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)
Lunch
Hike up or ride funicular to castle (Open 10:00 AM-9:00 PM)
Free time to wander around town, shop, get coffee, etc. *
Dinner

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.
www.hotel-emonec.com.

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. www.tsa.gov/travelers/.

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, http://www.schar.com/, 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 www.gluten.net/. Worldwide celiac support group information can be accessed at Gluten-Free Holidays. http://www.glutenfreeholidays.com/.

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 (http://www.triumphdining.com/) 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: http://www.dietarycard.com/, http://www.livingwithout.com/, http://www.menudata.com/, and http://www.selectwisely.com/. Gluten Free Passport, http://www.glutenfreepassport.com/, 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 http://www.celiactravel.com/. 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, http://www.glutenfreeholidays.com/, 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, http://www.bobandruths.com/. 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 schfrpd@aol.com. A Canadian travel agent, Ms. Sidney Clare, at Travel Professionals International, www.tpiworldwide.com/sidneyclaretpi, 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, http://www.outdoorodysseys.com/, 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.