Monday, November 26, 2007

Gluten-Free and Easy in the U.K.

I recently traveled to the UK (England and Scotland) for the very first time and found it relatively easy to eat gluten-free. Many restaurants were familiar with celiac (coeliac) and weren't put off by my requests. Here are a few discoveries:

1) Jacket potatoes, with various toppings, are a meal standard, and are usually served with a side salad. Gluten-free and cheap.

2) Marks & Spencer has ready-made meals that are healthy and relatively inexpensive, such as salad meals. Just make sure to get one without the pasta.

3) AMT coffee shop (like a Starbucks) sells gluten-free food bars at the check-out counter. Don't we wish Starbucks had something like that?

4) Holland and Barrets health food store chain sell gluten-free bread, crackers, cookies, etc.

5) Boots Chemist has some gluten-free items, and sometimes prepared meals.

6) Grocery stores such as Tesco and Sainsbury have gluten-free items.

7) Several chain restaurants in the UK have gluten-free menus:

  • Smollensky's (American fare)

  • La Tasca (Spanish tapas)

  • Wagamama (a stir-fry place - it doesn't have gluten-free menu but can modify several of their dishes)

  • Pret a Manger (I was told they have a gluten-free list but I did not go here so cannot verify the list)

8) In Edinburgh, I highly recommend a meal at Always Sunday Food Company, near St. Giles Cathedral at 170 High Street (the Royal Mile). Tel: 131-622-0667. It's a healthy place to eat and they know gluten-free.

9) In London, check out The Souk, an Arabian fast-food restaurant, with eat-in, carry-out, and delivery service. All of their wheat-free dishes are clearly marked (remember to ask if they are also gluten-free). They also sell gluten-free packaged foods in the refrigerater section. Address: 8 Adelaide St., London WC2N 4HZ. Tel: 020-7240-2337.

10) In York, eat at El Piano Restaurant Cafe and Bazaar. Gluten-free menu items are clearly marked, delicious, and inexpensive. Everything is also vegetarian. Address: 15/17 Grape Lane, The Quarter, York, Y01 7HU. Tel: (0) 1904-610676.

11) Pay attention to packaging because "gluten-free" and "wheat-free" products are often side-by-side on shelves.

12) When reading ingredients on packages, also look for the presence of wheat starch, which is considered gluten-free in the UK.

13) Do not eat anything made with scotch broth. It's made with barley.

14) Shop at the street markets for food treats. This one is at Portobello Road.

15) Gluten-free food is readily available at the airports!
A few other non-food tidbits:

1) If you go to Edinburgh, stop in at Neanie Scotts's shop, located on The Royal Mile. Neanie's granddaughter runs the shop and loves to tell you its history. It's one of the most authentic expriences you'll have while in town.

2) See a show in London. It's a "must-do."

3) Traveling in the UK is expensive! But worth it!

A Celiac's Guide to Eating in Italy

Book store and library shelves are chock-full of guidebooks to help travelers get the most out of their trip to Italy. Advice is offered about which famous sites to see, where to stay, and what to eat. But not a single guidebook points the celiac traveler in the direction of a gluten-free meal!

Below, then, is a list of some of the major tourist destinations in Italy and the names of restaurants near these sites that can accommodate the gluten-free diet. I can personally recommend most of the restaurants. Many are drawn from the more than 855 hotels and restaurants that have been trained by the Italian Celiac Association (AIC). These are indicated with a *. For a complete list of AIC venues, go to As updates become available from fellow travelers, I'll include their comments and the dates of their travels - with their permission, of course.

  • *Ristorante da Poggi, rio terra de La Madalena, 2103 Cannaregio, Tel: 04-1721199. Located between San Marcuola and Ca’ d’Oro vaporetto stops.
  • *Trattoria Cammillo, Borgo S. Jacopo, 57, Tel: 05-5212427. Near Ponte S. Trinita.
  • *Ristorante Ciro & Son’s, Via del Giglio, 26/28r, Tel: 05-5289694. Near San Lorenzo.
  • *Ristorante La Gratella, V. Guelfa 8 R, Tel: 05-5211292. Near Galleria Dell’Accademia.
  • *Ristorante I Quattro Amici, V. Orti Oricellari, 29, Tel: 05-52154513. Near train station.
  • *Ristorante Il Portale, V. Alamanni, 29r, Tel: 05-5212992. Near train station.
  • *Alex Café, Via Vittoria Veneta 20, Tel: 06-4823618. Metro: Barberini. Located directly across the street from the Cappuccin Crypt. The price is high, quality mediocre, and service fair. I've had much better meals at much lower prices, but it was nice to get gluten-free pasta in a centrally located restaurant. (Update by KathleenO'Neil: A fancier place in a glass-enclosed space on the sidewalk, offers a gluten-free menu in English and other languages (they cater more to tourists). The food was good, but not exciting. April 2008)
  • *La Mimosa Fiorita, Via Bari 11 A, Tel: 06-44291958. Metro: Policlinico, and then there’s about a 3-4 block walk. (Update by Kathleen O'Neil: A nice family-run restaurant with GF pasta, pizza and other offerings - my waiter was also Celiac and took good care of me. There was no official GF menu, but I just described what I wanted and they were very accommodating. I enjoyed the seasonal roasted vegetables a la carte as my antipasti, and they made me some focaccia with pizza dough as my bread. April 2008)
  • *Renovatio, Piazza Risorgimento 46 A, Tel: 06-68892977, Located in the vicinity of the Vatican, near Via Crescenzio.
  • LaTavernetta di Pepi Claudio, Via Sistina 147. Tel. 06-4741939, Located between Barberini and Spagna (Spanish Steps) Metro stops. The owner and his daughter took very good care of me. For more information see "Reflections of Rome" in November 2006 archives. (Update by Kathleen O'Neil: No set gluten-free menu, and the waiters I spoke to didn't know what Celiac was, but the manager did and explained it to them. I had a basic, good but unexciting meal of roasted chicken and a vegetable. April 2008)
  • Miscellanea, Via Della Paste 110 (a block toward Via del Corso from the Pantheon). This is a very casual sandwich and salad place. There are no GF sandwiches, but many of the salads are natually gluten-free and are meals in themselves. (Update by Kathleen O'Neil: No GF menu, the owner wasn't there when I came by, and the waiterI spoke with didn't know about Celiac. Only the salads looked safe - it's a pretty Americanized pasta and pizza place. It advertises itself as a restaurant for American students, so they do speak English well. April 2008)
  • Giulio’s Osteria del Crispi, Via Francesco Crispi 19. Tel. 06-6785904. Reservations required. Located between Barberini and Spagna (Spanish Steps) Metro stops. I ate here on two separate trips to Rome, and each time had a wonderful meal - the best was an asparagus risotto. (Traveler Kathleen O'Neil said the restaurant was closed when she was there in April 2008, and possibly no longer in business. My observation was that this restaurant is open only certain days of the week and even then only certain hours of the day. So call and inquire).
  • Il Tulipano Nero in Trastavere (SW Rome), off Piazza San Cosimato, Via RomaLibera 15, 06-5818309. A casual, neighborhood pizzeria and restaurant that has a gluten-free menu, including gluten-free pizza, pasta and a British GF beer. The pizza crust was the best I've had - just like the real thing. I went there twice and ordered a pizza to go for the next day's lunch (something that confused my hotel's staff - they apparently don't believe in eating cold pizza there.) Save room for the GF desserts, including tiramisu. (Info provided by Kathleen O'Neil, April 2008)
  • *Best Western Hotel Spring House, Via Mocenigo 7. Tel. 06-39720948. Located past Vatican City, about 5-6 blocks from Ottaviano S. Pietro Metro, and about 2 blocks from Cipro Musei Vaticani Metro.. I didn't have an opportunity to stay here, but I did contact them and learned they have gluten-free food at their breakfast buffet for guests staying at the hotel, and was told there are many restaurants not far from the hotel that offer gluten-free food.
  • *Hotel Holiday Inn Eur Medici, V. le Castello della Magliania 65. Tel. 06-65581. This hotel is located near EUR, which is halfway between the airport and downtown. They provide a free shuttle bus to downtown. Otherwise, it's 6 km from the Metro Magliania, and then you must take Bus 771 to the hotel. The Muratella city train is 200 meters from the hotel. Gluten-free options are offered for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Non-guests must make restaurant reservations.
  • Gelateria: 1) Gelateria Buccianti, Piazza Cavour 18 (near Castel Sant'Angelo) Has GF cones, but said only the fruit flavors were GF (not sure if that was due to potential cross-contamination or ingredients). Liked the raspberry.2) Il Gelato di San Crispino, 42 Via Della Panetterra (right around corner fromTrevi Fountain). No cones, almost all flavors are GF (so try the chocolateand the hazelnut!) 3) Fior di Luna, Via della Lungaretta, 96 ( Another place without cones, also sells chocolates. 4) A gelato place in Piazza Sant Eustachio has the GF cones, but I didn't try their gelato (I didn't write down its name). You should still ask if the gelato is GF, even if they have the cones. I asked at one gelateria on Viadei Serpenti that had GF cones, but they said none of their gelato was safe since they didn't thoroughly clean the gelato mixer between batches. (All gelateria info provided by Kathleen O'Neil, April 2008)
Cinque Terre

  • *La Barcaccia, Via Molinelli 6/8, Monterosso al Mare, Tel: 01-87829009.
  • Ristorante Pizzeria Vulnetia, Piazza Marconi 29, Vernazza, Tel: 01-87821193.
  • Nello la Taverna, Via Porrione 28, Tel: 05-77289043. Near City Tower in Il Campo.
  • Osteria Il Ghibellino, Via dei Pellegrini 26. They have aGF menu. (Info provided by Kathleen O'Neil, April 2008)
  • Gelateria: 1) Il Gelato, Piazza del Campo 41 2) Super Parma, 27 Banchi di Sotto. (Info provided by Kathleen O'Neil, April 2008)
Naples/Sorrento/Amalfi Coast
  • *Pizzeria Ciro a San Brigida, via S. Brigida 71/75, Napoli. Tel. 081-5524072. Located near the Galleria.
  • *Ristorante Pizzeria La Fenice, via degli Aranci 11, Sorrento. Tel. 081-8781652.
  • *Osteria La Stalla, via Pieta 30, Sorrento. Tel. 081-8074145.

Eating Gluten-Free in Italy: A Primer

A typical Italian breakfast consists of a pastry and a cup of cappuccino (a coffee concoction of espresso, steamed milk, and frothed milk). In some small hotels, and especially in Italian B&B’s, this may be the only items offered. Some larger hotels offer a breakfast buffet, with yogurt, cheese, and possibly eggs. I’ve fared the best in my travels around Italy when I’ve carried my own breakfast food. Almost any farmacia will stock at least a couple gluten-free products, such as bread, muffins, cereal, crackers, and cookies, so it’s not necessary to carry an entire vacation’s supply from home!

Lunch is easier to do gluten-free, although sometimes frustrating when the quickest and cheapest foods seem to be the kind that are off-limits – pizza and panini (sandwiches). A fast and somewhat inexpensive option is to find a tavola calda (warm table), which is a buffet that serves meats, vegetables, cheeses, salads, and fruits, in addition to regular pasta dishes. Another choice, especially if the weather is fine, is to picnic. I have fond memories of shopping the outdoor market at Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, buying cheese from one vendor, cherry tomatoes from another, and fruit from yet another, and then sitting at the base of a statue in the square, feasting amidst the hubbub of Roman life. Alimentari (small specialty shops) and supermercato (grocery store) are also great places to pick up picnic items. Some of the larger grocery stores also carry gluten-free items.

Dinner offers the most variety to celiacs, and there are several types of restaurants to choose from: ristorante (usually fancier with extensive menus), osteria (serves regional food and has a wine bar), trattoria (casual family-run place), and pizzeria.

A typical Italian menu consists of several sections. First is the antipasto (appetizer), then the primo piatto (first course that is usually pasta but also can be soup or rice), secondo piatto (second course of meat or fish), and contorno (side dish/vegetable). If a place serves pizza, that gets its own section. There also may be listings for formaggio (cheese) and dolce (dessert). It’s not necessary to order from every section! I usually can find a safe antipasto and secondo for a complete meal.

Fortunately, for both residents and visitors to Italy, there is an Italian Celiac Association (AIC), with active local support groups. Their biggest accomplishment, in my opinion, is the establishment of a gluten-free restaurant training program. Restaurants, pizzerias, agriturismi, and hotels can receive this training. Then, the AIC includes the business’ information on its website, The list can be accessed either by going directly to the “Ristorazione” section of the website, or by clicking on the segment created especially for English-speaking travelers. Entitled “Vademecum for the Celiac Voyager,” this area has lots of helpful information for tourists, including a section called “Choosing at the Restaurant,” that offers suggestions for the safest food when not dining at an AIC-trained dining establishment. As well, there is a part called “Prontuario” that lists commercially available gluten-free products. When eating in an Italian Celiac Association trained restaurant, it will almost always have gluten-free pasta, so I always make it a point to have a primo!

And what about gelato? More often than no, I eat it. While the AIC maintains a list of specially trained gelateria, they are few and far between. So, after talking with a few places and being shown ingredient lists, I’ve decided that eating gelato is generally a safe bet. It’s interesting to note that gelato flavors also change with the season because of the use of fresh ingredients! As at any ice cream shop, though, it’s important to understand that scoops can come into contact with cones, and cone pieces can fall into the gelato. It also goes without saying not to order any flavors that contain gluten items, such as tiramisu, and to remember to ask for it in a coppa (cup). My favorite flavors are fragolino (strawberry) and fiore di latte (flower of milk).

The End of the Italian Journey

I moved to northern Italy with my husband and our three sons two years ago. My husband’s job as a military officer was the reason for the move – he had no choice but to answer the “call to duty.” As for me, I heeded the “call to journey - with celiac disease.”

Prior to the move, numerous family members and friends had expressed concern about how I would manage my gluten-free diet while living in the motherland of pizza and pasta. Admittedly, I was also a bit apprehensive about what I would find to eat when dining out, where I would buy gluten-free products, and how I would convey my needs when I couldn’t speak the language. With our time in Italy now drawing to a close, I realize that worrying about all these things was a waste of time!

Eating is a favorite pastime in Italy so most Italians instinctively follow the time-honored practice of living in harmony with nature by preparing foods according to the season. They take great pride and care in selecting only the best products available and cooking them fresh everyday. This goes for the casalinga (housewife) as well as the Mama who does all the cooking at the local osteria (restaurant). What this means to the celiac diner is that at most any eating establishment, it’s a given that the food will have been prepared on site and the exact ingredients will be known.

I also venture to say that celiac disease is more well-known in Italy than it is in America. In fact, the only difficulty I can recall when dining out came not from an Italian but from a fellow American who was in charge of organizing a group event at a restaurant in Venice. She didn’t want me to participate because she was confident my gluten-free diet would be viewed by the restaurant owner as an impossible, and insulting, request. At first I was crushed, my feelings hurt. Then I struck back, with kindness and information, intent on proving that my celiac disease would not be an inconvenience or an embarrassment. Now, I’m a welcome member of the dining-out group. During our latest trip, to a Palladian villa followed by lunch, the familiarity with celiac was ever so poignantly demonstrated when the restaurant owner simply went to the local farmacia to buy gluten-free bread and pasta for my meal, and prepared my chicken breast on the grill rather than floured and sautéed for scaloppini.

A farmacia is the Italian equivalent of a pharmacy. It’s where gluten-free food is sold because gluten-free food is the “medicine” for celiacs! Every town, no matter how small, seems to have at least one shop. The town where I live, with a population of 16,000, has three. Big cities like Rome and Florence have one on practically every street corner. Of the three pharmacies in my town, one does not carry gluten-free food. Another one keeps only a handful of items in stock, but can order practically anything I want. The third one (naturally, the farthest from my house!) carries a constantly evolving supply. I’ve never wanted for a slice of gluten-free bread, a chocolate cookie, or a plethora of pasta. Frozen gluten-free pizza, gnocchi, and tiramisu are also available. As a familiar face, I even receive product discounts from the pharmacist. The only stipulation seems to be that I speak to her in English so she can improve her language skills, a condition to which I’m perfectly happy to comply.

Mastering the Italian language has proven to be the most difficult task for me these past two years. While the average vacationer can often get by with just a few pleasantries such as buon giorno (good day), per favore (please), and grazie (thank you), greater fluency is required when living or traveling outside the major tourist areas. Even in the town where I live, a mere 20-minute drive from where the American military base is located, English is not common. Many of the Italian students we have met due to our sons playing soccer on the town team tell us they study German as their second language. After all, this area is only a 2-hour drive from the Austrian and Slovenian borders and at different times in recent history, portions of Italy have been under both Austrian and Yugoslavian control.

So, I’ve tried to learn Italian. Sometimes my attempts are even successful. More often than not, however, I get caught up in listening to the melodic intonations of the language, imagining myself at one of the Italian operas that is performed every summer in the first century A.D. Roman arena in Verona. As such, I carry an Italian-language gluten-free dining card with me wherever I go. There’s no sense in getting sick because of a misunderstood word. I’ve also learned to recognize the words for the forbidden grains so I can read ingredient labels when food shopping.

My qualms about living in Italy with celiac disease are not unique. They are the same ones expressed by celiacs moving and traveling practically anywhere new and different. Fortunately, for both residents and visitors to Italy, there is an Italian Celiac Association (AIC), with active local support groups. Their biggest accomplishment, in my opinion, is the establishment of a gluten-free restaurant training program. Restaurants, pizzerias, agriturismi, and hotels can receive this training. Then, the AIC includes the business’ information on its website, The list can be accessed either by going directly to the “Ristorazione” section of the website, or by clicking on the segment created especially for English-speaking travelers. Entitled “Vademecum for the Celiac Voyager,” this area has lots of helpful information for tourists, including a section called “Choosing at the Restaurant,” that offers suggestions for the safest food when not dining at an AIC-trained dining establishment. As well, there is a part called “Prontuario” that lists commercially available gluten-free products.

During these past two years living and traveling around Italy and other parts of Europe, I’ve noted what’s worked best for me, and have sought to share these experiences with other celiacs who also enjoy travel. My dream is to have one central source for celiac travelers, in the form of a celiac travel guide.

In less than two weeks, my husband, children, and I will return to live in the United States. Believe it or not, we do not have a set destination. That’s because my husband has recently retired from 23 years of active duty military service. So, for the first time in our married life, after having lived in eight different places without much say about it (though I’ll never complain about having to live in Italy), we actually get to choose where we want to live! We’re taking our time. It’s a new journey.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A Gluten-Free April in Paris

Sitting in La Terrasse du 7ème, a busy Parisian café just down the street from where Napoleon Bonaparte received his military training at the imposing Ecole Militaire, I was overcome with panic. Before being seated, I’d cautiously asked the headwaiter, David, who was impeccably dressed in a lavender-colored shirt, if he spoke English. He smiled and answered that yes, he did. Then, I bravely gave him my French-language gluten-free dining card. He read it, tucked it into his pocket, gave me a menu, and then walked away. A few minutes later, a different waiter appeared. He didn’t speak English and he didn’t have my card.

Already self-conscious about my inability to speak French, and very much aware of the reputation for rudeness among French waiters, I wondered if I’d gone too far by not only speaking English to David, but also by having given instructions about what I could and could not eat. According to most accounts, it was going to be difficult for me to get gluten-free meals in France. The main reason being that celiac disease still is not well-known in France. It was also pointed out that French chefs don’t take kindly to being told how to prepare food. Dinner at La Terrasse was my first stab at dining out in Paris, and it didn’t seem to be going well.

My friend, Sharleen, and I had arrived in Paris about eight hours earlier, flying into the smaller of the city’s two airports, Orly. It was the first time in the City of Lights for both of us and we were excited about visiting the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Musée du Louvre. Yet we both also wondered how we’d fare in a place infamous for its disdain of anyone who can’t speak the local language, overall insolence, and dislike of Americans (though Sharleen is from New Zealand).

It didn’t take long to bump into our first trial - the airport assistant whose sole job, it seemed, was to help bewildered tourists navigate the ticket machines for the public buses. Surely he had a right to get testy with foreigners. “Parlez-vous anglais?” I asked. “Yes, a little,” came the mildly-accented and modest reply, followed-up with friendly instructions to catch the Air France Bus that shuttles passengers to various downtown destinations. He said we should buy our tickets directly from the bus driver.

Ah, yes, the bus driver. Balding, round-faced, and squinty-eyed. He hated his job and apparently everyone who boarded his bus. Spouting commands I didn’t understand, he glared down from his imperial perch as we struggled to hoist our bags up the narrow bus steps, his eyes daring us to speak a word to him in anything but French. “Deux,” (two) I said, counting out exact change in euro. Then, after having carefully observed the movements of the person in front of me, I plucked my tickets from the onboard ticket machine and found a seat, feeling a little weary.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all my years of travel, it’s that no matter where I go, there will always be those people who are pleasant, and those who are not! The classically-dressed lady to whom I asked with a quizzical lilt in my voice, “Métro” - she was nice. Though I didn’t know the words she spoke, her motions said to follow her from the shuttle bus to the subway station because she was going that way, too. The man who worked at the Métro ticket counter, he was just indifferent. Or maybe lazy. My guidebook said a carnet (10 single tickets sold for a discounted price) could be purchased from either a human or a machine. The Métro worker pointed to the machine.

Riding two stops to the Ecole Militaire subway station, we emerged onto a busy street and walked the short distance to the Hotel Eber Mars. Nearby were numerous restaurants and shops, including a health food store called Naturalia that had a great selection of gluten-free food. From the hotel, it was then another easy walk to the Eiffel Tower, which was the first place we headed after we checked in, dumped our bags, and munched on fruit, nuts, cheese, and snack bars we’d brought with us.

The weather in April that Sunday afternoon was sunny and warm. Families with young children picnicked and frolicked on the grassy expanse of the Parc Du Champ De Mars that stretches from Ecole Militaire to the base of the Eiffel Tower. Young people quietly congregated in circles to socialize, sip wine, and play their guitars. The scene certainly looked enticing, but we had other plans – an energizing and unique orientation bike tour of the city.

The Fat Tire Bike Tour group that day consisted mostly of Americans. Ranging in age from mid-20s to 50s, and from a variety of backgrounds, we peddled together past a dozen or so well-known sights, including Napoleon’s Tomb, the Rodin Museum, and Musée d’Orsay. While not strenuous, especially since there were numerous information and photo-op stops, the tour did require a bit of nerve to venture into Paris’ wide and heavily trafficked streets. Our reward was a light refreshment reprieve at a charming outdoor café in Tuileries Garden. Most of us imbibed in a glass of wine; many of us commented on the brilliant blue sky, the leafy green chestnut trees that shaded us, and the warm and friendly demeanor of our waiter. We all agreed Paris was beautiful.

It was with that same warm and fuzzy feeling that Sharleen and I selected La Terrasse du 7ème for our first French meal. We both thought the menu could satisfy our dietary needs (she eats vegetarian), and the place itself looked every bit the classic Parisian café, with small intimate tables spilling out onto the wide city sidewalk, all of them positioned for optimal people-watching. When I’d presented the headwaiter with my dining card, he hadn’t appeared offended, and I assumed he took it to the kitchen for a small tête-à-tête with the chef about what meal they could provide for me.

Prior to my trip to Paris, I had, like always, researched the destination in order to pinpoint both my sightseeing priorities and possible places to eat. While my list of things to see outlasted the amount of time I had, information about gluten-free food was short. At one time someone had started a website specifically for celiacs in Paris, but it no longer exists. The celiac listserv provided the name of only one restaurant known for its celiac awareness, and it is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays – the two full days of my trip. So I was winging it, relying only on a few guidebook references i.e. “good dinner salads,” and my French-language dining card.

Breakfasts in Paris were surprising fairly easy, as long as I didn’t breathe in the sweet aroma of just-baked pastries that are a staple of the French diet. Though not freshly baked, the health food store did sell packaged gluten-free chocolate croissants that satisfied me. Lunch was generally eaten on the go, much as we did prior to the bike tour, supplemented with yogurt, cheese, and fresh fruit purchased at one of the many small grocery stores around the city.

For me, shopping in the local stores is often as exciting as visiting the prominent landmarks. At a shoe store on Rue Cler, near my hotel, I was on a mission to find the perfect pair of ballet shoes, the latest style in Paris. The store is owned by a father-son team. The father spoke not a word of English, and he knew I didn’t speak French, but that didn’t stop him from talking. The son, who spoke some English, seemed genuinely thrilled we were there, and was eager to know what we thought of Paris, how we found the people, and did we like the food.

Yes, we loved the food. At La Terrasse, once I gesticulated wildly enough to the slightly confused (or was he slightly amused?) waiter, he understood that I wanted to speak with the headwaiter. Approaching the table with my dining card in hand, David didn’t know why I needed him. Apparently, I’d been too wrapped up thinking my celiac disease would give the French another reason not to like me, and hadn’t realized they’d make for me whatever I wanted. A silly thought, I know, because celiac disease does not define who I am, only what I can and cannot eat.

That night I dined on a thick medium-well done steak (the French like their meat rare), and the most incredible butter-drenched garden-fresh green beans I’ve ever eaten. David recommended a glass of full-bodied red wine from the French Côtes du Rhône region. The next night, dead on our feet after wondering about the Louvre for several hours, we ate in the underground shopping mall food court located near the inverted pyramid of the Louvre. I showed my dining card to the two young women working at a place called Le Libanan, and enjoyed a filling meal of Lebanese roast chicken, fava beans, and a cucumber and tomato salad. Probably the easiest gluten-meal I found in Paris was an omelet. Served for lunch and dinner at many cafes, it’s often accompanied by a simple green salad.

My most elaborate meal in Paris was at Les Fous de l’Ile, located on the Ile St. Louis, the little dinghy of an island attached only by a bridge to the historical core of Paris, the Ile de la Cité. My dining partner was a young doctor I’d met two days earlier on the bike tour. By chance, we found ourselves standing in line together at the Musée d’Orsay, waiting to view French Impressionism art of the 1800s, and agreed it’d be fun to have lunch together afterwards at a typical French bistro. Confidently presenting my dining card to the owner/chef of Les Fous (who did not speak English), I got the better meal – a fancy crawfish appetizer and a simple main meal of salmon and vegetables in parchment paper. My new friend ordered andouillette, a fat sausage casing filled with tripe. Much like people, some foods are pleasant. Some are not!

Helpful Information
Naturalia, La Vie Claire, and Biocoop are health food stores you’ll find in Paris.

Below is a List of Restaurants in Paris Recommended by other Celiac Travelers

Biosphere, 57 rue St. Maur, Tel: 01 48 06 08 81 - a gluten-free take-out and food shop

A deux pas du trois, 101 rue Vieille du Temple, 75003 Paris, Tél: 01 42 77 10 52 - an all gf restaurant

Café Barge, 5 Port de la Rapée, 75012 Paris, Tél: 01 40 02 09 09

Le Charlain, 23 rue Clauzel, 75009 Paris, Tél: 01 48 78 74 40

Miss Betsy, 23 rue Guillaume Tell, 75017 Paris, Tél: 01 42 67 12 67

Somo, 168 rue Montmartre, 75002 Paris, Tél: 01 40 13 08 80

Willi’s Wine Bar, 13 rue des petits champs, 75001 Paris, Tél: 01 42 61 05 09

Des si et des mets, 63 rue Lepic, 75018 Paris, Tel: 01 42 55 19 61, Metro: Abbesses ou Blanche - all GF restaurant

Brasserie Balzar, 49, rue des Ecoles, 5th arrond., phone: 01 43 54 13 67, Metro: Cluny-La Sorbonne. A great, classic French brasserie.

Le P'tit Troquet, 28, rue de l'Exposition, 7th arrond., ph: 01 47 05 80 39, closed Sat (lunch), Sunday, Monday (lunch).

Oh! Duo, 54, avenue Emile Zola, 15th arrond., ph: 01 45 77 28 82, closed Sat lunch, Sunday, Monday dinner.

Les Diables au Thym, 35, rue Bergere, 9th arrond., ph: 01 47 70 77 09, closed Sat & Sunday. Metro: Grandes Boulevard.

Clementine, 5, rue Saint Marc, 2nd arrond., ph: 01 40 41 05 65, open Monday- Friday, noon- 2:15pm, 7:30 -10:15pm. Metro: Bourse or Grandes Boulevards.

L'Affriole: 17, rue Malar, 7th arrond., ph: 01 44 18 31 33, closed Sunday.

Boucherie Rouliere: 24, rue des Canettes, 6th arrond. ph: 01 43 26 25 70, closed Monday.

Some cheaper/quicker restaurants:

Cojean is a cafe chain that sells sandwiches, quiche, salads, soups - 6 locations one of them across from one end of the Louvre. Open Mon - Fri, 8am -7pm.

Le Sarrasin et Le Froment Creperie: 84, rue St Louis en I'Isle, 4th Arrond. Serves mainly crepes (not GF), but can also get an omelet and salad.

Cosi: 54, rue de Seine, 6th Arrond., open daily noon -11pm. This is the original Cosi, which now has a similar style restaurant chain in the US. Their salads are made-to-order.

Le Crepe Rit du Clown: 6, rue des Canettes, 6th arrond. Crepes are their specialty but they have "choose your own ingredients" salads.

Noglu Restauration & Epicerie - sans gluten, 16, passage des Panoramas – 75002 Paris. - tél. : 01 40 26 41 24.

Helmut Newcake, 36 rue Bichat, Paris. Metro: Goncourt and Republic. TEL: 09 82 59 00 39
EMAIL : A gluten free bakery.

Desserts are tough in France, since pastry is certainly their specialty, but many places sell meringues, crème brule, sorbets and glaces (ice cream).

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Planning a Trip to Slovenia

“A well-planned trip is more fun, less expensive, and not necessarily more structured,” writes Rick Steves, my favorite travel guidebook author. “Planning means understanding your alternatives and choosing what best fits your travel dreams.” I’d like to add that for the celiac traveler, a well-planned trip can also mean the difference between finding gluten-free foods and the alternative: going hungry.

Fortunately, I like to make plans, a skill that’s been sharpened by my lifestyle as a military spouse with two domestic and five international moves, and being a mother who’s dragged her three children all over the world for both moves and vacations (one child potty-trained on a 13-hour flight to Australia). Living in Italy for the past one-and-a-half years, surrounded with beguiling travel opportunities, I’ve been able to further hone this talent. By adapting conventional travel planning methods to fit my gluten-free requirements, I’ve even recently created a celiac travel planning guide for myself.

What follows then, is an outline of this planning guide, and a description of how I applied the steps to a recent trip. To make sure I was covering all the bases, I planned the trip for a destination wholly unfamiliar to my family: the Republic of Slovenia, part of the former communist country of Yugoslavia.

1. Research Destination: Of all the Eastern European countries, Yugoslavia was the most contrived. Made up of six distinct republics, with different peoples, languages, and religions, the entire country imploded in the late 1980’s. Slovenia was the first republic to declare its independence in 1991. Because it is largely an ethnically and religiously homogenous region, Slovenia’s war for freedom lasted only ten days, leaving the country’s cities, countryside, and people relatively unscathed. It joined the European Union in 2004, and started using the Euro currency this year. Its small, neat, and centrally positioned capital city of Ljubljana, population 266,000, is safe and welcoming.

2. Determine Sightseeing Priorities: By reading travel guide books and searching the internet I learned that Slovenia has a very small coastline along the Adriatic Sea (29 miles), of which the principal town is Piran; that the Alps extend into the northern territory of Slovenia around the town of Bled and the Triglav National Park, complete with alpine skiing and medieval castles; that there is an extensive cave system in the central Karst region; and that the country is mainly rural. Slovenia shares borders with Austria to the north, Hungary to the east, Croatia to the south, and Italy to the west.

Based on this research, my family’s interests, and the fact that our trip would be only a quick overnight trip, we decided to tour Ljubljana and visit the caves in Postojna.

3. Make Transportation Arrangements: Ljubljana is about a two-and-a-half hour drive from our home in northern Italy. Therefore, our mode of transportation was our family van, and I didn’t have to make any special meal arrangements for the trip.

4. Make Accommodation Arrangements: To locate a hotel in Ljubljana, I again turned to guidebooks and the internet. I also contacted a member of the celiac listserv who’d made an inquiry several months earlier regarding her own trip to Slovenia. I could’ve posted my own questions to the list, but felt it wasn’t necessary because this particular member provided me with information about two different hotels where she’d stayed, the name of a restaurant she liked, the location of a grocery store where she bought gluten-free food, as well as sightseeing suggestions. The recommended hotels were out of our price range, however, so we made reservations at an inexpensive place called Hotel Emonec, in the heart of downtown Ljubljana.

5. Make a Detailed Itinerary: The objective in doing this is not to have every minute of a trip planned out, but rather to ensure we see and do the things we want. Here is the itinerary for our two days in Slovenia (* = have a gluten-free snack handy):

Day One:
Depart home at 7:30 AM
Arrive at hotel around 10:00 AM *
Join 2-hour city walking tour (Available only at 11:00 AM)
Hike up or ride funicular to castle (Open 10:00 AM-9:00 PM)
Free time to wander around town, shop, get coffee, etc. *

Day Two:
Breakfast at hotel (included) *
Riverside Market (Open 7:00 AM – 2:00 PM)
Tour Jože Plečnik House (Open 10:00 AM – 2:00 PM)
Lunch (from items purchased at Riverside Market)
Depart Ljubljana for Postonja Caves NLT 12:30 PM (45 minute drive). Cave tour at 2:00 PM (90 minutes). Nearby is Predjama Castle (Closes at 4:00 PM) *
Depart for home around 4:30 PM/Arrive 7:00 PM

6. Research Dining Information: Having such a detailed itinerary makes it easier for me to focus my dining research because it gives me a general idea of where we’ll be at meal and snack times. After all, knowing there’s a terrific celiac-friendly restaurant in the suburbs does me no good when I’m spending my day in a downtown art museum. Likewise, an itinerary helps me plan how many snacks to pack.

Prior to this trip, I tried to navigate the Slovenia Celiac Association website, but as it was entirely in Slovene, a Slavic language I don’t read or speak. Next, I emailed them, requesting restaurant assistance, but my emails went unanswered. Travel guidebooks and internet research yielded some information about typical food of the region, mostly of the sort I couldn’t eat: dumpling dishes and pastry desserts.

Happily, I did find Slovene-language dining cards, and using an internet foreign language translation site, I made a “cheat-sheet” of Slovenian words for “wheat,” rye,” “barley,” and “oats.”

7. Research Shopping Information: An internet search of the Dr. Schar website, the leading manufacture of gluten-free food in Europe, provided me with a short list of stores in Ljubljana that sell Dr Schar products.

8. Pack: My family has learned to pack light, but my suitcase and daypack always contain several gluten-free snacks.

9. Go: We departed for Slovenia on a clear and brisk January day. It was then that my husband chose to mention Ljubljana is at the same latitude as Bismarck, North Dakota, and questioned the sanity of our trip. Driving past trees heavy with the weight of freshly fallen snow, we were soon at the Italian-Slovenian border, flashing our U.S. passports at an intimidating border guard leftover from the Cold War years. Then, with a casual flick of his hand, we entered a world where we could barely read or understand a word of the local language. Later, we discovered that most young Slovenians (under the age of 30) speak fluent English.

10. Enjoy: We found our hotel with only one misstep – we drove our van into Prešeren Square, named after the country’s greatest poet and author of Slovenia’s national anthem. The square, adjacent to the city’s landmark Triple Bridge, which was designed by native son Jože Plečnik, is a pedestrian zone. Yet no one seemed to care about our van being there. The hotel itself was old, our room large but sparse. And if not for the next-door music club that played Euro-Techno dance music into the wee hours of the morning, it would’ve been perfect. The hotel breakfast provided just one gluten-free option for me – plain yogurt – but I’d come prepared with my own cornflake cereal.

Our itinerary was general enough to allow time for serendipity, yet also detailed enough to be prepared for certain activities. For example, knowing we were participating in a two-hour city walking tour when temperatures outside were below freezing, we’d packed thermal hand-warmers. The look of envy from others in the tour group was priceless.

Getting gluten-free meals turned out to be easier than I expected, and to me, demonstrates the growing world-wide awareness of celiac disease. For lunch the first day, we followed our noses to Ribca, a riverside diner serving fresh fish platters. Our waitress, who spoke some English, readily studied my Slovene dining card, and then took it to the cook, who promptly prepared grilled salmon, rice, and a large salad with beets, cabbage, and corn for me. Dinner at Gostilna As Pub that night was even better. First, when we made reservations, the host said accommodating celiac disease was no problem. Second, upon arrival, one waiter tended to the meals of the rest of my family while I was given my own waiter because his girlfriend has celiac disease. Then for dessert, I was presented with a complimentary plate of fruit because there was nothing on the menu safe for me. Finally, on our way out the door, the waiter with the celiac girlfriend pressed a rose into my husband’s hand, saying, “This is for your wife.”

So, did my celiac travel planning guide work? I think it did. We saw what we wanted and had fun; a train ride into the caves was especially exhilarating. We didn’t spend a fortune; we paid for only what we wanted to see and do. And, I never went hungry. But if I had to do it over again, I probably wouldn’t plan a trip to Slovenia in the winter!

Helpful Information:
Hotel Emonec, Wolfova 12, Ljubljana.

Ribca. This fish restaurant is located under the market colonnade near Triple Bridge, Ljubljana.

Gostilna As Pub, located half-a-block from Prešeren Square, at Copova ulica 5A, Ljubljana. The international menu consists of appetizers, sandwiches, pasta, meal-size salads, and main dishes, all reasonably priced. My meal, Indonezijska Salata (Indonesian Salad), had grilled turkey, lettuce, zucchini, eggplant, and red pepper.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Traveling Gluten-Free

Changing planes in Amsterdam recently, my family and I stopped to check the departure board for information about our connecting flight from Italy to the United States. The board was huge, with a seemingly endless list of destinations – direct flights to 260 places in 91 countries according to airport figures – each one sounding more exotic than the last. Barcelona, Prague, Mombassa, Lima, Abu Dhabi. I felt like the proverbial child in a candy store, with every destination a tempting and uniquely flavored morsel. Evidently feeling the same way, my middle son asked, “Can we go to Cancun?” It seems that his favorite candy comes filled with white sandy beaches and clear turquoise waters.

Airports have always been a source of fascination for me. A literal gateway to the world, they offered limitless opportunities to experience and understand humanity in a way that couldn't be done by staying in one place. After my celiac diagnosis several years ago, however, my fervor was tempered by fear. I felt I could no longer pick any destination on that airport board, toss a few things in a bag, and be on my way. Instead, I had to worry about trying to get a gluten-free airplane meal, using half the space in my suitcase for gluten-free food, tracking down stores and restaurants at my destination that could provide me with gluten-free food, and possibly having to convey my celiac needs in a foreign language.

Despite the sometimes overwhelming tasks of traveling gluten-free, I’ve continued to roam. Most of us with celiac disease have, whether by need or choice. We take trips to spend time with family or friends during holidays and other special celebrations. We have business meetings in different cities. We take vacations. And some of us just have itchy feet. To keep traveling means to continue living our lives - not letting celiac disease be an impediment to our heart’s desires.

Fortunately, the travel environment for celiacs is starting to mirror what’s been going on in other segments of the celiac world. Meaning, as diagnosis and awareness of celiac disease increases, so does the availability of gluten-free food and services. Many airlines now provide gluten-free meals on long-distance flights. It’s a special request meal (code GFML) that requires advance notice, and should be reconfirmed several days before flying, and then again upon check-in. I also find it helpful to identify myself as a special-meal passenger to the flight attendants when boarding the plane. Note that flights of short duration usually don't offer meals to any passengers, gluten-free or not!

No matter what the flight distance is, I always pack snacks, whether as my sole source of nourishment, or as a "just in case." Most types of food are still permitted to be carried on board, including canned or jarred foods, Jell-o and pudding, and even yogurt. The catch is that no single container of a liquid-type food can be larger than 3 ounces, and all liquids must be carried inside a quart-size clear ziploc bag. There is no limit on other sorts of food such as bread, crackers, cookies, and fruit.

Certain international destinations do have their own regulations about importation of things such as fresh fruit, meat, and cheese, so always check the rules. Gels and frozen liquids necessary to cool disability or medically related substances are also permitted onboard. It is recommended (but not required) that passengers bring supporting documentation, such as a doctor’s letter, for the items. See the Transportation Security Administration website for the most updated information.

The wider availability of gluten-free food around the world these days means I can now pack more than one change of clothes for a two-week vacation! No longer found only in health food stores, gluten-free food is often available in regular grocery stores, and sometimes in unexpected places. I’ve stumbled across gluten-free munchies at a convenience store along an Italian highway and at a snack bar in the Amsterdam airport. A recent newsletter from the Dr. Schar Company, Europe’s leading manufacturer of gluten-free food, even announced the availability of its products in select stores in the Czech Republic! But what about far-flung places such as South Africa, Tunisia, and Russia? A geographic search on the Dr. Schar website,, yielded a list of stores selling their products in those places as well. To keep my gluten-free food fresh and intact while on the go, I carry a couple of small plastic containers and baggies.

Likewise, dining out gluten-free is not as difficult as it once was. A query to the celiac listserv usually results in a plethora of restaurant options. Many of these places in the U.S. belong to the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) Corporate Restaurant Program and the Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program. Support group websites, such as Alamo Celiac, and gluten-free dining guides also are invaluable resources. For a list of (GIG) branches around the U.S., as well as a restaurant list, go to Worldwide celiac support group information can be accessed at Gluten-Free Holidays.

When traveling overseas, foreign language gluten-free dining cards are essential. Fortunately, they are rather easy to come-by these days. They’re also handy when dining in ethnic restaurants around the United States. Triumph Dining ( sells a pack of 10 laminated cards, one each in American, Chinese, French, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Thai, and Vietnamese. The following company websites also offer gluten dining cards for purchase:,,, and Gluten Free Passport,, provides free dining cards, plus sells a multi-language phrase book with French, German, Italian, and Spanish translations. For free gluten-free restaurant cards in 38 languages ranging from Arabic to Urdu, check Even with dining cards, it’s imperative to learn beforehand about local cuisine, and to carry a cheat-sheet of key ingredient words to help with label reading.

Still, the most important consideration when traveling with celiac disease is the “where.” Some destinations just seem to be easier than others for celiacs, whether due to the lack of a language barrier when discussing the particulars of the gluten-free diet, or due to better celiac awareness and the resultant availability of gluten-free food. The United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand rank at the top for ease of travel on both counts. Italy, Norway, and Sweden also have received high marks from celiac listserv members for celiac awareness and ease of finding gluten-free food. Gluten-Free Holidays,, in addition to listing celiac societies from around the world, provides contact information for accommodations that cater to people with celiac.

Researching, sorting through, and making reservations for air travel, ground transportation, hotels, entertainment, and dining is time-consuming. While I think this process is all part of travel fun, not everyone agrees, preferring to leave the planning up to someone else. Though still an extremely small segment of the travel industry, there are several businesses that serve the celiac community. Chief among these is Bob and Ruth’s Gluten-Free Dining and Travel Club, Providing escorted trips since 1999, Bob and Ruth’s has numerous trips planned for 2007. They include a Club Med Winter Getaway to Cancun, a Panama Canal and Southern Caribbean Cruise, a mini trip to the Culinary Institute of America in New York, a Tanzanian Safari, a family getaway to Club Med Sandpiper in Florida, an autumn Baltic Sea Cruise, and a Paris and Provence River Cruise and Tour.

For strictly cruising options, celiacs may want to contact Diane Schaefer at Joy in Travel, located in Louisiana. Diane is a 14-year diagnosed celiac who started the CSA/Greater New Orleans chapter in 1994. Well-versed in the requirements of the celiac diet, she can work with cruise lines, tour operators, and hotels on behalf of the clients for both individual and group travel. Diane can be reached at A Canadian travel agent, Ms. Sidney Clare, at Travel Professionals International,, similarly arranges group tours for celiacs. Current vacations listed are a Greece/Aegean Sea cruise and a kayaking trip in Belize.

Closer to home, Outdoor Odysseys,, offers sea kayaking trips in the San Juan Islands (WA) during the months of May-September. According to their website, they have itineraries lasting half-a-day up through five days. Primarily whale-watching trips that incorporate bird-watching, historical notes, and camping, they also provide fine cuisine that can accommodate the gluten-free diet.

Alas, our destination that day while changing planes in Amsterdam was not kayaking in Washington, a cruise ship sailing to Cancun, or any other exotic vacation spot. Instead, we were traveling “home” to spend time with family during the recent winter holidays in the cold and gray Mid-Atlantic States. Like a piece of bittersweet chocolate, the trip was intense and rich at the same time. One of my favorite types of candy.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Sud Tirol

It looked like a typical Tyrolean village of western Austria, with gable-roofed buildings, whitewashed and timbered, clustering around a tiny town square. Gaily painted shutters festooned many of the houses, doing double duty as picture frames to the purple impatiens and hardy red geraniums trickling out of the ever-present window boxes. Some structures even featured elaborate medieval, religious, and regional scenes painted on their facades. Completing the picture was a classic Austrian onion-dome bell tower that rang out all through the day and night.

Road signs, restaurant menus, and the availability of newspapers in Deutsch reinforced the Germanic feel of the town of Kastelruth, population 2000. Each morning at our hotel, the Gasthof zum Turm, our fair complexioned and tawny-haired hosts, Gabi and Günther, greeted us with a hearty Guten Morgen. Clad in seemingly everyday attire, as opposed to a uniform strictly for their jobs, Günther wore a distinctive Tyrolean-style vest; Gabi an ankle-length dirndl dress. For our weekend stay, I’d even brought along a German-language celiac dining card to help me navigate the traditional and gluten-laden fare of this mountainous area along the Austrian-Italian border. Funny thing, though. My family and I never crossed the political border that separates the two countries. We were still in Italy!

Kastelruth is also known as Castelrotto. The former is the town’s Tyrolean name; the latter the Italian name. Hidden among the peaks of the mighty Dolomite Mountains in Italy’s most northern region, the community’s ties with its neighbors across the border was evident everywhere. Even the region’s name, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, speaks to the duality of the area. Trentino is the Italian-speaking southern part of the region. They call the northern Tyrolean part Aldo Adige. The largely German-speaking Tyrolean north calls itself Südtirol, meaning South Tyrol. As in, they are the southern part of the province that was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that existed until the end of World War I when it was annexed by Italy.

An intensive Italianization of the area followed on the heals of annexation, including mandating Italian as the official language. In 1938, a program was started to move German-speakers out of the area, but the outbreak of World War II limited the full actualization of the plan. After the war, German-speakers sought reunification with Austria; an idea that was rejected by the Allied Powers. Through years of continued pressure for more control of their own affairs, though, the South Tyrol sub-region today, with nearly 69% of the populations declaring German as their language group, is mostly autonomous. Both Italian and German are the official languages, and nearly all towns are dual named.

Bozen, or Bolzano (the more common Italian name), is the main city of the South Tyrol, sitting at the crossroads of the two cultures. It’s also considered the “Gateway to the Dolomites” because of its location on the main autostrada that runs north through the mountains and up to the Brenner Pass that connects Italy and Austria. A more fun and scenic drive to Bolzano, however, is found on the Great Dolomite Road, a 65-mile narrow path that takes on the peaks, valleys, and ridges of the characteristic sheer limestone walls of the Dolomites. It runs between Bolzano and Cortina d’Ampezzo.

We started in Cortina, which was a two-hour drive from my home in the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region of northeast Italy. Just getting there had us passing between the borders of two large, wild and beautiful parks: Parco Naturale Dolomiti Fiulane (a regional park) and the Parco Nazionale Dolomiti Bellunesi (a national park modeled on the U.S. version). Both function to protect the country’s natural resources, offer environmental education, and provide outdoor enthusiasts with miles of hiking, and even some mountain biking, trails. It’s not the Italy most people think of!

Cortina d’Ampezzo is an internationally known winter sport resort that was the site of the 1956 Winter Olympics. We stopped to gander at the Olympic ski jump visible from the road, gas up the minivan, and grab a cup of coffee, but otherwise didn’t linger long - unless you count the three times we drove through the town center looking for the right route to put us on the Great Dolomite Road. Apparently, you have to know the names of the mountain passes you want to cross – Passo di Falzerego, Passo di Giau, Passo Podoi – to know where to turn.

Thinking the trip from Cortina to Bolzano would take about three hours, we drove slowly, sharing the road with tour buses, drinking in the alpine scenery, and stopping for a picnic lunch. Four and a half hours later, we emerged from a narrow canyon, on the outskirts of Bolzano, with just enough time left in the day to see the city’s main attraction: Ötzi the Iceman at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.

Promising my boys they were going to see the remains of a 5000-year old man was probably the only way I got them into the museum. After living in Italy for over a year, being dragged into museum after museum, they say they’ve seen enough. But this one was different, because it was all about Ötzi. The main floor, which had no English translations, consisted of static displays that set the stage for Ötzi. We were introduced to the hunter and gatherer lifestyle, learned about grain cultivation, and shown primitive tools and weapons. Upstairs, we met Ötzi. Found amidst a melting glacier in the Ötzal Alps by two hikers in 1991, he now lives in a specially built freezer to preserve his remains for future researchers and tourists. Around him, large displays explain Ötzi’s discovery, recovery, and the methods used for his conservation. There are also exhibits of his clothing and implements, with descriptions how each was used. The next floor up held items from the Bronze and Iron Ages, and a temporary show on the top floor featured creepy bundled mummies from an ancient Peruvian culture called the Chachapoya.

Back outside, we found the city of Bolzano in full swing as people browsed the numerous shops and open-air market, or just relaxed at outdoor cafés, savoring the end of a warm autumn day. Several outdoor vendors were roasting chestnuts, the nutty aroma filling the air. Munching a bagful, we also purchased supplies (cheese and fruit) for the following day’s picnic we planned to have while hiking in the mountains. With darkness approaching, we drove about 45-minutes north, the final few miles up an unnervingly dark, twisty-turn road, to Kastelruth.

Late fall is one of the least crowded times of the year in the Dolomites. The summer and early fall alpine hikers and climbers left with the last of the wildflowers, while winter downhill and cross-country skiers were waiting for the first snow. So we had the town mostly to ourselves, and received special attention at our hotel’s restaurant with regard to my gluten free diet. When I made our hotel reservation, I asked if my special needs could be accommodated, not expecting them to do more than perhaps adapt a dish or two. At the first meal, however, I learned the chef was familiar with celiac, and that he’d bought gluten-free flour, pasta, crackers, and breakfast cereal specifically for me. For one dinner I ate a local specialty, Tiroler Gröstl, which is pan-fried beef with potatoes and onion gravy; it was an easy dish to adjust. The second night I enjoyed an omelet served with bilberry jam. Dumplings and strudel I had to do without, but I didn’t feel deprived.

While visiting in the off-season seemed to afford more personal attention at the hotel, I was in contact with a fellow celiac listserv member who stayed in Kastelruth for an entire week during the summer high-season. She’d traveled with a hiking group from the States, staying at the Post Hotel Lamm, and offered up only praise for the special gluten free meals that were prepared for her at that hotel’s restaurant.

There were some disadvantages to being in the area in the off-season, however. Many hotels, restaurants, and shops were closed, their owners and workers taking a well-needed break before the onslaught of winter skiers. Likewise, not all of the mountain lifts and rest huts were open, limiting the scope of our hiking. Still, the main gondola in the Alpe di Siusa area, near Kastelruth, was open, whisking us up to the base of Europe’s largest high-alpine meadow at 6,135 feet. From there, we rode a ski lift further up to 6,500 feet, and began our hike. As we walked along well-marked paths, the sky changed color from soft baby blue, to gray and menacing, dousing the mountaintops in thick clouds. Scattered raindrops joined us for our picnic lunch, but then quickly moved on, the sun once again shining on our boys as they laughed and rolled down gentle mountain slopes.

According to the Bolzano Tourist Board, the sun shines 300 days of the year in the Dolomites. It’s no wonder, then, why the area is a magnet for seasonal outdoor activities. The skiing is supposed to be phenomenal, with 12 large ski resorts encompassing 800 miles of slopes included in the Dolomiti Superski area. There are also numerous medieval castles, spa resorts, and wine roads in the area. What’s more, the Alto Adige/Südtirol is home to the Dr. Schar Company, one of the market leaders of gluten free food in Europe, with over 80 different gluten free products. I couldn’t arrange a tour of the company on this particular visit, but I’m hoping there’ll be a next time!

Most travelers to the Alto Adige/Sudtirol seemed to be either Italian or German speakers, and both appeared to be at ease in the bicultural region. We were a little confused at times, actually forgetting which country we were in, and wondering whether to speak Italian, German, or English, but somehow it all worked out. Which it usually does.

Helpful Information:
Gasthof zum Turm (In Italian, Albergo Torre), Kofelgasse 8, Kastelruth, Italy. +39-0471-706-349.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Seeing and Surviving the South of Italy

It was a crazy trip. Eleven-and-a-half hours on the overnight train from my house north of Venice, to Naples, three-quarters of the way down the boot of Italy. A sleepless night of endless undulation, each lurch of the train sending me to the edge of the bed that was as hard as an ironing board and only slightly wider. And the only thing worse than shivering all night beneath the thread-bare sheet was the prospect of getting up to use the dirty bathroom at the end of the car. For what? Gluten free pizza, of course.

Pizza is synonymous with Naples. Regulated by the Ministero Delle Politiche Agricole e Forestali (Ministry of Agriculture and Forests), the city’s trademark pizza even has a special name, Napoletana. Here, every detail is controlled, including the measure of ingredients, the swirl of the sauce, and the temperature of the wood-fired oven. Under guidance by the Italian Celiac Association, a few restaurants in Naples have attempted to adapt this method to gluten free pizza. After being in Italy for over a year, eating only frozen gluten free pizza, I couldn’t wait to taste the “real” thing. So I endured the train.

My family of five had decided that since Naples was so far away, being located in the region of Campania, south of Rome, the best use of our time was the overnight train. While in Naples, in addition to eating pizza, we wanted to visit the city’s archeology museum that holds treasures from nearby Pompeii, tour the ruins themselves, and then head further south to Sorrento and the dramatic Amalfi Coast. Even by maximizing our time, however, we still had to pass-up a daytrip to the famous island of Capri, as well as forego a trek even further south to Paestum, an area with ancient Greek temples.

Traveling with us were my parents visiting from the States, my mother also having celiac disease. On the train, we nearly filled two of the second-class sleeping compartments, each of which contained four bunk-style beds. As it is common to share the space with other travelers, though, we paid for the one additional bed so we wouldn’t have to sleep with a stranger. We felt it to be a matter of privacy as well as safety. Indeed, our destination, Italy’s third largest city, is notorious for being crowded, chaotic, and crime-ridden. Experiences with these characteristics unfortunately often begin enroute. Fittingly, my family agreed that our train conductor eerily resembled Al Capone.

The train arrived at Napoli Centrale at 10:00 in the morning. A bit hung-over from lack of sleep, yet on alert for would-be pickpockets, we first dropped off our luggage at the train station’s secure baggage check. Then, we followed signs to the Metro, rode one stop to Cavour station, and emerged into the midst of noisy Neapolitan life. From there, it was a five-minute walk to Museo Archeologico.

The museum is home to the finest art and artifacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum, both cities destroyed by the 79 A.D. eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. With excellent explanations in English throughout, it was easy to read about the museum’s main holdings: a 4th-century B.C. Greek bronze statue, immense marble statues, and exquisite Pompeian frescoes and mosaics. The Secret Room, one of the museum’s most popular exhibits, contains a collection of erotic statues, pottery, and frescoes from both private and public buildings of the doomed ancient cities. Viewer discretion is advised!

Pompeii and Herculaneum themselves are located 30-minutes south of Naples. They are basically empty shells, yet still must-sees in order to marvel at the advanced state of the early Roman cities, with stone streets smoothed by years of foot traffic, and then recognize the horrific power of the volcano that destroyed them.

While some members of the family could’ve spent all day in the museum, others were antsy to go after only one hour. That included me. Eager to eat pizza, yet heeding a shopkeeper’s warning to be wary of beggars and pickpockets, we began a one-mile tramp down the congested shopping streets of Via Pessina and Via Toledo, past the narrow alleys of the Spanish Quarter, and towards Castel Nuovo, the Royal Palace, and the glass and iron-roofed dome of Galleria Umberto. Keenly aware that the numerous security officers we spied all wore bullet-proof vests, we arrived at our destination, Pizzeria Ciro a Santa Brigida, without incident. There, we briefly confirmed our reservation with the chef manning the white wood-fired oven, and proceeded up a set of narrow stairs to the dining room, seated by a tuxedo-clad waiter seemingly incongruous with the fare we were about to eat.

I wish every celiac could’ve shared that pizza with me. I was also glad my mother and I had each ordered our own, because I ate every bite of mine. The crust was crisp and slightly charred around the edges, soft and chewy on the inside. A distinct yeasty taste filled my mouth, while the tomato sauce was as bright as a summer day. Topped with freshly made mozzarella cheese, sweet and mild, all the gluten eaters in the family agreed my pizza tasted almost like the full gluten version.

Back at the train station, we followed signs to Circumvesuviana, the local train between Naples and Sorrento. Seventy-minutes later we were strolling along the bustling main street of Sorrento, with suitcases rolling in tow, towards the Hotel del Corso, our home for two nights. Situated on the main street, and near the main square of Piazza Tasso, our backside balcony room also overlooked a noisy pedestrian alley burgeoning with tourists, trinkets, and locals dressed in their finest, out for their ritual evening walks. Though we were in the thick of things, once we closed the balcony door, all was quiet and calm.

Sorrento is a well-developed vacation resort, where the favorite pastimes seemed to be shopping and eating. Two of the area’s celebrated products, inlaid wood pieces and limoncello, were sold in most stores. We wandered into one of the local woodworking shops to see how this art form known as marquetry was done, admiring the shiny handmade music boxes, pictures, and intricate tables. Limoncello, a lemon liqueur consisting of locally grown citrus, water, sugar, and alcohol, is also made openly in some of the shops. As fortune would have it, the first store we stopped in was the only one that made its limoncello without the addition of flavorings, and so naturally I bought a bottle! My shopping also extended to the local farmacia, where I found the biggest and best selection of gluten free food I’ve seen anywhere in Italy.

With so much gluten free food at the farmacia, it was no surprise that dining in Sorrento was easy. The Italian Celiac Association listed four restaurants for the town. I emailed one of them, Ristorante Pizzeria La Fenice, ahead of time, and on arrival found Nello the waiter animated and excited to welcome us. Gluten free pizza was available if ordered a day ahead, but because seafood is the rightly superstar of the region, I dined on Spaghetti con Gamberetti (spaghetti with shrimps). At another restaurant, La Stalla, located at the top of a magnificently sweeping duel staircase hidden at the far end of a dark and narrow alleyway, my mother and I shared a platter of Frutti di Mare (literally, fruit of the sea). We indulged in grilled swordfish, shrimp, scallops, and calamari.

As is usual in Italy, getting a gluten free breakfast at the hotel, and finding a light gluten free lunch while sightseeing, was more difficult than locating dinner. So my mother and I supplemented hotel breakfast buffet items, such as cheese and fruit, with our own bread, and traveled with snacks for lunch if needed. On the day we ventured down the Amalfi Coast by bus, however, we weren’t sure we even wanted lunch!

While escorted bus tours along the 30-mile Amalfi Coast are abundant, we chose to do the trip on the cheaper, and perhaps more thrilling, public bus from Sorrento. As the bus whirled around hairpin turns hugging vertical landscapes, honking warnings at oncoming vehicles to give way, some of us on the bus felt a bit queasy. Occasional stops to either pull in the vehicle’s side view mirrors on especially narrow passages or, as in our case, to prevent sending another vehicle soaring over the side of the cliff, were welcome relief. Nonetheless, we all agreed that the rugged Mediterranean coastal views were worth it.

Amalfi itself, with a population of only 7000, is the coast’s largest town. Once a maritime power, but destroyed by a tidal wave in 1343, it is now a popular resort. The main attraction is the 1000-year old Byzantine Cathedral, where a wedding was taking place on the day we were there. Bus tours generally disgorge their passengers for an hour or so of souvenir shopping. Bypassing most of this, we found a cup of espresso in a small seaside bar, and local fruit and cheese shops within the tangled alleyways that appeared to have changed little since medieval times.

Half-way between Amalfi and Sorrento is the picturesque town of Positano. Built into a ravine, it consists of red-tile roofed houses, shops, and cafes that seem to trickle down the mountain to the small but popular beach. With steep and narrow streets, most of the town is a pedestrian zone. Even a bridal party on their way to the church had to navigate the cobblestone walk, with shopkeepers and travelers alike looking on with delight.

Finally ready for lunch, we popped into a Positano deli to see what we could find. All the gluten eaters placed their sandwich orders first. When it was my turn, I tentatively asked only for a hunk of fresh mozzarella cheese, mentioning that my mother and I had celiachia, and couldn’t eat bread. Without a word, the server set about cleaning up the sandwich prep area, went to the sink to wash his hands, and on return, pointed to a ham with a package stating “senza glutine.” A few minutes later, carrying my package of ham and cheese to a bench by the beach, along with a bagful of grapes purchased earlier, it certainly felt like la dolce vita, the sweet life.

Unfortunately, we still had to face the overnight train back home from Naples. With Al Capone once again as our conductor, and feeling an odd sense of security, I actually caught snippets of sleep through the night. Heck, I thought, I could do this again. For the pizza! (October 2006)

Hotel del Corso, Corso Italia 134, Sorrento. Tel. 081-807-1016.

Pizzeria Ciro a San Brigida, via S. Brigida 71/75, Napoli. Tel. 081-5524072.

Ristorante Pizzeria La Fenice, via degli Aranci 11, Sorrento. Tel. 081-8781652.

Osteria La Stalla, via Pieta 30, Sorrento. Tel. 081-8074145.