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How to Eat Well, Save Money and Get In Shape as You Enjoy Eur First Trip to Europe

Your vacation can be one of the best ways to start a healthy, tasty diet

Revised January 28, 2008

As an American, I have always enjoyed access to fresh produce and anything I desired by just jumping in the car and wandering the aisles of my local supermarket. As we planned for our trip, we knew we would be on a budget and thought that we'd be living on bread and water trying to stretch our travel dollars. But after a few weeks in France, we realized that it was easy to eat well, dine on beautifully ripe fruits, vegetables, pates and exotic cheeses while getting into shape and losing weight. Even as the value of the dollar drops, if you judiciously shop for the breakfast and lunch, you'll be able to eat at reasonable prices.

There are two simple ways to lose weight while you travel. The first is almost automatic if you are an independent traveler....you will walk off lots of calories, climbing towers, wandering through cathedrals and strolling piazzas. On an average day we walked four or five miles; in Paris we often walked more. We soon could see the weight loss in the way our clothes fit. The second way to lose weight is also relatively simple: don't buy snack foods--if they aren't in your hotel room or at your campground, they won't tempt you; then, if you succomb to a late night craving, you have to walk off some of the calories to satisfy your urge.

On our first trip, we were exceptionally good about following these guidelines and lost over two pounds each week on a menu that consisted of baguettes filled with meat and cheeses, topped with tomatoes, morning croissants with coffee and occasional visits to the pasterie store for millefleur or tete de choco. The major key was the exercise; walking was not a chore, it was a delightful way to experience the cities and visit remote places in the country. We climbed stairs to the top of the high towers in every city we visited. In Paris, the Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame are excellent workouts that reward you with great views of the city; in Florence, the top of the Duomo gives you an up-close look at the spectacular paintings that decorate the expansive dome and then you climb outside to gaze across the streets where Galileo and Michelangelo strolled; the tower in Rothenberg stretches your muscles on the climb and then puts all of the walled city and the beautiful German countryside right before your eyes. The novelty of your locations encourage you to stretch yourself physically and help you walk off pounds. If you do it right, you'll end up with room for great food and drink.

The easiest way to find fresh food is stop in local grocery stores. You'll be surprised that you can find great food shopping in many of the department stores in Paris. In other places, grocery stores look much like the ones we use in the U.S., though often the scale is smaller. The stores often have a deli section where you can get prepared sandwiches, salads and entrees which they will warm if you request. For around $5 per person, we could get an entree and a drink. For a bit more we could wash down lunch with a pleasant wine.

You'll be surprised that the basements of major department stores often have great food departments that include delicatessens where you can get sandwiches, salads and snacks. Prices are reasonable and the selection is usually good.

If you are staying for more than a week in affordable hotels, you may want to pick up an electric kettle or coffee pot to prepare morning coffee or tea. Surprisingly, drinks were one of the places where European prices seemed quite high compared to the cost of beverages in the U.S>

You'll enjoy the many items you find in a European store that you've never seen at home and be surprised at how familiar brands have been adjusted for continental tastes and sensibilities. Be sure to look at condiments where you'll find gourmet pickles, vegetables and more mustards than you can imagine. A trip through the wine aisle will surprise you wth the many ways that wine is packaged. And deli and bakery sections hold delightful goodies that are ready for immediate consumption.

The other pleasant way to shop is to visit the farmers' markets that are set up in many of the cities and towns. Even a city as big as Paris has seasonal markets where you can find fresh made cheeses and succulently fresh vegetables. Ask your hotel clerks if they know when they are held and then get out early for the best selection. In smaller towns, the markets are major social events where you'll not only find local delicacies but crafts produced in the region. However not everything will be produced locally. Our friend purchased a cute wooden frog for his daughter thinking it was a handcrafted item only to find a similar frog at a store in the states. If you have a question about its origin, ask the vendor.

Markets are great places to find local cheeses, olives and baked goods. We soon realized that every market had different characteristics. In northern France, you'll see more items made with apples and pears. In Provence, you'll see lots of olives and herbs. You can quickly assemble everything you need for a tasty breakfast or lunch at most markets.....Just be careful....there are so many sumptuous things that it is easy to "over buy." On the other hand, if you see something you really want, buy it. On our first trip, we saw many things that would have been "perfect" souveniers but didn't want to drag them across Europe. We put off souvenier shopping until Paris where we found satisfactory items, but they weren't quite as "perfect" as things we had seen as we wandered through Provence and Tuscany. The second trip, we bought things as we found them and were much more satisfied with the gifts we had for friends and family.

If you are traveling by car, it's convenient to have a small cooler. But it is hard to find ice in some locations. One night we used frozen vegetables to keep our food cool and then added them to the next day's salad. Many campgrounds make freezers available so you can make your own ice. Fill an empty soda or water bottle with water and they will freeze it overnight for you. Still, it may be hard to find ice. One day, my husband asked a clerk at the fish counter in a super market for a small bag of ice and they generously complied at no charge. All of this should suggest using a small cooler or one that you can plug into the lighter of a car if you are going to drive.

Watch Your Hands

We were pleasantly surprised by the way Europeans treated their fresh fruits and vegetables. In most places, you should not handle fresh produce with your bare hands. If you are shoppping at a market, tell the farmer what you'd like and let the farmer put it in the bag for you. Most farmers will take the time to give you their best produce so it isn't necessary for you to select your own fruits and vegetables. If you are in a grocery store, look around the produce section to find disposable gloves. You only need one for the hand that will touch the fresh produce.

It is also good to remember that while vendors are willing to give you samples, they are usually farmers and small producers with much smaller marketing budgets than Costco. Be polite and only take samples of items you are truly tempted to buy.

Must Tries

In France, make a few stops at pastry stores for incredible flaky treats filled with rich creams. Also, try moules et frites, mussels cooked in a savory broth and served with French fries and dipping sauces. If you are adventurous and like the idea of seasoned liver, try pates....pork and duck are much less expensive than fois gras which is produced by force feeding geese to enlarge their livers.

In Florence, especially if it is hot, granitas. We loved the peach granitas but there were lots of delightful flavors and the cold icy drink was a nice way to finish off the climb to the top of the Duomo.

Anything with black truffles. We bought a delightful pasta sauce with mushroom and truffles and found custom made truffle pasta. Combined with a fresh salad, the pasta and sauce made one of our most delightful meals in Europe. If you are in Italy, take note of all the varieties of pasta. We found truffle pasta at a small pasta store in Assissi and shared it with other guests when we cooked dinner at the bed and breakfast in San Gimiagno.

Tomatoes if you are there in the summer. Our friends who gave us travel advice before our first trip raved about the fresh vegetables in France and Italy. It seemed like an overstatement at the time, we live in farm country where there are farmers' markets and lots of places to buy organic food. But they were right...maybe the food we prepared was seasoned with the joy of travel, but we generally found that the produce we purchased at farmers' markets in the small towns were exceptionally flavorful. The tomatoes were always perfectly ripe; the melons always sweet.

Because we were getting so much exercise, we were able to enjoy cheese with many meals. One of the delights of local markets and grocery stores were the regional varieties of cheeses. Once we realized how many choices there were, we made a habit of trying one local cheese in every new region we entered...the key was small purchases and lots of walking.

Finally, there are so many local wines and beers, that it is hard to take a journey through Europe without washing down meals with something made from grapes or grain. Once again, it's fun to try the local productions keeping in mind that you are expected to make a purchase if you sample wine at a place offering "degustation." If you are on a budget, you might want to determine the cost of the wines before you take a sample. Often they will be quite affordable but not always. If you want to get the local wines or beers at very reasonable prices, do you wine and beer shopping in the grocery store.