Many of you are familiar with my Gluten-Free in ITALY e-book, available on Amazon. In it, I give advice on finding the best spots dining gluten free in Rome, Florence, and Venice (yes, there is amazing gluten free pizza and pasta to be safely enjoyed, but you need to know where to go!). Just a few months ago, I added a section on Umbria, the “landlocked” region of central Italy bordering Tuscany to the southeast.
It was here that I was fortunate to experience a less touristy side of Italy…medieval towns, rolling hills, historical sites dating back to Roman and Etruscan eras, important religious sites, vineyards and olive oil producers, and wonderfully simple and fresh Italian culinary specialties.
Unlike our family’s previous trip to Italy, which we did on our own after having help from fantastic (and gluten free) travel agent Ellen Morse of Gluten Free Travel-Us, this trip to Umbria was with a small group. A college friend and I traveled with Bluone Tours, a “boutique” travel company specializing in small group tours of the many regions of Italy. While their focus is on the food and wine of the different regions, their tours encompass so much more.
For example, our tour of Umbria had us based at an agriturismo (working farmhouse, pictured below), where we got to experience traditional Italian cooking and a couple of family-style meals prepared by the proprietors themselves. From this central location in Umbria, we visited eight different Umbrian towns over the course of the week.
In between delicious meals, all of which could easily be taken gluten free, we visited sites of religious importance (like Assisi, shown below), sites of architectural splendor (like Spoleto), and towns of fascinating history (Perugia). We meandered through the quaint towns of Terni, Montefalco, Orvieto, and Bevagna and shopped among wonderful local boutiques in the more urban Umbrian town of Foligno.
We enjoyed the perfect October weather while visiting vineyards, olive oil producers, and even truffle hunting high atop the hills of Umbria (and then sitting down in the family’s B&B for an amazing lunch, including gluten free pasta for those of us dining gluten free). It was fun discovering new varietals of wine the region is known for (Sagrantino, Grechetto, and Orvieto Classico). The views alone were worth the trip…each hilltop town was more picturesque than the next.
A highlight for me was visiting Civita di Bagnoregio, just outside the western border of Umbria…a hilltop town built on volcanic tufa and almost “frozen in time” (see photo below). While we packed a lot in to each day, it never felt rushed…meals were leisurely, and there was always plenty of time to shop, grab a cappuccino or gelato, or pop in a cathedral. Time was perfectly balanced between tours, meals, and “free time” to explore on one’s own. We even got to view local artisans at work on their craft, like when we toured a well-known pottery factory.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one aspect of the trip that made it so special…Bluone owners, husband and wife Marcello and Raffaella Tori (pictured below in front of Civita di Bagnoregio). They lead each small group tour (most last from 4-7 days), and their knowledge of – and passion for – their country is contagious. They become immediate friends whose primary purpose is to ensure you have a wonderful time. They have personal relationships with the proprietors of the restaurants where we dined, and this allowed them to arrange for any special dietary needs, like gluten free meals, ahead of time. Then, when seated, Marcello and Raffaella would happily communicate the needs of anyone in the group if language was a barrier. (While English is spoken most places we went, some residents of the smaller towns aren’t quite as fluent as folks in the big cities.) Marcello and Raffaella also ensured the restauranteurs knew the importance of avoiding cross contamination when preparing the gluten free meals.
There were always plenty of choices for gluten free courses at the restaurants where we dined. We even had the amazing experience of helping to prepare each course of our dinner at one particularly nice restaurant in Spoleto, whose renowned chef was an old friend of Marcello and Raffaella. I personally had the good fortune to prepare gluten free crepes for dessert, something the restaurant had never tried before…and which turned out great! It was intimate and hands-on experiences like this that made this trip so unique. It was amazing to have this wonderfully warm couple be the personal escorts for our small group.
Bluone offers small group tours in virtually all regions of Italy. You can view their current itineraries on their site to find one that matches your interests. Each region has its own food specialties they are known for, as well as wines unique to the area. When you find a tour that appeals to you, simply send Marcello and Raffaella an email, inquiring about whether there would be any issues following a gluten free diet for that particular tour. Typically, they can work with chefs to ensure meals, tastings, and even cooking classes are gluten free friendly.
Be sure to mention code GFTS-GF when inquiring and/or booking your tour. This will signal to Marcello and Raffaella that you require a gluten free diet – and that you heard about them from this Blog (or our website, GlutenFreeTravelSite). They have a special welcome gift they give to friends of ours upon arrival!
And just a note about the tours…you can join a tour by yourself, with a spouse or friend, as a family, or even as a group of your own. If you happen to be traveling alone, you will likely leave having made many new friends and wonderful memories. (Note: single occupancy rooms are, of course, available.)
In fact, many of the people on the Umbrian tour I went on will be going on another Bluone Tour – this time to Puglia – later this year. While I can’t join for that particular trip, there is no doubt other Bluone Tours will be in my future. Frankly, looking at their various itineraries, it’s hard to choose which one would be my next choice, as they all sound so amazing! After all, THIS is the best way, as Bluone says on their website, to "Experience Our Italy." You’ll leave feeling a special affinity for the Italians and their beautiful country.