I love the holidays. To me, there’s nothing like spending time with family and friends, and this season lets me reconnect with both. But that’s not to say I enjoy holiday travel. In fact, I hate it. Why? Well, last year, bad weather turned my hourlong flight from New York to Toronto into an eight-hour extravaganza at LaGuardia Airport. (And by “extravaganza,” I do mean hellscape.) While it’s arguably the most wonderful time of the year in terms of get-togethers, moving from Point A to Point B is often a nightmarish slog through overcrowded airports, train stations, and bus terminals… and that’s before you factor in freak storms.
It’s almost enough to make a body want to stay home. Almost… but not quite! Since I never learn my lesson about avoiding holiday travel, I’ve come up with some survival strategies, especially since travel is always that much harder when you have celiac disease and can’t wander into just any kiosk at a transit hub to refuel.
Seeing the Acropolis up close was a dream come true for me. No matter how many times you view a place in photographs or videos, there’s nothing like experiencing it in person. And the Acropolis is particularly alluring because you catch sight of it from different angles as you stroll around the sprawling metropolis that is Athens. Day or night, it’s a joy to behold.
The Acropolis holds a series of treasures. The entry gate, called the Propylaea, was designed to inspire awe. Just beyond it is the Temple of Athena Nike, which represented the goddess as the victorious protector of her namesake city. Step further inside and you’ll find the Erechtheion — a temple famous for its six stone guardians, the Caryatids — and the Parthenon itself, dedicated to Athena the Virgin. Built between 450 BC and 440 BC, it was the largest Doric temple in Greece.
If you want to see the glorious statues and carved reliefs that once graced the Parthenon, there are two places to look. One is the British Museum, which houses the Elgin Marbles, a collection that includes friezes from the Parthenon and one of the Caryatids from the Erechtheion. (The return of this collection is the subject of ongoing debate and discussion between Greece and Britain.) The second place to look is the stunning modern museum at the foot of the Acropolis.
Built atop Roman and Byzantine ruins, the Acropolis Museum opened in 2009 to showcase both art and history. It does so beautifully, with original statues excavated from under the Parthenon, and with impeccable copies of the works that were removed by Lord Elgin. The top floor of the building is devoted to the carved marble panels of the Parthenon. Even though you know you are looking at copies (the museum is scrupulous about noting that), the scenes — depicting warring deities, centaurs, Amazons, and the fall of Troy — are breathtaking.
There was another wonder at the foot of the Acropolis, just across from the museum….
Friends, I am back from Greece! Even though I’m so jet-lagged that I may need to prop open my eyes with toothpicks for the rest of this week, I had an absolutely fantastic time. It was my first visit there, and I dove headfirst into every historic site I could find. That included the glorious Acropolis, the ancient Agora, the Roman Forum, Hadrian’s Library, Keramikos Cemetery, and the Temple of Olympic Zeus.
Each of these places took my breath away. It wasn’t just the grandeur of the sites, or the thousands of years of history I was looking at. It was also the discovery of charming quirks, like the cats roaming freely around the ruins, and the realization that both Hadrian’s Library and the Keramikos Cemetery are guarded by… turtles.
My first piece of advice applies to every traveler planning to spend a few days in Athens: buy the combination ticket! The Hellenic Heritage e-Ticket saves you time, by letting you skip the ticket line at each site, and it saves you money. To visit the Acropolis costs €20; the combination ticket is €30 and lets you visit all of the sites I mentioned above. (Each site charges an admission of about €8 to €10, which adds up quickly.) Since you now have to book the timing of your Acropolis visit in advance — a new rule that came into effect in September 2023 — it really makes sense to buy the combination ticket online.
On the dining front, I ate incredibly well, starting with the breakfast at my hotel every morning. Athens has many hotels, and I ended up choosing one based on a few factors. Location was key: I wanted to be in Plaka, the oldest neighborhood in Athens, close to all of its ancient treasures. (The trade-off being that the streets wind around in confusing ways, with tiny sidewalks full of tourists, but it was wonderful nonetheless.) My husband and I scoured guidebooks and TripAdvisor reviews, and that was how we found a place called the Classic Hotel by Athens Prime Hotels.
Friends, it was perfect. To be clear, our room was tiny, as all guestrooms in Plaka are (space is forever at a premium in historic districts). But it was clean and well-designed, with amenities like a mini-fridge, a safe, a great shower, and a hot tub on the balcony. Even better? The hearty gluten-free breakfast I had every morning.
After booking online at the Classic Hotel, my husband and I wrote to them asking about the included breakfast — specifically, if there would be anything that a celiac could eat. Staff wrote back that while the breakfast included eggs, vegetables, fruits, yogurt, and cheese, they didn’t have any gluten-free bread or other specialty items. That was fine with me. But when I arrived, I discovered that the staff member in charge of the breakfast, Michaela, had gone out and bought some gluten-free items for me. I ended up with two different breads (one brown, one white), rice cakes topped with white chocolate and strawberry, and small crispbreads to pair with the fresh peach jam. Yes, I was spoiled — and very grateful. The Greek reputation for warm hospitality is well deserved.
I’ll be writing more about Athens over the next few weeks, because I ate extremely well there. But my first lesson was that it never hurts to ask a question — or to mention that you have celiac disease. I know some people feel shy or uncomfortable about doing so, but in my experience, it’s worth it.
I’m an optimist about travel. While I know delays, bumpy rides, and unwanted surprises can crop up on any trip, I believe the inconveniences are worth it. Whether you’re traveling to take in new sights, spend time with family and friends, or for a specific event, you’re making memories that will last.
But there is one aspect of travel that’s an ongoing challenge: airplane meals.
To be fair, it’s easier than it used to be to get gluten-free food on a plane. When I was diagnosed with celiac disease 19 years ago, many airlines didn’t offer them at all. But now that everyone seems to offer meals for the gluten intolerant, other issues have come up. Before the pandemic, some airlines had started pairing gluten-free meals up with other special requests, so that the meal was also dairy-free, for example. More recently, the meals, have sometimes served triple-duty: gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegan. While this is a blessing to anyone observing all three restrictions, it doesn’t make it easy to come up with a meal. And it explains why I’ve had airplane “meals” that consisted of a fruit cup with a banana on the side. It’s not unusual to have protein missing from the plate.
While you can’t control everything, you can compensate. Here’s how I handle eating in-flight these days.
Let me admit a certain amount of bias upfront: I spent a decade writing guidebooks for Frommer’s Travel Guides, so I’m predisposed to believe guidebooks are useful. But in recent years, that belief has taken a beating. Even before the pandemic, guidebooks were an endangered species, since a growing cohort of travelers think they can get everything they need from the Internet. That led to guidebooks being updated less frequently, which undermined their utility. More recently, guidebooks have been getting a bad reputation thanks to what the New York Times calls “a new form of travel scam: shoddy guidebooks that appear to be compiled with the help of generative artificial intelligence, self-published and bolstered by sham reviews, that have proliferated in recent months on Amazon.”
When I was planning my trip to Barcelona this spring, I’d pretty much sworn off guidebooks. This would be my fifth trip to the Catalonian capital, and I felt like I knew my way around the city reasonably well. But when I glanced at the latest guidebook options, I noticed that Rick Steves had a recently updated guide to the city. On impulse, I decided to buy it.
I’ve written about traveling with celiac disease for years, and the question I get most often is this: How do you eat out safely when you don’t speak the language? There are plenty of issues that can come up when you travel, but not being able to properly communicate your dietary needs is a thorny one. This question kept me awake nights after I was diagnosed: I wanted to visit new places, but I was terrified of accidentally getting glutened. (I’m not one of those celiacs who never exhibited symptoms. If I accidentally injest gluten, I get very sick.)
What I know now is that it’s possible to travel safely when you don’t speak the local tongue, but it does take work. Being completely honest, some destinations are easier than others. For example, I don’t speak any Swedish (except to say hej and tack), but my visit to Stockholm was one of the safest trips I’ve ever taken. That was because so many locals speak English and because celiac awareness seemed universal. (In Sweden, McDonald’s offers gluten-free Big Macs.) But that was a rare exception: most of my trips have required a lot of advance preparation.
I want to show you how I prepare for a trip. Since I’m going to Greece soon, I thought it would make a good test case. I don’t speak a word of Greek (yet), so where do I begin my research?
It’s been a while! Since the Gluten-Free Guidebook is settling into its new home on Substack, I thought it would be a great time to reintroduce myself to you.
When I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2004, I figured that my career as a travel writer was dead. Visiting foreign places—one of the great joys in my life—suddenly seemed impossible. Even dining out safely in the cities I know best (I’m Toronto born and New York based) seemed like a challenge. It was tough to imagine eating out in countries where I didn’t speak the language. While I was grateful to learn the cause of the (many) health problems that plagued me at the time, it felt like I was losing something precious in the process.
That sentiment lasted only a short time. I missed travel too much to give it up.
The first step in getting my travel groove back was to do plenty of reading and research so I was educated about what I could and couldn’t eat. Some of it was obvious—wheat, barley, and rye are the main culprits—and some of it was not (even in 2023, I’m still surprising people with the fact that traditional soy sauce has wheat in it). Next, I convinced some of my editors that diagnoses of celiac disease and gluten intolerance were on the rise (true!), and that interest in this “trend” would only grow (also true!). On the first couple of trips I took post-diagnosis, I brought along a box of gluten-free protein bars as a security blanket. It turned out, I didn’t need that many (except at airports, which are still miserable for anyone with dietary issues).
One of my great pleasures has been in discovering how caring people can be. Over and over, I’ve been bowled over by people who go above and beyond to ensure that I can dine safely. The reason I started the Gluten-Free Guidebook in 2008 was because I wanted to share my travel and restaurant research — I do a lot of it, and it doesn’t seem right that it should only benefit me! More than anything, I want people to feel empowered. Anyone with celiac disease or food allergies should never feel as if they can’t travel — they just need a little more advance planning.
Over the past several years, my work has changed. These days, my full-time job is as a mystery novelist (believe me, I’m still pinching myself). But that doesn’t mean my interest in travel has waned. If anything, it’s grown, and book tours, literary festivals, and foreign-language translations of my books have taken me to new places I’ve never been before. Also, some of my books and short stories are set in exotic locales, and I love doing in-person research.
I missed traveling during the pandemic, and I’m thrilled to be back on the road. In the past few months, I’ve been to Barcelona and Boston, Miami and Montreal, Philadelphia and Toronto. Later this fall, I’ll be visiting Greece. It seemed like the perfect time to bring back the Gluten-Free Guidebook. I’m relaunching it on Substack for a couple of reasons: one is practical (the FeedBurner service I used to use gave up the ghost in 2021), and the other is personal (I moved my mystery-writing newsletter to Substack months ago and have been thrilled with the results).
What can you expect to find here? Plenty of recommendations about places I’ve visited myself, plus suggestions from other sources, including fellow readers. There will be specific information about restaurants, hotels, and shops, as well as more general information about how to navigate issues like foreign languages and unpleasant surprises on the road. There will also be plenty of travel information that’s useful for everyone, plus links to relevant news. About the only thing you definitely won’t see here are recipes.
I’d love to hear from you about what you’d like to see in this newsletter. Substack makes a lot of things possible, including video chats and podcasts. That would be terra incognita for me, but you already know I love traveling into new territory.
When I was first diagnosed with celiac disease in 2004, I felt like I’d never be able to travel again. Just communicating my dietary needs in English seemed daunting enough, so how was I going to manage it in a foreign tongue? Fortunately, I’ve had a lot of help. In the past decade, I’ve visited plenty of places where I didn’t speak the language â€” including Peru, Chile, Argentina, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Turkey, and Israel â€” and I’ve been able to arrange for gluten-free meals along the way. Eating at a restaurant is always an exercise in trust; for the gluten-intolerant, it feels especially risky.Â Here’s what’s worked for me:
Visit the Celiac Travel website, which provides an impressive selection of cards in many languages. The list is constantly growing, but currently features 54 languages, including Arabic, Basque, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese, Italian, Malay, Portuguese, Russian, Urdu,Â and Vietnamese. There are several companies that charge money for celiac translation cards, but none of them are better than what Roger and Lyndsay offer on Celiac Travel. If you use their cards, they appreciate a donation, but it’s not required.
Check out the list of “Celiac Societies Around the World” compiled by Nancy Lapid on About.com. Often, these societies will have information about restaurants and shops that cater to celiacs. While you’re at it, Google “celiac” or “gluten free” and the names of the cities you’ll be visiting; often you’ll find local groups with plenty of information to share.
Ask for advice on the Gluten-Free Guidebook’s Facebook Group. You’ll probably find a fellow traveler who’s been to the place you’re planning to see; occasionally, you’ll connect with a local.
If possible, learn a few words or phrases in the local language before you go on your trip. Knowing how to say â€œTengo la enfermedad celiaca; No puedo comer harina o trigoâ€ (I have celiac disease; I canâ€™t eat flour or wheat) made my travels to Peru and Chile easier. Still, I have to admit that I never managed this in Hungarian.
Does anyone have other ideas for breaking the language barrier? Iâ€™d love to hear your suggestions.
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In other news, my first stand-alone thriller, Blood Always Tells, will be published on April 15, 2014, by Tor/Forge. According to Library Journal, â€œYou can’t help turning the pages in anticipation of yet another twist.â€Â You can win an advance copy via GoodReads before February 15th. If you order the hardcover or eBook before the release date, you can win a prize.Â
I’ve been so busy on my book tour for my new novel,Â Evil in All Its Disguises, that a certain significant date slipped right by me. March 15th, 2013, marked the fifth anniversary of the Gluten-Free Guidebook. Creating this site has introduced me to a lot of incredible people over the years. I know, from the messages I receive, that so many people have found the information helpful; a few have told me that the site gave them the confidence to travel again, when they believed a diagnosis of celiac disease meant they’d never eat out again. Working on this site has been a labor of love for me.
The site has also spawned a vibrant Facebook group, which I love because it helps readers share restaurant recommendations and travel tips. If you’re planning a trip and wondering what your gluten-free dining options are at your destination, it’s the perfect place to start.
To celebrate this site’s fifth anniversary, I’m hosting a contest. I want to hear about your favorite gluten-free places â€” restaurants, bakeries, shops, hotels, or destinations. Write a Reader Report about them, and you’ll be entered in a draw to win one of my three mystery novels (The Damage Done, The Next One to Fall, Evil in All Its Disguises). Examples of Reader Reports are here.
The fine print: By entering this contest, you automatically give me the right to publish your entry on the Gluten-Free Guidebook, and to edit it as necessary for clarity and length; however, I am under no obligation to publish it. Your entry must be your own original work and cannot infringe on anyoneâ€™s copyright. You hold the copyright to your own material and can publish it elsewhere, in print or online. Entrants need to send me their full names and their mailing addresses (the mailing address is only for the prize draw; the information will be kept strictly confidential).
The deadline for entries is May 31Â July 15, 2013. Entries must be e-mailed to glutenfreeguidebook [at] gmail [dot] com; please put â€œAnniversary Contestâ€ in the subject. This contest is open to readers around the world, except where prohibited by law.
Here’s to another year, and many more discoveries on the road!
If you’ve followed this blog for any time at all, you know I’m not just a travel writer with celiac disease â€” I’m also an award-winning crime novelist! My second mystery, The Next One to Fall, is being released today in the U.S. and Canada. I’m thrilled to say the early reviews have been fantastic. According to Publishers Weekly, “The rich history and geography of Peru add depth to an engrossing mystery that constantly keeps the reader guessing.” Library Journal says, “Davidson’s follow-up to her Anthony Award-winning debut (The Damage Done) will leave you breathless.”
My book tour will take me to Houston (Feb. 17th), Austin (Feb. 18th), Scottsdale (Feb. 21st), Glendale AZ (Feb. 22nd), Huntington NY (Feb. 28), Hamilton ON (Mar. 7th), Toronto (Mar. 8th), Denver (Mar. 23rd), Los Angeles (Mar. 25th), San Diego (Mar. 26th), Thousand Oaks CA (Mar 28th), and San Francisco (Apr. 2nd). Here’s the complete schedule. If anyone has suggestions or recommendations for restaurants that serve good gluten-free meals in these cities, I’d love to hear them. Also, please come out to say hello if I visit your city!
One more thing: THE NEXT ONE TO FALL is set entirely in Peru, which I visited in the fall of 2007. It was that trip that convinced me to start the Gluten-Free Guidebook early in 2008. It’s amazing how much it influenced me. Peru still stands out in my mind as the most incredible place I’ve ever visited. Check out my slideshow to see some of the reasons why.