Italy Vacay, In Pictures – Part II

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In my last post I gave an overview of our summer travel in Italy — the where, if you will — but what, exactly, did we do while there?

Well, first off, marathon training on vacation — let alone finding running routes in tiny towns with some crazy elevation changes – certainly proved interesting.

But I love checking out new places on foot, and Hubby was game to tackle some hills so we could enjoy the views (the shots above and below are from Taormina in Sicily).

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And as much as we love relaxing during a good pool or beach day (believe me, we had a few of those), we also like to “adventure” around. That’s how we ended up at the crater of Mount Etna, an active volcano.

Hubby’s the figure up top, leaning his full weight into the high winds; I ventured about two-thirds of the way up before turning back around so I wouldn’t get blown off the side of the mountain.

I’m all for getting a good rush, but sometimes you just have to know your limits!

photo 3 (2)Luckily, not all of our days were as adrenaline-filled; one of our favorite parts of the trip was grabbing a cappuccino and either people-watching or scoping out the scenery — or both — like when we stopped at this cafe near a swanky hotel in Ravello.

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And you can’t help but want to take in some of the culture when traveling in Europe. We’d heard rave reviews of the art in Florence, so one of the high points of our day trip there was the Galleria dell’Accademia and its sculptures.

One of the not-so-high points? The wait to get in to see David, which was about three hours for the ticket line, plus another hour and a half for the actual entry from there.

Here’s a helpful hint: Cut that time in half by paying a little more for surplus tickets from tour companies (shhh!).

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Speaking of buying…Italy’s small towns have some of the most wonderful shops.

This linen store had every pattern and color imaginable, and the store owner was all too happy to show us the goods (Hubby also made a friend).

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But the absolute best part of traveling in Italy?

You guessed it — the food.

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With our daily morning cappuccinos, I discovered a new obsession: sfogliatelle. They’re light, flaky, crispy ricotta-filled pastries that look like seashells (see in the background below).

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The pizzas are out-of-this-world with a thin, chewy crust and the most delicately-seasoned sauces. I like to keep it simple with basil, mozzarella and a drizzle of olive oil.

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One thing we weren’t expecting was the stellar seafood; I guess we take it for granted coming from the Bay Area, but this stuff was fresh.

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So fresh, for example, that this little lobster was walking around the seafood display case next to me before he was plucked out and cooked to order in Taormina.

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All the produce was super flavorful, too. In Italy, they don’t serve something unless it’s in peak ripeness, so you’ve got to try pretty hard to get a bad meal there.

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And that whole farm-to-table movement? Well, you can’t get much more local than in Tuscany.

One night, for example, the owners of the villa made us dinner, which began with bread that was baked in a stone oven and seasoned with rosemary growing on the grounds.

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Or this awesome meat-and-cheese spread from 13 Gobbi in Montefollonico where we sampled homemade mozzarella and a duo of prosciuttos, one of which was wild boar from the area.

A tip: If you go there, also order the pecorino pasta. Words don’t do it justice, so just watch this video of the owner working his magic to see what it’s all about.

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And as long as I’m on the subject of cheese, I can’t forget the lovely house-made burrata at La Porta, one of our favorite spots to frequent while in Monticchiello.

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But this dish from our day trip to Pienza featured one of my favorite things in the entire world: TRUFFLES!

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We capped off the trip with an experience that merged art and food at La Pergola, Rome’s only Michelin three-star restaurant.

From the atmosphere of the room to the table settings, from the service to the plating…it was a bucket-list kind of meal.

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And last, but certainly not least, was our gelato mission, which ended in a final tally of 15. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.

As a result, we’ve got some great memories (and a few extra pounds!) to carry us until the next trip.

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In the meantime, I’m on the hunt for some authentic Italian delicacies in Portland…so if anyone’s got suggestions, I’m all ears!

Italy Vacay, In Pictures – Part I

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If you’ve been following along on Instagram, you may have seen some of the shots I posted from our recent Italy trip with Hubby’s family.

But I got a lot of questions about where we went and what we did, so I thought it’d be fun to do a little visual recap here on the blog!

Our first stop was Ischia, which Hubby and I hit solo because it was recommended by some friends of ours. It’s billed as a locals’ getaway, which means it’s just as beautiful as nearby Capri, but much less crowded.

Although it took — literally — planes, taxis (yes, plural) and a water taxi to get there, it was well worth it.

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We stayed at a family-owned resort called Giardino Eden, and since it was early in the week, we had most of it to ourselves for sunbathing, swimming in the Tyrrhenian Sea and chowing down on all the amazing, fresh local fish.

And although we didn’t get a chance to hit up any of Ischia’s famous thermal pools, we did take a day to scooter around the entire island to scope things out. Then it was back to the hotel to nap some more in the sun.

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Well-rested and adjusted to the time change, we headed to stop no. two, which took us south to a city called Taormina in Sicily. We hopped on an EasyJet for the short flight from Naples to Catania, and settled in at the Hotel Villa Diadoro.

The shot below is the view from our balcony, which overlooked Mount Etna (still active and steaming!), as well as the bay of Naxos. We did a little adventuring around this area, which I’ll share more of in my next post!

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From Sicily, we flew back to Naples and headed over toward the Amalfi Coast to Positano, which we had briefly visited while staying in Sorrento during our last trip.

This leg we decided to wing a bit, however, so we didn’t book our hotel — the Conca d’Oro — until the day before. It turned out to be a great spot, but they don’t call it the “Vertical City” for nothin’; it was 107 steps from from the street to the hotel lobby!

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It was another 578-ish (we lost count) steps down to the local beach, where we hung out during one of our days there. And there may or may not have been some good shopping done along the way… :)

We hit our fill of tourists pretty quickly, though, especially since it was high-season and the streets are pretty small, so the next day we decided to escape up the Amalfi Coast via scooter to Ravello, which had one of the most incredible views I’ve ever seen.

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For stop no. four, we headed to Tuscany to meet up with Hubby’s family at a villa they had rented for the week.

We’d all been to this area before together and fell in love with it, so this time we wanted to kick back, relax, explore the tiny hilltop towns and fill up on all that amazing food (and wine!) for which they’re famous.

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One of our day trips, for example, took us to Pienza, which is a village that was rebuilt by Pope Pius II into an ideal Renaissance town — intended as a retreat from Rome and representative of the first application of urban planning.

My sister-in-law and her hubby led the way as we poked around the little shops down each alley and took in the sights.

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The closest town to us, however, was tiny Monticchiello, a pretty little medieval village in the heart of the Val d’Orcia.

There’s a restaurant there called Osteria La Porta that Hubby’s family has been going to for years — and we again frequented it on this trip in the mornings for cappuccino, between jaunts for gelato and one evening for a fantastic dinner.

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Our villa itself was a remodeled 18th-century farmhouse, but the property also housed a vineyard, olive grove and several other buildings, including an old 16th-century church and rectory tucked in back of everything.

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One item on our to-do list was a day trip to Florence while in Tuscany because we weren’t able to hit it last time. But after checking two sights off  list – Michelangelo’s David, as well as the Florence Cathedral – we had enough of the crowds.

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Before we knew it, our fifth and final stop had arrived: Rome!

Last time we hit all the major highlights, so this was a quick two-night layover before our flight home.

On the schedule? One final Italian feast at Heinz Beck’s LaPergola with Hubby and his parents, which turned out to be one of the only times I’ve been so full I haven’t been able to polish off the last of my dessert.

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There was one more person we had to see, though, before we could consider our trip complete: Pope Francis.

He happened to be in town and was scheduled for his usual Sunday blessing in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican; although it was difficult to see him (upper window, second from right) and tough to understand (all in Italian), it was still a special experience for Hubby, his mom and me to share.

photo 1 (7)Those are the highlights in a nutshell, but stay tuned for my next post, which will cover more of our excursions — and eats — while overseas!

Detroit Marathon: Week 5 training recap

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Well, fresh off our travels — literally, we landed late Sunday night — Hubby and I packed up and hit the road again.

The only difference? This time it wasn’t a trip, it was a move.

When Hubby decided to go back to school three years ago, we felt like this day might never come. But now that he’s graduated and it’s here, it’s bittersweet.

And as excited as we are for this next adventure, it’s always hard saying goodbye — especially when you’ve made great friends in a state that you’ve called “home” for the last decade.

It’ll be a few more weeks until we get settled up in Portland, so amid the chaos, thank goodness for the constant of marathon training!

Here’s what was on deck for the week.

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Since this week marks the end of the mileage-building cycle, I’ve started to buckle down and shift my focus from merely completing runs (consistency) to keeping a closer eye on pacing (quality).

Depending on the distance, a comfortable pace has been averaging around 8:30-8:40 for these, but I know that’ll change as the runs increase in duration and frequency.

Another change this week? I’m slowly adding cross training back into the mix, in the form of yoga and weight lifting. And I’m itching to do some swimming and biking once my schedule calms down, too.

But starting next week, I’ll be doing more speed-based workouts, so you can expect more detailed descriptions of each run and how I’m feeling as the program progresses.

But for now, I’m just trying to get into some semblance of a routine during this transition period…and fortunately this scenery helps!

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Thanks, as always, for following along…and stay tuned for week six!

Beer lovers: Five reasons to drink to your health

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Hubby and I may not officially be Portland residents just yet, but that hasn’t stopped me from looking up a few fun facts about our soon-to-be new town.

Like, for example, did you know that PDX is home to more breweries (50+) than any other city on Earth?

And it just so happens that, according to some more of my “research,” downing a cold one could be the ideal recovery drink for all this marathon training I’m doing.

Yep, long considered an indulgence of the inactive, beer actually offer serious health benefits for athletes.

Not only is it an excellent hydrator (93 percent water), but it also has one of the highest energy contents of any drink, not to mention a bunch of natural antioxidants and vitamins.

But if that’s not reason enough to imbibe (in moderation, of course), you can raise a glass and toast to these five health benefits:

Source: Dayton City Paper

Source: Dayton City Paper

1. Sturdy Skeleton: Beers rich in silicon, such as pale ale, have been linked to the stimulation of bone-building cells. A 2009 study at Tufts University also found that men and women who downed a drink or two daily had higher bone mineral density.

2. Happy heart: Alcohol increases the levels of “good” (HDL) cholesterol and reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke by helping to prevent blood clots and hardening of the arteries. What’s more, Harvard reports show that moderate drinking cuts this risk of cardiovascular disease by as much as 25 to 40 percent.

3. Clean kidneys: A Finnish study found a correlation between beer drinking and a reduction in the risk of developing kidney stones – by as much as 40 percent. Its high water content helps prevent dehydration, plus the hops may limit the leeching of calcium from bones, both of which contribute to stones.

4. Boost brainpower: Moderate drinkers (those who consume one drink per day) may also count a sound mind among the benefits of their regular beer consumption. A 2005 New England Journal of Medicine study showed that, compared to non-drinkers, this group not only lowered their risk of mental decline by as much as 20 percent, but also scored better on mental skills tests.

5. Curtail Cancer: Much like grapes, hops also contain antioxidants, which are substances that protect cells from the damage caused by unstable molecules known as free radicals. Plus, a certain compound found in hops (xanthohumol) is thought to inhibit some of the enzymes that can trigger cancer, and it may even go as far as to help the body break down harmful carcinogens.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it looks like I have a little more, er, “lifting” to add to my weekly training routine…

Recipe: My very favorite salad dressing

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Sometimes the best recipes come out of necessity.

Case in point: When you buy all the fixings for a beautiful salad, but forget the main ingredient that ties them all together.

The solution? Grab three basic ingredients, which are probably already in your pantry, and whip up this simple, delicious dressing.

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Experiment by adding garlic, spices or fancy mustards if you want to expand the flavor.

Or use it as a marinade for chicken or veggies next time you’re stumped for a new spin on the same old weeknight meals.

KineticFix’s Mustard Balsamic Vinaigrette

Ingredients: 

  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 2-4 tablespoons of your favorite mustard

Directions: 

  1. Measure out olive oil and vinegar, adding both to a medium-sized bowl.
  2. Whisk in mustard slowly, using a fork to incorporate into oil and vinegar.
  3. Add as much as you prefer, tasting as you go (I usually stop when the dressing begins to thicken and emulsify — i.e. there’ s no more oil floating around).
  4. Drizzle over your favorite salad, and enjoy immediately!

Here’s how it looks before you add the mustard — the oil and vinegar will separate in the bowl.

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And after you whisk in the mustard, it should thicken up and take on a more even consistency.

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Have you stumbled upon a great recipe when having to improvise?

Body After Baby: Tried-and-true tips for new moms

Photo courtesy of BeyondFitPhysiques.com

Photo courtesy of BeyondFitPhysiques.com

After catching up with ultra-mama Sarah Evans a few weeks ago, I thought it’d be fun today to revisit some of the great advice from a few of my other “mom friends” about reclaiming their pre-baby bodies.

We’re not talking about fitting into some kind of Barbie doll-sized skinny jeans, though; we’re talking about getting your groove back — feeling good inside and out, finding a new routine and establishing healthy habits for the whole family.

That’s why I love the sentiment in the photo above, and it’s also why I find people like Sarah and the other moms I interviewed so inspiring.

I still don’t know how they find the time — or the energy — but I admire their creativity and determination for maintaining a fitness routine despite a new (and pretty darn demanding) member in the household.

And speaking of “homes,” Hubby and I are making our way north to our new one this week… More on that in this week’s marathon training recap!

Moms, how did you get back into your fitness groove post-baby?

Detroit Marathon: Week 4 training recap

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Greetings from beautiful Virginia!

Even though Hubby and I made a quick pit stop on our way back to the West Coast, we’ve been ramping back up to “real” life — which means returning to work and training this week with a renewed focus and a fresh perspective.

Thankfully, though, week four of the plan is still a mileage-building phase. So here’s a look at how I’m wrapping up the first month of training.

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Although we’ve been able to stick to a good schedule while on the road, I am starting to notice some loss of strength and flexibility from my usual cross-training routine.

Frankly, I’m a little antsy to get back at it, but it’s good to take a break every now and then. Especially when it includes another change of running scenery to explore.

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Running has not only been a convenient way to work out while traveling, but it’s also been an excellent way to get to know all the towns we’ve visited these past few weeks (photo recap to come!).

And, let’s face it: Having a training plan all mapped out ahead of time can be a saving grace on those days when both your mind and body are in vacation mode and motivation is waning.

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Physically, though, I’ve been dragging a bit this week due to jet lag, a migraine and a nagging case of plantar fasciitis, so my goal was mainly just to get the miles logged safely and uneventfully.

Oh, and there was also a little bit of sleep deprivation after visiting a neighbor’s (haunted) house one evening to hear a handful of local ghost stories. But so worth it!

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My favorite part of running here? The fact that, more often than not, we can set off down the road and back and not see a single car or human for miles.

My least favorite part? Some of the critters who share the road with us — namely this Virginia Timber Rattlesnake we spotted from the car mid-week. Needless to say, I’ll be watching my step very carefully from here on out!

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Stay tuned for week five as I head back to the West Coast and start the second month of training — where the more challenging parts of the Hansons’ training plan start kicking in…