I have been quiet here the last few weeks because I was on semester break from Uni and I was lucky enough to be travelling through Europe with my husband. We drove from Spain, through France and right around to Italy along the areas known as the Costa Brava, the Cote d’Azur and the Italian Riviera. I’m sure it will be no surprise to hear we loved every second of it!
Travelling with intolerances or allergies can be a little nerve-wracking if you’re headed to new destinations where you don’t speak much, or any of the language. Long-distance plane travel can be hard enough but I have found over time intolerant friendly in-flight meals have improved enormously… although I still pack plenty of snacks like fresh fruit, activated nuts and home-baked treats just in case! Whilst the meals may have improved the in-flight snacks most definitely have not so taking your own onboard also comes in handy when you find yourself in need of a meal top up.
I find much of the anxiety about meal times on the road is removed if I do plenty of research before we go. As food allergy and intolerance rates continue to rise globally, there is far more awareness of conditions such as coeliac disease, peanut and shellfish anaphylaxis along with gluten and dairy intolerance to name a few. There is an abundance of information on the internet regarding places that cater to those on special diets, and you will find most cafés and restaurants now even list somewhere within their menu those meals that contain allergens. This is hugely beneficial particularly where anaphylaxis is concerned as ingestion of an allergen can be more than just a little uncomfortable, it can be life threatening.
I researched all our chosen cities well before leaving but spent most of my time on Spain as it was the only one of the three countries we were going to this trip that we had never been to before. I was very pleased to find not one or two, but many restaurants dedicated to the intolerant traveller. In fact, I found a whole website devoted to discussing intolerant/allergy friendly restaurants and cafés in Barcelona, which was perfect as that was our main Spanish destination. The website was called Allergy Chef and I highly recommend using it, and booking through it if you’re heading to Barcelona any time. We certainly had great experiences doing this. Having a few places up your sleeve at each port of call can be quite useful and certainly saves a lot of time. It also means your travel companions don’t need to be dragged halfway around a foreign city whilst you find a suitable establishment, which they will be forever grateful for. It will save plenty of hangry arguments too, you can trust me on that.
I’m a fairly seasoned European traveller so I was never really too concerned about whether or not intolerant friendly foods would be easy to find. We had booked some restaurants but left others to chance, so we could have some spontaneity in our days because experience from past trips had revealed the Mediterranean diet – each country with their own variation – is an intolerant friendly dream come true (their love for gluten and cheese aside!). Grilled meats and vegetables, a gorgeous big seasonal salad, local tapas / antipasto or a traditional paella* (when in Spain for the latter) are all very easy to come by so no cause for concern there. In fact, that’s mostly what I lived on the whole four weeks we were away, along with the delicious local produce we picked up at the daily markets.
But it’s not all research or sticking to strict plans and guidelines all the time… well, certainly not for me. What I think all this planning and organising pre-trip gives me is room for a bit of leeway, which is quite comforting really. If there is one thing I will be forever grateful for when it comes to the intolerances I have, it is that they are just intolerances and not allergies. Nothing too tragic happens when I have something I shouldn’t. I tend to avoid things more for my own comfort’s sake because of symptoms like muscle or joint aches and pains that can lead to arthritis flares, upset stomach, reflux, itchy skin and eyes, runny nose or fatigue. I can have a little bit of some things I would normally avoid occasionally, it’s just when I have them too regularly that the trouble begins. I know many others also fit this ‘box’.
I love to learn about the culture and food traditions of the places we travel to and that often leads to trying new foods. Not always those that agree with me mind you but you rarely know that until later…. unless you intentionally gluten yourself, which I will admit I did once or twice (I blame the Ligurians and their perfectly crisp and golden focaccia!). In the end I have found when the 80-20 rule is applied life is still rosy, and I can enjoy some of the treats our new destinations have to offer. I do however try to minimise the damage by keeping to as much of my normal supplement regime as possible.
My bag is usually right up there on the weight limit when we check-in because I take all the herbs and supplements with me that I take when I’m at home, and I travel with all my own hair and body products to keep the toxin load down too. I also took herbal anti-histamines with me this time because that is the one intolerance that is quite difficult to manage when you’re not doing all your own food preparation. It may seem like overkill but 15,000km away from home when I’m letting my hair down a little is the last place I want to be having any health issues so better safe than sorry I think.
With all of that said, I thought a little list of hints and tips might be useful for those who are embarking on an adventure with food intolerances or allergies for the first time. If you think there are other things to add please let me know in the comments. Many brains and a variety of past experiences will always make a well-developed list! For starters:
- Put time aside to research your destination, their food culture and any cafés / restaurants that cater to special diets. Many associations worldwide such as coeliac associations as an example, even have printable cards online with a statement that can be handed to restaurant staff in their own language. (Coeliac card – Spanish example)
- Contact your chosen airline and discuss your dietary requirements with them a few weeks before you travel. They can cater to most so be clear about what it is you need to avoid
- Consider taking your own meals onto the plane if you want to be sure you’ll have something you love on a long journey. 100ml limit on liquids still stands so nothing like smoothies is acceptable but anything else is fine. I have taken things like quinoa salad, baked goods, mini frittatas, nuts and fruits (although fruit has to be eaten before getting off the plane)
- I would strongly advise packing all your medications, herbs and supplements because you want to stay fit and healthy on the road. I know a lot of people prefer not to because of the excess weight they add but I really think its worth it
- Check out the local markets everywhere you go! We found most cities we visited on our trip had daily food markets stocking an abundance of delicious fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses and local delicacies. Most days we would have breakfast and pick up a few things for lunch, or eat lunch at one of the counters attached to many of the stalls within the market (see the photo above)
- Learn a few phrases that you need with regards to your allergy or intolerance. Sin gluten (Spanish), sans gluten (French), senza glutine (Italian) came in handy on our trip
- Make sure the hotel you’re booking has a fridge of some sort so you can store any left over market produce or supermarket purchases like non-dairy milks and yoghurts
- Better yet, consider renting an apartment instead of booking into a hotel if you think cooking for yourself will be a lot easier. I would have been perfectly happy cooking up all that market produce each day!
- Try not to be fearful of new foods. Learning about the different foods and local specialties is such a treat so trying some is a must…. however it must be within your own boundaries and you are the best judge of that, particularly where anaphylaxis is concerned.
And most importantly, have fun! I never let myself get worked up over meal times when we’re away and for the most part, the pre-planning helps with that, but having an adventurous soul is also a bonus. Happy travels! <3