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.

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