Mama Mia!

By Jeanne Reynolds

Abba fans, sit back down — this isn’t about their song or the movie (and now a sequel) by the same name. But it does sum up my recent trip to Italy.

You know what it’s like when you look forward to something so much for so long, it can’t possibly live up to your expectations?

This trip was nothing like that. It. Was. Amazing.Tuscan countryside

What did I like best: the scenery, the art and architecture, the mind-warping antiquity, the food, the wine?

Yes.

A quick overview of our itinerary: Direct flight from Charlotte to Rome, 3 nights there including a private day-long tour with a guide, drive to Tuscany for 4 nights in Siena, drive to Sorrento for 2 nights there, and finally back to Rome for our flight back the next day.

We didn’t come close to seeing it all, but we saw a lot: the Vatican, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica and Square, Colosseum, Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, catacombs. And that was just in Rome. In and around Siena we climbed winding staircases up towers (400 steps in one case), marveled at museums full of priceless treasures, visited towering cathedrals and walked ancient medieval streets. Near Sorrento, we traveled up and down an impossibly narrow cliffside road with hair-raising turns, and then in a chairlift to the top of the Isle of Capri (yes, while wearing capri pants!). On the way back to Rome we visited Pompeii near the foot of Mt. Vesuvius and were overcome with wonder and sadness at a lost civilization.

Ignoring well-meaning advice from family members, we didn’t even consider a prepackaged, city-a-day group bus tour. That kind of trip has some advantages, but it wasn’t the experience I craved for my Italian adventure. Instead we stayed in very small bed-and-breakfasts I found online (I highly recommend Booking.com) and found our own way around using maps, GPS, phone apps and helpful locals. A couple of our accommodations were wonderful, one was mostly convenient, but all were clean, affordable and safe.

When we wanted to eat — and did we ever! — we asked our B&B hosts for First pizzarecommendations or just walked until something looked good. The results ranged from good to extraordinary, usually accompanied by the local house wine (or vino della casa, as we like to say). We tried wood-fired pizza with a thin, crisp crust, fried artichokes, Tuscan-style steak with rosemary and olive oil, grilled squid, crusty bread and of course, pasta. It’s hard to describe what was so wonderful about it, but fresh, local ingredients using old family recipes and al fresco dining are hard to beat. And the gelato … one of us had it every day (sometimes twice). It’s that good. And no, sadly no, nothing in the grocery store freezer case can possibly replicate it.

And guess what? Neither of us gained an ounce. Because first, the meals impress with flavor rather than size, and second, we walked an average of 5 miles a day, up and down hills and stairs. (Remember that tower? 400 steps up means 400 down, too.)

Of course, wonderful doesn’t necessarily mean perfect. Trying to figure out when we could park where in Siena without a ticket or a tow was challenging, and let’s just say Americans have a different standard when it comes to public bathroom facilities. And despite the GPS, maps and road signs, we frequently got turned around trying to find our destinations.

So, now that I’m a wily veteran of la dolce vita (that’s a joke, of course — we could go to Italy every year for the next decade and not experience all its wonders), here’s some advice:

Go.

Yep, that’s it. I was going to include a 7-point list of tips about protecting your passport and cash from pickpockets, how to tell if the gelato is homemade and which shop in Anacapri is best for handmade Italian leather shoes (surprisingly affordable, by the way). But there are dozens of guidebooks that can tell you that and a whole lot more.

And really, this isn’t about Italy. It’s about finding a way to visit the places and do the things you dream of. Life is too short not to.

That’s the advice I hope I remember myself.

 

 

Eating Clean and Healthy on the Road

By: Mary Pat Baldauf

Did I mention that I was in USA Today?  I struck up a Twitter conversation with their travel writer, and the next thing I know, I’m in the article. Pretty cool, huh? Anyway, I’ve been meaning to write a post on eating on the road, and now seem about as good a time as ever to do just that…

In my job, I’m fortunate enough to travel to some pretty neat places for sustainability training: Kansas City, MO.; Madison, WI; and Washington, DC, just to name a few. BEFORE my lifestyle change, I always enjoyed eating at local restaurants to get a flavor for the locale, but now that I’m a clean eater, it isn’t as easy.

In general, restaurant dining isn’t easy. Even when you pick something from the menu that you THINK would be pretty basic, there are some sneaky additions that throw you off.  If you read this blog, you probably know that most chicken in any grilled chicken salad is chock full of sodium and that something as simple as a lean steak is often topped with butter.

I will give a shout out to Kansas City’s Blue Bird Bistro, a delicious all-natural restaurant, as well as my sustainability cohorts, Keith and Julia, who pulled out their adventure fork to accompany me there during our last trip. Their menu featured great options for even the cleanest of eaters, and it was a really nice experience to boot.

Conference food also leaves a lot to be desired.  Many of the meals are working meals, featuring boxed lunches with processed meats, chips and, if you’re lucky, maybe an apple.

My nutrition counselor, Traci, taught me early on to take responsibility for myself and not to rely on anyone else to get it right, and that was wonderful advice. When I’m in a new dining situation, I always check out the menu beforehand, eat before I go and/or bring my own food so I’ll know there is a clean and healthy option. It may sometimes look a little weird to bring a lunch bag of goodies, but it looks a lot less weird when I slip into a size eight skirt. (Like I did today!)

With the many carry-on baggage restrictions, it’s pretty hard to bring too much food aboard, so I’ve learned to shop local markets upon my arrival. The past year, I’ve even discovered local markets that offer online shopping and delivery, which allows me to place the order before my trip and have it delivered within hours of my arrival.

Here is a list of the standard foods I like to have on hand in my hotel room:

  • Whole wheat bread
  • Peanut butter
  • Fruits like bananas, raisins, grapes – things that don’t HAVE to be refrigerated and are fairly portable
  • Salad veggies such as Bibb lettuce, cherry tomatoes, shredded carrots (If the hotel has a mini-fridge)
  • Nuts
  • Light soy milk (again, depending on a mini-fridge)
  • Instant oatmeal (can have for breakfast or dinner)

I’ve also learned to pack the following:

  • Paring knife (checked baggage only!)
  • Measuring cup (my favorite is a silicone cup with assorted measures)
  • Ziploc or reusable bags (for sandwiches and snacks)
  • Lidded plastic containers (for salads)
  • A set of utensils (I like a real set, not plastic)
  • Sweeteners (Equal and Sweet n Low are still vices!)
  • Travel water containers (one for water, one for soy milk)
  • Insulated lunch bag
  • Cloth napkins (not necessary, but a nice touch)

And finally, here are a few tips:

  • Don’t be shy about bringing your own food. It used to feel weird, but people are actually usually jealous that my food is better than what they’re being served.
  • Dress it up! I bring a couple cute cloth napkins and reusable sandwich bags. It makes it more fun.
  • Check out facilities beforehand. Is there a mini fridge? A microwave? Is there a local market that will deliver? The hotel staff is always very helpful.
  • Check with conference staff beforehand. Given enough time, you can usually get a vegetarian or vegan option. Be careful, though. I once got a “vegetarian” plate that included a whopping helping of French fries.
  • When purchasing food, keep your receipts. I think I was the first person who turned in a Whole Foods receipt in my travel reimbursement, but the APWA was happy to pay for it as they would regular meals. In fact, I spent less on groceries for three days than some people did for a single dinner.
  • Be prepared. There MAY be something you can eat, and if so, you can always save your lunch and/or snacks. But better to be safe than sorry.
  • If dining out is part of the program and/or you just don’t want to miss out, go to the restaurant’s website beforehand and check out the best options. You can even do that on your smart phone. Also, don’t hesitate to ask for substitutions, special preparations (grilled vs. fried) and/or ingredient lists.

What tips do you have for eating on the road?  Any special restaurants or markets to recommend?  Is there a hotel, facility and/or meeting planner that has been especially accommodating?