Vegan on Vacation: My Experience
A few years ago I had the good fortune to visit Serbia, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and Italy. I had never been to these beautiful countries, where I did not expect to find the vegan foods I’m used to, such as soy milk and meat alternatives. Eating well as a plant-based vegan turned out to be not nearly as difficult as you might imagine.
Vegan Delights en route from Melbourne
Our journey from Melbourne to the small town of Novi Knezevac in Serbia lasted a total of 32 gruelling hours from doorstep to doorstep. We left cold, wet wintry Melbourne and arrived at hot, humid 40-degree (104 Fahrenheit) Serbia – more climactic contrast than culture shock!
We flew on Qatar airways, which included a 2- hour stop stopover at Doha airport in Qatar. The service on Qatar airways was excellent, and the meals were surprisingly edible. We had requested vegan meals (vegetarian, dairy & egg free) on all flights. Each meal featured a small hot dish in an oblong container roughly the size of a shallow margarine tub. During the fight I ate such fare as Thai red curry with rice, ratatouille-style veggies with rice, or steamed potatoes, silver beet and mushrooms. The extras typically included small square containers of salad and fruit salad, along with a small round bread roll with canola margarine, jam, and water or orange juice.
This may not sound like much, but was more than adequate when sitting for several hours on a cramped aircraft seat. I drank plenty of water as well, and kept my coffee consumption to a minimum.
Tom’s Travel Tips:
- Order the vegetarian/vegan (egg/dairy-free) option when flying overseas: it’s light, relatively food-safe and, importantly, free of animal products.
When we arrived at my wife’s (ethnic Hungarian) family’s house in Serbia, we were treated to some real home-style Hungarian cooking.
Healthy Hungarian Vegan Cooking
On our first night my wife’s auntie made us eggplant schnitzels, roast potatoes, crumbed cauliflower and garlicky cucumber salad with iced tea, mineral water and a tiny shot-glass of Palinka – clear but fiery Hungarian spirits (brewed from apricots) – all delicious.
The next morning, after a fitful jet-lagged sleep, I enjoyed a simple, hearty breakfast of thick, crusty bread, peanut butter, home-grown tomatoes – blood-red, dripping with juice and flavour – yellow peppers, and some tasty local vegetable-tofu pate-like spread. This was washed down with plenty of water and home-brewed black coffee (no sugar, of course).
Our first few days in Novi Knezevac, or ‘Torok Kanizsa‘, as the local Hungarians call it, were spent catching up on sleep and avoiding the oppressive heat. We had the fan on high rotation and drank many tall glasses of ‘vizi‘ – water – as well as mineral water and cold, sweet ice tea.
My wife’s side of the family are salt-of-the-Earth people; warm, welcoming and hospitable. They provided bucket loads of organic, home-grown or local market-bought fruit and veggies. These included tangy-sweet grapes off the vine; nectarines that explode with ripe, succulent flesh in your mouth; tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn, onions, and the biggest cantaloupe I have ever seen; more like a yellow pumpkin than a rock melon!
Vegetables In Season With Plant Protein
I continued to enjoy breakfasts and midday meals consisting of slabs of crusty white bread, tomatoes, capsicums/peppers, onion, soy spread/pate (made with olives, olive oil and sunflower seeds), and, my perennial favourite, peanut butter (the one ingredient brought from Melbourne). I didn’t have any margarine or other spreads – this food was too flavourful to need it!
For one of our dinners I started with a bowl of green bean and vegetable soup. This was followed by a plate of ‘Lecso‘, a savoury dish made from peppers, onion, tomato and garlic, served with piles of steaming ‘Nokedli‘, a home-made pasta-like food made from flour (pictured).
Ever resourceful – as all great chefs are – my mother-in-law whipped up some very ‘finom‘ (tasty) rissoles from nut-meat (canned peanut/wheat based meat-substitute we bought from Melbourne), breadcrumbs and garlic. These were gratefully consumed with mashed potatoes, broccoli, and tomato and onion salad. Of course the next day more of these rissoles were devoured in crusty bread with chunks of juicy tomato, washed down with mineral water.
Tom’s Travel Tips:
- Drink plenty of water, making sure it’s clean – use bottled water if necessary.
- Take some plant protein food with you as a precaution, such as beans, nuts, or peanut butter.
Keeping Fit and Healthy on a Vegan Vacation
We did plenty of sleeping and resting while in Torok Kanizsa, but we also went on long walks around local historical sites, and along the nearby river Tisza (comparable to the Murray river in northern Victoria where I grew up – without the gum-trees and sulphur-crested cockatoos!). To keep up my fitness regime, I managed to get a couple of jogs in, along the banks of the Tisza. What is it they say about mad dogs and Englishmen out in the noon-day sun…or is it Australians?!
The food was so healthy and filling that I found I didn’t over-eat, and hardly had any junk food at all, such as cake, cookies, and chips (except for one night that some family members drove us to Sobodka, where we stopped off at the Golden Arches and I succumbed to some Macca’s fries, washed down with icy coke that tasted much too good than it should’ve!).
One night my wife’s auntie cooked up a pile of ‘nagyon finom’ (very tasty) ‘krumplis teszta’ (potato pasta – see above). I enjoyed 3 helpings of this with steamed broccoli, tomato & onion salad, and the obligatory bread with soy spread.
Another savoury dish my mother-in-law made featured mushrooms, peppers and onions cooked with paprika, and onion salad made with olive oil and a little sugar. Naturally this was accompanied by more hunks of crusty bread and soy spread!
Tom’s Travel Tips:
- Eat lots of fruit and vegetables, especially locally grown or bought.
- Keep exercising every day if possible, even just walking, or jogging, swimming or cycling if you’re fit enough and enjoy it.
- If you stray a little from your healthy plant-based diet, don’t sweat it; you’re meant to relax and enjoy yourself while on holiday!
Vegan Eating in Budapest
From Torok Kanizsa we drove to the 2000 year-old city of Pecs (pronounced ‘Petch’), and went further on to stay with my wife’s cousin in Vecses (pronounced ‘Vachesh’), just outside Budapest, Hungary’s biggest city and capital.
My wife’s cousin and her husband are very friendly and fabulous hosts. For breakfast one morning we enjoyed a real home-made treat: a dish of peppers, tomatoes, avocado, and black olives, cooked in Croatian olive oil (see pictured). This was served with crusty, locally-baked bread, Hungarian cheese, and a little salami (for the non-vegans!). Naturally, I enjoyed the vegetable dish with some bread, and organic green apples freshly picked off the tree in the lush backyard garden.
That day we visited Buda Var (old Buda), overlooking the beautiful blue Danube , and enjoyed dinner al fresco at a nearby restaurant. After checking the menu for vegan options, I ordered pancakes with vegetables. I ate this with brown bread and salad with tomato, cucumber, lettuce and pickled cabbage.
The next day in down-town Budapest, we had lunch at the ‘Fatal’ restaurant. Despite the name’s unfortunate English meaning, we lived to tell the tale (in Hungarian ‘fatal’ – pronounced ‘fo-tahl’ – is a wooden dish).
I didn’t eat from a wooden dish, but a pan on a wooden tray. I enjoyed mushroom gulyas (goulash) with nokedli (freshly made pasta). My wife had crumbed mushrooms with vegetable rice.
Vegetarian/Vegan Convenience Food in Hungary
If you like soy milk in your coffee or cappuccino, don’t expect it in most European cafes. At one cafe when I asked if they had soy milk I received a blank stare in return. I had to settle for an ‘Americano’ coffee, or what I would call a ‘long black’ (most black coffees are ‘expresso’, which is typically a double-shot of caffeine in a little cup).
At the local Aldi supermarket we discovered some frozen vegetarian/vegan food: soya sticks, veggie medallions, crumbed mushrooms and vegetarian nuggets. These are good for kids or quick, easy meals with salad or vegetables.
At Aldi we also bought some vegetable pate made from potato and onion. This tasted great on bread rolls with tomato and fresh basil.
From Vecses we took a ‘rail jet’ train (top speed 220 kmh) to Mosonmagyarovar, a picture-postcard town in northwest Hungary, near the borders of Slovakia and Austria. Our superb hosts there (close family friends) treated us to cream of broccoli soup with dried chickpeas, and lecso with zucchini, onion, tomato and paprika (all home-grown) with rice. We also consumed some soy sausages and later some ‘soy salami’ which our hosts had kindly purchased for us at a German supermarket in Slovakia.
Tom’s Travel Tips:
- Look (or ask) around for plant-based food alternatives. You may find them in unlikely places, including local markets and supermarkets.
- Whether eating out or in, choose available healthy plant-based foods and have less-unhealthy fats such as avocado or plant-based spreads or pates.
From Mosonmagyarovar we took another rail jet train across the Austrian/Hungarian border to Vienna. Vienna is a feast of magnificent palaces, museums, cathedrals, art and sculptures, and surprisingly veg-friendly.
Once we’d checked in to our hotel on the Ringstrasse in central Vienna, we walked a few blocks to discover a trendy all-vegetarian eatery, ‘Yamm’. Yamm is a buffet-style restaurant that offers an eclectic range of fresh, healthy vegetarian dishes (see plate of vegan goodies pictured). Rather than select your meal from a set menu, you load up a plate with whatever you choose from the buffet. You then take your plate to the counter where you are charged by the weight of your plate, rather than your specific food choices.
Each buffet dish has ingredients identified, including categories such as vegan or gluten-free. Like a veritable kid in the lolly shop, I eagerly stacked my plate with a cornucopia of plant-food delights, such as seitan steaks, falafels with 4 different flavours of hummus, couscous balls, burghul salad, beetroot salad, rosemary potatoes and more (see photo). If you’re looking for healthy vegan food, the variety and fresh, wholesome flavours of Yamm are highly recommended.
The service was good, the atmosphere relaxed and informal, and it only cost me and my wife about 32 euros in total to eat very well (not including drinks). I only hope that a ‘Yamm’ restaurant is available in Australia as well as Austria in the not-too-distant future!
Other types of vegetarian food in Austria included pasta and vegetable dishes. These are often accompanied by Viennese rolls, which are more like fine white cake than bread. White bread is not as healthy as wholemeal, but I found that Viennese rolls are too addictive to say no to. They were melt-in-your-mouth delicious on their own, and didn’t certainly didn’t need any margarine or butter.
Vegan Eating in Venice and Rome
The following day we travelled by train for 11 hours to Venice, which afforded us breathtaking views of the magnificent Austrian Alps. Our stopover at Innsbruck was cold and rainy, a welcome change from the European summer. We bought a thick, crusty rye-bread salad roll with juice at Innsbruck train station as a quick healthy dinner on the move.
The Grand Canal and Piazza San Marco at Venice were spectacular, but I couldn’t say the same about the food. We had been warned that the pizza in Italy was fairly basic, with a hard base and not much topping compared to what we are used to in Australia. This advice proved correct. The vegetarian/vegan pasta selections were also limited, and varied in quality. A mushroom fettuccine that my wife ordered in a cafe in Vactican City was barely edible, yet on the plus side they did have a ‘Manhattan Vegetariano’ burger which was packed with lettuce and onion and pretty tasty.
When we reached Rome on the last leg of our travels together the quality of the meals we had seemed to improve. As we did in Vienna, we walked several blocks and visited many famous landmarks, such as the Trevi Fountain, where we literally tossed in our 2 cents worth (Euro cents, that is!).
For our last restaurant dinner in Rome my wife had pesto tagliatelle tossed in walnut meal and a little olive oil. I ordered a selection from the buffet of grilled eggplant, sun-dried tomato, chicory greens and assorted salad and antipasto (pictured), with a bowl of fruit salad for dessert. This was the culinary highlight of our stay in Italy, and a fine way to complete our whirlwind European tour.
Tom’s Travel Tips:
- When eating out, look for menus that offer a vegetarian/vegan selection, or at least a selection of healthy vegetable and salad dishes.
- Don’t just catch trains, buses and taxis – do plenty of walking around a given city, town or location. You are more likely to find hidden culinary treasures; you’ll get some valuable exercise and build up a healthy appetite.
- Eat a full range of healthy plant-based vegan foods; enjoy the occasional indulgence, and happy travels!