Unlike myself, my budding teenage son is not the spontaneous type. So, when I announced we were going on a trip over his winter break, he was skeptical. My itinerary was vague at best: land in Paris for New Year’s, stay with some guy named Frank, and return from Madrid (roughly) four weeks later. Somewhere in the middle “we’d see what happened.” His response: Really? Yes. Mon dieu…

I’d recommend travel in winter. Empty of tourists and full of rebajas (sales), the holidays brought out the festive lights, outdoor ice skating and open air stalls with nativity scenes and delicious food. We delighted in fromage avec jambon (ham and cheese) sandwiches and hot chocolat, and I loved the vin chaud (hot wine). And crepes! My son’s favorite was Nutella, while mine was beurre sucre (butter and sugar). We ate so many we were sick, but indulgence in France was the way, n’est-ce pas?

Paris was magical! New Year’s Eve, we bought hats from a street vendor and went to Versailles. With my son in his Paris skullcap and mama in my fuzzy white Russian clown hat, we looked hilarious dancing down the Hall of Mirrors. We went to Musee D’Orsay, ice skated in front of the Hotel D’ville, and walked to the Pompidou. As the sun set, we climbed the steps to watch fireworks from Sacre Coeur. What a breathtaking sight over the city of lights, and with people dancing and singing, it was a perfect way to ring in the New Year.

In the French Quarter, we bought a card game Conquistador! that would become our staple pastime on trains, ferries, and petit taxis in Morocco. Frank, our host, was a hoot, and translated the rules for us. In the game, as a 16th century Spanish, Portuguese, or French conqueror, you gather territories, and as we played, we’d look out the windows of the train, take in the changing scenery, and couldn’t help but feel we were conquerors, gathering the riches of a New World.

We took the TGV, the fast train from Paris to Marseilles, and woke up with a whole different vibe than Paris: maritime. We watched the ships come into the port and fishermen scaling their catches of the day. We took a ferry trip to Chateau D’if where the Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned. It was eerie there, and all we could think of was how hard it must have been as a prisoner to look just across the water to freedom. For my son, we checked out the world-famous Marseilles Skateboard Park, which was icy, dangerous even for the most seasoned of skaters.

To my delight, after a few weeks, my son relaxed and picked up my spontaneity. He was a conquistador! He saw that our train went on to Ventimiglia, Italy, and said, “Let’s push on to Italy!” We stopped in for some gelato, (Italian ice cream). Then, I suggested we check out Monaco. We went to the Ferrari shop, and marveled at the lights on the rich yachts. This kind of traveling was getting exciting!

Tres Reines, Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, took over Barcelona. The Three Kings paraded down the Ramblas in winged chariots, throwing out treats in the streets. I loved the Gaudi architecture, the church/construction site Sagrada Familia (a must-climb to the top!), and the sharks at the aquarium.

My son’s 11th birthday was unique, one we’ll never forget. After a day trip to Madrid to see the Dali paintings at the Prado museum, we arrived back in Toledo to have dessert. Being a small town, nothing was open after nine. Well, nothing, except of all places, McDonald’s which was packed with teenagers. I ordered him a McFlurry (only slightly different with chunks of M & M’s instead of blended) and I got the entire place of Spanish teens to sing Los Cumpleanos to him!

As we moved further south through Spain, we could see the Moorish, Spanish, Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish culture all mixed together and overlapping, like in Cordoba at the Mezquita where King Ferdinand had built a Catholic church inside what had been a mosque and once a Jewish temple.

From Granada, we took a 22-hour bus ride/ferry to Marrakesh, Morocco. We were in Africa! We saw snake charmers, monkeys, and the food court with the rich steamy fish. And the oranges – the best in the world! Our hotel was so cold (Moroccans don’t believe in heat – bad for circulation), so we piled on as many blankets as we could. The medina (middle of town) was like a labyrinth, left intact by the French colonials. With no street signs, we marked our way through the souks by what was being sold (turn left at the shoes, then right at the brass, etc.) One day we were looking for a famous madrassa, an Islamic primary school from the 1300, and got lured into tanneries, a famous scheme to sell carpets to tourists. Beware! The tanneries were just a couple of goats and vats of dyes. A guy gave my son a “present” of a bull’s head – a distinct gift of friendship, apparently. My mom didn’t want to break my heart or seem rude, so yes, we packed it in the bag. Everywhere there were men in hooded cloaks, called Djelleba. We commented that they looked like Jawa from Star Wars. (We found out later that George Lucas had gotten Jawa from these cloaks).

In Gibraltar, a British territory right by Spain, we changed our money again – this time to the British pound. The concept of a big Rock doesn’t seem like much, but when you get to the top, the view was powerful. You could see Morocco and Spain – two countries while standing on a third, Britain. In midst of my reverie, I heard a squeal. Baboons – they were grabbing at people’s food bags and shrieking!

We loved all the adventure, getting on a train and ending up in a different country with new sights, smells, and languages. Conquistador, indeed! The trip inspired my son to learn Spanish and French, and embrace the unexpected. One last souvenir I’d forgotten in my bag when I got home: the bull’s head! Lucky us, we weren’t stopped at customs.