After being in transit for eight hours from Lausanne, we arrived in the port city of La Spezia on the Ligurian coast of Italy. But as most of you playing at home will know, the real target of this three-day stint was to explore the neighbouring five villages which are collectively known as the Cinque Terre. This destination is no big secret, in fact it’s almost about as common as visting London when comparing Eurotrip itineraries with fellow Aussies. The premise is quite simple – five picture postcard towns which are connected by mildly strenuous yet stunning walking trails. It should be noted that two of the walking trails are indefinitely closed due to a rockslide event a couple of years ago. Don’t stress – the hardest, and in my opinion, the most beautiful trails are still open. Whilst the towns are heavily touristic and crowded during the peak season, you’ll almost definitely be captivated by the charms of each town and the natural beauty of the coastline. After all, UNESCO World Heritage status didn’t come from a cereal box.
While in Cinque Terre, I learnt a very valuable celiac lesson, the hard way. Before arriving I had consumed so many articles and blogs that spoke of Italy as somewhat of a haven for the gluten free. As paradoxical as it sounds, being the land of the glutenous pizza and pasta, I happily (and naively) went about hiking between the Cinque Terre villages with nothing more than two small gluten free cakes in my backpack. I was anticipating a well-deserved gluten free pizza or foccacia when we reached the first town.
Starving from the hike, I set my sights on one the various restaurants in Manarola that had “gluten free” and “senza glutene” written in the window. You can imagine my disappointment when I was told by two consecutive places that they did not have gluten free pizza on that particular day.
On day 2, we hiked the rest of Cinque Terre and I encountered a very similar experience that left my little gluten free heart broken. Wondering into Vernazza, a little light headed, I opted for the naturally gluten free and regional speciality, the farinata (a chickpea like crepe filled with cheese). I was again told again that they did not have any left. At this point, we got the distinct impression that gluten-free was a nice buzzword to display in shop windows but not taken seriously in the kitchen.
This charade repeated itself at dinner in Corniglia, as we chose a restaurant which was advertising gluten free pizza and pasta, and yet once the order was placed, the all too familiar “We’re sorry but we seem to have run out of this tonight” was delivered right on cue. The silver lining to this story was that we met a great couple from Sydney which turned the night right around and capped off our Cinque Terre stay on a positive note.
My advice: When it comes to travelling and being celiac, always, always, always assume that there will be no gluten free options, even if it is advertised. And, if you happen to find a gluten free section in a supermarket – stock up! I was lucky to have an extra few packets of gluten free snacks in my bag that were left over from my travels through France. Let me tell you after hiking for 2 hours, I have never looked at a gluten free madeleine cake which such desire in my life.
While lunch was a complete disaster for me (mainly because we did not have the time or budget to formally sit in at a restaurant) dinner is where I could safely eat, sampling the naturally gluten free and very delicious dishes of this part of Italy. Being close to the sea means the seafood here is super fresh and when the locals aren’t deep frying it in batter (as they usually do around lunch time) there are many dishes that will leave you very satisfied. My particular favourite was the local anchovies lightly marinated in olive oil and lemon, an acquired taste for some, but when my disease rules out so many foods, I need to take what I can get! I recommend starting with the milder white anchovies and working your tastebuds up to the salty and full-flavoured darker anchovies.
A post about Italy could not be completed without mention of gelato. In the town of Corniglia they make what is now my favourite gelato of all time: a fresh basil gelato finished with a drizzle of olive oil. Now, this may seem strange but the sweetness and freshness of the basil is completely balanced by the buttery, creamy olive oil that left me coming back far too many times to admit.