishing someone was with me. But this was where my choice of accommodation did what I needed it to. The beauty of a hostel is there are always other travelers looking for new acquaintances. At night, I always ventured out with others and I was much more comfortable even in the day when with other people. I also got better prices bartering when I wasn’t on my own.

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In the village of Ait Benhaddou, east of the Atlas Mountains.

I won’t lie: there were times when I found myself on streets that were really interesting, in places the guidebook recommended, but where when I looked around and realized I hadn’t seen another tourist for 15 minutes, I turned back. If I had a friend with me, even another female friend, I wouldn’t have been worried, but the situation felt as if it called for a little prudence. I kept thinking about my boyfriend’s recounting of his time in Morocco and felt jealous of how in so many of his stories he described being a part of the local culture, of really immersing himself, of hopping in a petit taxi and riding to a village and finding a guest house and meeting locals. I on the other hand, felt like I had to keep myself at a little bit of a distance for safety and sanity’s sake.

ALL OF THAT BEING SAID, I thoroughly enjoyed Morocco. I met other women who were traveling farther and more bravely alone. I often did find genuine kindness from the locals: even in their cajoling there’s a bit more interaction and welcome than one finds on the streets of Paris, for example.

And there is no where else in the world quite like Morocco. Any traveler is rewarded for their intrepidness here with stunning, star-filled nights in the Sahara, the sounds and sights of Jamaa el-Fnna day or night and the particular madness that is a Moroccan Medina, which, yes, includes a fair amount of cajoling.

Touring Morocco, From Marrakesh On (Part 1)

For a long, long time, I’ve given Morocco a high place on honor on my bucket list of travel destinations. I’d been drawn in by a host of temptations: flashes of rich colors and complex designs, hearing people sigh and nod meaningfully as they remembered their own time in this North African nation and the promise of setting foot on my 5th continent. So when I needed to slip in and out of the Schengen Zone for a few hours – which I allowed to turn into a week – to let my tourist visa renew, I decided to grab a cheap (yay for Easyjet) plane ticket to Marrakesh to see what exactly had been calling to me for so long.

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The patterns and sights of the Marrakesh Medina.

I know how this sounds, but I’ve been ready to go somewhere that felt truly new to me for a while now. The truth of the matter is, we as humans rely on a complex web of novelty and routine to keep our brains exercised and dopamine flowing. After 2 years of exploration, I have in my own way grown used to Europe. Just a year ago in Sicily, as I looked over yet another ancient temple with Greek-style columns, I head myself say, “I think I’m ready for another part of history.”

And my god, I found that in Morocco. Between a complex mix of Arabic, nomadic North African and Mediterranean cultures, an impeccable attention to colorful details and the always-present promise of surprise, I found what I was looking for here.

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The ancient passageway in the heart of the Medina that I’d follow every day to arrive at my hostel.

The thing about Morocco that I perhaps loved the most was that the interesting, historical and richly adorned streets I would spend my days wandering through were not just a small section of the city, more or less left alone by locals for tourists to check off their list and photograph. There was not a single street that exemplified the architecture, one place where everyone took the same photo before the mirage faded into “real” life. No, the whole country was truly a rich example of the way life has been and is being lived.

Between the affordable prices, variety of adventurous activities and cultural richness, as well as the relative safety of the country given the region, I would recommend Morocco to anyone, really. I saw families with children, other women traveling alone and couples who got engaged (congrats Kris and Will!) in the week I traveled the country. For the adventurous at heart, Morocco is certainly manageable, and utterly unforgettable.

Here’s more of the nitty-gritty of what I actually did while I was here.

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My Moroccan Tour

October 6 – 13th (I would highly recommend traveling here between October and April, when the days are only like 80-95 degrees F, not 110+ as in August, and the nights cool off considerably.)

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Marrakesh – My trip centered around this historic, culturally unique city. There are plenty of other amazing cities to visit in the north, but I don’t think anyone’s trip to Morocco is complete without having spent an evening in the chaos of Jamaa el-Fnna, getting themselves lost in the Medina or marveled at the intricate adornments of the Bahia Palace and Ben Youssef Madrasa.

Read more about my time and impressions in Marrakesh here.

East to Zagora and the Draa Valley

It was not hard to find a 2-day 1-night tour from Marrakesh to the Sahara desert. Whether I had waited to book my trip in Morocco itself or found one online before I arrived (as I did), the price and experience would have been more or less the same.

It’s a long, long drive through the hairpin turns of the High Atlas Mountains, then down to the ancient, cinematic village of Aït Benhaddou in the desolate desert, through the Anti Atlas Mountains, descending into the palm oasis-filled Draa Valley where Berber villages hug the road and largest river in Morocco. Through the city of Zagora, you emerge into the dunes of the western Sahara, hop on a camel (I make this sound easy, but after years of riding horses with control and comfort, finding my balance atop the lumbering gate of a docile, gassy camel was not as pleasant as it sounds once the first romantic minutes wore away) and ride out to a Berber camp for a night under the stars.

If I had booked a 3-day 2-night tour (the more popular version which I’d recommend if you have time), we’d have traveled to bigger dunes the next night and seen more of the area. But instead, we turned around and made the same drive back to Marrakesh.

My expectations were not through the roof for this particular adventure (I paid less than $75) and I didn’t get anything more than expected, which was basically a ride with stops at places providing tourist-safe food and some historic sites. What I did get was the chance to see more of the countryside, including glimpses of villages were the locals rode donkeys through the streets, markets were flourishing, and people were maintaining an ancient lifestyle in a harsh landscape. If you like desert landscapes, this drive provides an excellent and interesting example of the subtle changes in a desert ecosystem which you can see as you move east.

Essauoria

Just a few hours to the west of Marrakesh is the windy port city of Essauoria. For a second, you might wonder if you’ve made your way to Greece, with the white walls and blue doors of this town, but you are in fact still in Morocco. With sunlight that shines forcefully and hot, a busy fish market and much less intensity in the Medina, Essauoria is a great escape from the intensity that can overwhelm in Marrakesh.

There is a large beach, but the wind here renders it poor for swimming. Wind surfing is the top activity. (Head a few hours south to Agadir for better swimming conditions). I came to Essauoria for just a day, taking the three hour bus to and from Marrakesh ($8 each way) through more ever-changing desert landscapes to groves of argon trees along the coast featuring herds of goats reaching nimbly up for a bite of the leaves.

Staying in Essauoria is a little more expensive than Marrakesh, and I certainly felt like I saw more or less the entire old city in the 4 hours that I spent there. But if you need a breather and a great ocean view, it’s a great place to rest and see a different side of Morocco.

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The port of Essauoria

These three cities are just the beginning and only a snapshot of what this country offers to a traveler, and I would certainly recommend others expand their adventure to gritty Fez, the blue village of Chefchaouen and any number of other adventures this diverse landscape has to offer. I know that I certainly plan to in the future.

For my tips about making your way through Morocco with relative ease, as well as my impressions of being a blonde girl traveling alone there, check out Part 2 of my Moroccan blog stories.

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Traveler’s Notebook: Moroccan Daydreams

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I went to Marrakesh for many reasons. I went because I needed to leave the Shengen Zone of the European Union for at least 24 hours. I went because it was a cheap plane ticket and cheap cost of living. I went because I’d been tantalized by the colors, lamps, patterns, cushions and architecture which I’d seen recreated in prom and themed parties my whole life. I went because I knew it was a place I had wanted to go for a long, long time, even if I didn’t really know why.

Until I got there.

dsc00223Marrakesh is a dream. A hot, smokey, magical dream. Wandering through the mess of souks that is the Medina is like stepping into another world. You’re dodging motorbikes and donkey carts, passing under dusty slats of sunlight that slip through the ancient or makeshift roofs, looking over shops with leather goods, lanterns, scarves, wooden camels, golden lamps that might as well be hiding genies and a million other treasures. It is a city rich in life and history. Rich in smells – the very human, the very exotic, the very enticing and then suddenly the very familiar and intimate: the musty, leather, cigarette smell of my father’s office. Rich in sounds – the flutes of snake charmers, the drums of Berber dancers, the bells and clinks of horse-drawn carriages, the raspy shouts of the call the prayer, the merchants all around you trying their luck at guessing your mother tongue with, “Bonjour! Hello! Ciao! Excuse me! Ca va?”. Rich in history and intricate beauty: no detail goes unnoticed in the ancient architecture of Marrakesh, from painted ceilings to flowing script across walls and mosaic designs, you cannot trust a dusty, unremarkable building not to be hiding splendid treasures within the inner courtyard.

From Marrakesh, I went east, then west. East on a 10 hour bus ride over the beautifully-named Atlas Mountains through the ever-changing desert to the edge of the Sahara. There we spent the night in a Berber camp. We sat around a campfire under the stars listening to traditional (and some not so traditional) music, rode camels into the hot sunrise and explored ancient mud-caked cities and gigantic palm oasis along the caravan roads crossing the imposing landscape.

West, I went to the Atlantic, to the windy city of Essaouira where I wandered the 18th Century ramparts, looked down into the heart of a busy harbor and fish market, got a little less lost in the Medina and ogled amazing woodwork and a plethora of argon oil products. I cannot remember a time when the sun shone more brilliantly than in this port town of white-washed, blue-tinged buildings, not even in the Sahara just days before. Gulls flooded the air and the street cats looked remarkably happier than in the pandemonium of Marrakesh.

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But at the heart of it all was Marrakesh, an evocative place that sometimes overwhelmed, but mostly inspired me.

Begin in Jemaa el-Fnna (“The Assembly of the Dead”), the sprawling, oddly shaped square at the center of the ancient, walled city. By day, it is a passageway, an entry point, or an “oh, thank god I know where I am again” point. You’ll find henna artists, fresh orange juice hawkers, snake charmers, monkey handlers, musicians and acrobats vying for your attention and change. Past a line of horse-drawn carriages for rent, you can see the Koutoubia Mosque, who’s minaret has stood watch over the market since the 12th Century and reminds us of the importance of detail and a compass: the mosque which was originally built there had to be destroyed and rebuilt because it did not properly align with Mecca.

Choose any of the streets leading off of the north end of Djammar el-Fna and you are quickly swallowed into the Medina. An ancient mess of alleyways that snarl like a spool of thread unwound and left in a heap on the ground, you haven’t visited Marrakesh until you’ve been lost in these shops. Suddenly you’ll find yourself in the pungent tannery, watching leather being dyed, or the handful of stands devoted solely to olives, then among opulent carpet sellers, then a butcher surrounded by hungry cats, then emerge into the florescent-lit tourist souks where faux guides will offer you unsolicited advice and directions. You come upon small squares filled with local produce for sale, or hit a dead end and retrace your steps, twisting back until there’s another road to follow. Dark sunglasses were my best friends here, even when passing under ancient archways or the covered souks, so my eyes could wander without catching anyone’s attention.

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                                It is impossible to capture the energy and magic of an evening in Jemaa el-Fnna in a photo, but this might be a taste.

Return to Jemaa el-Fnna and watch the sun set from a terrace while sipping sweet mint tea, because once evening sets in, the real magic happens here. I think the true spirit of Morocco was most clear in this place in the busy nights: here you can realize that it’s not just a show for tourists. Yes, maybe the snake charmers and the people hawking magnets under florescent lights in the Medina are aiming to get the non-locals to stop by, but as the evening approaches and the final calls to prayer silence the music momentarily, lines of open-air restaurants are constructed, the air fills with the smells and smoke of frying meat, the snakes and monkeys are packed away and the cross-dressing dancers – yes, the men wear makeup, a hijab, skirts and clinking belly dancing gear while they shimmy around – and the storytellers show up.

The thing about Marrakesh that made my heart sing loudest was that every night you could watch ancient traditions come alive as the storytellers would arrive with a bench and a lantern, set up shop and wait. Quickly, crowds would gather around them, leaning onto one another, pushing into the heart of the circle to listen.

I longed to understand Arabic, just for one night, to be able to join in these circles.

Of course, in hindsight, things all look glossy and delightful. In the midst of the magic and sensations, I also find myself challenged as a traveler; truly thrown out of my comfort zone for the first time in a while. There were a lot of overwhelming moments, when the heat, the crowds the maze of covered roads, the approaches from the locals all got to be too much as I wandered alone. But, I would, one way or another, find my way back to my riad, and relax in the courtyard for awhile. And really, I was ready to challenge myself a little, to see another side of history and corner of the world and expand my inner map’s borders.

This short tour was not nearly enough to so much as taste the rich Moroccan culture and beauty, but luckily for me, it’s one of the boyfriend’s favorite places in the world, so I can trust that we will most certainly be back