On Pessoa, Portuguese Cuisine and Hidden Tastes: a Food Tour with Taste of Lisboa

The prolific Portuguese philosopher and writer Fernando Pessoa had no less than 80 heteronyms, facets of his personality re-imagined as thinkers and poets in his most notable works. And from his home in Campo de Ourique, where he lived on the last decade-and-a-half of his life, he explored the many sides of human life.

lisbon poets

And for someone who knew very little of Portuguese food outside of pasteis de Belem and mil manheras of serving cod, a historical food tour with Taste of Lisboa introduced me not only to Pessoa and his neighborhood, but of the multi-faceted nature of Portuguese cuisine from the very district where food trends are born.

Warning: no bachalau or custard tarts were consumed on this tour.

Climbing the historic Tram 28’s route that snakes through Graça, Alfama, Chaido and Estrela, we left Tourist Lisbon on six of the city’s seven hills and climbed higher on Colina Saõ Roque towards Campo de Ourique and the Prazeres Cemetery. Aptly named the Cemetery of Pleasures, our three-hour tour would begin here and wind us around to taste some of Lisbon’s most pleasurable treats.

Historic Tram 28 Lisbon

Lisbon and I have had a complicated relationship since 2007, when I struggled to understand the city’s vibe, its colorful history and why everyone seemed to love it so much. My country list then could be counted on two hands, and I had yet to learn how to be a savvy traveler. This meant far too many pastries and far too much money spent at mediocre touristic restaurants near Baixa. A second trip in 2011 was plagued by rain and that too-long-to-look-up-its-name volcanic eruption. Tiled homes, an empty hillside castle and Sagres imperiales were my biggest takeaways from Spain’s westernly neighbor.

Campo de Ourique was sleepy on a Tuesday morning as shops opened a few minutes past the hour and locals crowded into cafes for an espresso to accompany their flaky pastries. We got off a stop too early, giving us time to wander the parish’s main thoroughfares before meeting Filipa, a Lisboner and lifelong foodie who began Taste of Lisboa two years ago.

portuguese tiles

Like all food tours, there is an exchange of pleasantries. Where are you from? How did you hear about the tour? Oh, you blog and we have friends in common? I’d been told of the friendliness of the Portuguese, and with a wink and a few jabs at Spanish cuisine and culture, Filipa became a foodie friend.

The location for a food tour was no accident, though we’d picked it for its minimal walking – Campo de Ourique, a historically upper-middle class district considered a city within a city, bustles with concept restaurants, budding chefs and a part-market, part-international food haven sat squarely in the middle. From the start, I was surprised to find that cod had been left (mostly) off of the menu, anda sweet treat was up first.

“Unlike the Spaniards, we are quite humble when it comes to our cuisine,” Filipa stated, looking squarely at me. “But this is not something we claim for our sweets. Our chocolate cake is the best in the world.”

Where to find the best chocolate cake in Lisbon

The small pastry shop, imaginatively named O Melhor Bolo de Chocolate do Mundo, had just two round tables and eight chairs for our group of 11. I am one of those foodie anomalies – gasp! I don’t like chocolate! – but as the creator of the world’s best chocolate cake, Carlos Braz Lopes, turned up in the shop, I eagerly shoveled it into my mouth.

With a espresso cup of port wine on the house, we toasted what could be the best slice of cake I’ve ever had, layered with bitter chocolate and meringue. Portuguese custard and egg sweets may be known worldwide, but I was astonished at the complexity of a simple cake made from six ingredients that had been created by a former businessman with a killer sweet tooth (psst! There’s a shop in Madrid!).

Enjoying a food tour in Lisbon

Just across the street is the newly remodeled Mercado de Campo de Ourique, a fusion of traditional Portuguese cookery and fare with a fish and vegetable market. Tile-lined food stalls ring the perimeter, with high tables and stools occupying the center, much like Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel. For someone who shops in a market regularly, I was drawn to the food more than the googly-eyed fish near the entrance.

Filipa brought us right to the salads stand. As Catholics and a people whose history is rich with seafaring explorers and far-flung colonies, Portuguese food combines ingredients from all over the world, making Spanish stews and legumes seem rudimentary and almost convoluted. Even the octopus salad I ordered brought out new flavors from one of my go-to summer dishes, flavored with a touch of cilantro and sweet red pepper instead of tomatoes.

marinated octopus salad

We ordered several dishes, all with a legume and fish base, like black eyed peas with flaky cod and tuna. As the food cooked, we sampled fried pork skin laced with black pepper, leitão à bairrada, and learned the origin of convent sweets – an abundance of eggs and flour plus sugar-hungry, bored nuns.

Perhaps the biggest surprise were the peixinhos da horta, or the small fish of the garden, green beans fried in tempura, another Portuguese invention born out of the Lenten tradition to abstain from meat. Tempura itself was created here, though perfected in Asia.

Portuguese craft beer

Mussels were next on the list, and Filipa led us to a concept bar where there’s little else on the menu but the clams and craft beer. Like Spain’s recent craft beer explosion, small batch breweries are elbowing into Sagres’s cornered market while producing not only great flavors but sexy marketing and names that poke fun at gluttony and excess.

Mussels (Moules) in Lisbon

And then there were the mussels themselves, cooked in butter and full cloves of garlic and seasoned with cilantro and a bit of lemon. Normally one to pass up the mollusks in favor of altramuces or boiled shrimp at a cervecería, I bravely took the first two bites to remind my family that half the fun of traveling is trying new foods.

The buttery flavor against the salty squish of the orange flesh added a different dimension to the mejillones I’d tried and quickly dismissed in my early days in Spain. I dug in to the brimming buckets, happy as a clam (pun intended) to have some time to visit with the other two American families who had joined us. The three young girls between them – no older than 12 – were pulling apart the had, shiny shells and slurping the mollusks down between sips of water.

Pessoa was a man of fine wine and ginjha, a cherry liquor served in nondescript, closet-sized bars. A Brasileira, the Cafe Irún to Pessoa’s Hemingway, is one of Lisbon’s oldest and most beloved cafes, and Pessoa is rumored to have sipped bica, espresso with sugar, and absinthe here with the occasional wine.

“Life is good, but wine is better,” he said of his love of the drink.

Foodie Experiences in Lisbon

I’ve long enjoyed port wine and the vinhos verdes, or young wines, cultivated in the Minho province. Filipa took us next to taste different wines from the country’s 2700 hectares of vineyards. In true neighborhood shop fashion, locals can bring their own bottles or wine glasses, try a few varieties, and then bottle up and take home their favorites.

Paired with a strong cheese and quince paste, even my mother enjoyed them.

cod fritter and naughty rice in Lisbon

The next stop had us in front of Pessoa’s last residence, right in the heart of Campo de Ourique. Crumbling buildings covered in tiles sandwiched the small museum, housed in an apartment complex, and its award-winning restaurant, which served us cod fritters (they were, sadly, forgettable, so excuse the claim that I ate no cod on the tour) and a creamy rice with another glass of wine.

Having consumed several dishes by this point and being in the very place where Pessoa’s landmark book, Disquiet, was found after his death, I had a completely different perception of Portuguese food and its intricacies. Like a human being, its relationships as much as its evolution and environment make it what it is, and different situations call for a multitude of adaptations.

Portugal’s tangled history is perhaps the cuisine’s biggest element, but there is much more than meets the eye – and stomach, for that matter.

spongecake Lisboa style

Campo de Ourique had one more dish for us to try, this time in the city’s hospitality school and concept restaurant. Just as we’d started the day with sweets, we’d end with a spongecake, pão de lo, made with nothing more than yolks, flour and sugar.

Proving once more that I knew absolutely nothing about Portuguese food, my spoon sliced into the toasty top of the cake, cutting into a creamy, spongy substance that in no way resembled the sponge cake I’d made as a kid for summer picnics. I scraped the waxy paper holding it all together, eager for the last few sticky crumbs.

Fernando Pessoa once said, “I have no philosophy: I have senses.” And I think I just found mine when it comes to tastes and food prejudices. The tour was more than just a way to spend a few hours with my family and share my travel style with them (and making Christmas shopping a one-gift production).

Lisbon and I had finally found a common ground: good food.

Taste of Lisboa Food Tours

I paid my own way on the Taste of Lisboa Food Tour; all opinions are my own and do not reflect a collaboration between SandS and Taste of Lisboa or any of its affiliates. You can find out more about Filipa’s food tours and courses on Taste of Lisboa’s website.

Why You Need This Adult Coloring Book Dedicated to Wanderlust

It was a night like any other: I was watching clips of America’s Next Top Model (shame, shame) when my Macbook Air screen when blank. It was a sign for me to go to bed, I presumed, so I clicked it shut and set it on my nightstand.

The following morning, I heard the familiar cha-CHUUUUUN that my Mac cries when turning on, and even though the keys glowed, the Black Screen of Death stared at me. I remember sighing heavily before reaching for my phone for a homemade remedy, cursing myself for updating the system before.

work online

After a few uninspired attempts to reboot a perfectly healthy system that recently underwent surgery to make it faster and more secure, I relented and took it into the Mac repair shop in Los Remedios.

Mr. Mac confirmed my fears: the cable that connects the screen to the keyboard was shot, probably from my long hours watching American TV series, mindlessly clicking on wikipedia articles and writing for SandS, COMO Consulting and other publications. And it was going to cost me at least 500€ to fix.

OK Universe, I heard you loud and clear: My computer does not have to be my best friend.

I had ideas for posts bursting out of my head, 89 unread blog posts from other sites I follow and several emails to get to, but I opted for a nap. A bonafide, not-binge-watching-Shonda-Rimes-dramas-and-calling-it-rest nap.

Faced with an afternoon with not much to do and spending money reserved for rescuing my Mac, I was desperate to find an activity to do at home that didn’t involve a screen. I came up with cleaning, which I’d done two days prior or organizing my desk. From under a stack of papers and lesson plans for the month, I unearthed Travel Between the Lines, and adult coloring book that my friend Geoff and Katie Matthews of Wandertooth Blog sent my way. I smiled – the cover features Lisbon, where I had recently traveled with my family.

Adult Coloring Books

Digging out and sharpening my set of colored pencils, I turned on a podcast and set to work on the first photo I turned to: street scene of rural Barichara, Colombia on page 22. Three-quarters of an hour of shading, lining and sharpening later, I’d used bright colors to turn whitewashed Barichara – which could have easily been a town in the mountains of Spain – into a technicolor dream, complete with a shiny new motorcycle leaned against the wall of the home.

For someone who daydreams about far-flung locales, I didn’t want Pinterest or the internet skewing with my creative juices on this project.

Adult coloring books have made a splash recently for their stress-melting power. And as an early millennial with her heart still stuck in the 90s, I have to admit that I felt like a kid again, more concentrated on shading and what color to paint the roofs than my broken computer. Plus, I had something to do while chatting on the phone with my mom on Sundays or before bed that didn’t require another screen.

Skepticism hadn’t crossed my mind when it came to the adult coloring book craze, as it seemed like yet one more thing on my bookshelf. But here’s why you should have one:

Serious wanderlust is ahead

I met Geoff for an early afternoon beer at a cervecería buried somewhere in Macarena. It was early, but anyone ho can match me for beers after Spanish class is a friend in my book. Studying at Sevilla Habla language school, Geoff was spending a few weeks in Seville and would soon be joined by his wife, Katie. The married Canadians had been traveling since 2009 full-time and have been to more than three dozen countries.

And that’s where this book comes in. Katie is the wordsmith of Wandertooth and Geoff is the visual video storyteller, but there’s little need for words or moving pictures in this book: there are 47 black-and-white pictures of their travels from 29 countries.

detail of Travel Between the Lines photos

Flipping through, I recognized a few places – the effervescent Eiffel Tower of Paris, home to my childhood wanderlust; the chain bridge in Budapest, a city I fell hard for; the place of my expat nightmares, Plaza de España in Seville. But more often than not, I couldn’t tell if the pictures were Asia or Central America or Europe.

All of the photos belong to Katie and Geoff

When Wandertooth came up with the idea for Travel Between the Lines, they were already seasoned globetrotters who had lived around the world. They sent their personal pictures to a designer, who in turn transformed them into art you could personalize. As travelers and part-time locals in many of these places, it’s like discovering a new place with a fresh set of eyes. Plus, they share two-line vignettes about their travels to each of the destinations featured at the back of the book.

Katie and Geoff Matthews

Geoff and Katie Matthews. Photo courtesy of Wandertooth.

What’s more, some of the drawings are easy to finish (think attending high tea in London) whereas other offer more of a challenge – kind of like haggling at a souk in Morocco or wondering what exactly you’re eating at a street market in Taiwan.

And by being 8.5″x11,” they can easily adorn your cubicle or cork board once you finish and rip them out. Think of it as a Color Me Mine for the clumsy or the minimalistic.

Support small businesses and publishers

Perhaps more important than fueling your wanderlust during your morning commute, Katie and Geoff are digital entrepreneurs and small business owners – even if their office has sand for a floor. Your purchase of the Travel Between the Lines helps them keep traveling, creating and running a digital empire.

Travel Between the Lines Coloring Book

And, like every Canadian I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, they’re crazy personable and very nice! And they make excellent tapas crawlers.

So while those 500€ to fix my Mac ended up being 189€ (and thus a plane ticket anywhere during Holy Week), a few minutes doodling and coloring is tiding me over.

Want to Get Your Hands on the Book?

Break out your colored pencils – and your phone camera! I’ve teamed up with Wandertooth to give you an adult coloring book – and I’ll send it anywhere in this big, wide world. 

All you have to do is follow me on instagram and a tag up to five photos with a place you’d love to see featured in an adult coloring book with the tag #mytravelbtwnlines. Think exotic, spiritual, adrenaline-pumping…and anywhere in between! Or, you can tweet them to me at @sunshinesiestas with the hashtag #mytravelbtwnlines.

Be sure to include the city and country it’s in and a quick description, along with your name and first initial so that I can contact you if we choose your photo.

Contest runs until March 31st, after which the winner will be notified. Winner has until April 10th to claim their prize, lest another pinner take your prize!

You can nab Travel Between the Lines: Inspirational Coloring for Globetrotters and Daydreamers on Amazon, or enter this contest for a free copy, courtesy of Geoff and Katie. And – psst! – another book is on the way! You might even see my hand wrapped around a cervecita on a warm March day featured!

why you need this

Have you ever bought an adult coloring book?

Five Realizations I’ve Made About Myself as a Traveler

Staring at my 2015 planner just one year ago, I circled just two dates: August 8th, my wedding day, and August 15th, my 30th birthday. I inhaled sharply, knowing that as a new homeowner, long-term travel was off the table unless I was living with my parents.  

Quotes about Travel

For someone whose mentality was clocked in airline miles and train tickets accumulated, I was crestfallen. In the span of 60 days in 2014, we closed on a house and I signed away the freedoms and money drains I’d previously had.

2015 was not a red-letter year for my passport, but with minimum means to jet off, I began to scrimp and save for different things in my life that mattered: furniture to make myself at home in Triana, better food products for my never-ending battle to learn how to cook, and my wedding. And somehow, I still managed to travel to four countries and drive through six new states, plus visit several new places in Spain in a year in travel that was very bottom-heavy.

CASTLE

I made five key realizations about myself in the process, and began my 30s looking ahead to a different means to travel.

I cannot stick to a budget

I have never claimed to be a budget traveler, and it’s been brought to my attention that I am unable to stick to one, anyway. Oftentimes, my plane or train tickets are far less than what I spend in my destination (much to the dismay of my travel companions).

Case in point: my four days in Copenhagen. I cashed in on a free one-way flight from Vueling, shelling out just 93€ to finally touch down in Scandanavia. Armed with a list of cheap places to eat and things to do, I was ready to make the most of my first visit when I did the conversion and realized my euros had nothing on the sleek Danish kröner, and that even beers at happy hour were three times the cost of one in Seville. 

Nyhavn Denmark views

For the record, I do not like making dinner in my hostel or AirBnB’s kitchen, I rarely use public transportation or buy city passes, and I bring home senseless souvenirs. I’ve tried Couchsurfing and can’t resist a cool food tour. My wallet is defenseless outside of the 954 area code.

I am a slave to thinking that this may be my one chance to experience a culture and its cuisine, and I end up twice as far in the hole as I expect to be on the majority of my trips. Did I need one more pastry or that quick trip to Sweden when in Scandanavia? Probably not, nor could I resist the hot dogs or gløgg.

European Euros money

In Turkey, this meant a massage at a bath house. In Greece, I carted back an extra suitcase of gifts. My wallet is often empty, but what difference does it make if I’m not a long-term traveler and have a salary?

I know what it means – no new shoes when another pair falls apart.

Long-term travel is not for me

In all of the years I have blogged, I’ve let the idea of saving up and cashing in on a year-long trip play bumperpool in my head. Back when I was an auxiliar de conversación, I figured I’d spend a few years in Spain, then make bank as an EFL teacher in Korea or Japan and backpack around SE Asia for six months before getting a “real” job.

cobblestone road Europe

But when you’ve dealt with bedbugs, missed connections and lonliness, suddenly hitting the road for an extended period of time doesn’t seem like the best option.

For me, having a home base and possessions and a partner has been more fulflling, and the rest of Europe isn’t that far off. Yes, this means limited vacation days at times when prices spike, but thanks to Spain’s low cost of living, I feel it’s more justified to splurge (see? Not a budget traveler). 

I’m not into long roadtrips

Unable to afford a traditional honeymoon to Japan as we’d always planned, the Novio and I rented a car and drove to New Orleans, stopping in St. Louis and Memphis on the way down, Chatanooga, Nashville and Louisville on the way up.

Here’s the thing – I like driving. I believe that cars can take you where tours can’t. I find getting lost a lot of fun, once I’ve let out the requisite swear words. But I’m not into long distances – blame my commute to university for that one.

best hamburger in arkansas

The Novio and I had loads of fun on our trip, visiting a friend in Memphis and drinking down Bourbon Street in the lovely bubble of post-wedding bliss. We rafted down the Occoe River near Chatanooga, visited the Jim Beam distillery and stuffed ourselves with barbequed ribs and pulled pork. And we spent so.much.time. in the car, most of which had me either searching for radio stations in the middle of nowhere or writing wedding Thank You cards. Knowing we had a flight to catch meant missing a lot of things that we would have liked to see for sake of time.

I’ve discovered I’m more of a pound-the-pavement type of person, and sitting in the passenger seat of a Kia for hundreds of miles of cornfields wasn’t my idea of fun.

Best road trip car

That said, my parents are planning a 2016 summer roadtrip to the National Parks. Yaay?

I love showing visitors MY Spain

As someone living in Europe, I am often given the burden of planning itineraries. For me, it’s (more than) half the fun to read up on a destination, devour a book set in a new country and search for things to do, but when the trip actually hits, there are snags. My own parents went six days without luggage over Christmas, and it meant skipping some of our plans to wait at home for missing suitcases. 

Mirador de Graça Lisboa

But my favorite part about living in Spain is that I have a leg up on guide books and travel forums. I live here and consider myself fairly immersed in Spanish culture, and it’s most pleasurable to see my visitors dive right in to Spanish life.

When my best male friend finally made good on his promise to come see us, I had little else on the itinerary but eat, drink and head to the beach for a day. He’d come from South Africa, where he’d done all of those magical travel things like swim with sharks and bike through wineries. I couldn’t promise him much more than a taste of la vida española and took him to my favorite rincones of the city.

Calle del Infierno Feria de Abril

He claims to be satisfied with the experience. Who else would tell jetlag to go to hell when it’s the last night of the Feria?

That’s another big reason why my blog is so Spain-based. It’s my safe zone, my muse and the reason why most of you read it!

I don’t need to go far to be happy

There were times when my version of getting high was scouring flight search engines for good deals. That’s how I ended up with round-trip tickets to Marrakesh for 30€, to Brussels for 26€ and 102€ to Croatia, how my geographic knowledge of Europe improved…and how I drained my meager savings. I lived to spend my long weekends traipsing around Europe. And this was before Instagram and pinterest, so I traveled for the story and not the perception (although, I admit, at warp speed).

Don’t get me wrong – I still use all of those tactics nowadays and love hearing the ping in my mailbox with my reservations, but a year of limited resources meant Spain was my go-to destination. In fact, from my trip to the US over the 2014 holidays until my trip home for summer the following year, the only flight I took was to Barcelona! 

Portuguese National Beer Super Bock

I’ve long adopted the, “have car, will adventure” outlook, and having my own set of wheels has allowed me to delve into Spain and Portugal more.

One long weekend with rain on the horizon, I found my plans to go hiking in the Sierra de Grazalema foiled, so Kelly and I hopped in the car and drove north, away from the storm clouds. We stopped wherever we felt like it. “I hear there’s a castle in Real de la Jara.” We saw a castle. “Zafra has a parador.” Detour (complete with convent cookies!). “Oh look, a random monastery!” Nearly ran ourselves off the road trying to reach the top on a blustery day.

With itchy feet, anywhere but home will do, even if for a day.

View from the Hancock Tower

I have just one trip on the horizon – back to Chicago for my sister’s June wedding – and tons of ideas for quick trips, some to new cities and some to my favorite places. It’s almost just as liberating to know I am wide open to whatever adventure pops up as to having every long weekend in 2016 scribbled with travel plans in my agenda.

And after clicking out this post, I’ve realized that I don’t take nearly enough pictures of myself when traveling. Noted.

I didn’t do an annual travel round up, but went to Sicily, Denmark, Sweden and Portugal towards the end of the year. Where are you headed in 2016? What are your favorite destinations in and around Spain? I’m talking culinary travel, rowdy festivals and things to do in the great outdoors!

Confession: I’m Nervous to Travel After the Paris Terror Attacks

After a late night trip to the bathroom, my hand fumbled across the nightstand looking for my watch. As my fingers crawled over a pack of Kleenex and the smooth, cold case of my laptop. I found my phone first, lit up with notifications from Instagram and Facebook.

There was one whatsapp from my mother:

“did u c travel alert? <3”

Being halfway across the world, my daily news intake usually comes as I’m eating lunch in Spain. I get the highlights from Facebook when I wake up – from sports to mass shootings to birth announcements – but often find that I’m behind when it comes to the heavy-hitting stuff back home because of the time difference. As 5pm news programs are rolling the opening credits, I’m typically sleeping. As the BBC reported that the US had issued a worldwide travel advisory, I had long since been asleep.

Confession_

When Paris nightclubs and restaurants were under attack on November 13th, 2015, I was dozing on the couch after dinner. The following morning, my entire newsfeed was burping up messages of disgust and horror and changing their profile pictures to shots of them at the Eiffel Tower during college study abroad

I studied journalism and have a piqued interest in developing news stories. Settling in that Saturday morning with a mug of tea and my laptop, the news stayed switched on for hours as I read hard and soft news related to the incident, including this haunting HuffPo piece on European mothers of ISIS.

But it took some time for it to sink in: I am a person living in Europe. I am a person living in Europe in a city that has been mentioned as a target for terror. I am a person living in Europe in a city that has been mentioned as a target who is traveling to city with known, active terror cells in three weeks.

The Colors of India - Lonely Planet Guidebook

Ten years ago, I was studying abroad in Valladolid when bombs rocked the London underground. A friend and I were in Barcelona long before travelers had smartphones or tablets, unable to reach our family but blissfully unaware of any real danger (meanwhile, our parents were manically trying to track us down). And Spain, at that time, was no stranger to terror – there were mass casualties the year before on the Cercanías commuter lines in Madrid. Our parents, once they finally reached us at a seedy hotel in El Raval, pleaded us to walk instead of ride the subway, and we did so with cans of San Miguel in our hands. Blissfully unaware of any danger.

Nothing hit home as closely as Paris has – not 9/11, not European terror, not the war in Iraq – at age 30. 

When I was a kid, I was fearless – riding my bike at top speed down hills, attempting dangerous gymnastics tricks, convinced I was made of rubber. As I’ve gotten older, however, fear creeps into my head every now and again (and I sincerely blame driver’s ed for this). I say a silent prayer to the Virgin of Loretto when a flight taxis and raises its nose into the sky, and I am constantly nervous for the Novio in his high-risk job. Anxiety nags at me, low in my stomach, whenever I sense that something could do horribly wrong.

Vintage Travel: in Wisconsin at age 6

Vintage Travel: in Wisconsin at age 6

But I have yet to let fear foil any plans, be it travel or otherwise. While my family wasn’t thrilled about me traveling to India with another female companion, I looked at it as an adventure, a “level up” sort of accomplishment as a traveler. Europe was child’s play to someone who had to have more passport pages affixed after six years of living abroad, and after getting stranded in Romania on NYE and traipsing through rural Morocco, I was in for a challenge anyway.

And India was rewarding on so many levels. I decided to travel less, but to more far-flung places before settling down with a family. But thanks to a new house and a wedding, I’ve been grounded and holed up in Spain. 

Choosing a solo trip to Copenhagen over a long weekend was something I considered being on the right airline website with the right amount of airline miles. It seemed like it’s been ages since I went anywhere outside of the US or Spain, and my feet were seriously itchy to use a free flight on Vueling. Málaga to Copenhagen and back cost me less than three nights at a hostel in the center of the Danish capital, so flights were booked without batting an eye in mid-September, along with a flight to Sicily

On my second solo trip to Croatia

On my second solo trip to Croatia

Life next year is still unpredictable between work and possible relocation. But as I saw it, it would perhaps be the last solo trip I took for a long time.

Following the Paris attacks, I didn’t think Denmark, often dubbed ‘Happiest Nation in the World,’ posed much of a threat. Still I located the American Embassy, copying down contact information into my phone and my notebook to be on the safe side, and I asked the Consular Agent here in Seville if he’d heard of any threats in Denmark. Negative. I went back to finding low-cost activities and places to try reindeer meat and proudly announced I’d take the train to nearby Mälmo, Sweden and find an IKEA.

As a week turned into 10 days, news that threats in Brussels had shut down the city’s museums and public transportation didn’t rattle me. But waking up at 4:32am to a travel alert issued by the US took me aback. Yes, it’s vague and doesn’t pinpoint any cities or countries or even news of a rumored attack, so why was I suddenly reconsidering a trip? Is it silly of me to worry that a Christmas market could end up as a target? Or that many ISIS sympathizers have been raised in Denmark? Am I safer in Spain than in the US or in Copenhagen?

I began reading an English language newspaper straight out of Copenhagen, The Local. Like it’s counterpart in Spain, news relevant to expat and travelers spatters across the pages and, buried under news about footballers and an imminent cold front, there were a few isolated articles related to terror, and only one spoke of an incident. It seems the happiest people on Earth are more about accepting potential radicals and using a soft method to wean them off of their jihad-fueled conviction.

So, I’ll go.

I’ll admit that I’m nervous, the same way I sometimes get nervous in Chicago because of gun violence. I feel safe in Seville, but who’s to say that something couldn’t happen here? Or who’s to say that I won’t be the victim of a gun crime in America? Or fall out of bed tomorrow and hit my head on the same nightstand where my phone had been blitzkrieged with safety messages 24 hours earlier?

We live in weird times, and I’m more convinced that just about every country, race and religion is having an identity crisis.  

My brand-new passport has 52 free pages in it. When I woke up at 4:52am, I couldn’t fall back asleep and began punching out this post, perhaps as a way to sort through my feelings. Six hours later, I am 98% sure I’ll be on a plane come December, albeit with the anxiety rumbling low in my stomach. Could just be my stomach asking for reindeer meat and a Carlsberg, though.

American travelers seriously concerned about threats should copy down information about their home country’s consulate or embassy abroad and enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program with the US Department of State. While it’s certainly important to be aware of where you’re headed and what the risks are, only you can ultimately decide whether or not you go. And I’m in the former camp – go, but proceed with caution.

In the midst of global terror attacks, are you still planning to travel, or stay home? Am I silly for feeling nerves?

Waking up in Vegas: Five Things to Do that Aren’t Clubbing or Gambling

I have friends who swear by visiting Vegas once a year (I’m from Chicago – who could blame us when winter descends?). When my family went for a second time during Christmas a few years ago, we did it the right way: we camped out at the Flamingo and everyone was over 21, a far cry from a Motel 6 overnight where we had to stay at least 10 feet away from the slot machines. On our way to Mammoth Lakes to ski, we missed our chance to see the attractions in Las Vegas.

Five Things to Do

Our Vegas sojourn was brief – just two nights sandwiched between the Grand Canyon and a trip to see my snowbird grandparents – and included a night of pure hedonism with my sister and our boyfriends. A hazy gambling session at the Imperial Palace. Hitting the jackpot on a slot machine and winning $640.50 (which I put towards purchasing Camarón).  A round of Jägerbombs. Feeling less than splendid the following day when we explored the non-gaming attractions.

Vegas may be an adult playground, but there is far more to do than you think – and these attractions won’t break the bank.

Visit the Hoover Dam

I was not feeling my best when we took an hour-long trip down Route 93 back towards Arizona to see the Hoover Dam. A feat of engineering that lead to Las Vegas’s incorporation, construction on the hydroelectric dam – then called the Boulder Dam – began in 1930. I was hungover and grumpy, and I didn’t feel much like looking at a bunch of stone for a morning.

Hoover Damn

But the Hoover Damn wowed me. From the Art Deco design to the sheer power of a structure built nearly a century ago, it was worth the trip. The Hoover Dam can be visited every day but Christmas and Thanksgiving from 9am. Parking is $10 and tours run $15 for adults and $12 for seniors, children under 17 and military.

You can also get a glimpse simply by driving the 93 over the Hoover Bypass between Nevada and Arizona (cue the Fools Rush In screens stills).

Check Out Old Vegas

As a History Channel follower, my dad has always been fascinated by the history of Vegas, from a small town on a major railway just a century ago to the building of the Hoover Dam and its subsequent boom – did you know that the casinos and nightclubs catered to the predominately male contraction workers? Or that the Nevada state government legalized gambling as a way to turn profits? 

Old Vegas

Old Vegas, located on Fremont Street just east of the Strip, boasts some of the city’s first casinos, announced by vintage neon signs, and a little less hedonism than the more famous Las Vegas Boulevard. There are also less seedy street performers and cheaper buffets. If you do gamble here, payouts are more frequent than the other big-name resorts.

Take in a Show

Entertainers have long set up shop in Vegas, from the Rat Pack to Celine Dion and Britney Spears. Casinos rake in big money by hosting Broadway shows, and while it’s not New York, Vegas is an awesome venue for catching a show.

New York New York Casino

Ever since working on my high school’s costume and makeup crew, coupled with a yearly tradition of seeing Broadway in Chicago with the women in my family, I’ve been fascinated with the Lion King Musical. I missed the opportunity to see it in Madrid, but my dad took us to see the smash musical at the famed Mandalay Bay Casino. And I cried (the Novio fell asleep).

Apart from the big money win, it was the highlight of our trip.

Chow Down at a Buffet

My one memory of a Vegas trip at age 15 (apart from my early-bird-gets-the-worm father arriving at 8am with a plastic cup full of quarters) was the dinner buffet we ate. My parents let us eat jelly beans out of ice cream dishes and as many chicken fingers as we could stomach before collapsing into a food coma at the Motel 6.

Vegas Buffets

Buffets have been around in Vegas for as long as its casinos. El Rancho Casino, the first resort built on the Strip, used its gourmet buffet as a way to defray costs, and because Las Vegas is home to a culinary revolution, and you can find everything from cutting-edge cuisine to fried chicken in buckets nowadays. We chose a hearty breakfast buffet at our resort before a long drive back to Arizona. It didn’t come cheap – we paid $45 per person – but as someone who misses weekly brunches, it was worth it.

Vegas.com lists Wicked Spoon at the Cosmopolitan as its top pick (as does a college friend who calls Vegas home), with Bacchanal (Caesar’s Palace) and Studio B (The M) as its other favorites. All three offer different types of cuisines, ample seating and unlimited helpings.

Pay Homage to the City Lights at the Neon Museum

In its short history, Vegas has shone brightly – and I don’t just mean the lights from its casinos. But many of the iconic resorts that lead to the city’s boom have since been bulldozed to make way for newer constructions, and nearly 150 signs have been restored and laid to rest in a Neon Boneyard at the Neon Museum. 

Neon Graveyard Vegas

Housed in the former lobby of La Concha Casino, the mandatory tour takes visitors to the Neon Boneyard and North Gallery and past signs from haunts of Vegas past. A guide narrates the tour, painting a picture of Old Vegas and how its legacy shaped the City of Sin today. 

If possible, nab entrances for a night tour. Tickets run $18 for adults.

Have you ever been to Vegas? What are your favorite things to do?

On Letting Go & Floating On:  Musings from a Chronic Traveler

At lot has changed with me this week: I got married! The Novio and I finally said our Sí, quieros (albeit in English) in a bilingual, bicultural fiesta. In the US for the rest of the month, I’m gearing up to say adiós to a potential life in America and hello to a future in Spain.

There, I finally said it.

Danni, another Chicagoan-turned-española and a part of Las Morenas de España, sent me this article that I found myself nodding to. Do we have to say goodbye constantly to say hello to what we really want and maybe even need?

guest post by Danni melena

I’m a chronic traveler. I’ve said “hello” and “good-bye” more times than I can count. The issue lies in the fact that I spent so many years holding onto my “home”, Chicago, because I was afraid that if I loosened my grip even in the slightest, I’d lose it forever. I felt my heart being pulled in several different directions spread out all over the globe, but I felt that if the anchor that held me to home budged even a little bit, that I’d have to address the fact that I see home in several places.

I tried to keep one foot in Chicago, and the other wherever my plane or train landed next, and I came to the realization that it’s hard. I assumed that the more time and distance I placed between myself and “home” the blurrier the memories, the weaker the connections and the further I’d drift out into open water. Little did I know that “home” is fluid, and that by allowing myself to drift ever so slightly, I don’t necessarily lose a home, but gain the ability to feel at home wherever I am.

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On Saying “So Long” in order to Say Hello:

That’s the funny thing about traveling: in order to say “hello” to someone, or some place new, you must first leave where you are, and that’s not always the simplest thing to do. It’s never easy taking those first steps to venture away from the comfy, cashmere snuggie that is your “now” and leave.

Whether you jumped from the cliff on your own will while screaming “Viva Wanderlust”, or you inched your way slowly with the help of family, friends, and travel-inspiration on Instagram, you did it. No matter how you arrived, or what made you leave: I commend you. You are brave. You are strong. You’ve done what others talked themselves out of doing, and spoke louder than the voice in your head, you know, the one that disguises itself as “logic”.  Hello. Hello to you, and welcome.

On Saying Hello:

Hello. Hola. Bonjour. Ciao. Ni Hao. Hallo. Habari. Shalom. However you say “hello” it means the same thing: I’m here, and I’m opening myself to you and my new surroundings. Even if your voice shakes, hello is an invitation for life to happen and for you to live. At times, hello is tiring, and it’s intimidating and it’s daunting.

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It’s an act of self-assertion. I’m here. It leads into those long conversations with people who start out as strangers and end up as friends. This word—these five letters—are crucial for the chronic traveler because combined with a smile, they can melt any ice. Saying “hello” for me is the first step that opens my heart to a new home, and stretches the ropes that tie me to my first home, where I was born and raised. Hello starts the game of tug-of-war that pulls me from here to there as I travel.

On Getting Situated:

What do you need to feel at home? Do you need familiar faces? Your favorite brand of cookies or candy? Do you need to hear a language that you can understand and speak? Do you need McDonald’s or are you more of a Burger King fan? What makes you feel at home: safe, happy, comfortable and at ease? I asked myself this question several times and this is what I’ve come up with:

  • Food: Vegetarian food, International cuisine, and American-style Brunch make me feel at home. I live on happycow.com because in my opinion, food and positive food experiences line the walls that make “home” for me. Sharing a meal, cooking with strangers in a hostel, shopping in local markets: this is a form of making memories that is essential to my feeling at home and content.
  • Jeans (with at least 2% spandex): I know, that’s really specific, but I mean it. I feel sexy and comfortable in jeans. I’ve lived in 4 countries and traveled to several more, and there is a direct and undeniable link between my ability to find jeans that make me feel my best, and my likelihood to live (happily) in a place. Okay, it’s not just about jeans; it goes a bit deeper. It means being able to shop, and feel like my size and my style is represented. It’s about the fact that I’m halfway across the world, and everything I’ve ever known, and still manage to participate in the mundane act of shopping. I feel those ropes that link me to “home” pull tighter because I realize that what I did there, I can do anywhere and what I’m trying to hold onto so tightly isn’t unique to that one place. That’s a sobering thought.
  • Community: I need community! I need friends, and friendly people with whom I can chat about everything, and about nothing. I yearn to look at my calendar and see that in X amount of days, there’s an event that I’m looking forward to attending, and with people that I genuinely want to see. That’s why I became involved with Las Morenas de España, a site for young, adventurous, WOC interested and/or living in Spain. I want to hug those who arrive at Barajas with looks of confusion, exhaustion and pure adrenaline and tell them that it’ll be ok, and that they’re home. Home, there goes that word again. It gets easier. Now, every time my heart extends its strings to form a new connection with a fellow chronic traveler, I feel my fists loosen and my mind relax slightly, which again, draws me further away from my home base, but I’m learning that’s okay. I tell those who lay down roots in Spain to collaborate, to reach out and to speak up because more likely than not, our narratives will overlap. I found so much in common with other women and travelers on a recent trip to Nantes, France than I ever could have imagined. I try to find community wherever I may travel, even if it’s for a weekend holiday: there are secrets to be revealed, experiences to be had, and people to meet.  Support one another, and build something great. To all the nomads, travelers, self-proclaimed wanderlust-havers: we are stronger together than we could ever be apart. Build. Create. Unite.

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On Saying Good-Bye:

There’s a certain ease and comfort of realizing that home is where you are in that moment. I had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that it’s okay to loosen my grip, because that’s the only way to make space for new connections and links. The trouble with home is that it cannot be captured and contained. At times I feel pulled in a million different directions: Portugal, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Spain, America, France, Germany; all of these places, and the people I was blessed to cross paths with left an imprint on my heart. On the other hand, they also pulled the rope away from where I started, where I thought home had to exist.

How foolish I was to think that I could bottle home and keep it stagnant. It’s impossible. It’s unrealistic. Hello’s happen because good-bye’s happened first. With that being said, I’d like to remind you of the most beautiful thing I’ve learned as a chronic traveler: our heart is a muscle. Muscles require that you use them, and the more the use them, the bigger and stronger and more flexible they get. I can say now, with no fear or doubt that I find home—what I love about home—in every experience, new friend, adventure, hello and, the inevitable good-bye.

11822432_10152934229266533_4550720742415852319_nDanni, Community Director at Las Morenas de España, is a twenty-something, Chicago native currently residing in Madrid. Lover of language, words, and travel, she’s managed to combine all of her passions through her work. In her free time, you can find her exploring the winding streets of Madrid, hunting down good flight deals, planning her next adventure and writing & researching for LMDES. Danni loves spicy food, natural hair, music and of course, her wonderful life partner. If you need to find her, she’s the girl with huge hair and her face buried in her Kindle.

A word about Las Morenas de EspañaLas Morenas de España is redefining the Black experience in Spain. With stories, resources and insights and exclusive travel knowledge, Las Morenas is the ultimate destination for anyone with an interest in Spain.  This site is a space for diverse stories to be shared, community to be fostered and for people all over the world to have an inside guide to Spain, inspiring them to experience and enjoy the country in a way they never have before.

Sound off: can you empathize with Danni? 

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