Back from my hiatus

I may have been off the grid for a while, but I promise it was with good reason!  My husband and I just got home last weekend after two weeks traveling through Italy 🙂  I told you all a while ago about how nervous I was getting prepared for the trip, and how they’d be able to handle celiac disease.  Not only was I impressed with what I found online before our trip, but let me tell you, Italy did not disappoint.  I have plenty of restaurant reviews, tips, and experiences to share with you all…but for starters I thought I’d walk you all through our itinerary, and how we felt our time was best spent.

While I was in college, I had the privilege to study abroad in a little town called Paderno del Grappa.  We were nestled in the Dolomite mountains, and though we didn’t have a train station in our town, we were close enough that we were able to take some great weekend trips through Italy while we were there.  My main focus of this trip was to make sure my husband got to see everything he wanted to (this was his first trip to Italy), that we were able to meet up with his distant relatives near Rome, and to take advantage of going back to see anything and everything I may have missed out on years ago!  We knew we wanted to spend two weeks over there, so once we found our flights it was time to hammer out where we’d be staying.  Here’s the official breakdown we came up with:

  • Rome: 5 nights
  • Florence: 3 nights
  • Cinque Terre: 2 nights
  • Milan: 1 night
  • Venice: 3 nights

Initially we were so overwhelmed with everything else in our lives that we though about reaching out to a travel agent.  The more I thought about it, the sillier I felt asking someone else to figure out our accommodations…I KNOW Italy!  Having studied abroad, I knew where we’d want to stay, how we’d get from town to town, and that hotels are definitely NOT the best option out there.  We spent an entire Sunday looking through our options and tracking down the best Bed & Breakfasts, or in some cases, smaller hotels.  Here are some of the resources I leveraged to find exactly what I was looking for, and why I used them:

  • www.hostelworld.com – This site was one of my best resources studying abroad.  If you’re thinking you’re too old for hostels, don’t worry!  You can use the search tools to select exactly what you’re looking for.  For us, that was narrowed down to either hotels or a B&B with an ensuite room (meaning a private bathroom).  Depending on what else you need, there are other facilities that you can ensure the host can offer such as luggage storage, air conditioning, breakfast, internet access, etc.
  • www.venere.com – For those smaller properties that might not be listed on other sites, Venere was a great resource.  This helped us track down other B&B options that might not have been listed on Hostel World.  Definitely be aware though, once you find the place you want to stay, check to see if they have their own website or contact information.  You’ll usually get the best rates directly from the B&B or hotel, and not through a middle-man website.
  • www.tripadvisor.com – This was our final line of defense in making sure we made the best choices.  Once you think you’ve narrowed it down, check on TripAdvisor to see what people are actually saying about the place.  Read the most current reviews, as things can frequently change, and you want to be sure that anything you’re reading is as accurate as possible.

We’ll be working on getting a review posted for each of the places we stayed, and once we do I’ll be sure to post a link to it here!  For now, I hope you enjoy a few quick pictures from the trip….don’t worry, there will be plenty more 🙂

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The Roman Forum, wandering around the city after flying in, but before we could check into our room!

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The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Rome.

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Getting a tour of Frosinone, a small town outside of Rome, from relatives of my husband’s family.

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Overlooking the Ponte Vecchio and Arno River in Florence.

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The front facade of the Duomo in Florence.

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Miles and miles of vineyards in the Chianti region, stunning view from San Gimignano.

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Looking out into the street from Sforza Castle in Milan. They’re really gearing up for the 2015 World’s Fair, the buildings on either side of the picture are from entrance tents to the fair.

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Enjoying the streets of Burano after a day watching all of the talented glass makers in Murano.

 

 

Worth It? Or Not!

So this post isn’t exactly celiac related, but since this IS a celiac travel blog, I thought I’d indulge. I’ve learned through experience and plenty of mistakes what’s worth my time and money during a trip, and what it’s best to avoid. I’ve compiled my all-time favorites of what’s worth it, and what’s not to share with all of you. Here’s to making the best memories out of your next big vacation!!

Worth It:

  1. The extra cost to fly direct. There is nothing worse than getting stuck en route to your vacation and losing out on a day of sightseeing or more. It may seem like a big difference when you’re pricing out tickets, but in the end wouldn’t you rather get that vacation started as soon as possible? Obviously sometimes layovers are unavoidable, but if you can help it, fly direct! If you’re really looking to save a buck, book that cost-saving connection on your flight home.
  2. Good luggage. If you’re only traveling once a year, or rarely book air travel, this one doesn’t really apply to you. I’ve taken planes, trains and automobiles in 20 countries across 6 continents and I’ve watched three sets of luggage fall apart on me thanks to the “care” of baggage handlers. Of course, as luck would have it, it never happens as I’m traveling back home. If you’re frequently flying please invest in good luggage!! You won’t regret it.
  3. Loyalty pays. Usually you can get your choice of flights within a reasonable range, and saving $20 bucks by using that random airline might seem like a steal. But here’s the thing, I’ve been loyal to the same airline for about 5 years now…I have status, my seats get upgraded for free, I never pay for luggage (for me or my hubby!), and I jump to the priority security screening lines. The overhead costs and time it saves me on each trip is totally worth that $20 extra for the ticket.
  4. In-flight entertainment. As a kid, the time I had to wait before a big event (birthday parties, play dates, grandparents arrival, etc.) was measured in how many episodes of Mickey Mouse Club I could watch before it was finally time. That concept isn’t lost on adults, if you’re sitting in your seat with nothing to do the flight will last forever. I know there are people out there that would rather curl up with a book, but I can’t concentrate that long when my arrival is 6, 5, 4 hours away. The $5 airlines sometimes charge for access to movies, on-demand television or movies is totally worth the distraction to make your arrival seem faster.
  5. Planning out a draft itinerary in advance. I’m not saying you need to block out every last minute of your trip, but if you know what you want to see and accomplish on your trip, you’re a lot more likely to get it done. Think about the major sites you want to visit, how you plan to get there, and about how long it will take to see if you can fit it all in. If you have to forgo something later so you can take advantage of another opportunity at least you’ll know where your priorities are.
  6. Taking advantage of local guides. No one knows the city better than its inhabitants. I’ll never forget the trip to Berlin where I was introduced to “walking tours”. The concept was great, local 20-somethings gave you a tour of the city (at 4 hours it was no slouch tour) and you paid what you felt was appropriate at the end. Our tour guide was not a Berlin native, but had become so enraptured by the city that he decided to stay and be a tour guide. His passion for the city was passed on to each and every one of us, and we learned so much more than if we’d been on our own.
  7. Documenting your travels. One of the easiest ways to do this is through post cards. Pick up a few with pictures of your favorite sites, writing down your memories of the trip. You can save these as mementos of your travels, or send them to yourself for a nice surprise when you get home. Either way, there will be a day when you want to reflect on your trip, and what better way to do that than through reading your own words.

NOT Worth It:

  1. High-end hotels. So you saved up for months to finally hit up that coveted location. You want to see the sights, experience the culture, and overall have a blast. Are you really going to do all of that from your hotel room? Do you honestly need a 24 hour concierge and room service? Sure, I get paying for safety, and there *are* exceptions for special occasions (see my honeymoon post about Bora Bora), but on most vacations your best investment is on a room with your absolute must haves (private bath, double bed, linens provided) in a great location!
  2. Chain restaurants. My absolute biggest pet peeve!!! I did not travel 2,000 miles to try McDonald’s, Burger King, Hard Rock Cafe, or anything else I can get back home. Yes, my younger self was guilty of this all the time, but I’ve learned from my mistakes. The more publicized and highly rated a restaurant is, the more commercialized and higher you’ll pay for your food. Get out of your comfort zone and find a local hole in the wall!
  3. Skipping over places that don’t speak your language. I get a lot of people that disagree with me on this one, but hear me out. You’ll get a much better experience wandering through a little shop or restaurant where the owners can’t speak your native tongue than searching out a “big box” that can. Part of immersing yourself in a foreign culture is gaining understanding, that doesn’t always have to be verbal!! I have the fondest memories struggling through conversations trying to buy a pair of shoes in Italy, ordering dinner from a local restaurant in Ukraine, and bartering without ever saying a word. Trust me, the story you’ll come home with is worth the struggle.
  4. Sleeping in. Here’s a simple one for you…just don’t do it! Your bed will be there when you get home, if you get 8 hours of sleep every night while you’re away you will have slept through one third of your vacation. I know, I know, you took a vacation to rest from your normal schedule, but you didn’t pay hundreds or even thousands to lie in bed! Get out there and take advantage of your surroundings. My entire semester abroad in college we stayed out until 3 or 4 and somehow managed to get up early the next morning to go sightseeing. I don’t know how we did it, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
  5. Over-packing. This is a skill I’ve honed through the years. If you don’t use it every day, chances are slim you’ll need it while you’re away. Clothes can be washed, and aside from medications, you can buy just about anything you forget when you get there. Don’t try to become a human pack mule, you’ll have to lug that extra weight wherever you go. Cut it down to the necessities and leave room so you can bring home extras.
  6. Bringing back souvenirs for your 10 best friends. This is the one you only realize after spending tons of money on cheap tchotchkes that eventually will be thrown out. That shot glass, t-shirt, or whatever you were contemplating will take up valuable space in your luggage and usually isn’t really appreciated by everyone when you’re buying in bulk. However, if something you come across strikingly reminds you of a good friend and you think they’d appreciate it, then absolutely go for it. But steer clear of the souvenir shops filled with mass produced trinkets!

The Ghost of Gluten Future

In honor of throwback Thursday, I have a bit of a reflection to share with you. When I first found out I’d have to live gluten free for the rest of my life, I felt like a sponge trying to soak in every piece of information I could find. Gluten free labels were hard to come by, reading strangers blogs became a comfort, and it took hours of reading every label at three different grocery stores just to restock my shelves for the week. Not yet confident in sharing my experiences, I’d spend evenings scrolling through comments on popular gluten free blogs to feel a sense of belonging and camaraderie.  I remember coming across an article about what would your last meal be if you’d known you’d never eat gluten again. One of the comments spoke to me, “the ghost of gluten future.” I am absolutely haunted by the ghost of gluten future! The thought of future delicacies I’ll never be able to try wears on me in ways you can’t imagine. I’ve shared many of my travels on here, and one of the things I’m most proud of is that I’ll try most any dish at least once. I wasn’t always like that, as I child I had a very strict chicken finger diet! I spent an entire week-long family vacation finding every variation of chicken fingers on every menu. I’ve come a long way since those days, and I love seeing the reactions I get when I share some of the most exotic meals I’ve tried around the world, and in my own backyard. What’s the most exotic thing you’ve ever tried? If you could turn back time, was there something you never gave a shot that you now wish you could?

Returning to Italy

If you’ve read the About Me page, you know I found my passion for traveling while living abroad in Italy.  It’s been about eight years since that semester abroad, and I am well overdue to go back.  My husband’s family is Italian, and it’s been a goal of his to see where they’re from.  Naturally I am 110% behind him on this goal, and could not wait to go back to the spark that ignited my love for world travel.  There’s only one thing that’s been lingering in the back of my head…how on earth will I get by in the land of gluten?!

Immediately I have visions of gnocchi, pizza margherita, tiramisu, everything I can no longer indulge.  Here’s the wonderful thing I found out though as our plans begin to come together, not only do Italians have an understanding of celiac disease, but they’re incredibly sympathetic to our needs.  I found dozens of sites and travel reviews referencing the stipend that Italian citizens receive to purchase gluten free foods once they’ve been diagnosed.  Upon stating “senza glutine” restaurant owners will quickly work with you to offer gluten free meals, understanding the importance of washing their hands and paying attention to avoid cross-contamination.

I can’t speak from experience on this, but I’m excited to return and see just how accepting they are of my needs!  I would love to hear from all of my readers to see what your favorite restaurants, sites, etc. are that you consider a “must do” in Italy.  Please share your experiences with me, I love a good recommendation prior to a big trip!!

Want to know what made me fall in love with Italy the first time?  Here goes…

The old world charm of Cinque Terre

The old world charm of Cinque Terre

 

The view of Firenze (Florence) from the Duomo

The view of Firenze (Florence) from the Duomo

 

City lights in Torino (Turin) during the 2006 Winter Olympics

City lights in Torino (Turin) during the 2006 Winter Olympics

 

Eastern-most edge of Italy in Trieste

Eastern-most edge of Italy in Trieste

 

Last, but certainly not least, the view from our dorm room of Mt. Grappa in Paderno del Grappa!!!

Last, but certainly not least, the view from our dorm room of Mt. Grappa in Paderno del Grappa!!!

Anxiety in Lima

Lima, Peru is a beautiful city that I’ve been so lucky to have visited twice in the last three years.  When I found out I’d be going back last summer, I could not have been more anxious!  Not only was the trip was scheduled smack dab between Ukraine and China, but Lima held some not so great memories from my first visit.  Technology has become a wonderful thing, connecting each of us regardless of location.  Thanks to Skype, I was able to connect with my mom and sister (in the DC metro area) to call and wish my grandmother (in Florida) a happy birthday while I was gone.  I was staying a few blocks from Miraflores, and was so excited to show off my hotel room to everyone back home…it practically took up an entire city block!  Later that same week on a video chat with my boyfriend (now husband), I reached a near breaking point with what I would eventually find out was celiac disease.  We’d been catching up about my day when mid conversation I ran to the bathroom and began vomiting.  I’d only had one beer with dinner, which had been at a highly recommended sushi restaurant.  I hadn’t been drinking any local water, and could not for the life of me figure out what was wrong.  This wasn’t the first time I’d done this either, only a few weeks prior I’d had the same thing happen while I was in Charleston, South Carolina.

Fast forward two years later, I now know why the beer and sushi made me sick that night.  But how sick had I been?  Were there other meals that upset me that week?  I was excited to experience Lima again, but would I run into the same problems armed with the truth about celiac disease?  My second trip started out a bit rocky.  I’d been getting phone calls and emails from United all morning telling me my flight to Newark had been delayed.  Before even arriving at the airport, I knew there was a good chance I wouldn’t make my connection to Lima.  As I checked in at the counter, a sigh of relief came when they informed me I’d already been re-booked, and would be connecting through Houston.  My coworkers were not so lucky, I’d been given one of the last seats on the Houston flight, and United had no other options for them.  Eventually they were switched to another airline, and we were all set for our trip.

One of the great things about having to travel for work, is that you don’t always have time to go out to eat.  I know that sounds counterintuitive and normally I’d be annoyed by this, but it actually put my anxiety at ease.  Our hotel staff were great, I’d mastered the phrase “sin glooten” and they were especially careful with each room service dinner I was served.  Each morning started out on the right foot as well, our hotel offered omelets made to order (my favorite!), and freshly squeezed juice from local fruits.  When we finally got our workload under control, I took my team out to what I think is the most incredible site in Lima.  We had dinner at the restaurant overlooking the Huaca Pucllana, it is actually built on the grounds of the Incan ruins, which are illuminated after the sun has set.

Overlooking the Huaca Pucllana during dinner!

Overlooking the Huaca Pucllana during dinner!

I have to admit, I truly love trying new things when I’m outside my comfort zone.  If you’ve read my blog before, I’m sure I’ve mentioned it a time or two 🙂  Peru is one of those places where there are so many fun new things to try!!  I was a little afraid of going for the full fledged guinea pig that street vendors sell.  If you aren’t sure what I’m talking about, google image search “Peru guinea pig” and I think you’ll understand.  BUT, when it’s cooked and served like any other meat, I’m all in!  I’d tried the appetizer sampler platter before at the Restaurant Huaca Pucllana and wanted to share with my coworkers some of the unique foods Peru has to offer.

Appetizer sampler at the Huaca Pucllana Restaurant - the guinea pig is in the upper right corner!

Appetizer sampler at the Huaca Pucllana Restaurant – the guinea pig is in the upper right corner!

Dinner at the Huaca Pucllana Restaurant

Dinner at the Huaca Pucllana Restaurant

Please forgive me for not remembering everything I ordered…unfortunately this trip pre-dates my blog, and I’ve now started to keep better track of everything I’m trying!! Trust me though, if you ever find yourself in Lima, Peru this restaurant is a can’t-miss opportunity.  The ambiance, menu, and wait staff make the experience one to remember.  If you love food as much as I do, I’m hoping you’ll appreciate the next two pictures of some of my other favorite meals while I was there.  As I said before, everyone in the hotel staff (we stayed at Golf los Incas) was incredibly helpful with my gluten free requests.  One of the first nights we were in town, my team and I enjoyed dinner at the hotel restaurant, where I could not get enough of this great dish!!

Steak and potatoes at the Golf los Incas Hotel

Steak and potatoes at the Golf los Incas Hotel

Any trip to Peru would not be complete without their signature dish….CEVICHE!!!  On my first trip to Lima, I tried ceviche for the first time and seriously could not get enough of the stuff!  For those new to the dish, ceviche can be any assortment of raw fish, cooked in the acid from local lemon and other citrus juices.  Talk to any Peruvian and they’ll tell you that you can’t recreate the dish anywhere else, because the local citrus is what makes the dish.

Enjoying ceviche in Miraflores

Enjoying ceviche in Miraflores

The last two pictures I want to share with you all today are from two of my favorite spots in the city.  The first is on the water in Miraflores, where you can watch people para sailing over the coast line.  Although I didn’t get the opportunity to actually try this myself, it was great to watch as everyone else flew over the hazy coast line.  The last picture is quite simply a beautiful contrast of new and old on the Miraflores water front.  This quaint home is situated between two high rise apartment buildings, and boasts the most enchanting home garden and front door!

Watching people glide in over the coast

Watching people glide in over the coast

Beautiful juxtaposition of old and new :)

Beautiful juxtaposition of old and new 🙂

 

Kyiv, Ukraine

If you had told me a few years ago that I’d be visiting five countries in a matter of months this year, I probably wouldn’t have believed you.  If you were to have also told me that the unique and beautiful country that I visited over the summer would be in a state of inner turmoil just a few short months later, I probably wouldn’t believe you either.  But here I am, scrolling through the news pictures of the riots in Ukraine, disheartened by the changes in such a short amount of time.

I was so fortunate to be on a project this year that brought me to Kyiv, Ukraine.  I love visiting new places, and couldn’t wait to see another side of Eastern Europe.  However, trying to deal with celiac disease in Ukraine was baptism by fire for me.  I do not speak Ukrainian, nor can I read Cyrillic letters.  I tried to translate “no gluten” on my phone, but it turns out I had to be connected to the internet to access the phrase, and could never quite verify that the translation was actually correct.

The nice thing about European hotels, especially nice ones, is that they usually have a great breakfast spread.  They’ll lay out every food you can imagine that might be considered breakfast.  The Hotel Opera in Kyiv was no exception.  Every morning I ventured down to the restaurant where I was treated to a fresh fruit buffet, and made to order eggs.

Lunches were definitely more of a challenge.  The offices we worked from for the week weren’t in the most popular area for restaurants, and we didn’t have much time to step away from our work for a meal.  We alternated days going to a quick corner stop, and a luncheon restaurant nearby.  I had to take a leap of faith in Ukraine, and go with my gut.  It was a risky chance to take, but I unfortunately hadn’t planned for any other option.  Thanks to the culture, my food didn’t really have any additives, nor did it make me sick during the trip.  I always found the simple meals while we were out, keeping to sausage and sauerkraut or borscht for the most part.

My workload that week kept me from venturing out for dinner, which actually worked out much easier for me.  The hotel restaurant staff understood my concerns about gluten, and were able to help me order my meals each night.  I alternated between ordering room service and meeting my coworkers in the hotel restaurant.  Here are some pictures of my favorite Ukrainian meals.

Quail Breast

Quail Breast Foie Gras with Cabbage and Fried Quail Egg

Borscht

Ukrainian Borscht

Salmon

Salmon with Mashed Potatoes and Asparagus

Travel Tip #1: Breakfast can be your best friend, and usually a guaranteed meal.  Since hotel staff tend to be bilingual and able to better accommodate foreign requests, they’ll be able to answer your gluten free questions.  Fill up early in the day since you may run into challenges for lunch and dinner.

Travel Tip #2: Do research about a city or culture before you go.  Learn what their common dishes are, and what ways you could potentially be contaminated.

Travel Tip #3: Most translation apps on your phone need to be connected to the internet in order to access their language databases (including anything you’ve previously translated). Before you leave for your trip, verify whether or not your app will work in an area without service by attempting to translate a phrase while your phone is in airplane mode.

A little bonus on this post, there have been too many devastating pictures posted of Kyiv riots recently, so I’d like to share a few of mine from earlier last summer that show the country’s true beauty.

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