It's a single slice of pizza that does it, at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Bologna, northern Italy. The hemp-flour base is thin with a crunchy rim and it's topped with tomatoes, chicory, edible flowers and a light-as-foam mozzarella – made from rice milk. It makes me want to never eat pizza outside Italy again. This isn't just great vegan food. This is great food that happens to be vegan.
At the table with me are six women from Australia and the US, all on the vegan spectrum except Lynn, from Wisconsin, who's travelling with her 18-year-old vegan granddaughter Zoe. Leanne, from Brisbane, confesses she was "a raving carnivore" until she started watching animal welfare documentaries a few years ago – and discovered "cheese" made from cashews. Leena, a psychotherapist, once ran a vegan bakery in New York and has been vegan for 25 years. Trip leader Francesco, who sports a man bun and a yoga-honed physique, is semi-vegan. "I don't drink milk but I spoil myself with cheese once or twice a week," he says. As for me, I'm vegetarian.
Together we're on Intrepid Travel's inaugural Italy Vegan Food Adventure. It's perfectly timed with The Economist recently calling 2019 "the year of the vegan" and famous vegans sprouting up all over the place, from Bill Clinton to baby Archie, the newest British royal, after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced they'd like to raise him as a vegan.
But a vegan tour in the country that gave us prosciutto and ossobuco? It's not as unlikely as it sounds. "We have a background of living out of the soil," says Francesco at our trip briefing in Venice. "My grandmother wouldn't have eaten meat every week, let alone every day. And when you think about it, many Italian foods are vegan by nature: gnocchi, pizza, pasta, bread."
Sure, outbreaks of militant veganism have given vegans a bad name lately, particularly in Australia. When I told friends I was doing a vegan tour in Italy, their reactions ranged from concern ("You'll miss out on all that great food!") to disdain ("Watch out for those rabid vegans").
But meeting my travelling companions silences these misconceptions; like a lot of people all over the world quietly living plant-based lives now, they chose veganism for their own reasons and aren't evangelical about it. And there's certainly no sense of deprivation. In fact I don't think I've ever been on such a consistently delicious trip, starting with our first dinner in Venice.
VEGAN IN VENICE
At Fiume Freddo Bio ("bio" means organic in Europe), a tiny restaurant in the residential neighbourhood of Cannaregio, Bob Dylan croons from the stereo while Francesco orders several dishes to share, as he does at every group meal on the trip, giving us all a chance to try different foods. There's vegan parmigiana, fennel stew with vegan "cheese", quinoa patties with chickpea and turmeric sauce, and two in-season vegetables we'll be seeing a lot of: artichokes and asparagus, cooked simply and beautifully in olive oil. Francesco happens to be a sommelier, so we also let him order the wine, a delightfully light vegan prosecco which is made without animal-based fining agents such as egg whites.
Strolling back to our hotel after dinner, it makes perfect sense to stop for gelato. Every gelateria we visit that week has at least a few fruity dairy-free flavours. Some are more inventive; there's even a creamy sour cherry gelato made with rice milk.
If I'd had one concern about the trip it was that we were starting in one of Europe's most over-touristed cities, in June. Fortunately our itinerary saves us from being "turisti mordi e fuggi" – "bite and run tourists" who crowd into cities such as Venice, contributing little to the local economy – by ensuring we eat at locally owned restaurants and stay in locally owned hotels. It also gives us plenty of free time. On the afternoon of day two, after a morning orientation walk, we break into mini-groups to take in a few of Venice's sights, wander quiet lanes and stop for marinara pizzas which, in Italy, are topped with a tomato sauce, oregano and garlic, not seafood (who knew?).
That evening, Francesco takes us for a very Venetian dinner. While we stand on a stone bridge admiring the sunset, he brings us plates of tapas-like "cicchetti" such as bruschetta and olives, and glasses of fizzy bright-orange aperol spritz, from the nearest bar. Around us people sit at tables alongside the canal or dangle their feet over the water. Someone starts strumming a guitar. It's just another Saturday night in northern Venice.
TRAIN TO TUSCANY
On the morning of day three, we catch a train to Bologna and fall into lively conversation about everything from tiny houses to ethical dog food. Being among curious, like-minded people is one of my favourite things about this trip, and I'm reminded that veganism is about so much more than what you don't eat.
Trains join the dots of our foodie stops. In Bologna, scene of my pizza epiphany (at Il Rovescio), we do a cooking class to learn how to make vegan versions of local classics such as piadina flatbread and strozzapreti ("strangle the priest") pasta, invented in the 1600s when anti-clergy sentiments ran high. In Modena, home of Ferrari and Pavarotti, we taste syrupy balsamic vinegar made the traditional way – in old wooden barrels in the attic of a family home.
On day five, after lunch in Florence, there's a change of pace as we drive into the Tuscan hills to spend a couple of nights at an agriturismo. Poderi Arcangelo feels more like a Tuscan resort than a farm stay with its sparkling swimming pool and sun lounges, both with vine-covered views. But it does make its own extra virgin olive oil and vegan organic wines, including Tuscany's famous chiantis, which we try at a private tasting on a sun-drenched patio.
When we visit a nearby World Heritage village the next morning, I realise I'm starting to see the world through vegan eyes. Once a rest stop for pilgrims on the Via Francigena, Italy's Camino de Santiago, San Gimignano is now best known for its medieval stone churches and towers – and its wild boar meat, leather and cheeses. There's even a torture museum, which we hurry past. But even here we find vegan gelato, vegan dishes at the trattoria where we have lunch – and a shop selling handcrafted leather-like bags made from washable paper.
FRASCATI AND GELATI
Our last stop is Rome, where our free afternoon is bookended by lunch at Il Margutta, one of the eternal city's first vegetarian restaurants when it opened in 1979, and dinner at Rosemary, one of the best meals of the trip. Despite its inner-city location, Rosemary has a "zero kilometres" ethos and a "country garden" decor of white wooden tables, fairy lights and ivy tumbling from shelves overhead. Over glasses of a summery frascati made just south of Rome, Francesco orders for us one last time and we take turns sharing our trip highlights, which aren't all culinary.
"Travelling this way, this week, took away a lot of the anxiety about travelling as a vegan," says Julianna, from California. For Lynn, the only non-vegan/vegetarian among us, it's been life-changing. "From the first night, when the food looked like it was photo-ready for a magazine article and tasted so wonderful, I was hooked," she says. "What surprised me most was that I didn't miss meat, eggs or dairy at all. This trip really made me want to seek out vegan restaurants and recipes I can try at home and inspired me to do my part to lessen my footprint in small ways."
Walking back to our hotel, there's time for one last gelato – or two. Francesco can't decide between two of his favourite Roman gelateria, so we visit both. There's a line out the door of Come il Latte, at 10pm on a weeknight, but it's La Romana that wins our hearts. It's busy, too and has the air of a hip new bar, and quirky vegan flavours to match, such as "liquorice, mint and pink Himalayan rock salt" and "sambuca, blueberry and lemon", served with liquid vegan chocolate poured into the base of every cone.
As we stand on the footpath outside, I can't think of a better way to end the trip than this: mingling with locals as they chat and lean against parked cars like extras in a Fellini movie, melodic Italian voices echoing against the stone walls, all of us savouring the simple joy of gelato on a warm summer night in Rome.
FIVE MORE VEGAN-FRIENDLY DESTINATIONS IN EUROPE
With more than 600 vegan restaurants, vegan city tours (greenmeberlin.com), the world's first vegan supermarket chain (veganz.de) and Europe's biggest vegan summer festival, Berlin rates highly in the vegan-friendly stakes.
Hosting the UK's flagship vegan event (the next VegFestUK runs October 26-27) and a new Plant Powered Expo in February 2020, London also announced the world's first vegan hotel suite earlier this year, at the Hilton London Bankside.
In 2016 Barcelona declared itself "a friend of vegan and vegetarian culture", published a vegetarian guide to the city and vowed to promote plant-based eating and encourage residents to go meat-free one day a week.
The recent tourism boom is one reason Iceland has been ranked the world's most vegan country by Google Trends, with vegan options in almost every restaurant.
Amsterdam has tripled its vegan restaurants in the past two years and one of them, The Dutch Weed Burger, is famous for its signature burger that is made from seaweed, not marijuana.
Louise Southerden travelled as a guest of Intrepid Travel.
Emirates flies daily to Venice via Dubai from Sydney, Adelaide and Perth, and twice daily from Melbourne and Brisbane. See emirates.com
Intrepid Travel's next eight-day Italy Vegan Food Adventure is June 5 to 12, 2020, and costs $3355 twin-share including accommodation, transport, carbon offsets and some meals. See intrepidtravel.com