Thursday 27 June 2019

Six sustainable reasons to visit Italy

This time last week I was just back from Italy, which was surprisingly inspiring from a sustainability perspective - and not just because I was travelling with a bunch of vegans.

Vegan gelato, mmm
We were on a brand new Italy Vegan Food Adventure run by Intrepid Travel, which is timely given that 2019 has been called The Year of the Vegan (by The Economist). But a vegan tour in the country that gave the world mozzarella, prosciutto and ossobuco? It was a great story before I even got there.

I'm semi-vegan myself, if there is such a thing. I've been vegetarian for about 20 years (I still eat honey, eggs and cheese) and used to call myself "vegaquarian" when I was eating fish and other seafood more than I do now, which is hardly ever.

A great book, seen in Florence
But the more I read and learn about the impact of animal agriculture on the planet and on our own health, the more veganism makes sense.

Unlike me, all but one of my seven travelling companions were committed vegans, but we had a lot in common - because veganism is about so much more than just what we eat.

All week, we had great conversations - on trains, at the dinner table, while walking city streets - about things close to my heart, like minimalism and tiny houses and animal welfare and plastic pollution and the importance of being in nature. It was a breath of fresh air.

It also meant I wasn't the only one noticing sustainable things as we travelled by train from Venice to Rome via Bologna and Florence.

Here are six I particularly loved:

A "Venexian" espresso
with cocoa and soy milk
1. No takeaway coffee cups. Italians famously drink their espresso coffees standing up, from little glasses or ceramic cups. Or they sit in cafes people-watching or reading the morning Il Gazzettino. The only people I saw carrying takeaway coffee cups were a few tourists yet to get with the program. I travelled with my own reusable coffee cup - and didn't use it once.

2. Free water. In every city we visited we found public drinking fountains where we could refill our reusable water bottles. The water was not just clean but cool, so refreshing on a steamy northern summer's day.

Water fountain in Venice
Unfortunately Italy is one of the world's biggest consumers of bottled water (after Mexico and Thailand). Ask for water in a restaurant or cafe and you'll get bottled water, in glass or plastic, unless you ask specifically for "acqua di rubinetto" (tap water) - or just bring your own.

3. Being "vegano" is easy. It's surprisingly easy to be vegetarian or vegan in Italy. Many much-loved Italian foods are naturally vegan; think olive oil, pesto, bruschetta, pizza and pasta (when made without eggs).

Because most dishes are made fresh, you can often ask for non-vegan ingredients to be removed; for "no cheese" just say "niente formaggio".

Pizza heaven, without cheese
(at Il Rovescio, Bologna)
And almost every gelato shop has some vegan sorbet-like gelati. In Venice we even found a creamy sour cherry flavour made with rice milk. So good...

We ate at some incredible vegan restaurants. My three favourites, which were all organic too ("bio" in Europe-speak) were: Fiume Freddo (it means Cold River) in Venice; Il Rovescio in Bologna, where the wholemeal pizza with soy cheese made me never want to eat pizza outside Italy again; and Il Margutta in Rome, a fine-dining vegetarian restaurant that's been going since 1979.

4. "Zero kilometres" is big. All over northern Italy, where the Zero Kilometres movement started in the 1980s (along with the Slow Food trend), we saw "0km" or "Km0" on restaurant signs, indicating that they use only ingredients that are local, seasonal, organic and sustainable.

A "zero kms" bruschetta at
Garden & Villas, Ischia
In southern Italy, I stayed at Garden & Villas Resort on the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples, for a couple of days after the vegan trip.

The food there is amazing, thanks to the resort's Sicilian chef Guancarlo Lo Giudice and the fact that almost everything you eat is grown in the property's organic garden. The rest is sourced from elsewhere on Ischia, including olive oil and wine; there are 20 wine producers on an island that's barely 10km wide. That's Italy for you, land of the fresh and delicious.

Buongiorno, Venice
5. Venice is car-free. Sounds obvious, and it is. But how many cities do you know where you can get around only on foot - or by gondola, water taxi or vaporetto (public water bus)? Not only is it low-impact, it makes Venice surprisingly peaceful, even when you're there in summer as we were.

We stayed in Canareggio, Venice's Jewish quarter (who knew? It's only been there for 503 years), which has plenty of hip bars and cafes. One morning I got up early and walked to the sea-shore to watch the sun rise.

Everything was still. The crooked colourful buildings looked as if they'd been hand-drawn, the canals were as smooth as mirrors and there was no one around but the seagulls and the street-sweepers (they do a good job; I barely saw any rubbish around, despite Venice being one of Europe's most visited cities).

In tourist mode at
Rome's Trevi Fountain
6. Plastic-free moves. Despite drinking a lot of bottled water, some of it in glass at least, Italy was the first country in the world to ban plastic bags, in 2011, and the plastic-free revolution is gaining momentum.

The island of Capri, near Ischia, banned all single-use plastics in January this year. Rome is working towards banning all single-use plastics. And the EU Parliament just voted unanimously to ban 10 single-use plastics such as straws across Europe by 2021 and to recycle 90 per cent of all drink bottles by 2029.

Climbing roses in Tuscany
A footnote: One of the best things about my two weeks in Italy was that it reminded me to slow down, smell the wild roses and enjoy the simple goodness of great seasonal food with friends and maybe a glass of organic vegan wine.

Big thanks to Intrepid Travel, particularly our "vegano" guide Francesco Sibilio and Kate Parker at head office for getting me back to Italy, my first visit in 30 years. The more I travel, the bigger the world gets, but I'm appreciating the value of backtracking too, as bookmarks in our lives, showing how we've changed as well as the places we thought we knew. Grazie mille, Italia.

Wednesday 5 June 2019

Fred's Tiny House review: cosy DIY inspiration in Victoria

Before I launch into my review of tiny house #3 in this four-part series, here's a link to my tiny house cover story published in last week's Traveller. It's about how the global tiny house movement is colonising travel, one "tiny house stay" at a time, and includes mini-reviews of the four tiny houses I'm reviewing more fully here.

Fred & Shannon's tiny house
The third tiny I stayed in during my road trip down the Australian east coast with Mr No Impact Girl earlier this year was Fred's Tiny House in Castlemaine, Victoria, just 90 minutes north of Melbourne.

I'd been looking forward to this one ever since I did a weekend tiny house-building workshop with Fred late last year (reviewed here: How to build a tiny house).

Fred's an inspirational teacher, so it was no surprise that his tiny house is inspirational too. It's so much more than just an overnight stay; it's a vehicle for learning how to live more simply and sustainably.

Who's Fred?
Mr Tiny House in action
Originally from Kansas, Fred Schultz studied and worked as an industrial chemist, a Presbyterian minister and a gestalt therapist before he built his first tiny house in 2010. He was living in Australia by then, having visited his sister in Echuca, Victoria, in 2001 and never left.

What led him into the world of tiny houses on wheels? Suffering from burnout at the age of 50, he decided to liberate himself from rental and mortgage servitude by radically reducing his living expenses - by building and living in a tiny house.

(He now prefers the term tiny house vehicles, THVs, instead of tiny houses on wheels to communicate that they need to be built much stronger than conventional houses to withstand cyclone-like forces in transit.)

Home-made home
Fred's Tiny House is a bit different to the other tinys built as holiday rentals (such as Edmond and Tallarook, both in NSW). For one thing, he built it himself, as his one and only home. And he's not a builder. That was the point.

Because it's a hand-made home, it takes you back to the DIY roots of the tiny house movement, something Fred is passionate about.

Fred's motto says it all
“Maybe we're the purists or the true believers," says Fred, "but the tiny house movement is about reclaiming shelter-making, putting the hammer back in the hands of people to reclaim this part of their lives. 

"One of the things Henry David Thoreau said was, ‘What is the cost of a thing? Well, it’s how much time you have to give of your life to get it.’ Forget dollars. It’s about time. And when you start to count the time it takes to have the accommodation that everyone else has, well, he questioned that. Then he built his own house.

"It's also about taking this little crack in the regulations, at the moment, that enables us to build our own houses. And I want to help others liberate themselves, to get unplugged."

DIY inspiration
Fred & yours truly at a workshop
Fred's calling now is to liberate others, empowering people to build their own tiny houses, and he's doing that in several ways.

Through Fred's Tiny Houses, he runs tiny house-building workshops all over Australia, covering everything from construction tips to where you can legally put your tiny house.

He and his team build tiny house trailers and shells, and they have patented their own Unified Construction Method, a secure way of building tiny houses on wheels, which DIY builders can use for free (and commercial builders can pay a small fee to use). He's developing 3D drawing templates anyone can use to design tiny homes to meet Australian standards for caravans.

He also advocates for changes to local laws, to make tiny house living a legal option for everyone. Earlier this year, Fred launched a free, crowd-sourced nationwide database of council regulations in Australia that determine where you can put or build tiny houses.

In short, Fred's contribution to the tiny house movement runs deep. Naturally, he's won several sustainability awards, most recently the 2019 Flourish Prize for business as an agent of world benefit in the Sustainable Cities and Communities category. Congratulations, Fred!

So, what's his tiny house like to stay in?

Tiny family in a tiny house
Good, different
Because it was built for living - Fred, his lovely wife Shannon and their one-year-old (now four-year-old) daughter Olina, lived in it for a year before baby #2, Theo, came along - Fred's tiny is full of clever ideas. It also reminds you that tiny houses aren't just cute; they're a real housing solution.

It's relatively small, at only 5.4 metres, but doesn't feel cramped because of all the storage (something you wouldn't find in a tiny weekender).

"It's more like a boat than a caravan," says Fred, referring to features inspired by boat design such as the self-drying dish rack, nifty storage nooks and cupboard doors with concealed handles (no knobs to bump into).

Because Fred used acoustic insulation (acrylic sound batts) against the chilly central Victorian winters, it's super-quiet and feels more solid than some of the other tinys I've been in.

Shady summer deck
We're there in late summer and the corrugated exterior makes me wonder if it'll be too hot to sleep in the loft bed that night. It isn't. Fred put a radiant barrier inside the roof to deal with extreme Aussie summers; it reflects 97 per cent of the sun's rays, he says, so "it feels as if you're parked under a tree even though we're in full sun."

It also has two decks, their roofs angled to catch the winter sun and shade the tiny in summer.

Warm inside (the
rocket stove bottom left)
And it's not just off-grid, it's fossil fuel-free. In addition to the solar panels and inverter and the rainwater tank beside it, there's a rocket stove ("a fast-combustion stove" Shannon calls it, fuelled by sticks not logs) to heat rainwater for the shower, a two-burner stove and oven that run on (renewable) methylated spirits and a super-efficient eutectic fridge.

I've mentioned in other posts how the high ceilings, big windows and loft beds make tiny houses feel completely different to caravans. Here's Fred's take on the difference: 

“Tiny houses are designed to shed water the way a normal house would. With a caravan, it’s made to be lightweight, so it’s aluminium, foam, plastic, wood and it relies on silicon caulk to keep the water out and that’s not a long-term solution. The sun will eventually make it brittle and the water will get sneaky and win and it’ll grow mould and it’ll smell. And as soon as that happens, it’s game over.” 

The experience
We find Fred's Tiny House at the bottom of the garden, past the clothes line and rows of grape vines and facing a railway line. It might not be as wild as the locations of other tinys we've stayed in, but it's far enough from the main house to give you plenty of privacy and its backyard location is part of its charm - because it shows how a real tiny house looks in situ, one that you could actually live in.

Chatting to the chippy
There's a 7.2-metre tiny house under construction in the driveway when we're there and we have a brief chat with the carpenters, which makes the whole DIY experience real.

I also love that this tiny is just five minutes from downtown Castlemaine, a creative little town that's brimming with inspiration itself (see below).

Inside, Fred's Tiny House feels warm and homely, thanks to the camphor benchtops (which have anti-bacterial properties) and the pine wall panels and floors.

Breakfast seating
That night we make dinner, read a little - the reading matter provided includes a well-thumbed copy of Voluntary Simplicity: The poetic alternative to consumer culture edited by Samuel Alexander - then stand outside for a while looking up at the moon and the stars. That's the beauty of regional Australia; you can be close to everything and feel far, far away at the same time.

Some things are a bit fiddly, such as pulling out the ladder from its slot beside the kitchen bench to access the loft and crouching in the deep Japanese bath to shower (there's not enough water pressure for a proper shower).

But I kinda liked all that. It makes you use the space more carefully, more mindfully. And it's oddly inspiring: remembering that this is a space designed by, and for, Fred and Shannon, sparks ideas of what features I'd like in my own tiny house...

The verdict
The real deal
Despite having stayed in other tinys, our night at Fred's Tiny House was a bit of a revelation, its power stemming from its DIY authenticity, the fact that it was hand-made, with love and care.

Just being there - particularly if you get to chat with Fred or Shannon - makes you feel part of a global community of tiny house builders and stirs secret dreams of building your own tiny, or at least finding new ways to live a simpler, more earth-friendly life.

I'll give Fred the last word: "How many times do you hear someone say, 'You know the happiest we were was when we lived in that little place and had nothing'? Even just going camping, when they're outside and reduced to living with just the essentials, people will say, 'Hey, this is great, let's do this again next year'. Well, why not make that your life?"


How to do it: Fred's Tiny House in Castlemaine, 90 minutes from Melbourne, sleeps three and starts at $79 a night including a simple breakfast pack of croissants and jams. See Fred's Airbnb listing.

Resources: Fred runs weekend tiny house-building workshops all over Australia that cover everything from what kind of trailer you need to where to put a tiny house. Here's the link again to my review of the workshop I did last year. More info at

The Mill, Castlemaine
While you're there: Castlemaine is a creative little town full of artists, yoga teachers, baristas, writers, musicians, sustainability gurus - and tiny house builders. PETA once called it the most vegan-friendly place in Australia. Head to The Mill for coffee and an "apfelstrudel" under the chandeliers in Das Kaffeehaus Austrian cafe; the restored woollen mill also has artists' studios, artisanal food outlets such as the Tap Room craft brewery. I loved the vast vintage emporium and Platform No. 5, both full of upcycled, handmade and second-hand curiosities, clothes and furniture.

Gratitude: Thanks so much to Fred, Shannon and Ben (their marketing guru) at Fred's Tiny Houses for arranging this overnight stay and for the inspirational conversations.