Meet Tonia Brauer, a dedicated vegan influencer with a journey from California’s Napa Valley to the scenic landscapes of Sicily, all while upholding a strong commitment to plant-based living.
In this episode of The World Vegan Travel Podcast, Tonia shares her insights as a long-time resident of Sicily, offering a glimpse into the remarkable encounters and experiences that await those who venture to the sun-soaked shores of the island.
Delve into the island’s rich history, shaped by diverse cultures, and bask in its varied natural beauty, from idyllic beaches to majestic mountains. Tonia also highlights the thriving vegan culinary scene in Sicily, perfect for even the most discerning plant-based palates, which you can explore on her Vegan Tours of Ortigia, an island adjacent to Palermo.
Join us in discovering the allure of Sicily through the eyes of a passionate vegan advocate and Ortigia vegan tour guide, letting your imagination transport you to this dreamy destination, no matter where you are.
In this episode, we discuss:
- Tonia’s journey from California’s Napa Valley to Sicily and her unwavering commitment to plant-based living.
- Tonia’s role as a long-time resident in Sicily and her unique insights into the island’s lifestyle.
- The cultural diversity that has shaped Sicily’s rich history.
- The island’s diverse natural beauty, including idyllic beaches and majestic mountains.
Learn more about what we talk about
- Tonia’s expertise on the flourishing vegan culinary scene in Sicily.
- The opportunity to explore Sicilian vegan delights through Tonia’s Vegan Tours of Ortigia, situated near Palermo.
- The charm of Ortigia as a vegan-friendly destination.
- Tonia’s role as a passionate vegan advocate and vegan tour guide in Ortigia.
Other World Vegan Travel content connected with this episode
- Destination Spotlight: The Awe-Inspiring Wonders of Central Puglia, Italy | Amber McLean | Ep 134
- NORTHERN ITALY: MOUNTAINS, LAKES & CANALS with Colleen Patrick-Goudreau
- Discover 11 Vegan Menu Options Hidden in Non-Vegan Restaurants in Italy
- Reflections on our Incredible Northern Italy Vegan Tour | Northern Italy 2022 Travelers | Ep 80
- Italy, a vegan country in disguise?
- S4 Ep 8 | Is Italy REALLY vegan-friendly? | Manu Venditti
- S3 Ep 5 | Best Vegan-Friendly Hotels in Italy | Verde Camilla Parmigiani
Connect with Tonia
Brighde: Welcome Tonia Brauer to The Vegan Travel Podcast, I’m thrilled to have you joining us today.
Tonia: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
Brighde: Yes I’m really pleased. Before we get into those 10 reasons to visit Sicily, you’ve really lived in a few different places and done quite a few things in the vegan travel space. Can you tell us about your journey from being a Vegan influencer in Napa Valley to starting this Vegan Food tour in Ortigia, Sicily?
Tonia: Yeah, happy to. It’s been quite a journey, very exciting. But I started out around 2012 in Napa, California. I moved there with my husband. We were in Raleigh, North Carolina. He got a great job. We decided to head over and I just assumed that Napa Valley would be vegan-friendly because San Francisco, Oakland, and Sonoma County, were all very vegan-friendly areas. And unfortunately, Napa was really dictated by the wine industry and the chefs. Great chefs, and great wine, but they just always seemed to make their money and their influence by pairing meat and wine, never considering anything else would work.
I spent my first couple of months there just sort of confused, I couldn’t find any good food, and whenever we’d have a day off together, we would have to drive 40 miles to San Francisco or whatever to enjoy a great vegan meal. So finally I decided that if someone was gonna do something, it apparently had to be me. So I decided to start a blog. Of course, initially, I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea what to do with it. So at first, it was a little bit of animal rights stuff and then I started to really realize I’m not the only one who comes to Napa Valley and can’t find what they’re looking for in the vegan sphere.
So essentially I just started really focusing on the food and the wine. The wonderful thing about winemakers is they love free publicity. I had no problem getting in with winemakers and they were wonderful. They invited me in and treated me like royalty just so I would write a couple paragraphs about the experience.
The chefs were a little more challenging, many never got back to me, but eventually, I started to carve out a niche. 5, or 6 years in, got to the point where they were contacting me. So it really was such an amazing experience to not only meet some of these amazing chefs and these amazing winemakers but to really affect the food industry there, just from enthusiasm and just being tired of not being able to eat a good vegan meal in Napa Valley. So yeah, I had an amazing time doing that. That was probably the hardest thing to leave when we left California and left the US honestly.
Brighde: That’s amazing. But you are now in Sicily, you didn’t go there directly. So can you talk a little bit about like
Brighde: what inspired you to move to Europe and then come down to Sicily?
Tonia: Absolutely. Yes, it all seems really spontaneous to people who even know us well, but it was really methodical and very well planned out. But we really had no intention of going anywhere. California was treating us just fine and Steve’s job was great. I was blogging, so things were good, but he started to get a little bit ill, and we started to realize that maybe now was the time to do all the things we talked about doing. One of those things from about the minute we met was traveling and we hadn’t done much of that. He focused on his career. I have been in real estate for nearly 15 years. I focused on that a lot and then once I started the blog, that was my top priority. In 2017, we came to Barcelona and Berlin, because they were vegan-friendly. That was literally the only parameter, they had to be vegan-friendly. So we spent about 10 days in Europe, and really by the time we left, we were scouting rather than being tourists.
We were finding our favorite grocery stores looking for our favorite neighborhoods. And we really were mentally transitioning to thinking, yeah, we could probably live here. So it took us about a year. We sold everything we owned. We ended up having a pretty cool experience where we blogged across the country. We took a couple of weeks just to hit some pretty amazing restaurants and some really vegan-friendly experiences. We spent a couple of weeks in Michigan for my brother’s wedding, and then we ended up in Brooklyn. We got on the Queen Mary too. It’s the only ship on the planet that actually has kennels for animals and we had a dog and two cats that we’d been traveling with for about six weeks. So we needed them to be able to calm down and it was crazy. So we came across the sea on the Queen Mary too and, ultimately between Barcelona and Berlin, we put these big sheets of paper on our dining room wall and did sort of all the pros and cons of both locations.
Berlin won by a couple of points. I told Steve like, no problem though. If you wanna live in the Mediterranean, I’m game. So he ultimately said, no, no, let’s try Berlin. So we ended up heading to Berlin, Germany, which ended up being, an amazing experience. It’s an incredible city. The food is amazing and it really is as vegan-friendly as people say, even though no one believes it.
The first thing they say is Curry-versed. I was like, yeah, Curry versed, but there’s a lot more food than sausage there. It’s great. We spent a couple of years there again, with no intention of leaving Berlin. We signed a lease for four years on an apartment. We were settled in for a while. Then out of the blue, in late 2019, an article showed up about buying one Euro house in Italy and we were both like, one euro house is in Italy. What is that all about? We were really interested and really excited, and since we lived so close, we decided just to hop on the plane and come check out Sicily. The reason I chose Sicily was because it was by the water. It was literally no good reason. Oh, it’s an island. That would be fun. So we ended up here and before we knew it, we owned a house in Central Sicily. And three years later, we no longer own the house, but we’re still in Sicily but now we’re on the coast, which is more our style.
Brighde: I love it Fantastic. As someone who’s lived in these three different places, what do find most exciting about Sicilian culture and the lifestyle, that you think sets it apart from Berlin or other places in Italy or California?
Tonia: Yeah. Well, Sicily is very unique, very much and I think people don’t always realize it, but it was captured, it was ruled by literally dozens of different countries and different rulers. I think that when people come from mainland Italy, especially northern Italy, they find that Sicily is very different. It’s very unique because we literally have, starting with the Greeks, nearly 2,800 years ago, they were here for nearly 500 years. The Romans were here for about 700 years. There were at least three different Greek tribes that ruled. The Vikings were here for a bit. The Arabs ruled for quite a long time and brought mosques eggplants (aubergine), and many things that were not here before.
The French ruled for a bit and in fact, when the Spanish were here, that was really considered the golden era for the island. It really thrived the most when the Spanish ruled. So because of that, the different cultures, religions, the different cuisines, it really has turned into a very unique thing here in Sicily.
So that is probably one of the things I enjoy the most about it I’m always finding something unexpected. I expect pasta from Italy and I find something completely different because of all of the different people and rulers that were here. So that’s probably one of my favorite things. And then, of course, gelato, gelato is amazing. The vegan version is just as good as the dairy version.
Brighde: Yes I think gelato is one really good reason to come
Tonia: yeah, why not?
Brighde: Italy generally and Sicily specifically. It’s so good. Alright. You’ve living in Sicily for a couple of years now and you even have like a Vegan food tour of Ortigia that people can book as well we’ll give people all of the details about that towards the end of the podcast but you wanna get people to Sicily in the first place and you’ve come up with 10 amazing reasons why people should come to Sicily ’cause I think many people might dismiss it a little bit because it’s on an island, maybe it’s a hassle to get to, it’s extremely hot.
Tonia: It can be yes.
Brighde: Yeah, let’s talk about these 10 reasons why you believe Sicily is such an amazing destination for everyone and for vegans.
Tonia: Yeah. Okay, perfect. Well, first of all, Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean, so you’re basically gonna have access to the most gorgeous beaches, cliffs, mountains, there really is a little bit of everything. You can hang out in some of the tiniest villages with amazing history and beautiful churches. Or you can be in the capital city here, Palermo with over a million people. So you really can have a little bit of everything on this island. And it’s not only the largest Mediterranean island, it’s the largest region in all of Italy. So, like I said, you really can spread out and have access to everything. It’s really quite spectacular. Then very near me, is Mount Etna. Mount Etna is an active volcano, which, some people might find frightening, but it does go off quite a lot. In fact, the first time, that I ever experienced it erupting, I went outside and there was all of this ash on my terrace, and I thought, was somebody smoking? Like, how would that get up here? Or, it looks like somebody was burning the newspaper. And I’m kind of irritated like, who would do that? These are apartments. And so I’m sweeping it all up. An hour or two later I finally looked at some of the local news and I was like, oh, that was Mount Etna. So it’s erupting right now.
I felt really stupid first of all. But I was like, oh, yeah, that would completely make sense. But anyway, it is such a huge draw. It’s the tallest peak on the island. It being an active volcano, I think it really attracts, not only people that just wanna have the experience, but you know, people that kind of want the excitement of being on top of an active volcano and it’s absolutely beautiful. I’m very fortunate for my terrace. I can actually see Mount Etna and I can also see the Mediterranean Sea, so I’m never sure which direction to look in the morning ’cause I always try to have my gratitude go out and look at the sea, look at Mount Etna, and start my day.
Mount Etna is a huge draw and it’s absolutely stunning. The next thing on my list, of course, is the beaches. When you’re in some of these tourist towns like Syracuse for example, it’s beautiful. It’s such a gorgeous place, but it’s covered with volcanic rock. And so the locals, they don’t mind laying on the rocks. It’s second nature, you know, they grow up like that. All we have in Artesia is just this tiny little sand beach, which of course, in the hot parts of the summer, when it can be in the forties and above, it’s packed.
There’s no space for anybody on this tiny beach. So we’re very fortunate that you can take either a train or if you have a rental car, within probably a 20-minute drive, we’ve got the Fontane Bianche, which would be translated to white fountains. It’s just this gorgeous long stretch of beach, with a kind of golden sand. It’s absolutely stunning. The water there is crystal clear. No rocks, which is wonderful. You can lie on the sand or, there are also, of course, private areas where you can rent two chairs and an umbrella for not much money. You have it all day. They have restaurants and clean bathrooms. You can rough it a little bit and bring your own stuff and be on the public beach, or you can make it a little more posh and rent some of the chairs.
But the beaches are just stunning. So that is, I think a really great reason to come to Sicily. And certainly, I’m a little bit partial to the southeast side of the island, which is where I live now. Of course, it is incredibly vegan-friendly here. So that’s partially why I ended up here, but the beaches here are just absolutely stunning.
The next thing I think that is a huge draw and a wonderful reason to come would be the Greek ruins. Again, the Greeks actually, I wouldn’t say they conquered the island because really 2,800 years ago when they showed up, there were just a couple tribes on the island. Some indigenous tribes. I focus primarily on the Sicani tribe, of course, it was here on the southeast side of the island, so I talked most about that. I know most about that. So they weren’t hard to beat, I guess. So saying that they conquered them is probably not completely accurate, but the Greeks showed up and said, Hmm, this is nice. We’ll take it, sort of thing.
So the tribes ended up being eventually just absorbed into the population because that’s just how it happens. The Greek ruins are really extraordinary all over the island. Of course, it’s all over Sicily, but in Syracuse especially, because this is really where they landed and they built one of what was considered or possibly the most beautiful city in all of Greece, over Athens. Yes, it was considered the most beautiful. It had over 250,000 people at the time. Again, this was 2,800 years ago, and now we only have about 120,000.
So we have half the population that when Greece was ruling. The ruins themselves were lost for a time because again, the Greeks were here, then the Romans, then we had some Germans, and then we had some Vikings and the Arabs. So things got built on top of other things.
A temple became a mosque, and then a mosque became a Catholic church. So eventually though, the mayors of the city started to realize they really had something here. So they started to make the effort to clear out some of the old buildings and really showcase these Greek ruins.
So, we have the temple of Apollo, Apollo is essentially the Greek God of virtually everything, but he’s the Greek God of sunshine. And we are literally in a part of the island that gets nearly 350 days of sun per year. So it couldn’t have been more relevant to honor him at the temple here.
Then of course we have a huge archeological park that showcases a lot of the Greek ruins, including a theater, but there are Roman ruins very near it. Again, the wonderful thing when the Romans were here for nearly 700 years is they didn’t come in and just destroy what was here. They really let a lot of things just be, which is again, why we have got so many of those Greek ruins still visible and you’re still able to really enjoy them. I’m kind of getting excited about it because to walk through this small island of Ortigia, which is considered the old town of Syracuse, the main city. It’s just extraordinary to look at things that were built thousands of years ago.
I come from the United States. We had of course, we have our First Nation and American Indians, but I wasn’t exposed to any of the ruins while I lived in the United States. To just walk through this small island of Ortigia and see all of these ancient ruins, it’s really extraordinary. It shouldn’t be missed. It’s one of the top reasons definitely to come.
Brighde: So Tonia how is it that people can experience these Incredible historical sites? Are they all in museums or are they cordoned off or is it something you could get a little bit of an insight into just by walking around.
Tonia: Yes. All of those things. There are parts of it where you have to pay and get a ticket like the archeological park it’s huge and you can spend hours and hours there. So they’ve really turned it into a tourist destination. There are several cafes. One of them has vegan cake, just FYI. There are just so many little shops that you can pop into, so they’ve really turned it into a destination, which is lovely.
And I think for less than 15 euros you can get in and spend the entire day or as much time as you’d like. Then when you get into Ortigia, so many of the ruins are just there. You literally will just walk past them so you can enjoy them for no extra fee. So get your picture taken, take, as many photos as you’d like.
So yeah, it’s kind of a mix of different things, I love Ortigia. That’s one of my favorite places and of course, I used to vacation here. That’s how I learned about the island and about Syracuse. I knew right off that if I ever ended up living here, it was the perfect place for a vegan food tour. But essentially just to walk onto the island and just be surrounded by these different ruins. It was really extraordinary.
Brighde: Could you explain a little bit about the geography because you’re talking about Ortigia like an island but then Sicily is an island. Do you have to take a ferry to get to Ortigia? How does that work?
Tonia: Yes, I’m sorry. You’re right. We’ve got several islands, in this whole interview, but Sicily, of course, is an island and Ortigia is a small island attached by two bridges to Syracuse. So Syracuse is the city, and Ortigia would be considered CittÃ Vecchia, which would be an old town that, of course, is right on the coast.
It’s right on the water. So that’s where all of the different rulers that landed, they landed right there in Ortigia. So that is why there’s just so much history there because that’s right on the water. Yeah.
Brighde: I love it. I wouldn’t need another six reasons to come to Sicily but I’d love to hear them anyway. Go ahead.
Tonia: Okay Alright, I’ll give you a few more. So, of course, the broken architecture is a huge draw here as well. That was something very much inspired when the Spanish ruled. So probably between the 15th and the 16th century AD is when the Spanish were here. What happened is, they took sort of the Renaissance architecture and then just added all kinds of bells and whistles, they just wanted to really just jazz it up. So you’ll find the domed ceilings, the cupolas, there are statues and icons inside and out, all over the buildings themselves. Of course, their light was a huge aspect of it. So again, exterior and interior light were very much thought of as they were designing it. And of course, what they wanted to do is they wanted to take a Catholic church, which pretty much looked like a box, and turn the church itself into a sculpture all on its own. So the architecture is just extraordinary and there’s a lot of it’s room throughout Ortigia.
But in particular, the Piazza Duomo, which is Cathedral and Italian, is just full of broken architecture. And one thing I forgot to mention, and everybody knows who the putti are. In Italian putto, singular, but they’re those chubby little boys that are always naked. They’ve got wings and they’re usually on the roof of the Baroque architecture. I think Romans would call it Cupid, but in Italian, they’re called Putti. But yeah, that’s very much a sign that you’re looking at some baroque architecture when you see the little chubby boy up there at the top of the roof.
So that’s a huge draw and it’s absolutely gorgeous. That’s one of my favorite parts of the tour, is taking people through the Piazza Duomoza because it’s just so stunning and the photos are just gorgeous.
Brighde: Oh yeah. I love going to check out cathedrals when I go there and doing a little bit of reading ahead of time because I feel like with so many of these significant cathedrals there’s so much to look at and absorb and it’s hard to know what the interesting parts are, the notable parts of the cathedral and that’s why it’s really tour guide who can point these things out to you that maybe don’t even look that spectacular but there’s something really really interesting behind the whole thing. So I always say if you can have somebody that can give you some history into, what you are looking at, somebody who is not particularly history inclined it just makes the whole experience to be so much better and you know cathedrals are often masterpieces of art and history in just one place. It’s so incredible.
Tonia: Yeah, I agree. I was never much into tours which was not necessarily something I did often. Interestingly enough, what sort of inspired me was, I was in Cefala, which is near Palermo, on the northern side of the islands. And just through Happy Cow, I found a vegan food tour. I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked. So immediately I contacted her like, yes, please, I’d love to take the tour. Well, it ended up she wasn’t vegan. And it just so happened that a couple contacted her just a couple of months before I was there and sort of begged her, like, could you do a vegan food tour for us? And she was like, yeah, I’m game.
So it was lovely. Because of that, they put it on Happy Cow. I was really inspired by her because she really brought the history of CefalÃ¹ and of course from a Sicilian perspective, which was really lovely. So she grew up with all of that history. All of the mythology on that side of the island as well.
Once I finally did get settled in here in Syracuse and Ortigia, I decided I really wanted to utilize that as well. A- I hate to eat all the food at once, so by touring people through different iconic sites, we can talk about history and then we eat something and then we walk a bit and we talk about more history, and then we eat something.
I love how it’s sort of laid out. Now, of course, my tour is small. I usually don’t tour more than four people at a time, so it’s very intimate, but it’s very vegan. Obviously, everything that we eat is vegan but the history is still Sicilian history, just from a foreigner’s perspective.
Because I do find the love stories in Sicily, very dark. Since I don’t really have any history with it, it does come from a very different perspective, for sure. Now that I’m doing them and now that I’ve had great experiences with tours, I highly suggest ’em. As you said, at least once a week, if I’m not touring, I’m still in Ortigia just finding food, just finding more history, finding more interesting things that I can share with people because I’ve gotten really into it. I am really excited by all that there is to learn about this really small area.
And then speaking of more history, this is the birthplace of Archimedes, who is essentially known as probably one of the leading scientists in, the classical antiquity era, which I think probably around 700 BC to very early AD. and he’s possibly known as the greatest mathematician. So there are things like calculus for example, or geometry theorems that we maybe wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for him. It’s amazing to think that he came up with something like this, 2,500 years ago and it’s still used. That’s pretty exciting and he was born, lived, and died here. You’ll find the POCs, Archimedes, you’ll find a lovely statue where we can take your picture. Streets named Archimedes. He is definitely a very big draw, which I think is very exciting. And in fact, he’s got an invention called the Archimedes screw, or the hydrodynamic screw, which was something that thousands of years ago they would use to pull water up from below the soil and we still use it to this day, usually in waste management facilities and in some crop irrigation, but it’s still used that same exact invention. So, I think that’s very exciting, personally.
Brighde: Yeah so cool. That’s amazing.
Tonia: Yeah. Mm-hmm. it is, it really is. Obviously, it’s an island so all along the coast we have many beautiful tourist-driven cities and amazing beaches and things like that. I think what people don’t realize is that the middle of the island is absolutely gorgeous. It’s just full of mountains and peaks. It attracts people who love to hike. Bicycling is huge here. We have many, many, animal reserves and bird reserves where you can just hike through and see all of the wildlife. And there are dozens of these that all have what they call refuges, where you can go into the refuge and you can use the bathroom, you can get coffee, you can have a lunch, get refreshed, and then get back out and hike some more.
For the first two years I lived in the center of the islands and every morning I would wake up and look at the view, I was just blown away by it. And I think some people will miss that just by staying on the perimeter of the island. The beaches are fabulous. I’m a water person. I grew up on Lake Michigan, but I also spent 10 years in Denver and that was one of the most amazing times of my life. So I highly suggest getting to the middle of the island if you possibly can, and enjoying the mountains and of course the small villages that you’ll come across.
I have to say that just in general, Sicilians are incredibly welcoming, but when you get into these smaller villages that aren’t used to a lot of tourists, you might as well be a rock star. They are so happy to see you. They’re so happy to feed you. It’s really extraordinary. When I first got here I was a little like, Am I getting kidnapped or, you know, what is going on? These people are way too nice. One story in particular is, I was in Agrigento, which is kinda the other side of the island where there’s a huge valley of the temple. So again, even more iconic Greek ruins, but I just was trying to find a place where I could get a snack really quick. And I popped into one of the cafes and he is like, no, no. All in Italian. Of course, I’m closing right now. I’m closing right now. But if you just go about 200 feet, there’s a place right down the street on the right. And I was like, okay, alright. Thank you. I’ll go find it. So I just started walking down. Not two minutes later, he pulls over and gets in.
I was like, what? He said, get in, I’ll take you. Sure enough, I hop in, he drives me, that 200 feet drop me off right in front of them, and that was stuff like, that was so common. But like I said at first, coming from Berlin where, if you smile at someone too long, they’re like, what do you want? I was a little jaded, you know, having spent two years in Berlin. It didn’t take me long to just be so appreciative and so grateful for just that easiness, I could chat with anyone. They didn’t think I was strange for smiling. It’s really lovely to get into these small villages. I highly suggest it. Make sure you have your GPS on and a lot of gas though, because you never know where the GPS will take you. Just FYI.
Brighde: How is the transportation around the island?
Tonia: Oh, you know, it’s okay. Again, coming from Berlin where you’ve got subways and things, it was a bit of a letdown. But it is available and it’s becoming more necessary. So many of the tourists here are northern Europeans and they’re used to having buses that run on time and subways and trains and things like that. So, they’re very usable. But, I always set aside some extra time because they might be late. They’ll probably be late. I think that’s just the Sicilian attitude. If we’re a half hour late, it’s still on time. What’s the big deal?
Brighde: Yeah, I love the sound of those little villages. It’s incredible when you get off the beaten track a little in Italy. It’s such a heavily visited destination but there are so many places that don’t receive so many visitors exactly like you say these places are often so cheap to eat and to drink, to stay. They are so cheap I remember one time when we were doing some hiking in the Alster Valley in the north and the Trailhead was in this little village and it was like one euro for a glass of wine and generally speaking whilst the variety might not be that great usually you’ll find something vegan to eat or you’ll be able to order off the menu in these little villages that’s been my experience. Is that an accurate perception?
Tonia: Yeah. It very much is. In Muselli, which was the small village I lived in for a couple of years, it was a Euro 20 for a cappuccino. Steve and I could eat dinner for around six euros. I highly suggest it, whether you’re on a tight budget or not. Everyone loves to save a few euros and the food is typically made by a mom-and-pop type restaurant. You’re not gonna find an Applebee’s or, some chain-type experience here at all. The thing about the food is absolutely, now part of being ruled by so many different cultures and so many different rulers was there were times when they would’ve been called peasants back then. There was poverty here, and if they couldn’t grow it out of their own soil, they couldn’t eat. Meat was very expensive and cheese was something that you didn’t often get if you weren’t one of the elites essentially. So they came up with clever ideas like toasted breadcrumbs instead of Parmesan.
One of the main dishes here that is absolutely amazing and is accidentally vegan is Caponata. Well, it started out being made with fish, and it was very expensive fish, and it was meant for royalty. Well, the peasants could grow aubergine and pull it out of the ground, and it made a great substitute for a fish that they couldn’t afford. I have found, and I think anyone traveling through the middle of the island will find that you’ll find three or four things that are accidentally vegan just because it was all made out of the fertile soil, in the middle of the island.
Now, by the time you get to your third plate of pasta with tomato, you’ll probably wanna get into one of the bigger cities. But yes, you’ll eat just fine if you spend a couple of days in the middle of the island. Absolutely.
Brighde: I love it. Any other great reasons to come to Sicily
Tonia: Well, I think I’ve already mentioned it a couple of times, but again, gelato, my goodness. It’s amazing. We have a couple of frozen desserts here, the gelato being one, and there’s something really unique called Granita. The lovely thing about both of them is they really did start here in Italy, sort of. Marco Polo, when he came back from China, actually brought a sorbet recipe home with him to Italy. So the Italians took that and tweaked it to fit the fruits that they grow here, and actually then created their own sorbet from China, which I think is really amazing. But the gelato itself is very dairy-driven.
What I have found is you don’t have to just order a sorbet, which I love, it’s very refreshing. We have strawberry and melon and oh, peaches. And it is just everything you could imagine because all, again, all of those fruits actually grow here and gelato is essentially a creamy, fruity version of gelato. So you’ll find all of the sorbets that you could imagine. But it’s become so popular now because tourism is such a huge draw along the coast that I find some of the creamiest gelato here that is all vegan-friendly. Pistachio, of course, is very popular here.
Pistachios grow here and there are two or three gelaterias here that have the most amazing gelato, no dairy, no milk to be seen. It’s just they’re really perfecting it, which is amazing. And then of course we have a granita, which is also very unique to Sicily. But it’s essentially crushed fruit and juice and ice. It doesn’t sound incredibly exciting and yet it is. On a 40-degree day, there is nothing more refreshing than a lemon granita. But again, I found my favorite, which is pistachio. They end up taking pistachio and they somehow do this magical thing. It’s very creamy. It’s very delicious. They put little bits of pistachio on it, and it’s absolutely amazing. So when you come, absolutely eat the gelato. Eat the sorbet, but be sure to try the granita. It’s really lovely.
Brighde: Yeah I’m a huge fan of all of the things that you just said and it’s something I want to make sure that listeners know is the sorbets that you are referring to they actually are still very creamy and soft. It’s not like a brick of lemon sorbet that you might buy in the supermarkets here that you have to almost hammer and chisel, it’s basically like lemon ice. It’s not like that, it’s very different.
Tonia: It is. I don’t know how they’ve sort of put that creaminess into a sorbet, but yeah, it’s exceptional. It’s absolutely delicious.
Brighde: And just so refreshing on one of those hot days.
Brighde: I’d love to ask you, Tonya, In terms of like times of year to go, what different experiences could people expect based on the time of year they go?
Brighde: Maybe we can talk about like different festivals that could be going on that could be interesting or maybe to avoid? The weather What could be some things that people should know about when choosing what time of year to go?
Tonia: Sure. Well, you know, everyone has a different priority, the older I get the less I like heat. But that said, the busiest time of year here, of course, is gonna be June, July especially, and then August. So that’s when I work because that’s when people mostly will be here. In the summertime it’s glorious and my thoughts are, if it’s 40 degrees or higher, be at the seaside, go to a pool, we’ll do a tour on a little bit cooler day. But I’ve done them in 40-degree plus. I’ve had folks from Palm Springs, California where it can be 45 degrees. So they’re like, why not?
Let’s do it. Summertime is gonna be busy. Of course, you are gonna wait in longer lines. But everything’s gonna be open, everything’s gonna be thriving. The beaches are just gonna be popping. Everything is gonna be on. So it is a really lovely time to come if you just wanna have the experience of enjoying everything.
The nice thing is it’s not uncommon to have a midday break. You go take a nap, go have a shower, rest up, and then you can come back out in the evening where everything picks back up. I love it here. I love to go to the beach. I love to be in the sun and in the water when it’s hot and a lot of people clearly love it because it is definitely our busiest time of year. When I visit here from the mountainside, I would definitely come outside of those ranges because I sort of prefer having a little bit smaller crowds, and a little bit cooler weather. So it’s still gonna be plenty hot in September.
But by mid-September to the end of October, nearly everything was still running the same way it was in the summertime. But the temperatures are extraordinary. It can get up to 30 and then in the evening, it can cool right down. So it really is a lovely time to come if you just don’t wanna deal with the crowds. Though, in October, we do have a lot of ships port here. So there are some times when I’ve been down there and I’ve been stunned by how busy it was because we will often get ships that have at least 3000 people on them, and they fill up. 3000 people very easily fill up that little island of Ortigia. So there may be some times it is a little bit busier, but the weather is extraordinary.
In general, everything’s still open and you’re not gonna wait in line nearly as long. And also the prices will go down a little bit too. So it’s, definitely a nice time to come. By the time you get into, November, December, January, February, that’s winter. So a lot of places will literally close from the middle of December until the middle of January. That would be restaurants that could be any number of things. But again, to be here on the island at Christmas time is lovely. My suggestion would be to rent something that has a kitchen and be prepared to cook for yourself. Make it a little bit different type of vacation.
But of course, being such a Catholic country, there are gonna be so many lovely things to see. Especially here in Syracuse, they honor, Santa Lucia. St. Lucy, so there are huge events honoring her, in December. She was a Catholic martyr, and you’ll find a number of different events honoring the Catholic religion. So, the Christmas is just absolutely gorgeous here.
January and February, it’s gonna be raining probably, so that might be a time to stay home or go somewhere, maybe a little warmer. Then of course once spring hits, it’s green, it’s lush. The weather is still nice and warm, but it’s not hot yet. So, you’ll just end up running into, again, some places that they may not be closed indefinitely, but they’re gonna take a day off, whereas in July, they don’t shut usually. I would say May and June are probably two of my favorite times of year as well with the weather. You really can come about 10 months out of 12 and have really extraordinary experience.
Brighde: Oh it really sounds lovely I think from everything that you say sort of September October time or spring would be better I am not so much of a beach person and of course, I like looking at it so going in the water all of the time isn’t so important and I love the idea of being able to enjoy the history, the walking and things like that without sort of getting so hot and bothered, for sure.
You decided to set up a vegan food tour of Ortigia that our travelers can learn more about. Why is it that you decided to set that up?
Tonia: I actually tried in Mussomeli. We only had three or four restaurants there, there wasn’t a ton to offer, but all of the restaurants were very excited to work with me. The challenge was we had no tourists. A lot of people flocked there for the one Euro house and that’s lovely, but apparently none of them were vegan.
So I didn’t do much of anything with it, but I learned a lot. I put together websites. I learned things like history, how I wanted to put it together, what I wanted to share with people. So it was fun. It was a good learning experience, with very little overhead.
It wasn’t a failure or anything, so when I started to realize I was gonna be able to sell my one Euro house, I thought, before we make any big decisions, let’s figure out where you want to be. Do you wanna stay in the mountains? Every time I had time off, I’d come with my husband or with friends right here to Syracuse. So I started thinking, why am I not there? We sold the place, we ended up spending about another year in Mussomeli and then decided, you know what? We’ve got the time, we’ve got the money. Let’s go over to the seaside. So I got settled here in February of this year, the first time I ever was here, I knew this was gonna be a perfect location for something like a vegan food tour.
The island is so walkable, it’s small enough that in about two and a half hours we can eat, two savory items, and two sweet items, and I can introduce my guests to all of the different history, which then they can decide. I’d like to see more of this and come back later and take the tour or whatever.
So my suggestion is if you get here in town, try to do the tour first because you’re gonna see a little bit of everything. You’re gonna learn a lot about the history then you can decide like, I would love to see more of this. I wanna take that tour. I want to come back and do some shopping here or whatever.
So anyway, the reason I got the tour started again, is because it’s very walkable, it’s loaded with history and it’s incredibly vegan-friendly. Like I said, I got here in just started wandering through Artesia, chatting to anybody who would talk to me, and very quickly found some things that were kind of hidden gems, as far as the food. I knew how to set up a website at that point. I’d done it twice before. So I set up the website and around May finally launched the tour. Of course, it was very slow going at the beginning. I had no reviews. I don’t have a brick-and-mortar. I live in an apartment in the suburbs, so I was like, meet me at the sign on Ortigia.
So I’m sure for anybody that wanted to buy tickets, they’re like, is this legit? You know so thank goodness several people trusted in me enough to buy tickets. And then we started getting reviews and then it really started to snowball. So, it’s been amazing and probably the thing I’m most surprised about is that the people that have done reviews for me, I think I’ve got 15 or 16, maybe 17 reviews now. The history was a really big draw and they really enjoyed that aspect of it. The food is great and da da da and Tonia were wonderful, but the history was amazing. And so I was so glad. Again, I’m so thankful to that tour guide. There is so much to see and so much to do here that it can get missed if you don’t have sort of an expert, giving you at least the little bits about it so you can dig into it a little bit later if it interests you.
It’s really just been amazing and every time I come home from the tour, of course, I’m gushing, my husband’s like, so how was the tour? I was like, it was amazing. You know, I met so and so, and being from the United States, I never traveled much. I went to Mexico of course, and I went to the Caribbean, but I had not traveled to Europe much. I didn’t know much about Europe. When I was growing up, very isolated from the rest of the world. So in nearly my mid-fifties, I’m finally meeting people from all over the world, and I love it.
I absolutely love it. It just fills me up. And then, of course, I sell tickets to a lot of millennials, so these are our next up-and-coming animal rights activists. I’m 54, I’m getting tired, these 26 to 40-year-olds, they’re our future when it comes to the vegan movement. They’re the ones doing the protests and they’re the ones, making changes. Again, to be exposed to these people just fills me up. I love it. I absolutely love it.
Brighde: You have captured Tonia so beautifully how I feel about when we run our vegan group tours as well. Getting to meet these people and getting to know what their passions are in life and what they love and their story and how they got to this point, it’s so wonderful and you get to do this on your day trips as well It’s just such a wonderful thing and why I think that group travel whether it’s a half-day food tour or something a little bit longer is really great way to travel.
Tonia: Yeah. I agree. I’m glad I finally warmed to it and then decided to actually do it because it is, really extraordinary. Something I just thought of, the lovely thing about the tour is I’ve actually had five non-vegans take the tour. My husband insisted that that was gonna happen. I was like, um, okay. Maybe, there are plenty of tours on the island, so there’s really no reason to draw them to me, but these were folks who wanted something small, something intimate. They were very interested in the history. They had open hearts and open minds and were happy to eat vegan food.
I have to say, probably been a couple of my favorite tours, just because it was completely unexpected. So thank you non-vegan for trusting in me. They’re giving me up to three hours of their hard-earned vacation, whether they’re vegan or they’re not. I’m really grateful for that and really honored.
Brighde: That is so so cool. Something I’m curious to know Tonia is do you have any sort of big plans or dreams for the future in terms of your vegan travel business.
Tonia: That’s a great question. Part of why the tour was so easy to transition to is I was a lot younger when I started my blog in Napa. By the time I got to Berlin, I was middle-aged and the last thing Berlin needed was a middle-aged Vegan blogger, they had all the young and beautiful yoga instructors and things like that. So the tour was kind of a compromise on having sort of the blog experience. But now, of course, I’m so grateful that I did. What I’ve been thinking about, and I can’t give away too many details, I don’t know if it’s for sure gonna happen, but I’m finding that having grown up in northern Michigan. I am used to having seasons, you know, spring, summer, fall, and winter. And when you’re on an island in the Mediterranean, not a lot of seasons, it’s either really hot or warm or cool for a couple of months. So I’m actually considering spending possibly my summers here doing the tour here, and then maybe finding, a little bit cooler climate, maybe a little bit bigger city and maybe setting up a fall, winter tour there.
I’m kind of in the early days, beginning stages, but I’m really thinking that might be something, I would really enjoy. Not only would it allow me to really appreciate Sicily, it would allow me to appreciate, wherever I decide to go, instead of just being here 24/7. Even after just three years here, I have to get up every morning and go to one of my French doors, look out at the sea, and remind myself. Tonia, you grew up in Northern Michigan with a single mom. You didn’t think you’d live anywhere besides Michigan and here you are, living on the Mediterranean in Sicily. Be grateful, and enjoy it. Don’t ever forget how amazing your life is.
Brighde: I absolutely love that Tonia thank you so much. I’m curious if listeners wanted to book a tour with you, what is the easiest way that they might do that I’m guessing that maybe you are on some different platforms you just explain how all of that works.
Tonia: Absolutely. Yes, it’s very easy just as you imagine it is. Vegan Food Tour Ortigia. So pretty easy to remember. I have a website that you can visit. You’ll find me on Google. I’m also on TripAdvisor and via tour. So you can book through there and because of TripAdvisor, you’ll also find me on Expedia and get your guide.
So I’m kind of everywhere, including my website. And of course, I’m on Happy Cow. I’m loyal to Happy Cow. I’ve been using Happy Cow for probably two decades now. The first place I went to advertise, was on Happy Cow.
Brighde: I love that. I dunno whether this is helpful or accurate for you to say, but I’m just wondering if it’s better for you if people book directly through your website versus booking via talk, because I know they take really quite commissions and the price is probably the same anyway.
So can you talk about that?
Tonia: Absolutely. Of course, I would be super grateful for them to go through my website, Vegan Food Tour Ortigia, because they do advertise me through so many other sites. They do take a pretty healthy chunk of it, but the ticket prices will be the same, no matter where you purchase them. If you go through my website, I just make a little bit more, so I would appreciate that.
Brighde: I love it. Tonya, again, thank you so much. It’s lovely to have spoken to you at long last. We’ve been planning this for a while and I’m so grateful that you came on. Remind us again how listeners can find you book you and follow you on social media.
Tonia: You got it. Yep. Look for Vegan food Tour Ortigia you’ll find me on Instagram. That is my website. You’ll find me on Facebook and Google. So just a Vegan food tour Ortigia. Yep.
Brighde: Fantastic. Thank you so much again for joining me, Tonia.
Tonia: Thank you so much for your time. It was really lovely to finally talk to you.