It has been three weeks since I arrived at Podere Vallari, and I have grown accustomed to the daily routine on the farm.
Although not quite set, my internal clock helps me up with the sun in the mornings, assisted by a hot cup of coffee with which I have replaced the heavy German breakfast of bread, jams and everything sweet. The morning silence is disturbed by faint gunshots in the distance, accompanied by the scurrying and howling of hunting dogs. Every now and then they run through the orchards, chasing a young deer or a frightened hare, but most of the time they branch off from the hunters and find their way to the cats’ food bowls. The cats are oblivious to this threat, however, as they wait on the balcony in hopes of leftovers, sporadically vocalizing their impatience and seemingly insatiable hunger.
The initial soreness of all of those unfamiliar muscles has worn off, giving way to gradually easier periods of heavy lifting in the fields each morning. Slight hints of hunger and thirst start to kick in three hours into the work shift, just in time for “elevensies,” a term coined by Ursula for the 11.00 snack of schiacciata that she brings us from the bakery each morning. Nothing beats a brief break under one of the olive trees, looking over the vineyards and enjoying the crisp, thinly sliced, generously salted and olive oiled bread. It supplies just enough energy and motivation to pound through the last hour of work. After finishing up in the fields, a hot shower followed by a feast of four courses (including dessert) is enough to shut down all of the bodily functions for an afternoon nap.
Waking up with some time to spare before sunset, it’s just a matter of choosing a spot along the olive groves to enjoy the collage of colors that drape over the horizon and reflect off of the distant Mediterranean. Almost like an art exhibit, different portraits take turns in painting the sky, gradually shifting from hints of yellow to a more robust and animate orange, bringing the light green on the branches of the olive trees to a serene glow. A light evening breeze settles into the folds of the rolling hills, stirring the low cut grass and nudging the nearly ripened persimmons. The low hum of the neighbor’s tractor and the swaying of branches serves as the only soundtrack to the ending day. Hues of purple slowly creep in, swallowing the light, leaving only a few, slowly disintegrating crimson ribbons. A calming silence accompanies the ensuing darkness.
Joining Sigismund in the kitchen, a few hours of reading opposite each other in the comfortable arm chairs leads to dinner, at 7.30 sharp. A bottle of their vino rosso da tavola is set aside to breath as Ursula quietly sets the table. Not yet cold enough to light the fireplace, a feeling of warmth is instead instilled by the dimly lit dining room and the low crackling of hot olive oil from a pan of sautéed vegetables. The WWOOFers punctually file in, everyone taking their arbitrarily assigned seats, and conversation breaks a long afternoon of silence. Some time later, the eyes that have already adjusted to the dimness of the room get heavy, with the help of many servings of wine and liver sausage, marking the end of another long and fulfilling day.
The work on the farm has varied quiet a bit over the past several weeks. For the first few days, Colin and I spent the mornings clearing out the thick forest of weeds and growth that had swallowed up most of the vineyards and olive groves. In the meantime, Sigismund would be busy plastering away at their third guest house about 600 meters down the road, part of a small construction project that would expand the already spacious house. But upon clearing most of the fields, Sigismund, Colin and I convened to begin a new project.
After decades of wine making, the Hadelichs have decided to discontinue most of their grape production, deciding to keep one hectare of vineyard for aesthetic purposes while uprooting the remaining hectare. But before a plow would be able to go through and dig out the deep roots in this latter hectare, there would be one obstacle to overcome. Spaced out evenly through the rows of vines are situated large concrete poles, used to hold up the wires that support the vines. Weighing in at approximately 30 kilos each, and measuring a little over 2 meters in length, of which about half a meter is buried in the soil, these 200 or so concrete poles would have to be dug out and removed from the fields.
Preparing for this task was an interesting process, one resembling a science experiment. Since there had never been a need to remove any of these poles in the past, there existed no coherent system for completing this task. The poles were too heavy and firmly buried to be pulled out, and digging would be inefficient. So, considering the tools at our disposal, we contemplated a feasible solution and eventually devised a “lever and fulcrum” system. Using a long steel rod for the lever and a piece of wood, cut accordngly to support the rod, for the fulcrum, the plan would be to insert the rod into the lowest opening in each concrete pole and use the leverage to wedge them out. In practice, it would be technically similar to removing a nail using the back side of a hammer and the edge of a book.
Confident in our plan, we gathered the materials and tried it out early one morning, while the soil was still relatively moist. At first, it took several tries – I would wiggle the pole, Colin would insert the rod and position the piece of wood, and Sigismund would push the rod down. This would bring the pole out a few centimeters, exposing a lower hole that would barely surface and allowing us to reposition the rod in this hole to gain more leverage. After a few tries, the pole would completely emerge. As we worked our way down the lines, our method became more refined and efficient with each successful removal. Positioning the piece of wood at a slightly lower angle would improve the leverage, wiggling the pole laterally while wedging it out would boost the torque, and eventually replacing the wood with a broken concrete block would give more stability and consistency. Before we knew it, it was taking less and less time to pull out each pole, and just by the second day, we had doubled our speed.
On the third day, two new WWOOFers, Sarah and Michael, arrived, adding a few helpful hands to the effort. With the larger work force, we knocked out the remaining poles in another two days. Now that the poles had been removed, the most demanding task remained – moving the poles to the end of the vineyard and piling them up. Again, we needed a plan. The poles were too heavy to carry such large distances, and most of them were too far away.
After some brainstorming, a new plan was devised and refined. Attaching a steel chain to the end of the tractor, Sigismund would drive between the rows of vines and two of the WWOOFers would secure the poles to the chain using wires. Once a dozen or so were secured, they would be driven to the end of the field and released, where the remaining two WWOOFers would detach the poles and pile them up. With some trial and error, we got used to the cycle, and despite all of the heavy lifting and Colin’s departure halfway through, we managed to finish in four days. Photos courtesy of Michael Clark.
With a few days left on the farm and most of the hard work behind us, I am using this time to further explore the surroundings. I finally got around to making the hour long uphill hike through the forest to the town of Riparbella, which I should have done earlier but only got around to during their annual wild boar festival.
Essentially, all of the efforts of the local boar hunting go into the making of dozens of traditional wild boar dishes, and this wasn’t a celebration I was planning on missing.
WWOOFing has been an incredibly valuable and enjoyable experience. Apart from providing a well deserved break from constant moving, it has also allowed me to discover one of the most romanticized parts of the world and get to know the region, the culture, and the lifestyle. Further, taking part in the strenuous daily tasks of running a farm has given me a new appreciation for each bottle of wine and olive oil that makes its way to our dinner tables. I will be leaving Podere Vallari with not only this appreciation, but also many useful skills, fond memories, and, most importantly, a new German-Tuscan family.
But it’s time to move on. I am itching to be back on the road. After booking a $30 flight, my next stop has become Paris, where I will spend a few days catching up with friends. Then, on to Turkey, where another month of family, friends and rest should be just enough preparation for the next chapter of my trip beginning in the New Year – China.
Until next time..ciao!