By Valerie Sisco, Culture with Travel Food Correspondent
A week-long foodie tour of Rome? Looking at a city through the lens of food sounded intriguing but I noticed the Vatican and Colosseum, along with other major Roman landmarks weren’t on the itinerary of this food-centric trip I was considering. Would spending an entire week pursuing an interest of mine — in this case, food — in a far-flung location be a compelling reason to travel there?
Theme-based trips that invite travelers to experience an activity or a cultural immersion adventure are becoming increasingly popular travel options. These journeys let you focus your time on a theme that interests you and provides an opportunity for your trip to be intentional, significant and unique to your particular hobbies or pursuits. It also gives repeat visitors a fresh focus and creative perspective of a familiar destination that invites a deeper connection.
It was on my first trip to Europe as a tentative traveler that I booked my first food adventure — a three-hour walking tour of the Latin Quarter in Paris— not quite knowing what to expect. But the French guide chatted about Paris’s history as she took our group to a famous bakery for pastries, through a French farmer’s market, to a Parisian cheese shop and charcuterie, and then stopped for coffee at an outdoor cafe. The tour concluded at little eating nook the guide set up in a shop just for our group where we could sample foie gras, cheese, bread and wine that gave us a chance to share our thoughts about everything we’d just tasted.
After that delectable culinary introduction in Paris, I was hooked on finding foodie experiences wherever my travel plans took me.
On a trip to New York City, I toured the East Village where I sampled neighborhood specialties, including a slightly intimidating bowl of borscht, that turned out to be much tastier than it looked. I also signed up for a hands-on experience in pastry dough where I learned how to make scones and biscuits at a Manhattan bakery. Almost as fun as getting a behind-the-scenes look at an industrial kitchen was the discovery that everyone baking with me was a local and I got to listen to their personal stories about living in the Big Apple.
Since I’d enjoyed dipping my toe in the pool of food and travel immersion, I decided to take a deep dive into a longer adventure. I booked a trip to northern Italy for a week-long art retreat along the shores of Lake Como. This stretched the boundaries of my comfort zone since I didn’t consider myself an artist, but I learned how to create a travel journal and made novice attempts to sketch and paint, while soaking in the incredible beauty of the region.
Even though it wasn’t billed as a foodie retreat, the dining locations and fantastic food I experienced were first-rate. I was treated to a four-course dinner at an Italian TV chef’s hillside restaurant, got to dine under the stars on a mountain-top ledge overlooking a lake, and rode in a vintage boat to a dockside lunch of lemon ravioli and sesame-encrusted Italian cheese.
In nearby Milan, I took a happy hour tour of the Navigli district, an area transformed into hip eateries and nightspots from ancient canals and waterways. I learned about regional Italian wines from the owners of a wine bar who let our group choose a glass from the wines they’d talked about to enjoy with a tray of meat, cheese and olives.
So as I pondered whether or not to take a food-focused tour of Rome, I was hopeful it would turn out to be another delectable adventure. This unique tour hosted by a food writer, not only gave me glimpses of hidden doorways and secret alleys of Rome that were not easily noticed by a typical tourist, but allowed me to experience a private dinner in the host’s home and a cooking class in her kitchen.
I visited the oldest cookie bakery in Rome, ate a fried artichoke at a trattoria in the Jewish Ghetto and toured open air markets. I sampled zucchini blossoms and fried stuffed olives at a neighborhood pizzeria, ate truffle-topped pasta, tasted the best tiramisu I’d ever had, and sampled some of Rome’s best cheeses. To make sure I didn’t miss Rome’s top tourist attractions, I extended my trip by a few days to see the Colosseum, Vatican, and other major landmarks the food tour didn’t include.
I’ve come to realize how much I appreciate and enjoy the expertise and knowledge of the hosts who have created the amazing agendas of the trips I’ve experienced. Themed travel has become my favorite kind of adventure and I’m always on the lookout for my next delicious destination.
Share your themed travel experiences with us in the comments!