Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Friends and Food in Belgium

My first stop on a recent weekend getaway to Belgium was a grocery store called Delhaize. It was one of the local chain’s showcase stores, in Antwerp, the main city of Flemish-speaking northern Belgium. Filled to the brim with seasonal European produce, fresh bounty from the nearby North Sea, and a variety of dairy products from neighboring Holland, a tour around the store was more fun than a trip to Antwerp’s famous art museum, the Koninklijk. Instead of viewing still-life paintings by Flemish Masters, I was rubbing elbows with the affluent professionals who make their home in the surrounding historical downtown area.

I went to Belgium to visit an old friend, Johan, who is one of those affluent Belgian professionals. He’s also my “brother” in the sense that he was a foreign exchange student who lived with my family in Maryland, when we were both in high school (many years ago!). In the ensuing years, we exchanged the occasional holiday card, but had gotten together only once, eighteen years ago, when I previously lived in Europe. On learning I was now living in Italy, Johan elatedly invited me to fly up for a visit. I accepted without hesitation, completely forgetting about my celiac disease and any complications I might encounter as a houseguest in a foreign gluten home.
But reality soon set in. Not only was I traveling to a place that produces at least one hundred different kinds of specialty beer, none of them gluten free, I’d also be in a dual-language country, neither of which I could speak. And other than French (Belgian) Fries and chocolate, I didn’t know the first thing about Belgian cuisine. Moreover, I was a bit nervous about meeting someone again after so many years had passed, and contemplated canceling my trip. Surely it’d be an inconvenience for Johan to host me in his home. His reply to all of this, however, shared none of my concern. “I’ve heard of this gluten free food,” he said. “We’ll go shopping when you get here!”

So, I went. With gluten free food packed in my bag. I flew on Ryan Air, a no frills Irish airline known for cheap flights utilizing small out-of-the- way airports. I flew out of Venice/Treviso Airport, a dilapidated two-gate building that looked more like a bus station than an airport. Little over an hour later, I arrived at Charleroi, a place I’d never heard of before, located somewhere south of Brussels. Surrounded by fellow passengers speaking Italian, French, Flemish, and the Queen’s English, I was fairly certain I was the only American on the plane. It was a little disconcerting at first, but not nearly as startling as my next thought: after eighteen years, would Johan and I even recognize each other?

Well, I didn’t need to worry too much because he wasn’t even there to greet me when I arrived. I’d forgotten that Johan was notorious for being late, whether it was with his annual holiday greeting card, or as now, picking me up at the airport. After the crowd had thinned a bit, with still no sign of anyone who could pass for Johan, I dug out my cell phone and called him. He told me he was on his way, asked me what I was wearing (so he could easily identify me), and then instructed me to turn around. And there he was, with cell phone pressed to his ear and a wide dimpled grin upon his face; the same smile I remembered from my teenage years, when he delighted in playing sibling tricks on me.

Belgium is a small country, about the size of Maryland, nestled securely between the Netherlands to the north, Germany to the east, France to the south, and the cold North Sea to the west. It is a melting pot of histories, culture, and languages. French is spoken in the south, including the capital city of Brussels. Flemish, which is similar to Dutch, is spoken in the north. Most Belgians, I quickly learned, also speak English, picking it up as children watching American television shows, and then formally learning it in high school. Johan’s primary language is Flemish, but his near flawless English (and a glass or two of French wine, not Belgian beer) made it easy for us to catch up on family news, talking into the wee hours of the morning. It was also effortless for me to talk with him about celiac disease, yet I knew the real lessons would take place in the kitchen.

Prior to my visit, Johan had scouted out the grocery store, Delhaize, but told me he hadn’t found any gluten free food. I told him he just didn’t know what to look for, because the next morning, as I wandered around the store, I spotted these words: Herken onze producten zonder gluten via dit logo op de verpakking (Recognize our products without gluten by means of this logo on the packaging). Only the word “gluten” meant anything to me at the time, but it was all I needed to know. There before me was an ample collection of gluten free hi-fiber bread, grilled bread, and pain de mie (soft bread). There were cakes and cookies of all sorts, including English cake, marble cake, and sandwich cookies. Flour, pasta, crackers, bouillon, and even a rice couscous were also available. Most products were made by a French company called Allegro. I stocked up.
Back at Johan’s 1930’s-era three-story brick townhome, we set about making lunch. For breakfast, I’d eaten a gluten free roll I’d brought from home, but shied away from dipping into the open containers of butter, jelly, and honey I’d found in the refrigerator and pantry. There was no peanut butter in the house, as Belgians generally do not eat it; instead they prefer a chocolate hazelnut spread called Nutella, which is gluten free.

Lunch was a veggie omelet, with me taking on the task of chopping the mushrooms and tomatoes. Everything seemed to be going smoothly. But when my back was turned, out came the crusty bread, smack dab onto the cutting board with the vegetables. I closed my eyes and cringed, ready to explain I now would have to have my eggs plain, when fortuitously, the bread, vegetables, and cutting board all plunged to the floor. After cleaning up, and starting over with the food preparation, I gently clarified a few more issues of celiac disease, especially the part about cross-contamination.

It was the only incident we had the entire weekend. Thereafter, every ingredient label was translated for me, items researched on the computer, and I enjoyed a variety of home-cooked meals. Spending as much time as we did in Johan’s kitchen, though, it became the joke of our weekend together – had I traveled all the way to Belgium for that experience alone?! Of course, I hadn’t, but it did illustrate that our friendship transcended the years that had passed and the food I could eat. Completely at ease, we shopped, cooked, and ate together. We also toured some sights.

One afternoon we walked around Antwerp. It is a port city with a medieval core that got its start as the hub of the European cloth trade. The Flemish artist, Peter Paul Rubens, was from Antwerp. His works are on display at the Koninklijk Museum, and his home, Rubenhuis, can be visited. Perhaps most recognized as the center of the international diamond trade, Antwerp is also a shopping destination for fashionistas and antiquers.

Another afternoon, we drove two hours north to Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. Known as a liberal city where marijuana is sold legally, and tour companies guide travelers through the Red Light District, we mostly spent our time walking around, soaking up the ambiance. With a history that goes back 800 years, the city’s center is Dam Square, which encompasses the Royal Palace and the 600 year-old New Church (Nieuwe Kerk). Like Antwerp, Amsterdam is also a diamond center and a shopping mecca, but it’s most renowned as a flower exporter, especially tulips. Blooms, bulbs, and seeds can be bought at the Flower Market (Bloemenmarkt) that runs alongside one of the city’s 100 famed canals. Moreover, Amsterdam is home to the Rijksmuseum, with its Dutch Masters collection, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Anne Frank House.

Johan had to work on the final day of my weekend trip, so I was on my own to tour Belgium’s capital city of Brussels. Dropping me off at an outlying metro station near Atomium, a landmark structure representing an atom of iron magnified 165 billion times, Johan only gave me instructions about the time to rendezvous for my return flight home. Initially feeling lost, struggling to interpret the French and Flemish information signs, I circuitously found my way to the city’s main square, Grand Place. Being a Monday, most of the museums in the city were closed, but I passed the day studying the city map (numerous times) in manicured gardens, wandering through Europe’s oldest shopping mall, and finding respite over a leisurely lunch in Grand Place. With the assistance of a French-accented waiter, I dined on Chicken Waterzooi, a Flemish specialty consisting of poached chicken, boiled carrots, potatoes, and endive, and a white sauce made solely with cream and broth.

Many traditional Flemish dishes are not suitable for those of us with celiac disease. Made with beef, poultry, or pork, and combined with various vegetables, they often are cooked in, or served with, some sort of sauce that has flour. Stews also can be made with beer, so it’s essential to ask about food preparation. Seafood lovers have it a bit easier, as mussels are found throughout Belgium, and the various sauces served with them, such as a white wine or a tomato sauce, generally do not contain flour. In both Belgium and Holland, ethnic cuisine, such as Indonesian, is abundant, offering alternative gluten free options. Belgian Fries are probably one of the fool-proof gluten free foods to eat. Fresh peeled and fried twice in dedicated fryers, Belgians eat them with mayonnaise. Yogurt, cheese, soup, and salads are additional mainstays of the Low Countries’ diet.

No trip to Belgium would be complete without a stop in at least one of the country’s famous chocolate shops. While Godiva is a household name to Americans, their products sold in the U.S. are not gluten free. So I gave them a miss in Brussels, and instead bought my chocolate from the place Belgians get theirs: Neuhaus. When I asked if they used flour in the fillings or during assembly, I got one of those strange “Why in the world would we do that?” looks in reply. (UPDATE: Many Neuhaus chocolates do contain gluten, specifically ones made with rice puffs that include wheat starch as one of the ingredients. Boxed chocolates also state gluten as an ingredient, though in what form is not clear. For those chocolates that do not contain gluten, such as the truffles, the ingredients label still warns that it could contain gluten. Eat Neuhaus chocolates at your own risk.)

Chocolate was the last purchase I made before meeting up with Johan for a ride to the airport. And much like the bittersweet treasures in my bag, so was our parting. With promises not to let another eighteen years pass before our next meeting, we said our good-byes. Though who knows? Maybe in another eighteen years there will be a cure for celiac disease, and I’d be able to indulge in those sweet-smelling Belgian Waffles I saw on nearly every street corner. In the meantime, I know that time with old friends should never be passed up because of a gluten free diet. (September 2006)

Helpful Information
Awareness of gluten-intolerance and celiac disease in Belgium seems to be lower than in some other European countries.

Delhaize is a country-wide food store chain that has a section with gluten-free items.

Many food preparations in the French-speaking area are gluten-free by nature. Be careful in the Flemish-speaking area because many dishes have flour-thickened, beer-based, or other gluten-containing sauces.

Belgian fries (frites) are widely available and are usually cooked in separate fryers, so travelers have found them safe.

Netherlands
Alber (or Albert?) Heijn is a main grocery store in the Netherlands. They put gluten free symbols on their store brand products.


BioMarkt is a health food store, Weteringschans 133-137, 1017 SC Amsterdam, http://www.biomarkt.nl/

Restaurants in the Netherlands Recommended by other Celiac Travelers

Frite stands are all over the Netherlands. They usually sell just fries.

Amsterdam Marriott® Hotel, Stadhouderskade 12 Amsterdam, 1054 ES Netherlands, Tel: 31 20 6075555

Restaurant The Pantry (traditional Dutch dinner), Leidsekruisstraat 21, 1017 RE Amsterdam, Tel: 31 20 6200922

Wagamama – Stir-fry chain restaurant with limited gf options - located near Rijksmuseum

Thursday, November 23, 2006

A Return to Greece - At Home in Athens

The temperature outside was hot. Over 100 degrees. Aboard the high-speed ferry boat skimming across the Aegean Sea, we were cool and comfortable. The five-hour passage from Santorini to Athens was also peaceful. My family spent it reveling in the relaxation accrued during the previous ten days hopping around the Greek islands of Samos, Mykonos, Naxos, and Santorini. When the boat throttled down its engines to begin its approach into Athens’ port city of Piraeus, we breathed in a final respite. We were ready to embrace the whirlwind culmination of our Greek vacation.

Athens can be an overwhelming city for many first-time visitors. Urban sprawl, pollution, sweltering summer heat, and nerve-rattling noise are all hallmarks of this metropolis that historically has been a marriage of East and West. But this was not our first visit. Being of Greek descent, my husband had been in Athens several times while growing up. As well, he and I lived in an Athens suburb for the first three years of our marriage, during one of his military assignments with the U.S. Air Force. So for us, a return to Athens was akin to a homecoming, with full knowledge of the sights and sounds that would greet us.

The kickoff to our experience was typical – a taxi driver careening us at speeds up to 80 mph from the port, through city streets, to our downtown hotel. White knuckled upon arrival, I knew at least we hadn’t been taken for a ride. Known to be churlish con-artists with countless ways of extracting money from inexperienced western travelers, our taxi driver had been contracted and paid by the travel agency through which we had booked our hotel. The only money that left our pockets was a few Euro coins for a tip.

After quickly settling into our hotel, we began our tour of Athens by walking three blocks to Syntagma Square. This is the heart of the city, the place where modern-day Greece was born when a crowd gathered in 1843 to demand a constitutional government. On one side of the square are the National Garden and the Greek Parliament. Every hour on the hour, evzones, an elite unit of the Greek army, change guard in front of the parliament building at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. They wear traditional pleated kilts, tights, and pom-pom shoes. On another side of the square are Athens’ most exclusive hotels, the Grand Bretagne and King George II, both former palaces from the days of Greece’s monarchy. Shops line a third side, while extending behind the square on the fourth side are the areas where most tourists head – the Acropolis, Plaka, and Monastiraki Square. To take it all in, we plunked ourselves down at one of the numerous café tables lining the square, and ordered a round of drinks.

The most popular café drink in Greece is the frappe. It’s a shaken concoction of instant coffee (the most popular brand, Nescafe Classic Instant Greek Coffee, is 100% coffee), cold water, sugar, milk, and ice. It’s proper to slowly sip it for at least an hour. Traditional Greek coffee is also taken in slowly, but mostly to avoid the mouthful of grounds waiting at the bottom of the cup.

While sipping our frosty frappes, we observed the Syntagma Square stop of Athens’ new subway (Metro) system. Efficient, clean, and cheap, the Metro has alleviated some of the city’s notorious traffic congestion, which in turn has assisted in the battle against air pollution. We used the Metro on several occasions during our stay: to travel within the city for sightseeing, to go to a neighboring town to visit some of my husband’s relatives, and also on the day of our departure to get to the airport. Generally, though, we found walking to be the best way to explore Athens, and it was from the square that we began a self-guided walk of the Plaka and Monastiraki areas.

The first things we saw on our walk were a Starbucks, a McDonald’s, and numerous international clothing store chains. We weren’t really prepared for this, and it was impossible for us not to recall the bygone days when businesses such as these did not exist in Greece. A member of the European Union since 1981, a push to integrate more fully with the rest of Europe didn’t occur until 2000. The Euro was adopted as the currency in 2002. Another change we immediately noticed was that several of the streets in Athens’ historic area had been turned into pedestrian zones. Also part of the city’s plan to fight pollution, these zones had the added benefit of allowing shoppers to stroll without fear of being run over by some Athenian parking his car on the sidewalk. Motorcyclists still bypassed the barriers built to keep vehicles off the roads and the sidewalks, but absent the cars and trucks, the whole experience was more relaxing and peaceful.

Still, walking through Plaka and Monastiraki was not a walk in the park. Plaka, the oldest neighborhood in Athens, resides at the base of the Acropolis. It’s a maze of narrow streets crammed with restaurants, jewelry stores, souvenir shops, and tourists. Monastiraki Square, adjacent to Plaka, also buzzes with activity - from the cafes, metro station, flea market, and hucksters of all nationalities. These were the areas where we did our souvenir shopping, purchasing soccer jerseys, chess pieces, and olive oil bath and beauty products. We also bought inexpensive art replicas, postcards, and samples of traditional Greek food and drink, such as pistachios, sesame seed candy, ouzo flavored hard candy, loukoumi (a chewy candy made with potato starch and sugar, and flavored with rose water or lemon), and ouzo. They were all gluten free.

Greece’s national drink, ouzo, is an 80-proof anise-flavored alcohol. We sampled some at an ouzeri, which is a traditional place to drink ouzo and eat mezedes, or appetizers. Sholarhio Ouzeri Kouklis, where we ate, even made its own liquor, which it served alongside plates full of salad, beans, stuffed peppers, grilled vegetables, and stewed meat.

From Plaka, it’s an uphill climb to the Acropolis, the number one sightseeing destination in Greece. To avoid the inevitable crush of the crowd, we arrived early one morning, just as Greek military members prepared to raise the nation’s flag for the day. The air was cool and fresh; nothing like an Athens afternoon, when many Greek businesses close, and it is said the only things stirring are mad dogs and tourists.

The Acropolis’ major monuments – the Parthenon, Erechtheion, Propylaia, and Temple of Athena Nike (currently dismantled for restorative work) – are best viewed with some knowledge of the historic and artistic significance of the structures. We let the self-guided tour in Rick Steves’ Best of Europe 2006 lead us around the temples that were built and dedicated to the gods during Greece’s Golden Age in the 5th-century B.C. Notable as they were, it was the story behind the Acropolis flag that we saw so honorably hoisted in the morning that left the greatest impression on me. During the Nazi occupation of WWII, the evzone who guarded the Greek flag was ordered to remove it. Upon doing so, he proceeded to wrap himself in the flag, and then jumped to his death. In an act of resistance a few weeks later, two teenage boys removed the Nazi flag, replacing it again with the Greek flag. A plaque near the base of the flag honors these patriots.

Wandering around Athens without sensing its past was near impossible to do. Ruins of the Agora, or ancient market, gave testament to a 6th-century BC economy. The Arch of Hadrian, from A.D. 132, was built to commemorate the completion of the temple next-door, the Temple of Olympian Zeus. With 15 of its original 104 56-foot columns remaining, it was the largest temple in ancient Greece. More modern was the Panathenaic (Olympic) Stadium. Originally built in the 4th-century B.C., it was updated in the 2nd-century A.D and then restored for the first modern Olympics in 1896. The National Archaeological Museum, home to many of Greece’s antiquities, was where we viewed 12th-century B.C. Mycenaean art, Cycladic statues, Minoan frescoes, and a 450 B.C. bronze statue of Poseidon. My husband’s favorite piece was the 7th-century clay doll used as the model for the Athens 2004 Olympic mascots, Athena and Phoebos.

Athens has a bevy of museums to choose from; we selected only one other to visit – the Museum of Greek Popular Instruments. Appreciating music of all styles, my family had fun viewing the 1,200 traditional instruments, and listening through headphones to their unique sounds. To hear a performance of some of these instruments, and to watch traditional folk dance, we attended a show at the open-air Dora Stratou Theater. Founded in 1953, the theater’s mission is to preserve the dances, music, and costumes of the Greek people. It was easy to get caught up in the mood as traditionally attired dancers swirled across the stage, representing the music and dance of regions such as Macedonia, Cyclades Islands, and Asia Minor.

As for the traditional snack food of Athens, it was souvlaki - cubes of skewered and grilled meat that were served either wrapped in pita bread with onions, tomatoes, and tzatziki (yogurt and cucumber sauce), or atop a piece of pita with salad on the side. I had no problem getting my souvlaki served without the pita, but there was one misunderstanding at a place where the specialty was kebabs rather than souvlaki. My husband and I each ordered a plate, explaining mine was to be without pita. When the meals arrived, my husband immediately tucked into his, and then just as quickly blurted out, “Don’t eat the meat.” We had not realized a kebab was ground up meat seasoned with breadcrumbs, and our waiter had not equated “bread crumbs” as “bread.” After a little more clarification, I ate grilled chicken souvlaki that night.

My husband and I ate a lot of souvlaki when we lived in Greece many years ago as newlyweds. Back then, it was one of the cheapest meals available, and we had our favorite places to get it. Many of those places no longer exist, but we did revisit our old home in the suburb of Ano Glyfada. Standing outside the house, I could still visualize the marble floors, tiny closets, and distant view of the Aegean Sea we had from the rooftop patio where I used to hang up laundry to dry. I could also remember the friends we’d known in Greece, and the times we’d shared together.

Later, after returning from Greece, I looked in The American Heritage Dictionary for the definition of “home,” and found this entry: an environment or haven of shelter, of happiness and love; a place of emotional attachment. I guess Greece will always be a “home” to me. (July 2006).

Monday, November 20, 2006

A Return to Greece - Island-Hopping Style

Standing by the letterbox on the Island of Mykonos, my hand hesitated to release the stack of postcards written by my children to their friends back in the States. While innocently written, the one from my nine-year-old son cited activities from our two-week family vacation in Greece that could be misconstrued. Namely, the day at the beach when he counted eighteen topless women sunning themselves in close proximity to us. I was just a tad worried what that friend’s parents would think of us. Telling myself that at least the postcard didn’t feature full-color photos of the written topic, I sighed and sent the messages on their way.

Yes, our time in Greece was an education on many levels, captured in postcards from our three boys to family and friends, in daily journal entries, and during dinner conversations that lasted through the nightly two-hour parade of tantalizing fare. There was the day we pondered the ancient Greek society that built the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This was at the archaeological ruins inEphesus, present-day Turkey. There were our interactions with modern-day Greek culture, legendary for its hospitality as well as its general and often comical disregard for authority and order. On another day we walked with a Greek Orthodox priest retracing the footsteps of St. Paul through the tranquil pine-scented grounds of a mountaintop monastery. Later the same afternoon, my husband and I lounged on a hot, luminous beach while our boys learned to snorkel in the cool turquoise waters.

We also happily relearned the time-honored tradition of young and old alike who sought an escape from the stifling summer heat of the Mediterranean region: the afternoon nap. And like the children we saw emerging refreshed and ready to play in the streets as the sun dipped into the sea each evening, we set out for our evening activities and a meal that usually didn’t get underway until 9:00 p.m.

To enjoy all these experiences that were uniquely a part of Greece, we had to let go of notional ideas about things such as age, image, beauty, and time. We learned to go with the flow, both figuratively and literally. This was especially true when it came time to depart the island of Samos in the eastern Aegean Sea. We’d flown in from Athens for the first six nights of our vacation, but departed using the ferries as our means of transportation to subsequent island destinations. We felt airplane travel around Greece was too impersonal, too convoluted, and too expensive. So for about the same price as one airline ticket from Samos, back to Athens, and then out to one of the popular tourist islands in the central Cycladic Island chain, all five of us experienced classic island-hopping travel from Samos to Mykonos. Travel time was about six-and-a-half hours.

Ferry travel wasn’t without its own set of drawbacks, however, with limited snack bar food being the major one for me. I had to depend on gluten free food brought from home, along with items purchased at local grocery and health food stores. Custard-like yogurt, gluten free bread, and fruit packed easily for breakfast; while a pack of tuna, gluten free crackers, and more fruit was lunch. The rest of the family munched on pastries and sandwiches bought both dockside and on board. With calm cruising waters, we passed the time reading and dozing in our comfy first class airliner-type seats.

Unfortunately, the waters didn’t remain calm the entire trip, tossing us about with increasing intensity the closer we drew to the Cycladic Islands. “Highly unusual winds” said the hotel clerk as we checked in at the Hotel Korali & Kohili. Perched a 20-minute walk above the picturesque main town of narrow alleyways and white-washed cube-style homes, the hotel afforded us a clear view of the churning wind-whipped sea. Our intended 24-hour stay on Mykonos seemed to be in jeopardy.

Described in Lonely Planet’s Greece travel book as charming and glamorous, but with an “oiled-up lounger-lifestyle and relentless party atmosphere” Mykonos didn’t appeal to me the way it had when I visited 20 years ago. We ended up there this time because it was the only way to get from Samos to Santorini, our desired destination, where we were meeting Greek-American relatives from New York. Still, Mykonos is a must-see destination for many travelers to Greece. We made the most of our stay by lazing about the hotel pool. At night, we strolled into town to look for dinner, passing by the island’s landmark but forlorn windmill towers once used to grind grains.

Merging with the cruise ship crowds that continually wandered the congested paths of souvenir shops and cafes, we stumbled across one of the island’s more illustrious residents, George. Standing about four-foot tall, he was often found hanging out with local fishermen by the wharf, padding his way into neighborhood restaurants, and patiently posing for the whirlwind of paparazzi-tourists that followed his every move. George is a pelican. The human residents of Mykonos, however, kept their private lives more closely guarded. The only clues of life inside their much photographed homes were the snatches of hushed conversations and the tinkling of dishes that drifted through curtained windows at night.

We found dinner at Antonini’s, near the waterfront. Choosing from a selection of standard Greek fare, my husband and I made of meal of just appetizers that included tzatziki (cucumber and yogurt dip), xoriatiki (Greek salad), Myconian cheese (according to my father-in-law, a cheese so sharp it cuts your tongue), yigandes (giant beans cooked with onions and tomatoes), and batzaria (cold beet salad).

The next morning the wind blew even stronger and our doubts about departing Mykonos were confirmed. All ferries had been cancelled. What did we do? First, we enjoyed the leisurely breakfast buffet. Similar to the spread we had on Samos, I was able to select plain yogurt with a topping of honey, canned fruit, and hard-boiled eggs. Paying close attention to the layout and presentation of the food, noticing the placement of breads and cereals, and looking for the likelihood of cross-contamination, whenever possible I chose foods such as jams and honey in self-contained packages. I found this of utmost importance when dining with Europeans. While surely an overgeneralization, many simply did not approach the buffet line in the orderly fashion to which I was accustomed. Instead, they darted in and out of line at will without so much as an “excuse me.” Some fellow Americans called it rude. I just didn’t want any bread crumbs in my yogurt.

The windy weather also made the Mykonos beaches too rough to enjoy and caused the daily boat excursions to the neighboring archaeological island of Delos to be called off. So after spending the remainder of the morning changing travel arrangements, we played at the pool again and went shopping. With observations of my own about the skimpy attire at Greece’s pools and beaches, I was feeling way overdressed in the skirted tankini-style swimsuit I’d bought in the States. It was time for a bikini. A modest one.

The new itinerary taking us from Mykonos to Santorini had us changing boats on the island of Naxos, with just enough time in between for lunch. We chose a place run by a wily old restaurateur named Yianni, who offered us free Naxian wine to go with the house specialty of calamari. Fresh from the sea, his relatives still drying on the restaurant signpost beneath the hot noonday sun, my calamari was grilled rather than flour-dipped and deep-fried. Yianni made sure I doused it with freshly squeezed lemon juice before digging in, and an old man looking on smiled at me with amusement in his eyes.

The sleek high-speed ferry that had whisked us from Mykonos to Naxos had done so in 45-minutes of air conditioned comfort and style. The 2 ½ hour journey in economy-priced open-air seats on the slowly lumbering giant from Naxos to Santorini left us feeling like those drying squid back at Yianni’s place. But the first glimpse of Santorini’s sea-filled caldera and cliff-top towns eased the pressure of the heat. Shaped by a history of violent volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, Santorini is considered by many as the most beautiful of all the Greek islands.

Having lost a day to the weather, we cut back on activities, skipping the excavation site at Akrotiri, where a Minoan civilization had been buried in 1650 BC volcanic eruptions. Instead, we hopped a local bus from our hotel, riding through practically every village on the map on the way to the main town of Thira. Filled with Japanese tourists alongside devout Greek Orthodox women who crossed themselves at every church we passed, it was truly a lesson in going with the flow. No one looked askance when the driver stopped to gas up the bus, or got miffed when he paused to chat with friends along the roadside. Most telling was the detour past his house to pick up a meal from a waiting wife and son. He had to eat, didn’t he? That inexpensive bus ride was just as much fun as the island’s most famous means of transportation – a donkey ride up the 500-plus cliff-hugging steps from the port to Thira.

The rest of the time we spent with family – chatting by the pool, walking along the volcanic black sand beaches, and sitting around tables full of food. Initially pitying me because of my inability to eat some foods due to celiac disease, these relatives became increasingly amazed by all the food I could eat (I’m talking variety, not quantity!). Then, as we packed our bags in preparation for the final ferry trip back to Athens on the mainland, I realized that it wasn’t the food, or even the sights, that were my family’s highlights of Samos, Mykonos, or Santorini. Instead, it was the time spent romping around with cousins, sharing a special family bond, oblivious to all those topless women. (June/July 2006)

Story Continued: A Return to Greece - Athens

A Return to Greece - Island of Samos

Even before I knew I was moving to Italy last year, I knew where I’d be vacationing this summer: Greece. I really had no choice.

Greece was one of my husband’s early military assignments, and with the ink on our marriage certificate barely dry, it had been "our" first assignment as husband and wife. As such, it became the proving ground of my new and foreign life as a military spouse. Free-spirited, and with aspirations of my own, however,the role of military spouses wasn’t one I was sure I wanted to play. I fell into it all the same. At the same time, Greece in the 1980's, despite the exotic exuberance experienced by most travelers, was actually a dirty, disorganized, and sometimes dangerous place to live. I developed a distinct love/hate relationship with my new home.
Twenty years have since passed. In the meantime, we've had eight military moves (three of them overseas), three children, and one celiac diagnosis for me. My husband is currently counting the days until his military retirement. It was time to return to Greece. As the place where "we" began, I also knew that Greece was the place where a part of "me" had been lost. I needed to resolve the ambiguity I felt about Greece, and ultimately about the path I'd been following.

The original plan for our trip back to Greece was to make it a second honeymoon. It didn’t include taking our three boys. But with our military assignment to Italy came the loss of proximity to babysitting grandparents, causing us to reshuffle the cards and play a new hand. We came up with a two-week celebration of our family life and heritage that included some classic island-hopping travel, abundant beach time, a smattering of art and archaeology, familial connections, and a walk down memory lane.

The intricacies of such an itinerary were complicated, exceeding even our abilities as experienced independent travelers. Notorious for transportation strikes, a weather-dependent ferry schedule (the chief mode of travel between the islands), and many jobs filled on the basis of who you know rather than what you know, our journey required in-the-trenches expertise. We turned to Fantasy Travel, an Athens-based travel agency with English-speaking agents. All of our business was conducted via the Internet and e-mail, with ferry tickets and hotel vouchers hand-delivered in Greece. They also handle air travel, cruises, and package tours.

A direct flight took us from Venice to Athens, where thankfully we had two-and-a-half-hours before our Olympic Airlines flight to the island of Samos. At first glance, Athens’ shiny new airport resembled any other big city airport, with its array of designer name shops, duty free liquor stores, and eateries (with nothing gluten free). But the check-in process for our domestic flight took me straight back to the pandemoniac Athens I knew and loved to hate. There was nothing that resembled a line, no attempt to organize one, and no one working there who seemed to care. Talk from fellow passengers centered on this ineptitude, with a few even placing bets about who would get to the counter first.

To the airline’s credit, whenever there was an impending flight, personnel announced (in Greek only) that customers on that flight could by-pass the throng for immediate check-in; the crowd always went wild. My husband then deduced that it was possible for a shrewd traveler to never even wait in line, instead doing some duty free shopping, grabbing a bite to eat, and then showing up just in time to be called for the flight. I didn’t know whether to be amused or appalled at how quickly this innate Mediterranean mode moved to the forefront of his psyche. Did I mention he is of Greek descent?

My mother-in-law was born and raised on the island of Samos, an island that lies at the southern end of the northern Aegean islands. Our flight there was bumpy, as are many flights around the Aegean Sea due to the region’s ever-present winds. A few hours by ferry to the north is the island of Chios, the birthplace of my father-in-law. Both were children during the Nazi occupation of Greece and the even more tragic years of the Greek Civil War that followed. They were then among the masses that left Greece in the ensuing years, their families seeking better lives in America.

Recalling the story of my husband’s grandfather rowing a boat from Samos to Turkey, possibly to evacuate his family from Greece during the wars, my children gained a clearer picture of the world as it was then. They also understood the proximity of Greece to Turkey, themselves age-old enemies with still often-tense relations. Nevertheless, ferries now flow freely several times daily between the two countries, with travelers such as us using Samos as a base to visit the ancient archaeological site at Ephesus in Turkey. On a daytrip to this more exotic and foreign land, I employed the assistance of our Turkish tour guide to help me obtain a gluten free meal, and dined lavishly on a ground beef and eggplant stew, a side of cooked greens, and salad with a creamy yogurt dressing.

On Samos, we stayed at the Ino Village Hotel, located a 20-minute steep uphill walk from the island’s capital town of Vathi, also known as Samos Town. The trek was worth the view, which tumbled from the flower garden just beyond our ground floor balcony ledge, over red-tile rooftops and rocky beaches, to the waiting shimmering sea. Not once during our six nights stay did we close that balcony door, the cooling breeze liberating us from air conditioning, locked doors, and mistrust. It reminded me of my younger years, a time when the door to my family's house was never locked. If we weren’t home, friends could let themselves in to await our return, or perhaps just leave a jar of homemade pickles. Unlike my childhood home, though, the unlocked balcony door on Samos came with a nightly show, featuring a peach-colored Mediterranean sun tucking itself into bed. It was my cue to head out to dinner.

Dining in Greece is a late-night affair. On the night we met up with my husband’s godfather, who splits his retirement years between New York and Samos, he suggested we come to his house around 8:00 pm, and then proceed to dinner around 9:00 pm. I figured it must be the time-honored afternoon siestas and early evening coffee chasers that allowed Greeks to keep such hours, but the late dinners were rough for us.

Another adjustment for me, especially after living in Italy for the past year, was to be in a place not familiar with celiac disease. My mother-in-law, who worked for years for a gastroenterologist, once told me that celiac disease is not prevalent in the Greek blood line. A Greek uncle further elucidated that God would never punish Greeks with the inability to eat bread. Such fallible reasoning notwithstanding, celiac disease is relatively rare in Greece. Which meant I had to be extra vigilant when eating out.

Knowledge of Greek cuisine was my first line of defense. Having lived in Greece and being married to a Greek-American certainly were assets in this regard, but most restaurants have English versions of their menus with descriptions providing clues about a dish’s ingredients. After selecting one or two likely possibilities, I explained to the server that I had a “food allergy” that prevented me from eating bread, pasta, and foods made with flour. This account was followed up with a celiac card, containing all the necessary details written in Greek. The tricky part was the use of the word “celiac,” which in Greek also can mean “colic.” They often thought I couldn’t eat spicy foods.

Greek cooking is based on fresh seasonal produce, with restaurants offering hot and cold appetizers, salads, casseroles, oven-baked dishes, and grilled meats and seafood. One of my favorite appetizers was Tzatziki (yogurt and cucumber dip) that I ate with my gluten free crackers. Along with a Greek Salad it was often enough for lunch. Other times I enjoyed cold beet salads, cooked greens, giant beans, and plates of various cheeses. French Fries, a popular side dish in Greece, I ate with caution. While many restaurants had dedicated fryers, most used a frozen product that I could not determine to be safe. Another favorite appetizer, Saganaki (fried cheese), was sometimes prepared with a dusting of flour. After an explanation of my inability to eat it as such, I received a few offers of a pan prepared especially for me.

Traditional casserole dishes such as Pastichio (baked macaroni), Mousaka (made with a flour thickened cream sauce) Keftedes (meatballs made with bread crumbs), and Yiouvetsi (meat and noodles) were all off-limits. But I did eat oven-baked dishes such as Gemistes (stuffed peppers and tomatoes), Arni Psito (roast lamb), Kotopoulo Psito (baked chicken), and Patatestou Fourno (oven-browned potatoes). Stefatho (stewed beef) was also an option, as was grilled lamb chops, Souvlakia (shish-kebab), and fish dishes such as salmon and grilled calamari (but not fried).

As most Greeks in the service industry speak fluent English, I did not have to rely on my husband’s Greek language ability to state my celiac condition. On the other hand, I’ll admit that for the purpose of getting to the heart of the matter more quickly, and for better service, I often let him do the talking. This was true more so on Samos, where he was counted as one of their own, a diaspora, returning to his roots. He was also chastised for not teaching the language to his sons, fearful as the Greeks are about losing their heritage in their once homogenous but now ever-increasing multicultural society.

Despite concern about the recent influx of resident foreigners, Greece has always had a reputation for its hospitality and warm welcome of visitors. Our hotel was filled with Europeans travelers, whom we saw daily at the breakfast buffet. My favorite gluten free breakfast selection was the thick and creamy yaourti (Greek yogurt) that I topped with honey and sometimes fruit. This is not the thin tart stuff we know in the U.S. Hard-boiled eggs were also available, which I ate with gluten free bread I unnecessary brought from home.
Even without a known celiac population, the organic food store in the heart of town carried gluten free corn bread, pure corn flakes, brown rice cakes, corn cakes, wonderfully tasty chocolate covered rice cakes, gluten free crackers, rice pasta, and rice sticks from China. The shop is part of a chain that has stores on the mainland and several islands, including Mykonos and Santorini - the next desinations on our journey through Greece. (June 2006).
Story continued on next post: A Return to Greece - Island-Hopping Style

Helpful Information
Fantasy Travel
8, Xenofontos Str. (Syntagma Sq.)
105 57 Athens, Greece
http://www.fantasy.gr/

Ino Village Hotel
Samion Agoniston 69
Kalami, Samos-Samou, TK 83110 Greece
http://www.inovillage.gr/

Daily Excursions to Turkey, including ferry, transportation, and tour of Ephesus, costs 47 Euro per person (plus10 Euro port fee). Contact: ITSA Travel, http://www.itsatravel.com/.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Umbrian Agriturismo

“Ahh, Umbria,” was the simple answer to my question. And exactly the type of reaction I was seeking to help me decide where to travel during my children’s spring break. Eager to shed the long cold winter of northern Italy, along with its cumbersome coats, hats, and mittens, I’d been leaning heavily toward warm and sunny Sicily as our April getaway. However, I was also intrigued by a post on the Celiac List about an agriturismo in the central Italian region of Umbria that could provide gluten free meals. I knew in my heart that such a vacation, where I didn’t have to plan and think about food, was something I needed even more than a sun-drenched island. To affirm this, I turned to the locals, asking every Italian with whom I could actually communicate, where they would prefer to go. To the person, each voted with their sighs that Umbria was a gem not to be missed.

Umbria is the introverted little sister to popular and pretty Tuscany. Situated southeast of Tuscany and landlocked by the even lesser known region of Le Marche to the east, and to the south by Lazio, the region in which Rome is located, Umbria is often overlooked. Every bit as charming as Tuscany, but more subtle, Umbria offers wine roads, artistic sights, and medieval hilltop towns that rival those of its famous big sister. It seemed like the perfect setting for an agriturismo retreat.

The word agriturismo is a blend of the Italian words for “agriculture” and “tourism,” and refers to a farm business that also provides accommodations to travelers. The trend started as a way for farmers to generate additional income from their land, thus enabling them to stay on the land to retain the time-honored traditions of small-scale production. The guests of an agriturismo, in turn, gain an opportunity learn about conventional Italian rural life. I am told that Umbria has close to 600 such businesses. Not all remain working farms, but all offer meals prepared with local products, and accommodations running the gamut from rustic to regal.

I learned all of this from Marjatta. She is from Finland, and is married to Pasquale, who is Italian. His family was originally from the Italian island of Sardinia, but Agriturismo Ca’Mazzetto, in the heart of Umbria, is now the family farm. This is where Marjatta and Pasquale live and work, raising their three children and tending their Sardinian milking sheep. It’s an organic farm that produces pecorino and ricotta cheese from the sheep’s milk, extra-virgin olive oil, and hand-woven textiles. Prompted by a friend’s diagnosis with celiac disease, Marjatta became a member of the Italian Celiac Association and now provides gluten free meals to guests upon request.

The farm sits atop a ridge overlooking the small town of Valfabbrica, about a half-hour northeast of the region’s capital of Perugia. We got lost on our drive there, missing a turnoff sign and ending up on a different narrow hilltop that had its very own castle. When we finally found our way, we were greeted by Marjatta and her family, and shown the three-room self-catering apartment we would occupy for the next few days. Situated on the ground floor of the refurbished barn, it was rustic, but clean and comfortable, and decorated in a style called arte povera, or, poor art.

With a fully equipped kitchen in each of the three separate apartments, many guests opt to prepare their own meals. Alternately, breakfast and dinner are obtainable in the farm restaurant. We chose a mix of dining options, fixing our own breakfast most mornings, including toast for me thanks to the toaster kept exclusively for celiac guests. We also checked out the farm breakfast one morning, and for 4 Euro per person, we were served bread and rice cakes (both gluten free for me) with butter and marmalade, homemade sugar-sprinkled pastries that were filled with ricotta cheese and honey (again, mine was gluten free), yogurt, pecorino cheese, juice, and coffee served with a steaming pot of fresh sheep’s milk. Our lunch was usually a picnic somewhere in the Umbrian countryside, and for dinner we ate either at restaurants in towns we were touring, or at Ca’Mazzetto, where Sardinian and Umbrian cuisines were featured.

The first night we dined on the farm, but only after an exploratory walk of the grounds and a portion of the nearby Franciscan Trail. As it was only early spring, the air was still chilly and darkness fell early over the Umbrian hills. Wildflowers were just beginning to show their colors in the fields where lambs and ewes softly called to each other. I could picture a return to this area in the summer, when I am told the weather is pleasantly hot, but not humid, and Ca’Mazzetto’s swimming pool inviting.

We were joined at the dinner table by another family also staying on the farm, and learned they were half-way through a two-week holiday at the agriturismo. Loving every minute of their stay by relaxing, hiking, and birding, they’d hardly been out to the see the sights and didn’t feel any rush. They had a difficult time comprehending we were staying for only four days, and shook their heads in pity as we discussed the differences between the short amount of vacation time American employees must earn, and the automatic six-weeks of time-off that nearly every employed European is entitled to. He was British, she German, along with their 10-year old son, who every morning after knocked on our door to ask if our boys could come out to play soccer. When Marjatta and Pasquale’s children joined in, it was a true international game.

Our meals at Ca’Mazzetto were served Italian style, meaning in courses. Bread and cheese were served first, followed by a pasta first course, salad, a second course, and then dessert. Noting that my gluten free bread was always covered, my pasta cooked first, and that a sign over one of the kitchen counters read “Gluten Free Food Only,” I knew that Marjatta understood the issue of cross-contamination. One night we were served a traditional Sardinian stew prepared with dried cod, potatoes, and vegetables. Another night we enjoyed roast lamb, but that was only after consoling my nine-year old when he made the connection between the lambs frolicking in the grass and the lamb on his plate.

As we didn’t have a two-week holiday like our fellow agriturismo guests, we set out most days around mid-morning, hoping to experience for ourselves some of the aura of Umbria that others had found. We drove north to the medieval town of Gubbio, where our children danced in the ruins of a 1st-century AD Roman amphitheater, ate gelato in the shadow of a 13th-century palazzo, and videotaped our ascent up the mountain side in a two-person basket. Another day we followed La Strada del Sagrantino, or the Sagrantino Wine Road, around the 16,000 hilly hectares where this native vine is grown, stopping for samples at both wineries and restaurants around the tiny town of Montefalco. Lunch that day was a risotto dish made with this local dry red wine. Later, we found ourselves on a self-guided walking tour of the Umbrian hill-town of Spoleto, half-way across its most famous landmark, a late 14th-century aqueduct, as evening fell and lightning forewarned of an approaching storm.

The most medieval of Umbria’s towns is also its most visited, Assisi, which we approached by way of the small town of Spello. A desination in its own right, we had walked the narrow cobblestone streets of this hilltop town, sampled local olive oil (poured onto bread for my husband, and a whopping spoonful minus the bread for me), and stepped into a local church to view a fresco cycle completed around 1500. We then purchased produce at a small local shop and drove up the hairpin turns of Monte Subasio for a picnic lunch. It was peaceful, and seemed to put us in the right frame of mind for visiting Assisi, and specifically the Basilica di San Francesco, a pilgrimage site for many travelers paying homage to St. Francis. An 11th century friar who challenged the materialism of society and the church, he advocated a simple lifestyle and respect for the environment. It is a message that many in Italy take to heart and which we witnessed first-hand at Agriturismo Ca’Mazzetto. It is the message that I now understand translates simply as, “Ahh, Umbria.” (April 2006)

Helpful Information

Agriturismo Ca’Mazzetto, loc. Coccorano, 06029 Valfabbrica (PG), http://www.camazzetto.it/. We paid 65 Euro per night, plus heating fuel costs, for our 3-room apartment in April 2006. Prices are higher in the summer. Dinner with wine cost 18 Euro per person. Breakfast costs 4 Euro per person.

Other restaurants visited:
Ringhiera Umbra, Via G. Mameli 18/20, Montefalco. http://www.ringhieraumbra.com/.
Pizzeira/Trattoira dal Carro, Vicolo di Nepis 2b, Assisi.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Florence Has it All - Including Gluten Free Food

Art, shopping, and food. To me, these are the core ingredients for almost any vacation recipe. When these components also happen to be the finest in the world, such as Michelangelo’s sculpture of David, famous Italian fashion houses (think Ferragamo shoes), and a host of restaurants with gluten free menus, I know the destination is Florence.

Located in the region of Tuscany, Florence is the leader among Italy’s top three tourist destinations (Rome and Venice are the other two). Most visitors arrive during the summer months, when sights stay open longer, there’s a proliferation of cultural activities, and leisurely dinners are taken al fresco. The “shoulder season” months of April, May, September, and October are also popular because lines at major sights are shorter, the backpack crowd has returned to school, and the weather is not as hot and humid. But sometimes you have to travel when you can, which is why I found myself planning a two-night family getaway to Florence in the off-season during my children’s winter school break.

Florence is a city easy to navigate on foot, even when its cobblestone streets are covered in winter snow and slush. The main artistic and historical sights are within walking distance of one of the area’s most recognizable sites, the Duomo. Known formally as Santa Maria del Fiore, it’s the big red-domed church that dominates every skyline photograph of the city. The word duomo is a generic Italian term meaning a church, and practically every Italian town has one, accompanied by a separate bell tower, or campanile. As the original depository of many artistic masterpieces, wandering into nearly any church in Florence will please both the spiritual and artistic soul.

The Duomo itself is a work of art; a Gothic cathedral completed in the 14th century, built to compete with the size and beauty of cathedrals in rival city-states. The dome was added in the early 15th century by architect Brunelleschi, who based the construction on the double-walled cupola of the Pantheon, an ancient Roman temple. When we visited the Pantheon during an earlier family trip to Rome, we noticed the hole in the dome where Brunelleschi actually cut out a sample to study. The Duomo’s colorful pink, green, and white marble façade was built in the 19th century, and is of a completely different creative style than the darkly lit somber interior. In its entirety, the Duomo is symbolic of the Renaissance period, when many people looked to the past in order to move into the future.

In the summer, the Duomo’s interior offers a cool respite from the hot Tuscan sun. On this particular winter day it’s too cold to take off our gloves. To warm up a bit, as well as get a closer look at Brunelleschi’s dome and a few of the tools used in its construction, we climb the 463 steps to the top. The narrow interior serpentine path we ascend in solitude, while the ledge that wraps around the exterior of the dome offers us a rare surrealistic view of a snow-blanketed red-tile roof city. Across the street from the Duomo is the Duomo Museum, with famous works of art such as Donatello’s La Maddalene, Michelangelo’s Pieta, and the original bronze door panels from another well-known Florence site, the Baptistery. It, too, is located across from the Duomo, and we stand shivering with the rest of the crowd waiting to take a family picture in front it.

To avoid spending any more time in the cold than is necessary, we follow travel guide book advice and make reservations for two of Florence’s most popular places of interest that require tickets–the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia. For a small fee in addition to the regular entry price, this allows us to bypass the long ticket lines and practically walk up to the front door for admission. It’s worth the price on both cold and hot days.

The Uffizi is said to “contain the greatest collection of Italian paintings anywhere.” It’s hung chronologically, making it easier to explain the artistic progression to my children. My youngest son, at age nine, however, requires several explanations as to why many of the paintings and sculptures are of nude people. The Accademia houses Michelangelo’s David, who with his confident gaze is thought to be the epitome of the Renaissance era. More poignant to me, though, is Michelangelo’s series of sculptures entitled the Four Prisoners. Some consider these pieces, depicting figures struggling to free themselves from the marble blocks of which they are sculpted, to be unfinished works of art. I view them as representative of the human spirit, each of us struggling with whatever it is in our lives that “imprisons” us. For some of us, this can be celiac disease. But in Florence, I don’t let celiac disease or the winter weather prevent me from enjoying what I came to see and do. So, interspersed among the art, I also shop and eat!

Shopping in Florence runs the gamut from bargaining with merchandise-draped vendors offering their wares on street corners, to looking for good deals at well-established street markets such as Mercato Nuovo. There are also high-end Italian designer name stores. My husband, with Mediterranean blood coursing through his veins, is a natural at haggling over prices, thereby astounding our children when he confidently walks away from a too-high priced item, only to have the vendor run after him agreeing to the lower price. Later, he acquires a soft-as-a-baby’s-bottom leather jacket for less than half the original asking price at a posh boutique. Of course, the salesmen still make tidy profits, and we probably pay too much, but it is the personal exchanges that make these purchases memorable.

Shopping where the locals shop for food offers up another type of cultural experience. The temperature inside the immense two-story enclosed Mercato Centrale (central food market) is so cold that we can see our breath. But the sight of boar’s snouts and various internal animal parts I can't imagine eating, wheels of parmesan cheese, bushels of dried porcini mushrooms, and endless rows of cold-weather produce is irresistible. Groceries become our tasty souvenirs. A small number of food stalls also sell fully prepared meals, and I enjoy an inexpensive gluten free lunch of sliced yellow corn polenta smothered in a rich homemade Bolognese sauce. A glass of local Chianti completes the meal.

Shopping at the farmacia on the corner by our hotel yields additional treats such as gluten free chocolate croissants and a gluten free chocolate panetone. Bi-Aglut gluten free beer is also available, but something about drinking beer in an area known for wine doesn’t feel right to me, so I leave it on the shelf.

Aside from indulging in the chocolate croissants purchased at the farmacia, I avail myself of the hotel's daily breakfast buffet that includes yogurt, fruit, cheese, juice, and coffee. For lunch, colorful salads with tuna, eggs, or ham are plentiful, or, with gluten free bread I can make a sandwich of local deli meats. The Italian Celiac Association provides a booklet to paying members that lists gluten free items by store, brand, and category. This information is also free on their website, but it's not as easy to decipher.

The Italian Celiac Association also provides a list of restaurants, broken down by region, that can prepare gluten free meals. These are great places when I want pizza or pasta. Otherwise, I have yet to find any restaurant in Italy daunted by my gluten free request, as many Italians have at least heard of celiachia. Even when I ask our hotel desk clerk for restaurant recommendations, she hands me a menu from a place that serves gluten free meals. Unfortunately, this particular eatery is out in the countryside and not an easy commute on a dark wintry night with sleet beginning to fall.

Instead, we walk down the street to a neighborhood restaurant, Ciro & Sons, and inquire if getting a meal senza glutine is a problem. The answer is that of course it’s no problem, as they have a gluten free menu and are on the Italian Celiac Association restaurant list. Overwhelmed by my choices, I order a plate of gluten free spaghetti with homemade pesto sauce, and select a bottle of wine to share with my husband. I’m giddy before the first glass. (December 2005)

Helpful Information

To get the most out of a visit to Florence, and to be within walking distance of the major sights, stay in a centrally located hotel. We stayed in the Hotel Bellettini, Via de’Conti 7. Tel. 055-213-561. http://www.hotelbellettini.com/.

Ciro & Sons, Via del Giglio 28r. Tel. 055-289-694. http://www.ciroandsons.com/. With 24-hour notice, they can prepare gluten free pizza.

Italian Celiac Association. http://www.celiachia.it/.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Reflections of Rome

I’ll always remember my first time. In a European city, that is. I was a nineteen-year old college sophomore traveling with a couple of friends for the winter holiday break. The city was Rome.

Typical students, we didn’t have a lot of money. Meager means paid for a shared hotel room, meals, and visiting some of the city’s most famous sites known only through art classes and dry ancient history textbooks. Other than that, time was spent wandering the labyrinthine streets, window-shopping designer-name stores, and sipping cappuccino at street-side café tables. For us, it was enough just to feel the energy of a city that was still the center of the civilized world for many people. As a young woman, I also enjoyed the attention from Rome’s notoriously forward men!

Not everyone finds Rome so mesmerizing. After all, it is huge, confusing, and even intimidating. Toursits can expect to find long lines, crowded museums, expensive food, and greetings from people ready to either rip you off or pick your pocket. I personally experienced the art of the pickpocket during my college-years trip. Though the actual dollar amount lost was meager, the occurrence was monumentally unnerving. The incident also served to reinforce some of those invaluable life lessons all parents hope their children will learn on the road to adulthood. Things like being prepared, taking precautions, trusting one’s instinct, and knowing that even when bad things happen, which they will, life goes on. So when it came time for me to toss a coin in Trevi Fountain, thus ensuring my eventual return to this beautiful city, I did so with gusto.

Twenty plus years later, I am the first of my friends to travel the road back to Rome. This time I am with my husband of nineteen years and our three sons. Money is still tight, seeing that college expenses are looming ahead for our children’s educations. But living temporarily in Italy as we do for my husband’s job affords us the opportunity to enrich our kids’ lives with experiences not learned in the usual classroom setting. As such, seeing the sights is as much a priority on this trip as it was with my college friends. The boys, however, are not content with aimless wandering and window-shopping, nor do they need the added fuel of caffeine. With such an entourage, and the passing of years, I now give little thought to receiving attention from the men of Rome!

Reflecting on the dissimilarity between these two trips to Rome, I realize there is one other aspect of my life that succinctly separates the years into the “then” and “now.” Namely, this time I am in Rome as a person with celiac disease, and thus not able to eat cheaply, Italian-style, as I had to in my college days. Then, in the days of my carefree undiagnosed celiac youth (I thought my symptoms were normal), I survived on a roll for breakfast, a panini sandwich for lunch, and pizza for dinner. Now, as a responsible adult, I feel like I’ve been robbed. Not of my youth, but of present day opportunities to taste all that Rome has to offer. Subsequently, it’s very easy to tell myself that having celiac disease is one of those “bad” things that have happened to me. Yet, life has gone on, and so I heed the lessons I learned those many years ago - prepare for the journey, take precautions, and trust my instincts.

Preparing for a gluten free trip to Rome is much like preparing for any other trip I take. I pack a meal for the six-hour train ride from my home in northern Italy, and a few snacks to get me by at other times. For the non-celiac family members, pre-made sandwiches, snacks, and drinks are available for purchase on the train. My travel preparation also entails checking the Italian Celiac Association website for a list of restaurants in Rome that serve gluten free meals, though ultimately I do not patronize any of these restaurants on this particular trip.

Rome’s main train station, the Termini, is located in the heart of the city. A shopping mall is located beneath the station, complete with a grocery store and a pharmacy, or farmacia. In Italy, gluten free food is sold at the farmacia, with some grocery stores also selling a few products. Even though I don’t need anything as I arrive in Rome, I can’t resist the urge to slip into the train station farmacia for a quick inventory. Just knowing where to get gluten free food if the need arises gives me peace of mind. Though the selection is meager, the shop has pasta, crackers, and cookies.

Preparing for a trip to Rome also involves taking precautions against non-celiac issues, notably the problem of theft. From my experience, I know the reality of pickpockets. Cab drivers also are quite willing to take advantage of unsuspecting tourists. In the course of our short excursion from the train station to the hotel, we encounter both scenarios. In the first, we are approached by a gypsy woman with outstretched hands and a few children attached to her skirt. While distressing, this situation is a common set-up, with the children employed to do the actual pocket-picking. At the taxi stand, being noted as Americans, we are quoted a price about four times what we know the normal rate should be. So we opt instead to test our luck on Rome’s cheap and easy-to-use, two-line subway. We ride a mere two stops to our exit without incident.

Our hotel, the Residence Barberini, is located one block away from the subway stop, and is also conveniently positioned near a bus stop, the electric tram, a corner coffee bar, and a farmacia with more gluten free food. The hotel room itself is actually a three-room apartment consisting of one bedroom, a living room with fold-out beds for the boys, and a kitchen. I unpack my bag of gluten free snacks, keeping cookies in my purse to enjoy later with a sweet cup of cappuccino, and we set off for an exploratory walk.

Heading towards Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps, we poke into souvenir shops here and there, and glance at restaurant menus in anticipation of dinner later in the evening. We don’t walk for long when the owner of the restaurant La Tavernetta engages us in conversation, touting the typical dishes that appeal to many American tourists, namely pasta. When I tell him I have celiachia, though, he immediately replies with, “so you can’t eat pasta and bread, no problem, we have lots of other things I can cook for you.” After discussing a few meal options, we promise to consider returning that night, and continue down the street.

The Spanish Steps are a gathering spot for locals and tourists alike. But on this cool and misty afternoon, the steps are near empty save for a handful of sightseers photographing each other, Bernini’s aqueduct-powered fountain, and the Gladiator-clad entrepreneurs who gladly pose in exchange for a few Euros. The high-end fashion shopping area begins near the Spanish Steps, along Via del Corso and Via Condotti, but the boys can tolerate only a few of my daydreaming stops in front of shop windows. Comments such as, “Those shoes are ugly,” and, “How much does that cost?!” keep me moving.

In the evening, we return to La Tavernetta for dinner, and are ushered past tables of diners, most of them tourists, already concluding their meal at the early hour of 7:00 p.m. Italians generally don’t head out to dinner until around 7:30 p.m. at the earliest. As we’ve been living in Italy for a few months, we’ve adapted to the later dining hour, and find that the lull between 7:00-7:30 is usually a good time for me to get the attention I need for a gluten free meal.

Our server is the owner’s daughter. She is young, enthusiastic, and speaks English with a beautiful Italian accent and endearingly imperfect grammar. Being one of three children in her own family, and in a country that now considers a family with more than one child “large,” she is taken with our three boys. She guides us through the menu, proudly noting the dishes with the fresh pasta made by her mother, and checking on the preparation of non-pasta dishes for me. I choose one of the daily specials, grilled lamb chops, oven potatoes, and an immense multi-colored garden salad. At the end the meal, my husband and I are served tiny cups of bitterly thick espresso, along with a bottle of grappa from which we are given permission to freely flavor the coffee. Distilled from the leftover pressed grape seeds and skins of winemaking, grappa is potent, and gluten free. Our waitress spoils the boys with a plate of cookies and a parting kiss.

The following two days of our Roman holiday flow nearly as flawlessly. Each morning we pop down to the corner bar for a morning cappuccino, and then purchase pastries and juice to take back to the room for breakfast. For my breakfasts, I purchase yogurt at the bar, gluten free muffins from the farmacia, and supplement with nuts and dried fruit I brought from home. Seeing that an Italian bar is as much a neighborhood meeting place as it is a place that sells coffee, drinks, and quick snacks, by the second day we are already recognized and welcomed with a genuine, “Buon Giorno!”

The bar near our hotel also sells subway and bus tickets, and gladly advises us which bus to take to Vatican City for our day of sightseeing. Once there, we begin with a self-guided tour of the Vatican Museum, where the wait to enter is over an hour long, and the four miles of art inside painfully endless for our youngest son. To view Michelangelo’s restored Sistine Chapel, however, is worth every, “Are we done yet?” remark. The last time I gazed at the ceiling, over twenty years ago, it was dark, dingy, and even dreary. Now it is bright and brilliant in all the colors that Michelangelo intended them to be. I ponder the analogy and wonder if being gluten free has made my life, and my health, more bright and brilliant.

After the museum, pre-packed energy bars fortify us to climb the more than 500 steps to the top of Michelangelo’s Dome inside St. Peter’s Basilica (if you pay for the elevator to the roof, it’s only 323 steps from the roof to the top of the dome). Afterwards, we walk through the Basilica itself, admiring more great works of art by Raphael, Bernini, and Michelangelo. Lunch is a light snack at an over-priced restaurant near the Vatican, consisting of only grilled vegetables for me. Dinner at Ristorante alla Rampa, near the Spanish Steps, is more filling, with the waiter understanding of my dietary restrictions. He is too harried, though, to notice the breadcrumb topped grilled tomatoes that accompany my Bisteccca (grilled beef steak, seasoned with olive oil and herbs). When I point them out, however, he is mortified, and whisks my plate away, returning with what I need.

As we prepare for sightseeing on our next and final full day in Rome, my youngest son, age nine, proclaims he has seen enough art in his lifetime and refuses to see any more. So instead of art, we dedicate the day to ancient Roman ruins, beginning at the 2000-year old Colosseum, the circular amphitheater where gladiators fought. Having made a model of it for a school project, my eleven-year old middle-son declares the Colosseum the highlight of the trip. My fifteen-year old son’s attention is riveted by the sight of a neo-Nazi rally we observe (from a safe distance) in front of the Colosseum, leading to an impromptu discussion about history, governments, and politics.

From the Colosseum, we follow a string of visitors past the Arch of Constantine, which commemorates the battle that legalized Christianity within the Roman Empire, and on through the Roman Forum, which was the political, religious, and commercial center of ancient Rome. Then it is on to Capital Hill, present-day Rome’s government center, and the Victor Emmanuel Monument, built in honor of unified Italy’s first king. Here also is Italy’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where we observe the changing of the guard.

Next, we head in the direction of the Pantheon, the Roman “temple of all the gods.” Along the way, we turn down a street that is barely wide enough for a European Smart Car, and find Miscellanea, a crowded hole-in-the wall restaurant that serves cheap pasta, sandwiches, and salads. Of course, it’s the long list of salads that appeals to me, made with various combinations of colorful lettuces, crunchy vegetables, tasty legumes, hard-boiled eggs, tuna, and other gluten free ingredients. Accompanied by a complimentary glass of Prosecco wine (thanks to Rick Steve's Italy 2005 guidebook), and followed by a dish of vanilla gelato, our meals are healthy and filling.

Rain begins to fall after our visit to the Pantheon. Undaunted, we pop open cheap umbrellas acquired from one of the countless street vendors, and navigate the narrow streets towards the final stop on our Roman adventure, Trevi Fountain. Legend holds that the simple act of tossing a coin into the fountain guarantees one’s return to the city of Rome. As I am living proof that the magic really works, we each take a turn lobbing a coin over our shoulder.

Our final dinner is at Giulio’s Osteria del Crispi, a few blocks from our hotel. We made a reservation the day before, so they are aware of my requirement for a gluten free meal. I select a salad as my appetizer, and a creamy risotto made with artichokes as my primo, or first course. I pass on the secondo, or second course, which is usually chicken, fish, or meat, and the contorno, or side dish, which is also a separate course.

On the morning of our departure, my husband and I visit the corner bar one last time. We are again greeted with warm recognition, and are promptly served our daily cappuccino. As the young man places the steaming cups before us, though, he quickly tells my husband not to get jealous. I look at him quizzically, and then notice that the milky foam in my cup is in the shape of heart. I guess some things never change. (November 2005)

Need to Know Information

Residence Barberini, Via Delle Quattro Fontane 171-171. Tel. 06-4203341. www.residencebarberini.com.

For apartment rentals in Rome: www.rentalinrome.com.

LaTavernetta di Pepi Claudio, Via Sistina 147. Tel. 06-4741939. www.tavernettasistina.it.

Ristorante alla Rampa, Piazza Mignanelli 18. Tel. 06-6782621.

Miscellanea, Via Della Paste 110 (a block toward Via del Corso from the Pantheon).

Giulio’s Osteria del Crispi, Via Francesco Crispi 19. Tel. 06-6785904.

Italian Celiac Association http://www.celiachia.it/. Click on Ristorazioni.

Venice Casts a Spell

“Venice is the most beautiful city in the world,” wrote an interminable traveling friend in a recent letter to me. "I am envious you are living so close to it.” Like many other travelers who visit this city of a hundred islands and 400 bridges, my friend fell in love with Venice. Whether it is the hazy image of a forgotten era, a timeless walk through the mysterious winding alleys, or the omnipresent dance between light and the water, Venice casts a spell over the most jaded traveler.

Eighteen million tourists visit Venice every year. A highlight for many of them is taking a romantic gondola ride on the Grand Canal. Before my first trip to Venice, I could even picture myself drifting serendipitously along in a midnight black gondola, husband by my side, the soothing sweet song of the gondolier immersing us ever deeper into a night that resembles a watercolor painting. Later, an enchanting meal along the Canal, a glass of wine at one of the famous cafes in St. Mark’s Square, and maybe an impromptu dance on the plaza. Who wouldn’t fall in love?

It's with great expectation, then, that I make my intial foray into the city. Yet, standing on the edge of the Grand Canal with not a gondola in sight, I'm not feeling any love. Maybe it’s because my senses are overloaded by the brilliant sunlight reflecting off the water and the multiplicity of languages I hear around me. Or maybe it’s the remembered warning to be alert for pickpockets that keeps me on guard, with a watchful eye on everyone and everything except the beauty that is right in front of me. Or maybe it’s just that I am already hungry for lunch and feeling panicky about finding gluten free food in a city overrun by tourists who don’t have to give a second thought to where they will find their next meal.

Restaurants, snack bars, and pastry shops abound in Venice, their menus and daily special boards touting pasta dishes, panini sandwiches, and decadent desserts. The morning air, thick with the aroma of freshly baked cornetti (similar to croissants) nearly sends me back onto the train that just brought me into the city, and away from having to deal with my celiac disease in such an overwhelming environment.

This trip into Venice is my first attempt to travel around Italy with celiac disease. Since moving to Italy a few months ago, there've been many new experiences and challenges, involving housing, driving, shopping, and eating. At times, it’s all been a bit too much for me, and I’ve wanted to stay hidden inside my house. But I refuse to let celiac disease dictate what I can and can’t do. So for excursions such as my day in Venice, I spend time preparing for the journey, travel with the expectation that stress will occur, and learn to take lots of deep breaths!

It’s now that I breathe deeply, and recognize that the small plaza that separates the train station from the Grand Canal is bustling. Initial befuddlement must be typical for many newcomers to the city. Refocusing my mind and my eyes, I allow the hazy images of the palaces from the other side of the water to come into view. The cacophony of languages around me becomes an international symphony, and I marvel at the extent to which tourism has been a part of this city for hundreds of years. As a gateway to the Orient, Venice was an independent, wealthy, and powerful republic as far back as the 10th century. It was also a city with religious importance due to the bones of St. Mark having arrived here in the early 9th century. Today, many of the local population are involved in the business of tourism. Most speak several languages, including English.

Ready to continue the journey deeper into Venice, we take our place in a line just down the steps from the train station, and purchase tickets for a vaporetto, or water bus. Other than walking, it is the most practical and inexpensive way to get around Venice, serving the same function as a city bus does in other metropolitan areas. Maps of the various routes are posted at each vaporetto platform around the city.

The most popular vaporetto route for tourists is the #1. It’s the “slow boat” that stops at every platform along the Grand Canal, providing ample time to admire the faded facades of palaces from a long gone affluent era. It also gives me time to mentally review my preparation checklist – guidebook, itinerary, camera, gluten free snacks, and Italian dining card – so I can relax some more and fully appreciate my Venetian encounter. It doesn’t matter that I'm not riding in a gondola, that the vaporetto sounds like a tugboat, or that I'm surrounded by other tourists jostling each other for a better viewing spot. The beauty and history of this city is entrancing; my mind tries to wrap itself around a lifestyle, both past and present, so tied to the miles of waterways, where delivery boats, garbage boats, and even ambulance and funeral boats are just part of the flow. The angry shout of a vaporetto horn, cursing at the gondoliers who dare venture into its path, breaks my thoughts. It is like watching a bumper car ride at an amusement park, except that the boats thankfully rarely crash into each other.

We disembark after 45-minutes, arriving at St. Mark’s Square. I am hungrier now, and know I will not fully appreciate an afternoon of sightseeing unless I first find a place where I can enjoy a gluten free meal. Following well-heeled advice that is perhaps even more prudent in a tourist area, I want to get to a restaurant ahead of the lunch-crunch. This way, I will have the unflustered attention of either the waiter or owner while explaining the celiac diet.

The Italian Celiac Association has an online guide to celiac friendly restaurants around Italy, but there currently are no listings for Venice. So prior to our daytrip, I reviewed a few travel guidebooks for restaurant suggestions, looking at online menus when available. I also conducted an internet search to gain a better understanding of Venetian cuisine, specifically tracking down recipes to see which ingredients are generally used in the local or typical dishes. Even without such research, an overall rule of thumb to get the best quality food at the best price when traveling anywhere in Italy is to avoid touristy restaurants.

As my itinerary for the day focuses on sights centered on St. Mark’s square, I choose a restaurant that seems to be known only by locals, and fans of Rick Steves’ Italy 2005 guidebook (which is where I found the listing). Two blocks away from St. Mark’s Square, yet located beyond a tunnel through which few tourists seem to venture, Osteria Da Carla serves up traditional Venetian fare that includes plates of sardines, squid, and cod. After discussing my needs with the owner, Menaka Heenatigala, and showing him my Italian dining card, I decide to lunch on a plate of grilled polenta and mixed vegetables. Polenta is cornmeal that has first been made into a thick porridge and formed into a loaf, and then sliced and grilled. The vegetables -potatoes, peas, peppers, carrots, green beans, onions, and mushrooms - have either been steamed or grilled, the latter being a common method of cooking vegetables in northeast Italy. Menaka also recommends a glass of the house white wine. At the table next to us, an Italian grandfather having lunch with his grandson nods his approval when my meal arrives.

Fortified for the afternoon, we return to St. Mark’s Square to dutifully make our rounds of some of Venice’s most famous sights. This includes St. Mark’s Basilica and Doge’s Palace, the seat of the Venetian government and home of the elected doge, or ruler, during the time of the Republic. Then, we while away the rest of the day, feeding the pigeons in the Square and indulging ourselves with a few scoops of gelato. Sitting alongside the Grand Canal, with the late summer sun upon my face, and gondolas bobbing at my feet, I'm smitten. (September 2005)