My Balkan travels have come to an end. Closing the loop upon arriving in Albania, I managed to visit all of the countries in this region that I had not been to before, save Kosovo, without rushing my time in each place. However, as is a symptom of catching the travel bug, my Balkan itch hasn’t been thoroughly scratched. A long list of cities, national parks, mountains and other destinations that formed during the past three months persistently continues to grow, with rough plans for future trips already materializing in my mind. And there are still a ton of posts I must catch up on. However, it is time to move on. As much as I have fallen in love with the Balkans, the next chapter of my trip has begun.
For the past week, I have been acclimating to this new chapter which takes place in Podere Vallari, a farm located in the hills surrounding the small town of Riparbella in Tuscany. I discovered this farm over a year ago through a blog post on the internet titled “A Stomach Full of Wine and Pasta,” and as one can imagine, it didn’t take much reading to realize this would be an experience fit for me. Interested in getting involved with agriculture, specifically grape harvesting and the wine production process, I reached out early this year regarding the possibility of working on the vineyard for a few weeks in September. In response, I was informed that the due to the relatively small size of the vineyard, approximately 2 hectares of vines, the harvest generally lasted two to three days and pursuing this type of work would be better suited on a larger farm. However, I was invited for their olive harvest, which was a more collaborative and demanding effort that usually lasted about five to six weeks beginning in early November. Needless to say, this was a very attractive and welcome invitation, so I happily accepted.
In committing, my only remaining responsibility was to become a member of WWOOF Italia. Originally “Willing Workers On Organic Farms,” now “World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms,” WWOOF is an international organization that provides interested and capable volunteers, referred to as “WWOOFers,” with a list of member organic farms in a specific country that seek such workers. The resulting agreement consists of 4-6 hours of work each day of the week on the part of the WWOOFer, in exchange for accomodation and meals which are provided by the farm. Work hours, tasks, minimum duration of stay, and other specifics differ by farm, and membership fees fluctuate around $25 per year depending on the country. After signing up and agreeing to a few weeks of work during the olive harvest, all that was left to do was wait. Several months later, I was greeted at the Cecina train station by Ursula Hadelich.
Life on the Farm
The day begins at 7.30 in the morning with a hearty breakfast – fresh bread and an assortment of jams, cheese, spreads, cereals and fruit. Ursula, a vibrant, gregarious woman in her sixties, sets the table with admirable quickness, displaying an energy I usually build up to by noon. Her husband, Sigismund, leaves the latest issue of “Der Spiegel” and joins us at the table, remarking on the article he was reading and sparking a political conversation unfit for such an early hour yet engaging enough to draw one out of the lingering morning drowsiness. This has become somewhat of a routine for Ursula and Sigismund, who have been running this farm since 1981 and welcoming WWOOFers into their home since 1997. Around 8.00, after the caffeine kicks in and the morning appetites are satisfied, Colin, a 29 year old American and the only other WWOOFer, and I head out to the vineyard with Sigismund.
Upon arriving at Podere Vallari, I was greatly looking forward to getting involved with olive picking and other activities that accompany the harvest period. However, much to everyone’s dismay, there would be no harvest this year. The past winter had been fairly mild, and the summer provided more humid and rainy conditions than usual, resulting in less than ideal conditions for both the vines and olive trees on the farm. Consequently, there had been no grape harvest or wine production this year, and very few olives had grown. Further, these conditions had resulted in a more severe blight caused by the olive fruit fly, which lays its eggs into the ripening olives, allowing for the larvae to feed on the nutrients and ruin the fruit prior to maturation. As a result, any potentially useful olives weren’t able to ripen and had already fallen to the ground.
Nevertheless, there is always plenty of work to be done on the farm, both in the orchard and vineyard. I start by joining Colin in the maintenance of the vineyard. From the first day of work, I become well acquainted with the weed whacker, and a small muscle in the inner bend of my left arm obtrusively notifies me of its existence for the rest of the day. Sigismund, also in his sixties, is in incredible shape, his body as strong and active as his mind. While showing which parts of the vineyard to clear without damaging the vines, he effortlessly obliterates the thickly stalked protrusions that sprout across the land like mushrooms. Only upon taking over and delving into the endless, entangled mess do I appreciate his skill. After outlining the areas to clear, he leaves us under the slowly rising Tuscan sun. The blue sky that drapes over the rolling hills, meeting the umbrella pines and the outline of Corsica rising faintly out of the Mediterranean in the distance, makes the manual labor seem effortless. It feels surreal. I secretly hope that the wires in the weed whacker will tangle or melt, as they sporadically do, so I can take a break to fix them while basking under the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the constant, light breeze.
Just as I make a respectable dent in the forest of pesty shrubs, lunchtime arrives, marking the end of the work for the day. As there is no olive harvest this year, we are only asked for approximately 4 hours of work each day. So by 12.30, we pack up our tools and head up to the deck. Lunch is served at 1.00 sharp, giving just enough time to wash our hands and face, and join the seven cats of Podere Villare in admiring the captivating aromas that ooze out of the kitchen.
Urusla outdoes herself each day. While we work away in the farm, she tirelessly cooks a lunch fit for kings, taking great passion in the preparation and constantly surprising us with unique, delicious recipes. There is always plenty of food to go around, which eventually benefits the cats who begin unanimously vocalizing their impatience each time Ursula gets up and attack the leftovers from the meal.
With the fatigue slowly creeping through our muscles, combined with the satisfying weight of the meal, the heat from the sun and a relaxing conversation with Sigismund, it takes a great deal of time to get up from the table. Eventually, everyone disperses to their respective corners on the property, dedicating the afternoon hours to resting, reading and exploring the picturesque surroundings.
Photos from a Saturday stroll..
Everyone reappears at 7.30, long after darkness has envelloped the Tuscan countryside, and gathers around the dimly lit dining table for dinner. The dining area is separated from the kitchen by a beautiful, double sided wooden bookcase that intersects the wall and wraps around, displaying German, Italian and English titles on the shelves and antique memorabilia along the tops. An intricately woven, umbrella-like wicker covering hangs over the lone bulb that illuminates the room, draping the room in a warm radiance resembling that of candle light. The table, at the minimum, contains a few varieties of bread, cheese, and cured meats from the local butcher in Riparbella, as well as one simple dish which is not too heavy. All of this is accompanied by a bottle of one of the Podere Vallari wines, a different year each evening. Each bottle surprises me, and although they are produced from the same grapes, the subtle differences between the vintages come through. So far 2011 seems to be their best year, in my taste, with 2007 a close second. But their success in producing wine is evident throughout the vintages, yielding a slightly sweet, rich, full-bodied red wine. The food is only a decoration, accompanying the refreshing wine and conversation that binds us to this rustic room for the ensuing few hours.
These days on the farm have been energizing. A much deserved change of pace from being on the road, my time here has resulted in a healthy lifestyle. I have a well-defined work schedule that has fixed my sleeping cycle and incorporated regular exercise, more engaging and effective than countless kilometers of walking, into my daily routine. Healthy, home cooked meals have replaced cheap and easy dining options that were becoming more and more common. Long afternoons give me a chance to rest my mind as well as my body, done mostly through delving into Ursula and Sigismund’s overflowing bookshelves and retreating to some corner of the farm with a book. And most importantly, the warm home environment with a group of people that are slowly becoming family has presented the opportunity of more familar conversation and interactions, a nice change from the constant flood of new faces, fleeting encounters and repetitive conversations. This will be my life, more or less, for the month of November, and with a few more WWOOFers arriving over the next several days, more interesting work and experiences await.