January 23, 2011
For me, the visions are different. Dirt under my fingernails, long feasts in Italian homes, the nudge of a calf waiting for its evening milk, the smell of fermenting grapes and friendships formed through shared work.
Those images are reminders of the nearly three months I spent in Italy, living and working on small farms and eating spectacular meals cooked by my host farmers. Staying at each farm three to four weeks, I got room and board in exchange for my labor, all arranged through an organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.
The organization started in England in 1971 and has chapters all over the world. The basic premise is this: Anyone can join a particular country's WWOOF chapter for a fee of $20 to $35, depending on country, and receive a list of participating farms.
WWOOFers, as the workers are called, contact the farmers and set up their own arrangements for dates, work hours, etc. Generally, WWOOFers work 25 to 30 hours per week and receive room and board in return.
My fiance and I started our WWOOF adventure in September at a farm near Rome that produces organic olive oil. The couple who own the farm are Marco, a woodworker, and Caterina, a wildlife biologist.
Marco and Caterina picked us up from the train station in their tiny, boxy, European car. Our long limbs all twisted and cramped in the back seat, we made our introductions with jet-lagged smiles and an obvious language barrier. A 30-minute ride through impossibly brilliant vineyards and rolling hills dotted with medieval towns landed us at the farm, Colle Paradiso (or Hill Paradise), and they showed us our room.
On the second floor of an Italian farmhouse, our room had roughly painted golden walls, cold tile floors, carved wooden furniture and a view of the verdant countryside. Relieved at the comfortable accommodations, we rested our giddy minds and tired bodies for a few moments before Caterina called us down for dinner.
We came to understand that the meals provided to the WWOOFers were among the best parts of the experience. That first night we were served course after course of garden-fresh vegetables, local meats and eggs just pulled from the henhouse. At every meal the wine flowed freely, the olive oil was dribbled over every dish and the dense Tuscan-style bread was ubiquitous.
People pay incredible sums to stay and eat in places similar to this through a budding tourist sector in Italy called agritourismi. Yet here we were, getting these extravagant, languid, authentic Italian feasts for free. Not only that, we were not being served by the locals; we were eating alongside them, learning from them and becoming friends.
As for the work, it is sometimes physically demanding but always rich and fulfilling. At the olive orchard, we did a variety of tasks, from feeding milk to the calf, Gina, and collecting eggs, to clearing brush around the olive trees and cutting wood.
Another benefit of WWOOFing is being able to mix this immersive rural experience with travel on days off. We chose this farm partly because it was close to Rome, and we spent our two days off each week navigating the legendary city. Our hosts even drove us to the train for an easy trip into Rome.
Because so many of the most famous sights are free, we spent many hours seeing some of the most famous art and architecture in the world. From the Pantheon to the Roman Forum, Michelangelo's Pieta to St. Peter's Square, the Trevi Fountain to Trastevere. We even planned a day off to coincide with the free day at the Vatican museum, which opened up to us, among other things, access to the Sistine Chapel.
Our next farm was in Tuscany, the Italian province fabled for its castles and villas, roads lined with cypress trees and — maybe best of all — its authentic traditional food. Our hosts met us at the train, and we stayed just outside Montalcino, a town famous for its red wine, Brunello di Montalcino.
The hosts, Ludmilla and her daughter and son-in-law, Kalyna and Pierre-Jean, are among the few producers of organic Brunello. Casa Raia, as their vineyard is called, is a dreamlike Italian villa. There we had our own room with a private bathroom and separate entrance. It felt as if we were in an upscale bed-and-breakfast, yet just on the other side of our door, we became a part of the family.
In the late 1990s, Ludmilla Temertey came from Toronto and bought some then-cheap Tuscan land with a ruined old farmhouse atop a little hill. After her daughter, Kalyna, met Pierre-Jean (who is French) while traveling in China, they all decided to settle in Italy and start a vineyard. No one had any experience in running a vineyard. Yet by the time we got there, with 2-year-old son Eliah and another baby on the way, the couple and Temertey had put down roots.
We arrived just after the harvest and spent most of our time fermenting the grapes and replanting ground cover in the rows of the vineyard. Throughout our work, we learned the details of winemaking, as Pierre-Jean would surprise us by rattling off a dizzying array of facts and figures about every facet of vintner life. We also happened to take a lot of samples of Casa Raia Brunello — you know, for work.
On our days off from working at Casa Raia, we took excursions to Siena, Perugia and Assisi. One weekend we were lucky enough to witness Montalcino's Thrush Festival, in which nearly everyone in town dresses in medieval costumes, and four teams of archers representing each quarter of the city compete. It is traditional for the winners of this target archery competition to hang a sign in the middle of the town denouncing the losers for the remainder of the year.
After such an enchanting stay at Casa Raia, we reluctantly moved on to our next adventure: a goat farm in the region of Chianti, reached by train, then bus. Here we stayed with Italians Gabriele, Elisa and their 3-year-old daughter, Priscilla. This family owns a large herd of milking goats. By the time we arrived, it was winter, when the female goats were pregnant and not producing milk. So our work mainly involved herding the goats out of the barn and taking them out to pasture.
It was a bit strange for me, a 25-year-old city girl, to be herding goats in a valley in Chianti, but I couldn't have imagined a more fun way to travel. The tricky part of herding goats is not the goats but the buck. This particular male, Biondo (or Blondie), weighing about 230 pounds and with pointy horns more than 4 feet across, was a striking creature. I was initially cautious with Biondo, but when we would go out to pasture, he would stick by me, always nudging and licking me, trying to get me to pat his little wet nose. Silly and playful, this gigantic billy goat was like an enormous dog.
On our time off in Chianti, we took excursions to Florence. On one such trip, we told Gabriele that we would feed the goats before we left for the day. So we got up at dawn and shoveled hay to dozens of hungry, pregnant goats. Then we changed into city clothes and walked a few blocks on the muddy farm road to the bus stop. In a few minutes, we were on a quick, cheap local bus to Florence, home to the Uffizi Museum, the Duomo and Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise. There is nothing in the world like watching the dawn break over a valley speckled with a just-waking flock of goats and later strolling through the capital of the Renaissance, studying the sinews on the calf of Michelangelo's David.
And there is no way to see Italy that is so cheap or rewarding.
If you go
If you are at least 18, you can join WWOOF Italia at http://www.wwoof.it. Membership costs about $33.
Be sure you set up a clear and mutually beneficial plan with your hosts. Find out about accommodations, directions and transportation to and from local tourist sites, whether you will have a private or shared bathroom, the nature of the work you will be doing, the number of hours a day, the number of days off per week, and whether full board (three meals per day) is included.
Main expenses included travel and entrance fees to tourist sites. For travel to and from farms and local tourist sites, I used trenitalia.com for train schedules and tickets.