Have Book, Will Travel

While cruising Maine’s Penobscot Bay on a schooner, this girl was immersed in a Harry Potter book. She could have been me at age eight.   ©Laurel Kallenbach

You can tell a lot about a person by their books: at home and on the road.

I have shelves of uncategorized fiction, including books I’ve read and those I haven’t. There’s a small, poetry-sized shelf for volumes of poems. There’s a delicious space for cookbooks in the kitchen. The sustainable living books are on my loftiest shelf.

And—of course!—I have devoted several rambling shelves to travel guides and travel memoirs and travel histories. All the destinations are mixed up: Egypt beside Ireland beside Singapore beside Belize. I’ve remapped the world.

Going Places

Whether or not a book is specifically about travel, it takes me on a journey—figuratively and literally. Many times, when I look at photos from past vacations, I’ve noticed that the book I’m reading made it into a picture or two.

Antigua’s Carlisle Bay beach was lovely, but my mind was in 17th-century Holland: I was reading Tracy Chevalier’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring.” ©Laurel Kallenbach

In fact, I often remember the books I read during specific trips, either because they helped pass long hours on the airplane or because I was so mesmerized by the book that it distracted me from the actual destination.

For instance, I read The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan in Fiji. I had plenty of time toward the end of the trip for reading because a hurricane was moving through that part of the Pacific. Although the hurricane remained 500 miles from the Fijian islands, the water got so murky that snorkeling was bad. By afternoon on the remote island of Kadavu, it started to rain buckets. We were staying in a solar-lit, thatched bure; when ours got damp and dark, we huddled in the dining building, which had a metal roof and hurricane lamps. I was happy to disappear into Tan’s magical mother-daughter saga. The next day, we flew back to the main island and stayed at a hotel near the airport. There, Ken and I sat on the bed and gazed out at horizontal rain and wind as they denuded the palm trees. Escaping again into the book, I could almost forget the howling outside.

“The Traveller’s Guide to Sacred Ireland” by Cary Meehan took me to amazing standing stones, like Kilclooney Dolmen in County Donegal. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I read Jurassic Park during my honeymoon on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Ken read it on the flight east—and during our unexpected sleepover in Atlanta due to cancelled flights. Then I read it on the beach and during the flight home. (To help us travel light, we pack books that both of us are interested in. That way we swap books halfway through the trip.)

In Scotland, I read a second-hand Amelia Peabody mystery—one of a series of charming archaeological whodunits set in Egypt during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When I was finished, I donated this one to a retreat-center library on the island of Cumbrae. (That’s another secret to traveling light: leave it behind for someone else to read.)

In England, I read Pride and Prejudice for two reasons: a) because I never had, and b) because it felt right to be reading Jane Austen while visiting the very manor houses, villages and gardens where the P&P movies were filmed.

Dove è la Toilette? (Where’s the bathroom?)

Where would we be without guidebooks and phrasebooks? Lost, I imagine. In the days before e-readers, I photocopied the pertinent pages before I traveled and then discarded the pages as I moved from place to place.

True confession: I still do this because a) I prefer not to lug expensive electronics around the globe, and b) batteries choose to die and wireless tends to disappear the instant I arrive in way-off-the-beaten-path places.

The Temple of Apollo at Stourhead estate in England, was the setting of a love scene in the 2005 movie “Pride and Prejudice.” I read the book while I was in the region. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Rick Steves’ Italy was my lifeline 15 years ago when I traveled alone for a month in the Lake District and Tuscany. I carried photocopied pages (a Rick Steves–sanctioned method), and everywhere I went—restaurants, cafés, museums, hill towns, lakes—Americans pored over the same book. The Rick Steves guide was an excellent ice-breaker: after all, you know the reader speaks (or at least can read) English. Many times I’d lean over to the adjacent table at a trattoria and start a Rick-related conversation:

“I see you’re traveling with the Rick Steves guide. Are you staying in Varenna or Menaggio here on Lake Como?”

“We got into that cute little mom-and-pop hotel in Varenna. You?”

“Varenna. That hotel was booked, so I’m staying at a nice place on the outskirts. A little pricier, but there’s a lovely garden and a fresco in the breakfast room! How are Rick’s suggestions for restaurants here in town?”

“Outstanding! We’ve been to all of them. ‘Stick with Rick’ is our motto.”

Stick with Rick became my mantra for that trip—half of it anyway. I mostly agreed with his recommendations for pretty medieval villages to visit, and I appreciated his historical background. In May, when tourism was light, seeing others with Rick Steves’ Italy was a novelty. By June, as crowds increased, the thrill had worn off and I had to get off the Rick grid for a little solitude.

For better or worse, at home or abroad, books unite us.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted July 2013

What books have transported you most? Does a certain type of book work for you when you travel? And how do you read: eBook or paper? Leave a reply below, if you like…

I used the titles of books to create a little “book haiku” about traveling. ©Laurel Kallenbach


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