Italy’s Cinque Terre or Bust

Kissed by the Mediterranean sun, five picturesque Italian villages known as the Cinque Terre cling to the dramatic Ligurian coast and are linked by the 11-mile, seaside Blue Trail, named for the azure sea. Some years ago, my husband, Ken, and I celebrated a wedding anniversary with the goal of walking to each of these villages over two days.

The colorful town of Manarola in Italy's Cinque Terre. Photo by gray-flicker; courtesy Italy Tourism

We started, appropriately, on the Via dell’Amore—the “Pathway of Love”—which links the southernmost village, Riomaggiore, with the next stop: Manarola. This easy, mostly paved trail overlooked the turquoise sea. Along the way, lovers had decorated the rocky cliffs with amorous graffiti and had latched padlocks onto cables and railings to symbolize their permanently sealed love.

Dampened Spirits

We continued on to the third Cinque Terre town, Corniglia, which was perched on a high cliff, up 360 steps. Halfway up: a downpour. We raced to the top and scuttled beneath awnings to stay dry. Dispirited, we took a look down the trail out of town. It was steep, muddy, slick.

After some evaluating, we made a soggy descent back down the steps to the train station, where we hopped a quick ride to Vernazza, town number four … where it was still raining. We had previously phoned every small hotel in this pretty town, but the Cinque Terre is popular in June, so we hadn’t found a place to stay in advance.

Bolstered by a cappuccino, however, we made inquiries into hotel vacancies—in case there had been cancellations. Sorry, all full. Chilly and damp, we ate a light lunch in a restaurant and stared mournfully through the rain at the Vernazza harbor, hoping for a break in the clouds. None came, so we returned by train to the city of La Spezia where we spent a dismal night in a sterile train-station hotel.

A New Hope

The next morning, we disembarked from the train in Corniglia (town number two) and trudged back up those 360 steps in overcast, humid weather. Only a few drops fell as we hiked down the crude steps that led through steeply terraced vineyards and olive groves to Vernazza.

Just as we approached town, the sun broke through the clouds, making the pastel-painted buildings glow. The final half-mile of “trail” led us through Vernazza’s narrow back streets, where laundry fluttered in the breeze and pots of hydrangeas decorated the doorsteps.

The town of Vernazza juts out on a little spit of land that protects a harbor. We loved this place! Photo courtesy Italy Tourism

Vernazza was a jewel—an idyllic fishing village with a pier and a church bell to tell time by. Hot from the walk, we raced to a harbor-side bar for cold sodas, then changed into swimsuits and joined the throng of people swimming in the cool Ligurian Sea. As we swam or draped ourselves like lizards over the boulders, Ken and I concluded that Vernazza was gorgeous—and that we weren’t up for a sweltering hike to Monterosso del Mare, the fifth Cinque Terre town. Instead, we were content to behold Vernazza’s sun-drenched pink, ochre, blue, green and coral buildings.

Here Be Dragons

It was ideal; we enjoyed a simple but tasty lunch, then returned to the beach. I flopped on the rocks and read a book while Ken was playing in the water. (One of us had to stay on land to watch our wallets and cameras.) Suddenly, he waved me over to the water’s edge. “I stepped on a sea urchin,” he moaned. He held up his foot; his big toe was spiked with black spines.

We pulled on our clothes and I helped him limp into town to the farmacia (pharmacy), where despite my broken, incoherent Italian (the Rick Steves language guide didn’t list the word for sea urchin!) the sales lady produced a needle, alcohol wipes and a bandage. Clearly, she had encountered such emergencies before.

Ken and I sat right there on main street (it was more of a pedestrian street than a car throughway) and I began spine removal. As I dug into his toe with the needle, Ken distracted himself with the street scene: a man with a dalmation and a couple of kids on tricycles who were fascinated by our street-side surgery. They gawked and demonstrated to Ken how they could count to ten in English. After an hour of extractions, we disinfected the toe, bandaged it, and my brave spouse hobbled around the harbor as we enjoyed the sun’s long, evening rays.

That night in Vernazza, Ken and I dined on smoked tuna with tomatoes and pasta drenched in pesto. Street musicians serenaded us with jazz while the sun set. We sipped vino delle Cinque Terre, an inexpensive white wine made right in the village. We savored our last romantic evening in Italy—and our first town-to-town walk. Even though we still couldn’t find a place to stay in Vernazza, our mini-walking excursion was perfect—sea urchins and all.

For more information, visit Italy Tourism.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

You can look down upon Vernazza's harbor from the trail. On the left bank are the rocks where we swam—and where we encountered sea urchins! Photo by rkelland-flickr. Courtesy Italy Tourism

Sleep in the Straw in Switzerland

Spending the night in a Swiss barn is fun and adventurous. Photo courtesy Schlaf im Stroh

When I travel, I’m always on the lookout for unique and independently owned places to stay that will benefit the local economy. Switzerland offers a sustainable, economical, family-friendly bed-and-breakfast experience I’ll never forget: sleeping in the straw on a farm.

Switzerland’s Sleep in Straw association (it’s called Schlaf im Stroh in German) consists of 150 Swiss farms and helps travelers easily connect with the hayloft of their choice.

Bed in a Barn

At Bruffhof Farm in Switzerland’s cheese-making Emmental region, the sound of cowbells and mooing woke me at dawn. I sat up in my sleeping bag, shook the straw from my hair, and looked around the hayloft to see if my friends were up.

Bruffhof Farm, in Switzerland’s Emmenthal region, was flowering and beautiful when I visited. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

Bruffhof is just one of Switzerland’s Sleep-in-Straw network in which visitors bed down in the barn—not with the animals, but sometimes in an adjacent area. (At most farms, restrooms and showers are located in separate buildings.)

Guests can volunteer, if they like, to help out with farm chores: collecting eggs, picking vegetables, helping milk cows. The side effects: plenty of fresh air, a lot of fun (provided your loft-mates don’t snore too loudly), and a better understanding and appreciation about where your food comes from and the hard work that farmers do.

For breakfast: fresh-baked farm rolls. The food at Bruffhof was outstanding. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

My breakfast at Bruffhof was heavenly, with homemade bread, jam, and muesli. The cheese, yogurt, butter and honey were from the farm’s own cows and bees. “Families stay here so their children learn where food comes from,” said farmer Franz Schwarz (who spoke just a little English).

Bruffhof Farm grows organic herbs—many for the Ricola cough-drop company, based in Switzerland. The rest of the farm is certified as “Integrated Production,” a Swiss designation that allows only minimal pesticide/herbicide use. Farmer Franz and his equally hard-working wife, Rita, also raise goats and dairy cows.

How well did I sleep in the straw? Pretty well, actually. The fresh, sweet-scented hay was soft, and I managed to arrange it beneath me in a relatively comfy contour.

How Farmhouse B&Bs Work

At a Sleep-in-Straw farm, there’s always the possibility you’ll be sharing the hayloft with strangers. I traveled with a group in late September, so we had the entire sleeping area to ourselves, but if you’re traveling singly, as a couple, or with a small family in the busy summer, you’re likely to get to get acquainted with fellow snoozers from all over the world.

This beautiful, handpainted sign pointed the way to the Signer farm B&B in Switzerland’s Appenzell region. © Laurel Kallenbach

To make reservations, you choose a farm in the region of your choice and book your “sleep in straw” experience directly with the host family—they’re the ones who benefit from the fee.

(These days, running a family farm requires entrepreneurial ingenuity, and the farm owners truly need the extra income generated from this B&B program. One of the joys of staying on a farm is that you’re experiencing a different place in an authentic way—and your money goes to a great cause: the continuation of small-scale, responsible agriculture.)

It’s best to book in advance. You bring your own sleeping bag or pay an extra 5 Swiss francs to use one of  the farm’s; blankets are provided by the hosts. Many of them also offer pillows; if not you can always bunch up straw inside a blanket for that purpose as well.

The Details

  • Sleep in Straw: 20 to 30 Swiss francs ($24–$30) per adult per night, including breakfast. Children (age 15 and under): 10 to 20 Swiss francs. Some Sleep in Straw farms offer other amenities (such as dinners and even beds in bunkhouses) for an extra fee.
  • If you’re not comfortable communicating in German, French, or Italian (Switzerland’s three national languages) be sure to find a farm with English speakers. At Bruffhof, where the family was German speaking, it was easy communicating with hand signals, and one of the Schwarz daughters was a excellent student of English at school.

    My friends and I felt like kids at a “lofty” sleepover! © Ursula Beamish

  • Most Sleep-in-Straw farms are accessible by bicycle. Swiss Trails rents bikes, maps out self-guided routes for you, and organizes daily luggage transfers between accommo-dations, including farm-stays.
  • For more information: Schlaf im Stroh (click “Catalog” for downloadable, multilingual information on the farms).

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance travel writer and editor

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The Star-Spangled Banner Goes Solar

Soaring above historic Fort McHenry National Monument in Baltimore, the birthplace of the National Anthem, is a flag representing The Star-Spangled Banner. It’s pretty cool that this American icon is illuminated by solar power.

The Fort McHenry Guard fires a cannon in honor of the Star-Spangled Banner flag.

Four LED lamps draw their power from a pair of low-profile solar panels to shine the light on the landmark 30-by-42-foot flag.

The  lights save energy and money, and they better enhance the colors of the flag. Officials at Fort McHenry report that the solar lights do not intrude on the historic character of the fort, unlike the old, ground-level, incandescent floodlights.

History of the Flag

In 1814, amateur poet Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British Royal Navy ships in Chesapeake Bay. His impressions of seeing the tattered flag in “the rocket’s red glare” during the Baltimore Battle of the War of 1812 eventually became the words to America’s national anthem.

The flag flying at Fort McHenry, though symbolic, is not to be confused with the actual Star-Spangled Banner relic, which is displayed in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.

Red, White, Blue and Green

“By using solar power, we  harness ‘the dawn’s early light’ that enabled Francis Scott Key to see the Star-Spangled Banner and use it to power the lights that allow us to view it ‘at the twilight’s last gleaming,’” said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “It is just one of the many ways that we are incorporating renewable energy and sustainable practices into park operations.”

The “greening” of Fort McHenry has also included converting most of its external lighting to solar power, installing high-efficiency HVAC units and storm windows, setting up a geothermal heat-pump system, purchasing electric utility vehicles, and constructing a LEED-certified visitor education center.

The Star-Spangled Banner at Fort McHenry

July 4th celebrations at Fort McHenry include fife and drum music, cannon firing, a musket salute for 18 states, period dancing, and a public reading of the Declaration of Independence.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Photos courtesy: National Park Service

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments: