Travel Blogger Relay: Top Three Travel Moments

It seems silly to write this post only a few weeks after writing about my favorite places in the world, but I felt compelled to take the challenge Low Cost Holidays proposed in choosing your three top travel moments in their travel blogger relay (because only three? Impossible!) So when Lauren of Lateral Movements passed me the baton on the Green team, I joined team captains Erica and Shaun from Over Yonderlust, and picked out three travel moments that stand out pretty vividly.

1. Dancing with artisan rug weavers in the mountains of Midelt, Morocco

About ten American women and I came to Morocco with Nest, a non-profit organization that helps women artists in developing countries. After a six hour bus ride through the mountains of Fez, we are greeted at someone’s home by a group of Muslim women with head coverings, long skirts and some with long grey tattoos down the middle of their faces. I’m told this tattoo is an ancient Berber symbol for marriage. They kiss us twice on each cheek and seat us around three large tables where we are served chicken, bread, cous cous, carrots, and fruit. After dinner, we see the women bring out a few brightly colored handheld drums. The music, dancing and singing begins, and this Jewish white girl finds herself in the home of traditional Muslim women, dancing with her friends and family the way she does with her roommates back in New York. At some point in between a woman teaching me how to do their shrieking technique and playing with another’s little girl, I remembered why I came here, and why I need to continue taking trips like this.

2. Listening to Fado music with locals in Portugal

The concierge at our hotel who we had befriended over our week long stay invited us on our last night in Portugal to see him play guitar with his traditional Fado group. We met Ricardo and his wife Elena at the restaurant where this took place, and Elena sat with us as Ricardo went to set up his guitar with the other musicians. It was a small restaurant, with only about 10 tables inside. Everyone in this restaurant clearly knew each other very well and looked at us quizzically, wondering why these foreign strangers had come to join in their weekly Fado tradition. Elena introduced us to our waitress, Matilda, and then suggested we order the cod. I was so sick of cod by this point in the trip, but it seemed rude to decline her suggestion. Before the music started, Elena prepared us for exactly what was about to happen, which we were so grateful for. The tradition of playing Fado music is very different than anything I’ve seen in America. The closest form of music I can compare it to is opera. After our meal was served, the lights in the restaurant were dimmed, everyone went completely quiet and the four men softly began playing their Fado guitars – these beautiful, round bodied string instruments. A man from the audience stood up and began singing a slow, emotional tune, which I was fascinated by, but Elena whispered to us that he was one of the worst Fado singers in their group. Other singers from the audience took their turns, performing about three songs each. Then, to our surprise, our waitress, Matilda, took her turn. Once this petite woman began singing such an emotional, moving piece, I finally understood why Fado was such an incredible art form. She put her entire soul into this performance, conducting the entire thing with her eyes closed, and bringing the entire restaurant to tears. Elena told me that earlier this year, Matilda had lost her husband to cancer, and this was her way of expressing her grief. I couldn’t understand the words, but I could feel how much Matilda ached by listening to her song. We eventually finished our meal and said goodbye to the group, and Ricardo and Elena drove us back to the hotel. We hugged them and thanked them profusely for giving us this amazing, truly unique and authentic Portugese experience on our last night in Lisbon.

3. Enjoying steak, wine, olive oil bread and spectacular scenery at O’Fournier Winery in Argentina’s Uco Valley

I never wanted to leave here. As soon as we arrived at this massive Argentinian winery and sat down to our meal and wine tasting, we looked out at the lake, which reflected the vineyards that had turned a gorgeous vibrant red in the fall just below the monumental Andes mountains. The evening before, I had developed an obsession with the olive oil bread that we were served at what was named the best restaurant in Argentina, Nadia O.F. And Nadia’s husband was the owner of the winery we were currently touring. To my extreme delight, we were once again served the delicious olive oil bread, along with a flight of rich, full bodied wines. To top it off, I was then served what I truly believe was the best steak of my life. I don’t know why two of my top three travel moments took place on the last day of my trip – maybe it’s the necessity to cling to those last remaining moments of vacation before departing for home, or maybe I was just really lucky to have these grand finales at the end of each journey. I do know that thinking back to that last day in Argentina, to be sitting in that experience, eating delicious food and drinking amazing wine, staring out at surreal scenery (oh did I mention the clouds were irradescent?) is a memory I will always cherish.

And now for the last step in the relay, I pass the baton to the one and only Condor Kristen! Go girl go! Make us proud!

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What’s Your Favorite Place in the Whole World?

I am asked this question a LOT, as I’m sure you are. And while you’d think I’d have an answer to this by now since I write about and dissect all my travel experiences, turns out I still hesitate whenever I’m asked. So I bring to you a top five list, based on some non linear and completely arbitrary criteria. Enjoy!

1. Morocco

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This is usually my immediate answer to the favorite place question. This was one of the best trips I’ve taken and Morocco is one of the most interesting, compelling, mysterious and beautiful places I’ve been. What makes it number one? The way I felt after the trip. It’s the country that inspired me to start this little blog. I wanted so badly to immortalize the experiences I had there, to encourage others to go. The people I met there were incredible and if I could go back this instant I would. I would eat at Earth Cafe, go back to Ben’s farm, visit the Jardin Majorelle and go talk to some of the most amazing women I’ve ever met.

2. Negev Desert, Israel

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I am a city girl. Sure I grew up in the suburbs and we had trees and grass there and I even saw some mountains growing up when visiting my grandparents in upstate New York and taking annual ski trips. But when our bus crossed into the vast desert in Israel and we were surrounded by wide, flat, sandy desert on all sides, my face was pressed up against that window so hard and I was trying desperately not to blink for fear of missing this glorious landscape. I took a million photos when we went outside to explore Ben Gurion’s grave, and when we came across a waterfall in the middle of a hike I thought I was experiencing a mirage. This one again makes the list because I will never forget the awe I felt when first hit with the shocking beauty of this incredible place.

3. Mont St. Michel, France

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Speaking of being shocked with awe inspiring beauty while young and on a tour bus, the image of the beautiful island of Mont St. Michel in the distance will forever be etched in my memory. It was more than a decade ago, on my first trip outside the US (after begging my parents and working weekends at a bagel store to pay for it) and my best friend Allie nudged me awake so I could look out the window. Seeing it from the distance was amazing but once inside this former secluded monastery, it was completely unlike anything I had ever seen. Not that I had seen much at the time because as I said this was my first trip outside the country and actually the first time I had ever been on a plane, but still, we’re going with the wonderfully arbitrary rule of listing my top places based on how I felt when I first saw them, so this one most certainly makes the list.

4. Lagos, Portugal

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Our trip to Lagos was so hilariously clumsy, but after all the little mistakes we made in trying to reach the Point de Piedade, I will never forget Randi looking up at me as I crouched, clinging to the narrow stone staircase I was attempting to walk down, saying “Amy, you’re REALLY going to like this.” This was one of the most beautiful spots in the world, and after making so many errors in judgement that trip, it was a much needed travel victory.

5. O’Fournier Winery, Uco Valley, Argentina

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I never wanted to leave here. As soon as we arrived at this massive Argentinian winery and sat down to our meal and wine tasting, we looked out at the lake, which reflected the vineyards that had turned a gorgeous vibrant red in the fall as well as the monumental Andes mountains just beyond the vineyards. We sat at the winery’s restaurant eating the delicious olive oil bread I had become obsessed with when we ate at the winery owner’s wife’s restaurant the night before (got all that?) which was dubbed the best restaurant in Argentina (post about this coming soon.) The fact that I got to eat this olive oil bread twice was such a delightful treat, and then I was served the best steak of my life. On our last day in Argentina, to be sitting in this experience, eating delicious food and drinking amazing wine, staring out at this surreal scenery (oh did I mention the clouds were irradescent?) was an experience I hope to one day re-live.

Have you been to any of my top 5 places? Do you agree with this list? What are your favorite places in the world?

Making Friends Over Fado Music

We had spoken to Ricardo, the concierge at the hotel who booked our trip to Lagos, about the Fado music he played, and he wrote down the name of the restaurant he was playing at on Thursday night, the night of our return from Lagos to Lisbon. He played there every week, but he warned us that there was a chance he wouldn’t make it this time because his wife was nine months pregnant. Still, with no cell phones or way to contact him, we decided to take a cab to the restaurant to see what kind of adventure we’d have there.

As our cab pulled up to the restaurant, I heard Randi speaking to someone out the window. I stepped out and saw a woman with a full pregnant belly, who ran up to us, kissed us on both cheeks and said, “Ricardo, these are the girls you told me about? Oh I’m so glad you came!”

Ricardo and Elena led us into the restaurant, and Elena sat with us as Ricardo went to set up his guitar with the other musicians. It was a small restaurant, with only about 10 tables inside. Everyone in this restaurant clearly knew each other very well and looked at us quizzically, wondering why these foreign strangers had come to join in their weekly Fado tradition. Elena introduced us to our waitress, Matilda, and then suggested we order the cod. I was so sick of cod by this point in the trip, but I really wanted to take her up on this recommendation, so I agreed.

Elena told us about her upbringing in a small town outside of Naples, Italy, and how she met Ricardo while working in Ireland. He won her over by playing an acoustic version of “Hit Me Baby One More Time” on his guitar one night in their hostel. Elena was engaged to someone else back in Italy, but after meeting Ricardo, she decided to marry him instead. They had a traditional wedding near Elena’s family in Italy, but they now live in Lisbon, close to Ricardo’s family.

Before the music started, Elena prepared us for exactly what was about to happen, which we were so grateful for. The tradition of playing Fado music is very different than anything I’ve seen in America. The closest form of music I can compare it to is opera. After our meal was served, the lights in the restaurant were dimmed, everyone grew completely quiet and the four men softly began playing their Fado guitars – these beautiful, round bodied string instruments. A man from the audience stood up and began singing a slow, emotional tune, which I was fascinated by, but Elena whispered to us that he was one of the worst Fado singers in their group. Other singers from the audience took their turns, performing about three songs each. Then, to our surprise, our waitress, Matilda, took her turn. Once this petite woman began singing such an emotional, moving piece, Randi and I finally understood why Fado was such an incredible art form. She put her entire soul into this performance, conducting the entire thing with her eyes closed, and bringing the entire restaurant to tears. Elena told me that earlier this year, Matilda had lost her husband to cancer, and this was her way of expressing her grief. I couldn’t understand the words, but I could feel how much Matilda ached by listening to her song.

We eventually finished our meal and said goodbye to the group, and Ricardo and Elena drove us back to the hotel. We hugged them and thanked them profusely for giving us this amazing, truly unique and authentic Portugese experience on our last night in Lisbon.

We left for New York the next day, and our vacation was over, but Randi and I now have lifelong friends in Portugal.  Two weeks later, we got an email that baby Francesco was born, weighting 3.320 kg, and the family couldn’t be happier.

Lagos: A Rocky Finish

We’re overjoyed to wake up in our new hotel the next morning to see sun shining over the marina.  This is our beach day, and it doesn’t take us long after doing a bit of shopping in town (supporting a local artist and his wife) to find an outdoor café overlooking a beautiful sandy beach.  We eat a breakfast of eggs and freshly squeezed orange juice, and walk down the steep steps to join the other sunbathers on this beach.  Randi suggests we stay at this beach all day, but I’ve heard people talking about the Pont de Piedade, and I have this strong feeling that it might be worth checking out.  I push her to come with me to try and find this sight, the western most point in the Algarves.  We ask a local shop owner how far of a walk it is, and he tells us 20 minutes.  So we begin our trek.

As we clearly exit the beach town and find ourselves wandering into what looks like the local business/abandoned homes area, we find ourselves completely lost and unsure of how to get to our destination.  We stop at a real estate office, because we figure, hey, if they sell homes in Lagos, they probably know how to get to places in the area.  Wrong.  Three of the workers standing out front on their cigarette break have never heard of this Point de Piedade.  But they all speak perfect English, which is incredibly helpful.  Luckily, there’s a British man inside the office who comes out to help us.  Why the Portugese natives didn’t know where this place was but the British fellow did, we’ll never know.  But we’ll go with it.  He looks at us quizzically when we tell him our destination, and laughs when he realizes we’re trying to get there on foot.  We’re directed back to town, where we are to take a taxi or a public bus.  After our experience with the public bus in Cascais, we opt for the taxi.

Our second try – we take the taxi up to our destination, and the driver leaves us off at what looks like an abandoned cliff, with only two shops standing out front – one selling souvenirs, one selling pizza.  She tells us to be careful and not walk too close to the edge.  We realize what she’s referring to as we walk towards the edge and see that we’re at the top of a ridiculously steep set of rocky stairs with no railing.  My fear of heights kicks in, but we’ve made it here on our second try, and we have to see it through after all this effort.  I climb down the steps, crouching just enough to have my hand next to me for balance at all times.  Randi is walking in front of me (below me?), and reaches a break in the steps.  She looks out and calls up to me.

“Amy, you’re really going to like this.”

I do my awkward crouch-walk down to where she’s standing, and look out.  Before me is the most beautiful natural scenery I’ve ever encountered.  It literally makes me gasp, and I now understand the meaning of the word breathtaking.  There’s no way I’ll ever be able to describe this in words, so here are some photos.

We continue climbing down these steps to get a better look.  Every point we stop at is more glorious than the next.  When we reach the bottom, we park ourselves on what seems to be a dock that no one else is currently occupying.  We sit, staring in awe at these grottoes, a magical aquatic fantasy that we seem to have found ourselves in.  Randi comments that this is certainly the grand finale of our Portugal trip.  It was definitely the most visually stunning thing we saw on the trip, but our cultural grand finale was still a few hours away.

Lagos: A Rocky Start

Our adventure in Lagos had one overall theme: Get it Right the Second Time. 

We booked a night in Dom Pedro’s sister hotel called Praia Maia Beach Resort.  Sounds lovely, right? We soon discovered that not all sister hotels are created equal in Portugal.   After having a cab take us to what seemed to be a deserted apartment complex in the middle of the night in this brand new city, we finally found the “resort,” which was really a collection of grimy apartments set up motel style, with outdoor entrances to each room, accessible through a parking lot.  We got our key from the motel clerk, who seemed to be the only human being anywhere in the vicinity.  We opened the door to our room, and flipped on the switch to a flickering light.  Our two twin beds were set up against either wall of the tiny room, with about an inch in between the two beds.  Randi commented that it felt like we had entered a military bunker.  We nervously explored the bathroom, afraid to really touch anything, and when I discovered a spider the size of my hand crawling on my bed, I lost it.  I picked up our bags and ran back to the check in desk.  I knew if we stayed here, I would be standing upright all night long, afraid of the critters and possibly serial killers that lurked nearby.  Since the only people within fifty miles of us seemed to be me, Randi and the hotel clerk, it really did feel like the beginning of a scary movie.

I explained to the hotel clerk that we were on vacation, and if we got a hotel closer to town, we’d be a lot happier because we wanted to go out to the nightclubs (this was a lie – all we really wanted was some semblance of normalcy and a hotel that would allow us to sleep through the night, but this was my way of not completely insulting the accommodations we were in).  Luckily, his friend had shown up to hang out with him while he was on duty at this abandoned shack, and she told us that she worked in a four star hotel right by the marina.  We begged the clerk to call that hotel to see if they had availability, and luckily, they did.  He called us a cab, we apologized, and we were off.

The Marina Rio was by no means a four star hotel, but we were just happy to see a real hotel, seemingly near civilization, other hotels, and with other people staying at this one.  We put our stuff down in our normal sized room, and went to the hotel bar to have a Sagres, relieved that we had changed our situation.

We had no idea that this theme of getting it right the second time would follow us well into the next day.

Cascais

We weren’t sure what to expect in Cascais. We knew it was a coastal town and a fishing village, and that there was something called the Boca d’inferno there, but that was really it. We made the 40 minute ride out there, on a train that went along the Tagus River and showed passengers the beauty of the coast as the ride opened up to the Atlantic en route. After enjoying this most pleasant and scenic train ride, we hopped off at the station and found ourselves in the middle of a quaint, historic town.

We hesitantly wore bathing suits that morning, since we weren’t completely sure if there would be a need for them. We were completely overjoyed when about ten steps from the train station, we came to an outdoor restaurant perched atop a cliff which provided a great view of the ocean. Steps led down the side of the cliff, and just below the restaurant, sunbathers were climbing down to enjoy the sandy beach on this beautiful day. We ate a small breakfast at the restaurant and then joined the sunbathers for the next few hours. It was glorious. The water and parts of the beach were dotted with rock formations like nothing I’d ever seen before. Randi took pictures as I jumped from rock to rock, awkwardly dancing around and trying to balance on them.

A few hours later, we tried to make our way over to the famous Boca d’inferno, or “Mouth of Hell,” where apparently the waves of the Atlantic crash so hard onto the rocky shore, the top of a cavern was completely blown off. We try to ask people how to get there, and we receive several recommendations – bus, train, walk, cab. We eventually go with the bus, but then find ourselves being taken on a journey which is clearly in the opposite direction of where we want to go, as we pass the signs to the Boca d’inferno and our bus drives away from them.

We get off at a random stop and try to use the road signs to walk to the Boca d’inferno. We find ourselves on some sort of path clearly not meant for pedestrians, but we have a feeling we’re close. We can see the ocean ahead of us so we assume we’ll be okay as we get closer to the ocean. Finally, we find it. Unfortunately, today is a beautiful day with hardly any wind, so the waves are not as scary as usual. We still enjoy the scenery and walk around this new area, soaking up the beauty of this landscape before we have to head back to Lisbon.

Sintra, where Fairytales Come True

We eat breakfast at an outdoor café – it’s the first normal breakfast I’ve had since we arrived. Ham and egg on a baguette for me, and Randi orders bacon and eggs with a “double coffee,” which means there are probably about eight shots of espresso in it. We board a train to Sintra from Rossio Station, a beautiful old train station in the middle of Rossio Square.

Sintra is even more magical than we imagined. A quaint little town built on a hill; we spend our morning exploring the grounds of the Quinta de Regaleira, a large garden that once belonged to a wealthy family. Deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site, wandering around this garden is basically a game of “what beautiful amazing hidden thing will you find next?” From a seemingly secret lily pond with a stone bridge hanging above it, to a multitude of stone castle-like towers and dark, inviting caves, Randi and I once again find ourselves in a real life fairy tale, running around and exploring the grounds to see what we’ll discover next. We come across a secret door made of stone – it looked just like another rock structure in the garden – but when pushed open, reveals a steep, old well.

The initiation well is a masonry well supposedly inspired by the Knights of Templar. I heard something about being reborn when you climb all the way down the well and then back up, but I can’t seem to find anything about that here on the internet, so I’m not sure how accurate that is. But I like to think we went through some kind of symbolic rejuvenation while climbing down the steep, dark steps with water dripping on us. It was completely surreal. I don’t know if we were reborn, but reaching the bottom of this structure and looking up at the circular opening so high above us that allowed just a bit of sunlight to creep down and illuminate the small space we were in felt like some kind of spiritual experience.

We continued exploring this place, climbing up magical castles and looking out at the lush gardens around us. We even retraced our steps on the way back so we could experience every part of it one more time. We ended up spending about three hours at the Quinta de Regaleira, which is pretty ridiculous when on vacation and trying to cram lots of sightseeing into a short amount of time. But it was well worth it – this place will be etched in our memories forever, and will be my absolute must see recommendation for anyone planning a trip to Portugal.

Eventually, we’re able to part with our new favorite place in the world, so we head back to town to get some lunch.  Randi read about a Portugese/French restaurant in a guidebook, so we make our way around the narrow cobblestone pathways until we find it.  This restaurant, Tacho Real, had the best salmon I’ve ever eaten – melty, super fresh and delicious.  Randi’s stuffed crab was pretty good, too – I now understand why guidebooks exist and why people buy them.

After lunch, we did a bit of shopping, and then made our way up to the Pena Palace, which sits atop the hill overlooking the entire village of Sintra. Yet another gorgeous place for us to explore while feeling like we’ve entered a magnificent fairy tale, the royal family once lived here. I particularly admired Portugal’s queen Amelia, whose glorious bedroom opened up to the “Queen’s Balcony,” which overlooks not just the entire castle, but all of Sintra and beyond.

Sintra was like a five-star, fifteen course decadent meal for the eyes.