Bellissimo: gluten free Italy

Travelling overseas can be daunting for someone with special dietary requirements. Where there is a language barrier, it is stressful trusting the dish served up is genuinely harmless. For me, consuming gluten would result in 48-72 hrs of violent illness, severe dehydration and exhaustion – less than ideal where lengthy flights or coach travel is involved.

I was diagnosed with Coeliac (Celiac) disease in 2007, and until that point had only ventured outside of Australia twice. I now rue the lost opportunities at travelling on a ‘normal’ diet. Carefree sure beats gluten free. It took me several years to gain the confidence to travel internationally adhering to this diet. Happily, I haven’t been ‘glutened’ overseas, which I put down to careful planning and a good deal of luck.

Italy, the carbs-laden land of pasta and pizza, reads like a Coeliac’s nightmare, but it’s actually very accommodating. My positive gastronomical experience in Rome 4 years ago was in part the catalyst for my recent return to the country. I was very glad to find Northern Italy brimming with senza glutine delicacies. (I even found beer and icecream cones at Cinque Terre – tricky enough to find these in Melbourne!)

My highlights:

MILAN
O Peperino e Milano
The most delicious capricciosa, followed by a tiramisu (that disappeared before a photo could be taken). Extensive GF options here. I was even asked if I needed a gluten free menu.

STRESA
Ristorante Pizzeria Il Portico
Risotto al persico. Beautiful perch. Easily the best risotto I’ve ever had. Cooked to perfection.

GENOA
Trattoria Alle Due Torri
Streppe al pesto. Odd-looking pasta but generous surface area to soak up that pesto! Three pages in the menu dedicated to GF. House made bread rolls were fantastic.

PORTOFINO
Ristorante Delfino
Penne al pomodoro. Simple flavour done well. Also had delicious frittata here.

MONTEROSSO, CINQUE TERRE
Ristorante da Ely
Gnocchi al pesto. Really tender, in a superb pesto.

Extra info:
* Not all menus will promote the availability of GF options, but I found every cafe I enquired at was able to cater, even if only minimal choices. Risottos were generally fine (but still do ask, in case barley is in the stock). And salads are a pretty safe bet, if you’re ever really unsure.

* It’s customary to be served bread before your meal appears. If you’ve specified “senza glutine”, you’ll probably receive suitable rolls or crackers, which makes even a small dish satisfying.

* Social media is great as a research tool. Instagram is very helpful for dining recommendations.

I encourage all Coeliacs to explore Italy. It’s foodie heaven, even gluten free. Buon appetito!

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Kates, Debbies and Laurens of Arabia

Some travel destinations in this big, wide world can be challenging for a female. In the UAE, there are certainly more rules (religious and/or societal) than I am subjected to at home in Australia. As a non-Muslim in a Muslim state, you should always be mindful and respectful of where you are, particularly so as a female solo traveller.

Dress code aside, I have actually found Abu Dhabi quite liberating. I had a mixed experience in Dubai two years ago, but on this brief visit to the UAE’s capital city, I feel more comfortable and confident to be out and about. There are noticeably more women in the workforce here, particularly at a managerial level. The majority of university students are female. There is virtually no crime in Abu Dhabi (possibly linked to the absence of poverty – you can only stay here if you have a job), and as a woman, you feel safe and respected. You can readily make it from A to B without Emirati men furrowing their brows. It’s great. (Having said that, I did venture into the fish markets as part of a guided city tour yesterday – and instantly had a hundred pairs of male eyes on me. I guess I was a novelty for them. My eyes instead were firmly fixed on the morning’s haul of prawns. O.M.G. These local “shrimp” were massive, many about 9 or 10 inches in length! Somebody get some BBQs over here, stat!!)

And really, it’s not a huge deal to dress modestly in the UAE. Save your skimpy tops for the pool at the hotel. If you’re around worship areas you keep your shoulders covered. Easy. And it’s advised to not wear anything shorter than knee-length. (My modus operandi irrespective of location – my lily-white thighs could burn retinas.)

I strolled along the picturesque Corniche this evening. I sat alone, by a date palm, watching the sunset. A bright pink blush stained the dusk sky, and some of the highrise buildings around me disappeared into the humid haze. It was lovely, and it’s there for everyone – even lily-white non-Muslim women – to enjoy. We’re probably much better off sitting there than under the Flinders Street clocks, to be frank.

Passionistas

You can feel the love in Italy. It’s palpable and everywhere.

It’s not hard to love the place. From the major cities to the countryside, the Alpine regions to the beaches… It’s very easy to look it.

Italy is also very easy to listen to. I absolutely love the language. It’s emotive, charming and sexy and surely the envy of all other languages. If the well-tailored Lotharios of Milano are the eye-candy then surely the native tongue is the ear-chocolate.

It’s the passion of the Italian people that really resonates though. They are ardently, demonstrably passionate about so much in their lives, with a real zest for life itself. Many live simply but in doing so they live well. Work/life balance feels very achievable here. Priorities seem clearer.

They love their wine, and their food. Food is not fuel, it’s heritage, ritual and a daily celebration. It’s to be enjoyed slowly. The concept of a quick bite (or worse still, takeaway) is lost on these folk. You simply must sit for a couple of hours and enjoy. There’s a procedure to be respected and followed. After a delicious perch risotto on my 75-minute lunch stop in Stresa, I asked for the check. The waiter looked confused and asked “Check already?” I pointed to my watch, shrugged my shoulders and said “Sorry, no time”. I could see the pity in his eyes. I was a hopeless tourist who just didn’t get it. (Note, even if it’s the BEST RISOTTO OF YOUR LIFE, tour coaches wait for no-one).

They love their coffee too, and would love for you to love it their way, the right way. They will however make it the way you want it – I found the latte macchiato was very drinkable in many cafes – but just don’t blatantly add sugar. It’s a stake to the barista’s heart.

Italians certainly love their soccer, (or calcio). It dominates newspaper headlines. You can sense the national hurt over a World Cup senza Italia. I counted 8 soccer TV channels at one hotel. Imagine if they were actually taking part.

And operators of most forms of transport are evidently passionate about frightening the bejesus out of strangers. Italy is home to many of the world’s most incredible sports cars, and also an alarmingly large population of crazy drivers… anyone else see an issue with that? I vividly recall my transfer to Fiumicino airport a few years ago. I think the taxi may have been airborne at one point. This love for a speedy road trip contradicts their desire for a relaxed pace in most other facets of life. Perhaps the breakneck race home allows for a 4-hour, 6 course dinner. Priorities.

So many people travel extensively nowadays, and Italy remains a popular destination. My colleagues, family and friends talk about enjoying particular countries, liking them, being surprised or fascinated by them, but practically all visitors love Italy. Not only the land, but the lifestyle and the locals. It’s a package deal. Love is in the air there and some of it just sticks. It sneaks into your suitcase and into your soul. It’s profound. You know when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie? It’s exactly like that.

Paradise at a price

I’d like to be able to tell you that it’s true. All you’ve read, all you’ve heard, all the plaudits suggesting this little Italian resort village is one of the most stunningly exquisite locations on planet Earth. Well, it is all true. Portofino is divino. And possibly a little bit magical.

Travelling through the northern Italian lakes district, the weather had been stormy. Conditions affected visits to both lakes Como and Maggiore. Entering the Liguria region and reaching Santa Margherita, the skies remained dark and ominous. Portofino would prove to be the light at the end of our tunnel. We made the short trip there by boat and were greeted with incredible sunshine, right on cue. Every colour in the harbour was illuminated. Hashtag: ‘no filter’. We’d left Kansas and were now very much in Oz. (See, magical).

Portofino was primarily a fishing village for many years. Exactly which species inhabit this area nowadays is unclear to me, but if you’re single and have access to a bloody big boat, you’re a strong chance to hook a hottie.

From the 1950s this has been a holiday destination for the well-to-do, a picturesque locale for the rich and famous. A place to be seen and a flaunted lifestyle of excess, evident by the many moored giant luxury yachts, and the number of exclusive boutiques stocking high-end labels. This is for the creme de la creme (or more accurately, the crema di crema). It’s all about beauty and the finer things in life. No talk of controversial refugee policies or political instability here. Any ugliness is neatly off-show. It’s la bella figura cranked up to eleven, and a scene befitting a Robin Leach voiceover (for those old enough to get that reference).

There’s no denying the setting is stunning. Cheerfully painted buildings in red, peach and yellow hug the harbour, contrasting the crisp white watercraft, sapphire waters and verdant landscape – it’s gorgeous. And the pace is attractive. You can sit at one of the cafes with an Aperol Spritz or a glass of the local sassarini and watch a fancier world go by. Handsome boat crew in nautical stripes, smart chinos and Armani sunglasses casually fiddle about with ropes at the jetty, their olive arms glistening in the sun. I quite enjoyed this view.

I came prepared to pooh-pooh Portofino for all its lavish excesses but was instead seduced by the glamour. Resistance is futile. I couldn’t afford to stay there – I opted for a €0.60 postcard over a Rolex – but it was a fabulous place to wine, dine and while away a couple of hours. A glimpse into how the other half live, or at least how they appear to live.

Monumental beauty

Now, I’m one of those (peculiar) people who appreciates a good cemetery stroll. Let me tell you, the Cimitero Monumentale di Milano is like no cemetery I’d seen before.

The idea to build such a memorial garden first came about in 1837. Yet it was in 1862, after Milan had won independence from Austrian domination, that it started to take shape, influenced by Lombardy architect Carlo Maciachini. The result is spectacular, as the many wandering photographers can attest.

Beyond the grandiose entrance lies a necropolis filled with thousands of displays of artistic craftsmanship. Large, beautiful monuments adorn almost every grave. Maciachini’s work is a fusion of various art influences, reflecting the eclectic taste of the age. There are biblical and celestial figures, Roman gods, war heroes, as well as more personal homages. It’s like a magnificent open air gallery, set amongst lush gardens.

The mausoleums are also highly decorative. I suspect there’s some one-upmanship going on, a bit of ‘keeping up with the Giovannis’, however it’s all within the context of this visually stunning cemetery.

I respect that many will prefer simple, understated gravestones or plaques to remember their dearly departed. But to me these incredible works of art are a wonderful way to celebrate a life. These are lasting tributes for families to revere and revisit.

I’m grateful this hidden gem was recommended to me. In Milan, the style capital of the world, beauty really is all around.

Cancelled planes, impromptu trains and missing automobiles

My international adventures are well planned, with the help of a friendly travel agent. These trips generally run like clockwork, which is a must when your itinerary includes organised group tours.

Yesterday morning I headed to Napoli Centrale train station, the pick-up point for my pre-booked Pompeii/Amalfi scenic bus tour. Unfortunately the bus was a no-show, and I was unable to contact the driver (even with the kind assistance of my textbook-handsome Italian hotel clerk). Not ideal when the supplied emergency numbers just ring out.

The area by the station was noisy and smelly, with a mass of shouty, smoky locals and a constant stream of honk-happy traffic. I didn’t love it. I waited an hour, declared it a bust, and sought out a Plan B.

Pompeii was the chief reason for my short stay in Naples, so I wasn’t about to miss it. I bought a ticket for a shuttle bus and was soon on my way.

The Archeological Park is waaaaay bigger than what I’d imagined. It would take many hours to see it all. Had I been on the tour, the time at Pompeii would have been far too short. My Plan B afforded me the opportunity to explore the ancient city’s ruins at leisure. Plus – I stumbled across some surprise senza glutine pasta at a nearby cafe. An unexpected treat and way better than a sad snack on the bus.

Then I learnt today’s flight to Milan was cancelled. My next group tour kicks off tomorrow so I needed to travel today. I found a train that would get me to Milan by mid-afternoon. After factoring in typical airport time, I figured I was still on track. My Trenitalia service was quiet, comfortable (with a vacant seat beside me – wooo!) and offered beautiful views of the Rome and Florence regions. I wouldn’t have seen these pretty villages or lush country landscapes from the air.

Changes of travel plans are not welcomed by someone who appreciates structure. I don’t like surprises. But the last 24 hours have shown me the upsides of a Plan B. They have their benefits. Benefits with a B.

Note: I did elect to forgo the Amalfi coast HOWEVER I think I’m already well up in the scenery department… with more to come.

Scenic roots

With a heavy heart I have left the Emerald Isle. I will miss the quilted landscape and its intoxicating 50 shades of green. The countryside was stunning, with a quiet elegance to be found in its old-fashioned simplicity. I consider myself a city girl, but was captivated by the rural colours and wholesome fresh air. And there’s something about the people, the vibe… the Constitution… I digress.

Yesterday I visited the replica ‘Dunbrody’ famine ship at New Ross, Co. Wexford. The Dunbrody was a converted cargo ship, and sailed to New York and Quebec in the 1840s, loaded up with the starving, the jobless, the homeless and the hopeful, in search of life and opportunities in a New World. This was not a huge ship but often carried up to 300 passengers, most of them in the very basic 2nd class accommodation (at £5 a pop). It’s difficult to fathom. Entire families squished into a single bunk bed for the arduous 7 week voyage. It’s no wonder typhoid was rampant – giving these vessels the nickname ‘coffin ships’.

My ancestors (on both sides of my family) came out to Australia the following decade, from Ireland and England, on similar ships. That trip took 5 months. Doesn’t seem right to moan about 21 hours’ flight time…

I have so much admiration and pride for all those who bravely made that long journey. They were pioneers (not to mention keen breeders). They were tough, resourceful and adaptable, paving the way for generations to come.

And I have pride in my Irish roots. 64% Irish, 100% happy. Those of you without an Irish connection can at least be green with envy.

P.S. They are POTATO MAD!! Okay, we get it. The famine’s over. It’s grand, to be sure. But you don’t need to flaunt your praties. Sometimes you’d get mash, roast potatoes and chips all on the one dish! Sheesh! I love my spuds, but come on. Ah well, bye-bye carbs. Now it’s… Italian cuisine for the next 11 days!! Uh-oh…