A couple of weeks ago, I went on an exceptional Active Weekend Break with Westin Hotels & Resorts, for whom I’m a Wellbeing Movement ambassador. The trip’s destinations were the Italian cities of Milan & Florence and amongst runs, workouts, walks and sightseeing, I savoured some truly epic national cuisine. I’m no stranger to Italy and its awesome interpretation of the mediterranean diet (see my previous visits HERE), but this trip really brought home the love of exceptional food that Italians have. Yes, for me, it’s about eating healthy much of the time, but I understand that brings an associated stress that can taint the joy that comes from ‘the delicious’! This post is a little insight into what I think a great ‘Active Weekend’ break can look like, as well as some thoughts about enjoying your food, as the Italians seem to do best!
THE ‘CULINARY LEARNING’ PART…
There’s constant talk about what we should and shouldn’t eat, how much how and often; it’s less regular that we talk about how we feel when thinking about food. A bit ambiguous perhaps, but since ‘fitness’ is such a relevant trend right now, I’d hazard a guess that actually thinking about food occupies a lot more head space than we might realise. I’m guilty of overthinking things like everyone else, but from my years of exposure to my Personal Training clients’ difficulties, it would seem that we stress about food choices both healthy OR unhealthy. And the stress in itself is counterproductive! From this perspective, there’s certainly something remarkable to be said about Italian cuisine; regardless of whether or not you’re a pasta lover, the nation’s dedication to highest quality ingredients, to freshness, to flavour, to heritage and to making every meal time an occasion is unique, and I think holds a number of key pillars which we can all learn from…
1) Fresh Produce – Italians stick to home grown produce and eat seasonal foods, keeping it as fresh as possible. I’ve always believed that means that the nutritional content remains optimal, which in turn renders the flavour fuller too.
2) Make your own sauce – Heavy creamy sugary sauces are often laden with calories, and not the nutritious kind. As per the Italian model, opting to make your own using fresh herbs and spices is far more calorie efficient, as well as being infinitely more flavoursome and nutritious in my view! A little balsamic vinegar never goes a miss either!
3) Remove stress – Stress shouldn’t be part of eating. Sitting down at a table (not in front of a laptop or TV), taking time to experience the flavours textures and beauty, and sharing the experience, verbally, with loved ones, is a very fulfilling experience!
4) Too much pasta? Yes, Italians my eat a good deal of pasta but small portions of quality home-made fresh pasta aren’t the end of the world. Plenty of wholegrain / spelt / quinoa varieties exist these days, and are readily available from many health stores, so it’s worth being creative 🙂 A little tip if you’re buying store-bought pasta, look for a rough texture, which most often indicates hand-made craftsmanship, and provides a more sticky surface for your home-made sauces to bind on to!
5) The holy Olive Oil – Extra virgin olive oil is high in good fats like monounsaturated and omega 3 as well as containing a broad array of antioxidants. After encountering the brand in Florence, I found this Laudemio website page a helpful update on the health benefits of the oil! A little drizzle of high quality oil goes a very long way thanks to the deep taste profile!
6) Fish – Italians eat on average 2-3 portions of fish a week. You can see my thoughts on the benefits of this fantastic food HERE from a past trip to another mediterranean gem in France!
7) From Scratch – Making everything from the ground up eliminates any unwanted chemicals, preservatives or other unnecessary additives. It is then ultimately home-made!
8) Fresh veggies – In Italy without realizing it you’re almost always having vegetables with every meal, whether that’s olives, tomatoes or aubergines… there’s seemingly no need to worry about your 5-a-day; they come with every meal, and I LOVE that!
THE ‘ACTIVE WEEKEND BREAK’ PART…
Now that I’ve reeled off my culinary observations from the trip, time to run through what my active weekend actually looked like! In 3 days I covered some fascinating parts of 2 iconic Italian cities at the same time as staying fit! I arrived at the Westin Palace Milan to kick off the long weekend, and immediately stopped into PanEVO, their headlining restaurant for a restorative bite to eat, which featured a selection of seasonal and fresh mediterranean produce…
… Followed by checking in to my room; I’ve written about this before, but the Heavenly Bed affords me a superb nights sleep every time. It’s a serious point of differentiation which enables me to make the most of ‘tomorrow’ after a proper rest!
Following which, the SuperfoodRX breakfast spread provides a much needed refuel!
Next up, we lined up the Westin Secret Gardens tour around Milan, to experience some of the gorgeous and historic green spaces that are slightly off the beaten trail. The weather massively played ball, which helped shed light on just how beautiful this often-overlooked city is; a true gem in the Italian crown 🙂 Walking is a fabulous low-intensity exercise which I discussed in more detail HERE.
The following morning, I was on the first train to Florence! Streaming through the Italian countryside provided an opportunity to catch up on some emails, but then, straight into action again after arriving at the hyper-majestic Westin Excelsior Florence… which is perfectly placed right on the river, and is simply stunning…
… as was my sumptuous room, and the 270 degree city view from the balcony!
A light regionally-inspired tasting lunch at the hotel’s ultra panoramic restaurant, SESTO (Italian for 6th, the floor on which it stands!), which to my mind is heading inextricably for Guide Michelin recognition, under the culinary auspices of super-talented chef Matteo Lorenzini…
Then my afternoon activity was the Westin Personal Food Shopper, a vast walking tour of the city’s gourmet ingredients destinations. This is a service that Westin will arrange, and I can honestly say that it adds a totally awesome new dimension to the process of ‘learning a city’. The local expert who guided us around unearthed a swathe of delicious ingredients, some of which made the return journey to London with me. Especially a generous bottle of Laudemio Extra Virgin olive oil!
The following morning, I ticked off the crucial sightseeing avenues before motoring home to London, content with a weekend of flavour, cultural experiences and activity! To my mind, that’s the very essence of an Active Weekend Break!