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Free-From Travel: Croatia & Slovenia

I’ve been gluten and dairy-free for over four years now and one issue I’ve had is overcoming the stress that comes with travelling abroad. I’m a real foodie and love exploring signature dishes, treats and traditional recipes, so having food restrictions on holiday can make it much less of an adventure. Unlabelled menus can be really stressful when all you want to do is enjoy yourself. Airports are also often a nightmare too! So this project is here to help others like me find countries that either tend to eat naturally gluten-free or dairy-free recipes or places that have responded well to the increasing awareness of food intolerances and allergies with labelled menus and alternatives. Every time I go away, I hope to report back. If you have been somewhere great for free-from food, do let us know in the comments below.

This year I visited Croatia (after visiting Slovenia last year) and was surprised by how difficult it was to eat out. Especially as I had quite the opposite experience in Slovenia, where most restaurants had menus labelled better than the UK and were so useful and stress-free to navigate. There were often gluten-free and dairy-free desserts, not to mention amazing dairy-free ice cream (check out Cacao in Ljubljana). It was also easy to find meals that were naturally gluten-free - fish, vegetables and potatoes was a common meal across Ljubljana.

Squid, spinach, potaoes in Sloveina
Seafood in Slovenia

Dubrovnik in Croatia on the other hand was very much a bread and cheese kinda place. Menus were rarely well-labelled and few free-from alternatives existed. The only thing that raised the bar above London was the same dairy-free ice cream that I found in Slovenia, apparently made from only fruit and water, yet unbelievably creamy. It’s a must try!

Dairy-free cherry ice cream, Dubrovnik.
Dairy-free cherry ice cream, Dubrovnik.

If you want to go to Croatia and remain strictly gluten and dairy free, then I would opt for self-catering. This would relieve a lot of stress and anxiety and save you quite a bit of money too. Supermarkets have gluten-free aisles and there are health food shops with gluten-free products and alternatives. We found posh granolas, plant milks, kombuchas, pastas and crackers etc. We self-catered for breakfast and lunch and then found a restaurant in the evening. If you’re coeliac then you may need to self-cater completely as communicating cross-contamination issues will be difficult.

One thing that is common in restaurants is a table cover charge that includes free bread. This can be a huge temptation if it arrives unexpectedly. The best thing to do is cancel the bread basket before it arrives. In terms of labelling, a ‘(g)’ was usually used to indicate a gluten-free meal. Plant milks are not commonly found in cafes, but green and fruit teas are readily available. If you’re staying in Dubrovnik, then there are lots of boat trips that allow you to island hop, which makes a really nice day trip. Lunch is usually provided - but you can actually get yourself a reduced ticket price and take your own lunch if you really need to be careful. Otherwise, you can skip the bread baskets that circulate (often). I was worried there wouldn’t be enough to eat, but they kept bringing out more fish and vegetables. I took nut bars and fruit in my rucksack for snacks as it can be a long day with few options to eat elsewhere. You won’t want to take up your time on the islands looking for gluten-free food.

It is entirely possible to get a main meal with gluten and dairy-free ingredients, but if you’re a dessert lover, then you’re going to struggle. There are cafes in the old town that sell gluten-free cakes, which you could go to after your meal. There was one cafe that sold them along with wine and live music in the evening. Alternatively we often went home early, sat on our balcony and indulged in our own treats that we had bought from the health food shop and supermarkets.

One big decision to make is whether you’re going to sweat the small stuff or if you have a little leg room to feed the soul for a short period of time.This will come down to how much you suffer from symptoms. This is not an encouragement to eat poorly, but an acknowledgement that everyone is different. Making the decision before you go, will help you make better decisions out there rather than ‘falling off the wagon’ and feeling guilty. Obviously if you suffer unexpectedly, you’ll need to be able to rectify your decision. Sometimes the stress from food restriction can be more harmful to your health than eating the food itself. It’s about having an honest conversation with yourself. If you’re new to going gluten-free then I would remain strictly gluten-free.

So if you’re considering Croatia, then I would say it’s entirely possible with good organisation, a little self-catering and a good amount of will-power. If you need an easier option, then Slovenia is the place for you.

Written by Sarah.

Sarah Eating Seafood in Dubrovnik
Seafood on the harbour, Dubrovnik.

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