Celiac Travel 101

September 15th marked the six-month anniversary of the Gluten-Free Guidebook. I want to thank everyone who has made it such a success so quickly. Many of you have taken the time to write to me. Some of you have passed along the names of local restaurants or tips about places you’ve visited; others have shared stories about their celiac diagnosis. I love hearing from readers, and I really appreciate any suggestions about travel, restaurants, hotels, and shops that can be shared with other readers.

Some people have written with specific questions about destinations they plan to visit. While I don’t have the time or resources to give recommendations, I wanted to share the process that I go through to research a destination. This happens to be a great time to do it, because I’m currently trying to settle on a place to visit this fall. Here are the steps I take:

  1. Round up the usual suspects. There are several sites that I always refer to before a trip. One is Celiac Handbook, which has listings for restaurants that serve gluten-free meals in countries from Cambodia to Iceland. If I’m traveling in North America, I’ll consult the Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program, which has a lengthy list of celiac-friendly restaurants. I also visit Clan Thompson’s Celiac Site, which has information about different cruise lines, links to travel sites, and other travel resources.
  2. Locate the local celiac association. If you’re planning a European trip, check out the Association of European Coeliac Societies. In addition to providing useful information about gluten-free products, there are links to celiac organizations across the continent. (Note that in some countries, such as Belgium and Spain, there is more than one association.)  If you’re traveling to South America, Israel, Turkey, South Africa, or Australia, you’ll find information about celiac associations on Clan Thompson’s Celiac Site. When I need an English translation of a site, I use Google or Babel Fish.
  3. Ask for more information. Once I locate a celiac association at my destination, I e-mail to ask for a list of recommended restaurants and shops (some organizations provide this information on their website). Don’t worry if you don’t speak the language; I’ve found that people are helpful, though it may take more than a week to get an answer.
  4. Line up your language cards. I’ve previously posted about how celiacs can communicate their needs in a foreign tongue. Some of the resources mentioned in that post have gotten even better: for example, Celiac Travel now has 42 translation cards (the latest additions include Flemish, Indonesian, and Korean). I print out several copies to carry with me when I travel.
  5. Work that search engine. It takes time to research the gluten-free possibilities at a particular destination. I type the name of a country plus gluten-free or celiac (also try coeliac); I repeat the process using the name of the region or the name of a city. Do this for Paris and, for example, you’ll find David Lebovitz’s Living the Sweet Life in Paris blog; try Italy, and you’ll find posts from the blog A Gluten-Free Guide.

The best thing that you can do is keep a positive attitude; wherever you choose to go, you will find a way to make it work. Before I went to Peru, I couldn’t find a single online resource in English or Spanish about traveling gluten-free in that country. When I went, I was armed with Spanish translation cards and was delighted to discover how easy it was for a celiac to dine out there. If anyone has a celiac-friendly travel resource that’s helped them plan a trip, I’d love to hear about it.

Barcelona’s Casa Calvet

Barcelona is a city that I find more beautiful the closer I get to it. There’s nothing particularly striking about its skyline when viewed from a plane or train. Even from Montjuïc, one of Barcelona’s two mountains, the view is more impressive for what it captures of the Mediterranean than for what you can see of the city itself (see photo above). But once you start walking through its streets, Barcelona becomes so stunning that it’s almost impossible to believe. Up close, Barcelona’s charms are irresistible.

Part of the city’s attraction is its unusual layout and architecture. For starters, once you’ve seen octagonal intersections, you wonder why anyone would plan them any other way. Then there’s the work of extraordinary architects, such as Antoni Gaudí. His inspiring Sagrada Familia, psychedelic Park Güell, and various otherworldly visions are an essential part of what makes Barcelona so dramatic and unique.

Casa Calvet is considered the most conventional of Gaudí’s buildings. Located in the Eixample district, it was built for a textile manufacturer in 1898. While the exterior is far more conventional than a typical Gaudí project, its interior is striking. Better yet, a restaurant (also called Casa Calvet) has been open on the premises since 1994, making fine use of the ground-floor rooms with their soaring, undulating ceilings. But this isn’t a dining spot that gets by on its good looks. While the menu at Casa Calvet changes frequently, I was impressed by the duck-breast salad I had as a starter, and the main-course grilled hake (a salt-water fish that’s similar to cod); both were already gluten-free and required no modification to make them safe for me. Almost everything was made from scratch on the premises (always a help when you need to identify every ingredient in a dish), except the rice cakes that were served to me in lieu of bread. Familiar with celiac disease and the gluten-free diet, the thoughtful restaurant staff made the evening extraordinary. I’ve learned not to expect anything less from Barcelona.

Casa Calvet [address] Carrer Casp 48, Barcelona, Spain [tel] 93-412-40-12 [web] www.casacalvet.es

Summer in St. Moritz

The town of St. Moritz, located in Switzerland’s Engadine Valley, is famous as a winter resort. It’s not just on account of the reference in the James Bond movie Goldfinger; the 1928 and 1948 Winter Olympics were held here. But when I visited St. Moritz, it was early September and the weather was still warm and summery. The town gets 300 days of sunshine a year (and it was sunny throughout my five days there), the valley was lushly green, and the lake was filled with sailboats. I know that winter is its most celebrated season, but I’d recommend visiting in summer, when the range of activities (golf, tennis, mountain biking) is wider. St. Mortiz is also a great starting point for day trips. From it, I took a train to Thusis, where I hiked through the Alps and saw Viamala, the place where Caesar made his historic crossing through the mountains. Closer to St. Moritz is the Valley of Fex, another great hiking spot (if you visit on a rare rainy day, you could visit the Nietzsche-Haus, where the German philosopher spent his summers, in Fex’s tiny town of Sils).

Because I was attending a conference in St. Moritz, I spent far too much time indoors. The conference meetings and events were spread among three hotels — the Kulm, the Kempinski, and Badrutt’s Palace — and all of them came through with celiac-safe meals for me. However, these are all top-notch luxury hotels with long practice in catering to their guests’ requests, and I had had advance discussions with them via phone and e-mail to ensure that they would be able to provide gluten-free meals.

One spot in St. Moritz that particularly impressed me was a place that didn’t have advance warning about my dining restrictions. The Hotel Misani is a three-star hotel that is a youthful, less-expensive alternative to the long-established local hotels. Its rooms are decorated in a mix of Asian, Indian, and Middle Eastern styles, and each one is unique. The Misani’s main dining room is decked out in rustic local style with wooden panels on the ceiling and the walls, typical of the Engadine houses that date back a century. I had an excellent gluten-free dinner here, served by the Misani’s friendly staff. It was a nice reminder that luxury exists at all price points in St. Moritz.

Badrutt’s Palace [tel] +41 (0) 81 837 11 00 [email] reservations@badruttspalace.com [web] www.badruttspalace.com

Hotel Misani [tel] +41 (0) 81 839 89 89 [email] info@hotelmisani.ch [web] www.hotelmisani.ch

Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains [tel] +41 (0) [web] www.kempinski-stmoritz.com

Kulm Hotel [tel] +41 (0) 81 836 80 00 [email] info@kulmhotel-stmoritz.ch [web] www.kulmhotel-stmoritz.ch

In the Shadow of the Prado

If my trips to Madrid have been notable for one thing, it would be overindulgence. It’s not just the food, but the art. After all, Madrid has the Prado, which houses one of the world’s most exquisite collections of European paintings. As if that weren’t enough, the city also has the massive Reina Sofia museum of modern art (home to Picasso’s most famous painting, Guernica), and the Thyssen-Bornemisza, a once-private art collection that spans the history of Western art from the Middle Ages to the modern era.

Before my most recent trip to Madrid, I searched for some celiac-friendly restaurants. The Asociación de Celíacos de Madrid has an excellent website, with information available in Spanish and English; the association maintains a gluten-free restaurant list, and it offers some general guidelines about ordering in Spanish restaurants as well. The restaurants on its list include spots such as No Sólo Pasta, which may be the most famous gluten-free restaurant in Madrid, and Madrid 20. However, there was no mention of my favorite restaurant from my first trip to Madrid, before I was diagnosed with celiac disease.

Once in Madrid, I decided to give El Cenador del Prado a try anyway. Located close to the Prado, the restaurant recreates the elegant world depicted in some of the museum’s 18th- and 19th-century paintings. Located in a dramatic, antique-filled building, El Cenador is filled with gilded mirrors and trompe l’oeil paintings. Its most beautiful dining room has trellis lattices and flowers painted on all four walls, creating the impression of being seated in an opulent gazebo on a sunny day.

I remembered from my previous visit that the restaurant’s service was just as luxurious as the surroundings, and I wasn’t disappointed the second time around. Much to my surprise — and delight — my waiter knew exactly what celiac disease was. He then proceeded to call over the other servers and have them read my Spanish celiac translation card, so that there would be no confusion about what would be served to me. My waiter consulted with the chef and described to me, in a mix of Spanish and English, what my options were. I ended up having a creamy mushroom soup followed by grilled cod with potatoes and leeks. Dinner was accompanied by a selection from El Cenador’s excellent — and affordable — list of Spanish wines. For dessert, I had Spanish cheeses and fruit, which made me feel, as indulgent as I was that evening, almost virtuous.

El Cenador del Prado [address] Calle del Prado, 4, Madrid 28014, Spain [tel] 91 429-15-61 or 91 429-15-49 [web] www.elcenadordelprado.com

Dinner by the Danube

Travel writers are supposed to avoid tourist traps. Our job is to help travelers discover the heart of a place (though those recent tell-all books by travel journalists Chuck Thompson and Thomas Kohnstamm make you wonder), and a tourist trap offers the opposite of the authentic experience most people want. I follow some basic guidelines for identifying a tourist trap. The first is by location: is the restaurant located in the main tourist thoroughfare of a city, or alongside a major attraction? Possibly a tourist trap. Another giveaway is the menu: is it available in four or more languages? Tourist trap. Is anyone eating at the restaurant a local? If not… it’s a tourist trap. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules, but they’re reliable.

I normally try to sample local dishes wherever I go, but in Budapest this was almost impossible. Traditional Hungarian cuisine — including goulash (a stew to which many restaurants add starch), galuska (wheat-based dumplings), and töltött káposzta (cabbage rolls filled with barley) — seems designed to taunt the gluten-intolerant. So I turned to other cuisines. One Greek restaurant I found, Taverna Dionysos, fit my description of a tourist trap. It was on the edge of the Danube, with a prime view of the Buda hills and the lights that cover Budapest’s bridges and give the river a glittering sheen every evening till midnight. The menu was printed in multiple languages, and no one eating there seemed to be a local.

That should have been three strikes, but Taverna Dionysos wasn’t out by a long shot. The white-painted space was open and airy, and the staff was warm and friendly. I had a card describing celiac disease in Hungarian, but found that a couple of servers spoke English, so describing what I needed wasn’t hard. My meal was standard fare — a Greek salad with black olives and feta, followed by roasted chicken, rice, and grilled peppers — but the food was delicious and satisfying. And the spectacular view of the Danube was hard to resist (in warmer weather, Taverna Dionysos has alfresco tables, for which it’s absolutely necessary to make a reservation).

One note: there is a Hungarian Celiac Society, but its pages are only in Hungarian, which Google doesn’t translate. Any Hungarian speakers out there?

Taverna Dionysos [address] District V, Belgrad Rakpart 16, Budapest, Hungary [tel] 01 318-1222

Celiac Disease in Translation

In the four years since I was diagnosed with celiac disease, I’ve traveled to six countries where I didn’t speak the language. Asking the right questions about food preparation when you, your server and your chef all speak the same tongue can be challenging. When you’re dealing with translation issues, it makes the entire process that much tougher. Eating at a restaurant is always an exercise in trust; for the gluten-intolerant, it feels especially risky. I plan ahead by printing celiac disease translation cards before leaving home. Here’s how to do it — for free.

  1. Start by checking for free celiac information cards from national or regional associations. Both the Czech Coeliac Society and the Swiss Celiac Society offer such cards online. For other countries, take a look at the “International Celiac Societies” listed on the Resources page at Celiac Handbook. Only a few of them provide a card, but hopefully the number will increase. Print several copies so you won’t mind if a card gets damaged in a restaurant kitchen.
  2. The Celiac Travel website provides an impressive selection of cards in many languages (currently there are 38, including Arabic, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Urdu). I’ve used both the Hungarian and Spanish cards from this site and found that they worked extremely well. Given that several companies are charging money for celiac translation cards, I have to tip my hat to Roger and Lyndsay, who run this site, because they’re providing these detailed cards for free (a small donation is requested but not required).
  3. Gluten-Free Passport provides free cards online in French, German, Greek, Italian, Spanish, and Russian. I like these because you have the English and the translated language side by side, though of course that makes these cards larger to print.
  4. There are several sites, including Clan Thompson’s Celiac Site and the Finnish Celiac Society, that provide or link to free information about celiac disease in different languages. These descriptions aren’t detailed, but they certainly get the point across in languages including Polish and Thai.
  5. If possible, learn a few words or phrases in the local language before you go on your trip. Knowing how to say “Tengo la enfermedad celiaca; No puedo comer harina o trigo” (I have celiac disease; I can’t eat flour or wheat) made my travels to Spain and Chile easier, because awareness of celiac disease was widespread. But I have to admit that I never managed this in Hungarian.

Has anyone bought the celiac translation cards from Triumph Dining, or paid for gluten intolerance or food allergy translation at Allergy Translation? I haven’t tried either of these options, but I’d love to hear your comments about them.

Balenciaga and Baguette


I’ve been a fan of the department store El Corte Inglés for years. What began as a flirtation with the ubiquitous Spanish chain when I first encountered it in 1999 in Madrid turned into a full-fledged love affair after a couple of subsequent trips to Barcelona, where I learned that the store doesn’t just carry souvenirs, clothing, toiletries, housewares, and electronics, but some of the most exquisite shoes I’ve ever seen. How could you not fall in love with a store that carries beautiful pumps by Balenciaga – and sells them at a reasonable price?

I couldn’t imagine that my passion for El Corte Inglés could get any deeper, but that’s exactly what happened on my last visit to Spain. While I was researching my trip (my first to Spain since being diagnosed with celiac disease), I came across the association Celíacs de Catalunya, which provides information for gluten-intolerant people who live in the Catalan region. In addition to recommended restaurants (which includes some information on other parts of Spain, too), the website provides a list of stores that sell celiac-safe foods, and I spotted El Corte Inglés on this list. After a visit to the store’s website, I was entranced. Was it possible that the department store’s supermarket division really stocked gluten-free croissants by Proceli, madeleines by Adpan, and baguettes by Special Line El Corte Inglés, with each product priced between 2 and 5 Euros? I suspected I was dreaming.

It turned out to be reality. While not every El Corte Inglés supermercado carried the full range of products that appear on the store’s website, every single one carried enough gluten-free goodies to thrill me and my taste buds. Not only was I able to enjoy baked goods sin gluten every day of my trip, but many of the products were vacuum-sealed and dated five months ahead (though once the package is opened, the contents need to be consumed within a few days).

In addition to my almost daily visits to the supermercado, I had to drop by the shoe department once or twice, too. Even with so many packages of Proceli croissants in my suitcase, I managed to find room for one more pair of Spanish-made shoes. The croissants are long gone, sadly, but the shoes are enjoying their new home in New York.

(A note on language and translation: The El Corte Inglés website is in Spanish, while the site for Celíacs de Catalunya is in Spanish and Catalan. You can translate some of the pages using Google. To view the options at El Corte Inglés Supermercado, you will need to enter a Spanish postal code. Can’t think of one? Type “1” in the box and a drop-down menu called “Centros de Recognida” will appear. Pick any option on that list and it will bring you do the main page for the supermarket. Because of the frames on this page, I find Google’s translator doesn’t work with it. Click on the first drop-down menu and select “Alimentos dieteticos”; in the second drop-down menu, select “Productos para celiacos”; on the third drop-down menu, click on each selection in turn to find gluten-free beer, cookies, breads, pastas, and other products.)

Open Skies

On March 30th, 2008, traveling between the United States and Europe may get easier… or at least more competitive. That’s the day that the new transatlantic flight pact (commonly known as “open skies”) goes into effect, allowing airlines to fly between any two airports in the regions. In the past, a British Airways flight en route to New York had to originate in the UK. Now, it could originate in Paris or Prague. Open skies is being hailed as a significant change in the travel industry — though charges to compensate for increasing fuel prices may mean that the price of a ticket won’t drop that much.

I know that no one chooses an airline based on its willingness to offer gluten-free meals, but if the amount of competition for your travel dollars increases, this is an issue to keep in mind. When I flew to Lima, Peru, last fall on American Airlines, I was dismayed to discover that there was no gluten-free meal for me on the flight there or back. Both my husband and I had called American to confirm the request, and I’d even mentioned it to the gate agent in New York; she checked and found it in the system. However, once I was on the plane, the flight attendant informed me that no gluten-free meals were available on the flight, period. This was because American Airlines had defined it as a “short” international flight, since it lasted only six hours (I had flown on American from New York to Miami, where I caught my connecting flight to Lima). The flight attendant was as helpful as she could be — she got me three mini-salads, which were naturally gluten-free — but there wasn’t much to be done (this is why I always have a celiac-safe protein bar in my bag).

This was a stark contrast with my flight to Santiago, Chile, a year before. That time I flew on LAN, which quickly became my favorite airline. Say what you will about how unpleasant it is to fly these days, but LAN’s friendly, helpful staff made it a pleasure. Not only did I get some surprisingly tasty gluten-free meals on my flights to and from Chile, but even the snacks were gluten-free. (I’ve had positive experiences with gluten-free meals on British Airways and Swiss International Air Lines, too, but this was the first time that even the snacks were safe for me.)

I just checked with American Airlines, and they are offering gluten-free meals on all of their flights to Europe. This makes sense, since the competition is about to get stiffer. But, in case you’re flying to Peru anytime soon, take note — there are still no gluten-free meals on American’s flights to Lima, but there are on LAN’s.