Traveling Abroad at 19: “I am Celiac”
By Gracie Cook
This summer I decided to become a counselor for a teen travel company and was assigned to the “Discover Europe” trip. Our stops included Barcelona, Rome, Florence and Paris. While I had traveled with the company as a teen twice already, both trips were over two years ago, before I discovered that I had celiac disease.
When I first read through the itinerary for my trip to Europe, the first things I noticed were the spontaneous “picnic lunches” and “pizza stops” that seemed to overwhelm my upcoming plans. Somehow I managed to make it through all three countries, and our German airport layovers, without a single noticeable gluten contamination. As high school and college-aged students traveling, our main living situations were hostels and low-end boutique hotels. While they held culture, I did not expect them to hold much agency or knowledge when it came to providing for gluten-free guests. This blog essentially recaps my experience as a young, college-aged traveler in Europe. I made it through without a reaction, and so could you! One could say I got lucky… or that I am living as a person with celiac disease in a time where traveling is becoming increasingly less difficult for us.
Barcelona was the land of fried everything , which really shocked me. At least that is how it seemed our first day, when we ate at a small restaurant right next to our hostel. Patatas Bravas, also known as spicy potatoes, were a dish we encountered everywhere. I will get back to this questionable tapas dish later on. I ended up ordering chicken paella, and just like back home, rice proved to be my best food-friend
Luckily, each dinner in Barcelona was at nicer restaurants, so the menu options were much more adaptable and gluten-free-friendly than I had anticipated. One restaurant worth suggesting to anyone thinking of traveling to Barcelona is The Attic Restaurant, located right beside Barcelona’s main street, La Rambla. I scanned the menu and was prepared to try to communicate with the waiter to tell him that I needed to be gluten-free, but my group leader noticed something I hadn’t. At the bottom of the menu, there was a note saying they had selections completely devoted to people dealing with celiac disease! I ended up being able to order pasta, fries and every other carb-loaded thing that I had been envyingly watching my fellow travelers eat throughout the trip.
The Spanish Market.
One of our days in Barcelona had a paella cooking class on the schedule. The morning was devoted to picking out fresh ingredients from Mercat de La Boqueria, while simultaneously experiencing the overwhelming scale and diversity of this famous Spanish market in the heart of the city. We met our chef who was an authentic Catalonian native and expert on just about every type of food you can imagine. I pulled him aside early on and told him about my gluten-free requirements, and he was incredibly knowledgeable. It was clear he had modern nutritional training when it came to the traditional dishes he was accustomed to creating. After picking out our ingredients, we went to a tiny room in the back of his restaurant where he first taught us how to make tapas with meats, cheeses, and breads (no bread for me, but it wasn’t a problem at all). Next we made the Paella. Essentially, it was made up of rice, shellfish galore, fish stock, and wine. Definitely safe for a celiac!
Overall, Barcelona proved to be celiac-friendly on just about all levels of dining. From small, local dives, to large, upscale restaurants, there was always something available and there were almost always trustworthy wait staff.
Rome & Florence, Italy: ”
Italy was the only country on the trip that I had been before, so I was pretty sure that I knew what to expect. Florence and Rome did have some dining differences from my newly acquired gluten-free view, however.
First, I will begin with Rome: the home of pizza by the slice and Nutella sandwiches for breakfast. The hardest part of Roman dining was probably the breakfast options in our hotel. While it was not the most upscale residence, they did offer a ton of food each morning. Unfortunately, it was all bread and cereals. Some of the cereal options may have been rice-based, but the staff was not 100% positive, so I did not risk it. Luckily, my parents and I thought ahead and packed about 8 NuGo Free Dark Chocolate Trail Mix protein bars. These became my life source several mornings during our trip. I was familiar with them from college, and although I prefer to eat “real” meals, these bars are one brand I never get sick of. They really hold me over, too, which is a tough feat.
The second challenge in Rome was our Vatican visit. There is a pizza place located just outside the Vatican gates called Pizzarium, which serves delectable Roman pizza by the slice. Since my prior trips to Rome were before I knew I have celiac disease, I did get to experience this famous meal before and didn’t feel like I was missing out on too much when I got a salad from across the street. Just like Barcelona, the restaurants were very good with staying gluten-free and accommodating me when necessary. Even the sandwich stops in Rome always had some kind of salad option.
Delicious gluten-free penne.
Florence was particularly impressive when it came to availability of gluten-free pastas. I had pasta numerous times in Florence, and when I didn’t, I had nice meats and Caprese salads, made of mozzarella and tomato. We spent one day at a family’s home and winery in Tuscany, and I decided to bring the one box of Glutino pasta noodles that my mom had convinced me to pack “just in case”. The mother of the family, Athena, was nice enough to cook a pesto pasta dish for me with my gluten-free substitute noodles, while the rest of my group ate lasagna that she had taught us to cook before hand. She was extremely accommodating, and spoke with me for a while about how people in the Toscana region of Italy are becoming increasingly aware of celiac disease. It was a reassuring conversation, to say the least.
I also should mention that the hostel we stayed at, Academy Hostel, was fabulous. It was the cleanest, most secure, and most convenient of all of our hotels during the trip. It is voted top hostel in Italy, and for good reason. The breakfasts had their share of bread, but they also provided fruit salads and rice cakes. I had never experimented much with rice cakes before, but by the end of our 4-day stay in Florence I was accustomed, and even looked forward, to eating them with Nutella each morning. It was clear that the hostel caters to a young generation and is aware of the gluten-related disorders being discovered. I highly recommend staying here if you ever visit Florence!
Paris proved to be the most difficult of the four cities we traveled during our two-week stay in Europe. The breakfasts were completely filled with gluten. Luckily, our hotel was down the street from one of several fruit markets and I made a point of stocking up on peaches and apples each night in preparation for the following morning. Baguettes were plentiful among the French, and people even walked around the city snacking on full sized loaves of bread! My group was comprised of avid crepe-eaters and those stops were difficult. I knew some gluten-free creperies existed, but not near the areas of the city we were exploring, or at least not to my knowledge.
The language barrier also proved to be an issue for me, considering I know absolutely zero French, and neither did my group leaders. The restaurant staff members took a while sometimes to understand what “gluten-free” meant, but once they did it was easy to find safe options. One app on my phone helped me an enormous amount when the language barrier became an issue. With “Gluten-Free Cards,” I was able to show our waiters a description of celiac disease and what I could eat in any language I needed. The iPhone application has the cards prepared in several languages, and all I needed to do was find the one I needed and present it to the waiter. I couldn’t be happier that I downloaded this app before starting the trip.
Gluten-free hot chocolate and macaroons
To my delight, the café in the Louvre offered a quinoa chicken salad and it was actually really good and filling. It was a struggle to choose that over the croissants sitting on either side, but it was worth the self-control. It was moments like this that made me regain faith in the French when it came to providing for people with celiac! Also, we made a morning stop at the famous Angelina of Paris, where they serve macaroons and hot chocolate – both of which were safe for me to eat.
From what I experienced, traveling in Paris gluten-free would be simple if I’d had the ability to dine at nicer restaurants for lunch, rather than sandwich stands and creperies. Since my trip was focused on high school and college-aged kids, expenses were obviously limited. I brought four Schar gluten-free rolls with me, and they came in handy during a few lunch stops. The men at a sandwich stand next to the Eiffel Tower made my sandwich on one of my rolls, which was very nice. I knew there was a risk of cross-contamination, but I became less concerned once I saw him change his plastic gloves before making mine.
I definitely hope to return to Paris someday and really emerge myself in the dining experience. I will make a point of discovering every gluten-free creperie and sandwich shop around the city, because I know they are out there! Despite the difficulty I encountered at times and shared with you all, I highly suggest visiting Paris at some point. The views are worth it!
Ultimately, my experience abroad was much easier than I had anticipated and helped me grow as a traveler. I definitely came out of it looking forward to my next trip, rather than worrying about what I would eat. If I could leave fellow college-aged travelers with a tip or two, I would tell you the following:
Especially for those on-the-go lunch sandwich or pizza stops you are bound to encounter. Also, protein bars for breakfasts become lifesavers when your options consist of only breads and mystery cereals.
Know your surroundings.
Not only for safety, but when it comes to food, too! Little fruit and vegetable markets are scattered around just about every city and they are worth finding.
Break the language barrier.
Get an app like the one mentioned before (“Gluten-Free Cards”) or another translating tool. They come in handy more often than you’d ever expect. Many locals know how to speak English, but a word like “celiac” or “gluten” is not always part of their basic vocabulary knowledge.
Take advantage of airports.
The little cafes in airport terminals, no matter what country you are in, will almost always have something gluten-free. I took our airport layovers as opportunities to stock up on gluten-free snacks and foods that would last in case I needed them in our next city.
Alert your airline!
I flew Lufthansa airlines to and from Europe, and they provided gluten-free meals on both trips. All I had to do was contact them in advance and request the special meal, and they take care of the rest. It was definitely worth it. Just about any airline is trained and capable of providing gluten-free meals to passengers.
Now that I know it is possible to eat normally and safely abroad, I cannot wait to go back. I have plans to study abroad in Europe in a year or two, and I will most definitely travel again before then. We all know that food is a huge element of the traveling experience and it can still be a fun and positive aspect of a trip, even as someone living with celiac disease.
Until next time, safe travels and bon appetite!