Art, Food Markets and Patatas Bravas : Madrid, Spain

This post is LONG overdue… I wrote it back in January with good New Years’ intentions of keeping up with this blog, and here we are – at the end of August already, and I have yet to post about any of our epic trips this year, I can’t believe it. Well, it’s never too late to get started, right? So here we go, I’m getting back at it and (fingers crossed) will keep up with this blog for the rest of the year!

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Instead of flying home to California for Christmas we decided to spend the holidays in Europe so we could take the opportunity to travel and put the money we would have spent on plane tickets to LA towards seeing some new cities and countries we’ve had on our list for awhile. Madrid was the first stop on our travel adventure – we picked Madrid as our starting point because the three of us (Brent, myself, and our friend Cory who flew into town to visit) all had never been before, we could fly direct from Biarritz, and also could fly out of their large airport to many different destinations around Europe.

With only a day and a half to spend in the city, we had to be efficient about seeing as much as we could in such a short time. Brent had done his research (as always) and found a walking map on TripAdvisor to help guide us around the city. He led us to several Christmas markets that were still happening around the city and we walked through the famous plazas, past palaces, down narrow cobblestone streets, and of course we made sure to stop and taste local bites along the way. The city was alive with holiday shoppers and it had such a fun energy.

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If you make it to Madrid, here is my list of must-do’s while you are there :

EAT JAMON IBERICO AT MERCADO DE SAN MIGUEL

The Mercado de San Miguel was my favorite thing we experienced in Madrid. It’s not only a market where you go to buy fresh produce, but also a place you go to sample local food like the famous Jamon Iberico, cheeses, pastries, tapas, beer and wine. The whole market is setup to encourage you to grab a bite and a glass of wine and enjoy it there If you taste something you love you can order more to take home with you, but the way they encourage you to enjoy something on the spot makes it the perfect place to stop for a mid-day snack. We enjoyed a meat cone full of Jamon, some olives and a small sampler cheese platter, with some Ribera Del Duero Reserva, it was perfect.

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HANG OUT WITH GOYA AT MUSEO DEL PRADO

If you enjoy art, this museum cannot be missed. The three of us studied art history in college so it was fun to see so many famous paintings in person, like The Garden of Early Delights by Hieronymus Bosch and Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez. It was busy but didn’t feel too crowded like the Louvre in Paris, the crowds were manageable. We bought our tickets online ahead of time so we were able to bypass the long ticket line to get in – I would definitely recommend doing that if you go. We weren’t supposed to take photos but I snuck a few with my phone anyway… oops.

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EAT PIMENTOS DE PADRON, CROQUETAS, AND PATATAS BRAVAS

While in Spain, these are some of the most delicious treats you have to try, and in Madrid you could find them on every corner. Almost any Spanish bar you pop into will serve them, and they all pair perfectly with a nice cold beer or glass of Rioja. Pimentos de Padron are green peppers grilled in oil and served in a big pile on a plate, topped with the chunky salt so many Spanish dishes are famous for. You can get many flavors of croquetas, but our favorite was the Jamon Croquetas, fried little bites that are filled with a cheesy-potato-like filling. Always a crowd favorite, Patatas Bravas are simple potatoes usually cooked until crispy, topped with a spicy red sauce that can vary quite a lot depending on where you eat them. They’re basically like fancy french fries and they’re delicious. We had a very delicious meal at La Casa Del Abuelo that we would recommend!

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WANDER THE SMALL SIDE STREETS FOR STORE FRONTS & STREET ART

My favorite thing to do in every city I visit is to get off the beaten path and explore all the small side streets. I always love to discover hidden artwork (or sometimes not so hidden) and in Madrid there was so many treasures to be discovered on the little streets. The city had a lot of beautiful store fronts, some that felt very Art Nouveau inspired, lots of great hand painted typography, street art and colorful buildings, little nooks of surprise colorful tiles, balloons draped across the streets. It’s definitely worth exploring.

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EAT CHURROS CON CHOCOLATE FOR BREAKFAST AT CHOCOLAT

If you’re in Spain for breakfast you must try this treat at least once – churros served with a thick cup of hot chocolate for dipping them in. Brent found a cute little spot that seemed really local, named after what it serves best, Chocolat. If it’s busy you may have to wait for a table, but trust me – it’s worth it!

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We really enjoyed our time in Madrid and are already looking forward to the next time we can make it back to this beautiful city, especially for the food! If Madrid isn’t already on your travel bucket it, it should be!

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Christmas Markets, Mulled Wine and Bratwursts : Vienna, Austria

Our trip to Vienna started off with an easy four hour, scenic train ride from Prague. We were pleasantly surprised when the train had free wifi, power outlets at every seat and also very clean bathrooms. About halfway through the journey we enjoyed cider beer and bratwursts from the cafe onboard. Once we arrived at the train station in Vienna we took the metro to the center of town where we checked into our hotel, 25 Hours Hotel. This hotel had been recommended by the authors of the Prague Foodie Map that I mentioned in our previous post – Brent called it the ‘hipster hotel’. I loved this hotel because of the good design, crisp white sheets, the circus mural in our room above our bed, and the photobooth (all ‘hipster’ hotel qualities, I guess). They also provided me with a running map to run my way around the city in the morning (I was still marathon training at this point) as well as had a ‘runners corner’ in the lobby providing free water bottles and towels for runners. I would definitely recommend this hotel if you ever go to Vienna!

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As soon as we checked into the hotel we headed back out again to explore the Christmas markets. It was opening day for several holiday markets around the city, the main reason we decided to visit Vienna this weekend. We started at the Christmas Market at Spittelberg, recommended by the concierge to be a more ‘local’ experience. This market was smaller, spanning three narrow streets lined with vendors selling crafts, mulled wine and local bites. We sampled lots of local food – a bratwurst in a deep fried pastry bun, a potato pancake, raceltte, and also a variety of mulled wine, including hot white wine, hot cherry flavored wine, and mulled wine with fresh ginger slices (my favorite!).

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Next we headed to Christkindlmarkt, the Christmas market for which Vienna is most famous. This market felt especially festive situated below the illuminated Wiener Rathaus, the Neo-Gothic city hall of Vienna. It was packed with opening night crowds, but we still managed to make our way around the vendor stalls to admire the Christmas decorations and enjoy a cheese-stuffed bratwurst with some mulled wine. The market was lined with stall after stall selling anything Christmas related, from ornaments to fuzzy snow bunnies to wooden woodland animals and hand painted glass balls, it was like stepping into a North Pole dream!

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Our second morning in Vienna we woke up to sunshine and freezing temperatures, but I managed to get outside and run a lap around the inner circle of the city (thanks to the route the hotel provided, it was easy to navigate). Afterwards we headed to Café Griensteidl for a local Austrian breakfast. We both ordered the sausage and goulash, which basically ended up being a large hot dog covered in chili – this meal had Brent’s name alllll over it! Meaty and hearty, it warmed us up for a morning of freezing exploring outside. The regal-like decor of the restaurant fit perfectly with the Michaelerplatz square where the restaurant was located.

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We spent the rest of the day wandering and taking in the sites and discovering new little pockets of Christmas markets tucked into squares around the city. My favorite part of town was Michaelerplatz – one of Vienna’s most famous squares. It was filled with market stalls selling ornaments and mulled wine, lined with Chrstimas trees, and bustling with horses and buggy’s waiting for passengers in front of the gorgeous white backdrops of the famous imperial palace and St. Michael’s church. This square is not to be missed if you visit Vienna!

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After a day in the cold we wanted to experience a hearty Austrian meal, so after doing his usual research, Brent led us to Pürstner Restaurant. Inside was dark and cozy and felt like a hunting lodge – taxidermy hanging on the walls, dark wooden booths hand painted with folk art florals. We filled ourselves up with giant Austrian beers, warm soup, and Brent ate an entire rack of ribs while I enjoyed spätzle, a delicious type of noodle common in Austrian and German cuisine. After dinner we made sure to stop at a Christmas market on the way back to our hotel to enjoy a night cap glass of mulled wine! This city definitely had us in the Christmas spirit!

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Our last morning in Vienna I had one more spot on my bucket list to check off before leaving – Disco Volante. (More eating! What else would we do?) I had come across this pizzeria while searching on Pinterest one day and really wanted to check it out – the bright white space sparkling from a massive disco ball was love at first sight! It’s famous for the giant disco ball pizza oven situated in the center of the restaurant, and of course the pizza was delicious as well. It was a bit of a trek outside of the center from our hotel, but for the ambiance and the food, I’d say it was worth it. If you’re in Vienna and in the mood for pizza I would definitely add Disco Volante to your list!

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Overall I really loved Vienna – it was a little cold, but warmed us up with Christmas spirit. This trip we didn’t spend as much time learning about the history of the city, but instead spent our time enjoying local food and holiday markets, which was really relaxing and more than enough to do during the day and a half that we had there. I would definitely recommend visiting Vienna during Christmas market season – seeing the city decorated was so special! I’m sure we’ll be back again someday – thanks for a great time, Vienna!

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Running the San Sebastian Marathon

After every marathon I run I always swear it will be my last… but this summer during an apero with Brent’s coworkers at the Côte des Basques, our friend Greg told me he was planning to run the San Sebastian half marathon and encouraged me to join him. Even though I had sworn the Paris marathon I ran in 2015 with Jade would be my last, this idea peaked my interest. Afterall San Sebastian is one of my favorite cities, the race would be close to home, the closest marathon to Biarritz, and it would be easy for Brent to come cheer me on as he could pop into tapas bars throughout the course and grab a beer – how fun, right? I thought about it for less than 24 hours, and woke up the next morning and decided to sign up for the full marathon (if I was going to do it, I was going to run all the way). I thought it would be a good challenge to get myself outside everyday during training to enjoy the beautiful Basque Country, and there is no better way to get to really know a city than to run around the whole thing (twice, in this case) by foot.

 

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Challenge accepted! I started training in early September, running almost every single day since then, with many hours at the gym cross training with Body Pump, Spin, and Yoga classes. We traveled a lot during the past four months, with two trips to California included, so I got lots of running in on my old routes back home around Mission Bay in San Diego and around Back Bay in Newport. I logged some miles in Las Gaviotas, Mexico, and even convinced our best friend Cory to run 11 miles with me in Venice Beach (the longest he had ever run in his life! Thanks for doing that with me Cory!). My best friend, Ironman, trainer and personal coach Jade of Cal Coast Fitness wrote me a training plan to follow (if you’re in Southern California and need to get in shape, she’s your girl! Or even if you live on the other side of the world, she’s still your girl!). She checked in on me almost every day after my workout to make sure I stayed on track. And days I really felt like backing out of my workout, trying to make some excuse (especially on speed workout days) she wouldn’t let me quit and encouraged me to keep pushing.

During training I battled having a horrible cold while in California, but ran anyways, and also ended up getting a horrible stomach flu a few weeks ago and couldn’t eat or walk for four days, not to mention all nutrients drained from my body. I felt like I was starting at zero after this and was worried this would set me back, but I pushed through and did my best to make up for lost training as soon as I could walk again. I even managed to pack cold weather running gear and get outside and log FREEZING miles during our trip to Prague and Vienna. As much as I wanted to, I didn’t give up, and all the training ended up being so worth it. I have to say I’m proud of myself for working so hard and being so consistent – training alone isn’t easy, but I did it!

 

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So on Saturday we headed down to San Sebastian to go to the race expo where I could pick up my bib and race packet. We checked into our hotel, Astoria 7, which was right next to the start of the course so it would be easy to line up for the race in the morning. After walking the expo with Brent and our good friend Kirsty, who kindly came down early with us to cheer me on, where they enjoyed free glasses of wine (only in Europe would they serve wine at a marathon expo) we hit up Zara (no trip to San Seb is complete without stopping into the three story Zara) enjoyed a few tapas, and ended the night fueling up with some hearty Italian food. I had eaten my carbs and hydrated all day and went to bed knowing I had done everything I could to prepare for the big race.

Sunday morning I woke up nervous and excited. My friends Elisa and Angele had taken the train down from France and met us at our hotel super early in the morning. The five of us headed to the start line where we met up with Greg and Amran (both co-workers of Brent), same Greg who encouraged me to run the race, who were both running the half marathon. It calmed my nerves a bit to see familair faces and have so many fans at the starting line. I got in line with my pace group, and at 9am on the dot we were off!

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The race started off crowded and fast. It was a chilly morning… in the 40’s when we started and in the high 50’s when I finished the race, but luckily the sun was out. It couldn’t have been a more beautiful day to run around the city! I did my best to enjoy the scenery and take in the views of the city during the run. We ran along the river, past the famous bridges, through town and along the famous Playa de la Concha. It was such a great opportunity to see almost every part of the city!

 

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My fan club couldn’t have been more supportive and encouraging! Brent – who has been such a trooper cheering me on at all 8 of my marathons – did a great job leading the girls around the course. Every time I saw them along the way I was so encouraged by their happy energy, and knowing I would see them throughout the race gave me something to look forward to. Kirsty and Elisa would run with me for a few minutes everytime I saw them, and Brent supplied me with water and fuel out of the backpack he lugged around during the day. The group really inspired me and helped me get through the most mentally challenging parts of the race. After Greg and Amran finished running their half marathon they met up with the group, too, and cheered me on during the second half. It meant so much to have all of them there to encourage me, thank you SO MUCH Brent, Kirsty, Elisa, Angele, Greg and Amran, I couldn’t have done it without you!

The people of San Sebastian were also really encouraging during the race. It seemed like the whole city had lined up along the course to cheer for the runners. They would read my name off my bib and yell ‘Venga Rebecca! Venga, venga!’. It was really encouraging and I appreciate every person who yelled out my name.

 

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For the marathoners, the course was two full laps around the city. The first lap, and halfway point for me, ended in the stadium for the half-marathoners, while the marathoners ran through the stadium and back out again, to start our second loop of 13 miles. This was the point when my body really started to hurt and stiffen up. I turned up my playlist, and just kept moving my legs, hearing Jade’s voice in my head, “just keep moving forward”. It was a really fast course because it was so flat, which I had known ahead of time, but I was still so shocked that I ran at such a fast pace, much faster than any of my training runs. All those speed workouts and Biarritz hills paid off!

 

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San Sebastian Marathon Course Map

 

Miles 15 – 20 were the hardest mentally, but once I hit mile 20 and realized I still felt OK, I knew I would survive the race. I just kept moving my legs, watching the fans cheer me on, listening to my Pitbull mix, and before I knew it I was in the final two mile stretch and wanted to cry out of happiness. I passed my fan club just before entering the stadium for the final time, which gave me just enough energy to have a really strong finish. I entered the stadium and crossed the finish line in 4 hours and 17 minutes. It wasn’t a PR, which I was hoping for, but still one of my fastest races I’ve had, 3rd best out of 8 marathons. My best time was 4 hours and 12 minutes in the Huntington Beach Marathon back in 2009, and 4 hours and 15 minutes in San Franciso back in 2007. I haven’t run that fast since then, so I feel really proud that I finished much faster than expected!

 

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After the race we headed to Old Town to go to my favorite tapas bar. We ate so many pinxtos and had a few celebratory drinks – the most perfect way to end my Spanish marathon experience!

 

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I woke up this morning SO sore, barely able to walk, blisters all over my feet, and wanting to eat everything in sight. It was (and is still) painful, but the memories of yesterday make it all worth it! Will I ever run another marathon? Who knows… definitely not anytime soon, but I know now after 8 to never say never…

 

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Spicy Sausage & Kozel Black : Eating And Drinking Our Way Through Prague

Ever since I visited Prague for the first time, over ten years ago now, I’ve wanted to come back with Brent. Memories of buying bratwurst from a street vendor for a dollar and toasty bars serving hearty beers just always seemed like something he would love. So I was excited when we finally decided to book tickets and spend a weekend in Prague together! Brent booked tickets out of Bilbao airport, about an hour and a half drive from Biarritz. We had to leave painfully early (3:30am) to make our 6am flight, but it was worth it for the cheap tickets. We had a layover in the Brussels airport and arrived in the beautiful, freezing city of Prague just 4 hours later. Brent had pre-booked a driver to pick us up and deliver us to our hotel, Hotel Bishop’s House, a very nice hotel with the biggest room we’ve ever seen in Europe, next to the famous Charles Bridge. I guess waking up at 3am was worth it because it was just 10:30am at this point we still had the whole day ahead of us to set out and explore the city.

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We were starving so set out on our first adventure which was to find a delicious Czech meal for lunch. Brent, as usual, had done a ton of research before our trip and discovered this Prague guide that offered a foodie map and self-guided tour of the city that we decided to follow. We ended up at Lokál Dlouhá for lunch, which ended up being our favorite meal of the trip! I enjoyed pickled herring and pea soup and Brent had a variety of spicy sausages followed by pork schnitzel and butter potatoes, all of which we enjoyed with local Czech beers like the ‘Kozel Black’, dark lager that reminded me of a chocolately coffe porter. Lunch was so good that we knew we could trust the foodie guide and decided to follow it for the rest of our trip.

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We spent the rest of the day exploring more of the city, enjoying a cup of hot wine in the beautiful, colorful, busy Old Town Square, where they had little market stands set up selling local bites, hearty meat dishes, and hot drinks. We made our way to a paper store, Papelote, (of course – paper stores are always on the list) recommended by our guide, where I picked up some local Czech drawing supplies. After walking and walking we ended our day at a wine bar near our hotel, Vinograf (guess what – also in the foodie guide!) and did a tasting of Czech wines, all very different and unlike any wines we’ve tried before. The perfect way to end our first day in the city.

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Our second morning in Prague, after I went for a freezing morning run around the city (two week countdown to my marathon, so I have to log the miles when I can), we set out to conquer more of the city. We started with a hike up a massive hill to get a good viewpoint of the whole of Prague. Brent did a good job as tour guide and led us past the famous castle, through cute picturesque neighborhoods, and made a quick stop to try a local treat, Trdelnik, which was like a giant hallow churro filled with Nutella. He then guided us to a butcher shop, Naše Maso, where we tried the meatloaf (it was pretty intense) and spicy sausage, recommended in the foodie guide. They were delicious, but after this meal we both agreed we needed a break from meat… for at least a meal. We finished off lunch with a stop off at the Prague Beer Museum where we had a 10 beer sampler of more local Czech beers.

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Cute simplicity in Prague | The Baguettenbergers

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The second half of our day we hiked up another hill to the ‘Zizkohrady’ part of town. Brent picked up a pair of shoes at Botas 66, a shop carrying local hand made Czech sneakers, and we were in awe at the massive futuristic tv tower just outside, that had wierd metal babies crawling all over it. One of the creepiest, strangest things we’ve seen, we were cracking up. At this point we had walked almost 12 miles and were freezing and completely exhausted, so we headed for an early dinner at Agave, a mexican food restaurant that we happily discovered near Old Town Square in the center of town. Ya, maybe we should have enjoyed more Czech style food, but when we saw California burritos, nachos and spicy Patron cocktails on the menu, we just couldn’t resist.

TV Tower, Prague

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The next morning we checked out and headed to the train station to head to our next destination, Vienna, Austria. Prague was such a beautiful city full of delicious food and gorgeous architecture. If you’ve never been you should definitely add it to your list and be sure to follow the Prague Foodie Map for the best food and a great not-too-touristy, more local experience.

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Halloween Weekend in the French Countryside

This past weekend our good friend Kirsty invited us to spend a few days with her and some friends at her parents farmhouse in the charming countryside town of Pailloles. Her parents were out of town traveling for the weekend and generously offered their house to us to spend Halloween weekend in. Pailloles is about a three hour drive north, and slightly east, from Biarritz, in the Lot-et-Garonne, Aquitaine region of south-west France. The drive up was beautiful as we passed rolling hills, farms, old French towns and tree-lined highways with leaves in every shade of automnal warmth.

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When we arrived at the farmhouse it was even more amazing than I could have imagined! It was built out of old stones and huge wooden beams, and paired with the rustic, vintage, country decor – it was like a scene straight out of a coffee table book. From the house we could look out at rolling hills, neighboring vineyards, and even a field of small deer just next door (and turns out deer like baguettes too – we fed them one and they loved it). The first morning I went for a run down one of the main roads leading away from the house – the views were scenic with fog creepy up the valley, I held my breath as I ran past a small dairy farm (ahhh, but that familiar smell of cow poop will always remind me of home), and was chased along a fence by a few dozen turkeys. Being in the country made me feel like I was back home in the small town where I grew up, and I loved it!

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Brent (the ‘city’ boy) kept saying ‘what do people do out here in the country?’, thinking it would be hard to fill our days with activities, but we definitely made the most of our time and found plenty to do. We spent time cooking and eating delicious meals, watching the wildlife (deer, hawks, rodents, spiders, bugs… bugs everywhere!) and going for walks. Our phones didn’t get much service so we all had a nice social media break and it was so relaxing and peacful. Kirsty took us to some nearby small towns to explore, including the picturesque hilltop town of Saint-Pastour that had gorgeous old french buildings an amazing 360 degree view of the surrounding countryside. We enjoyed a picnic at a nearby lake and just enjoyed eachothers company… I could get used to this slow paced country lifestyle.

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Kirsty (a Halloween lover) surprised us the first evening with Halloween decorations that completely transformed our dinning area into a haunted mansion. Stringy spider webs hung from stone wall to stone wall (that stuck to everyone all night), bats hanging from the ceiling, miniature ghosts she made out of paper towels hung over bistro lights, black spider webs cut out of trash bags, and plastic doll heads and limbs stuck in random crevices of the old farmhouse. It was perfectly creepy and there was no better setting for a Halloween feast than this old French farmhouse. Her dad had prepared a roast pork leg for us to enjoy (Brent claims this was the biggest piece of meat he’s ever seen!), which we enjoyed with a delicious feast of homemade apple sauce and mashed potatoes. This will go down in history as one of my favorite Halloween memories. We’re already talking about making it a tradition and doing it again next year! Thanks Kirsty for an amazing weekend!

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