By Nneka M. Okona
After deplaning, lugging my carryon suitcase behind me through the airport, journeying to the city center via the Metro and getting settled in my accommodations, there’s one place I always have to go to officially start any trip in Madrid: La Mallorquina.
It’s a pastry shop, but not just any one. It’s considered an institution in Madrid that has been open since 1894. You can find La Mallorquina in the city center of Sol, paces away from the central square Plaza Mayor, packed with tourists and Madrileños alike.
I come here because it’s equally nostalgic as it is comforting. My order is always the same: tarta de fresa — strawberry cake with thin whipped layers of cream. I wedge myself in between people gathered, shout my order as loud as I can and ask for it to go, delicately tossing it in my tote bag dangling on my shoulder.
In the fall of 2013, I moved to Madrid in search of an adventure but mostly in search of myself. Not too far from 30, I was determined to tap into the woman I was and make a solid reclamation of how I would stand in the world on my own two feet. It so happened that Europe was a great place to do that — and a great stomping ground to continue to do the solo traveling that has made a lot of who I am today.
Europe is especially ideal for women who want to travel solo for a number of reasons. It can be affordable when you plan it right, it’s easy to travel within and between cities, and Wi-Fi is accessible everywhere from a quiet café to a city bus.
After Madrid, my next solo venture was Paris. I’d long dreamed of gazing at the Eiffel Tower and biting into buttery, flaky croissants. Not only did I accomplish those two simple goals, but I also opted for a cooking class at La Cuisine Paris. In the class, I learned how much work really went into the coveted croissants and realized I was better off continuing to buy them from a good patisserie.
While in Milan, the Duomo Cathedral and the surrounding square dotted with restaurants, shops and bars stole my breath away. As I stood entranced, I hastily decided to treat myself to an expensive lunch. Feasting on spaghetti Bolognese with a glass of prosecco, I knew this was the life — one filled with spur-of-the-moment experiences and indulgences — I wanted to live henceforth.
I am asked often about solo travel as a single, child-free woman. Many want to know if loneliness and boredom plague me. The very first time I traveled to Spain, a year before I decided to move there, I did experience it. I was in a new land grandly unfamiliar to me. How I balanced those fleeting moments was connecting with friends and family back home along with pushing myself to get out and soak up glasses of wine for a few euros and wedges of tortilla española.
There are certain gifts that keep giving. Traveling solo for me has been just that. A full eight years past when I first embarked on my first solo travel adventure, I’m still seeing the world with only my company. Going solo has emboldened me to embrace a life of working for myself and centering on the travel I love.
Time and time again, I come back to La Mallorquina. I think about the first time I had the pleasure of stumbling into that busy, buzzing pastry shop months into living abroad. And it is not lost on me that it holds such a fond memory of choosing myself and how I continue to do that with each trip I take.
Based in Atlanta when she’s not exploring the world, Nneka M. Okona writes about travel, food and culture for publications such as National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler and The Washington Post.
Solo But Never Alone
Get the most out of your travels when you join a guided group of like-minded travelers:
• Small-group journeys are a perfect way to enjoy the company of others without being overwhelmed.
• You’ll find a balance of time together and freedom to explore on your own.
• Gather local tips on where to go from your expert tour director.
We’re here to help! Find our handpicked vacations when you enter OFFER M20502 on our website.
Cover Photo: © Can Stock Photo / CITAlliance