“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):
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. *
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!
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.