H and I have always wanted to do something different.
Incurable travelers – partly to satisfy our nomadic lifestyle and mainly because of H’s job which takes us relocating for short periods to various cities in Europe, we spend more time away from our principal home so that when our neighbours get the odd chance to see us in the village boulangerie (bakery), their standard question is: “so when are you leaving again?”
We always dreamed of travelling to some distant land for a purpose and the country we always had in mind is Italy, the land of “la dolce vita” (the sweet life) for it satisfies all our requirements of good taste, quality, culture, beauty, great food, a strong sense of family, Latina passion, not to mention the staggering landscape, architecture, art, music.
Total immersion to Italian culture, acquiring new skills (from house renovation and interior design to farming, making cheese, drying tomatoes, etc), speaking in Italian, cooking their cuisine like a pro, but most of all, the experience to live, work and breathe the Italian way of life is decidedly a lifetime dream for H and myself.
And the timing is right. H has just wrapped up a work contract so he is free to plan anything, at least for the next three months.
We got the idea of Helpx while reading a newspaper article on the web and the chance to live in an Italian household for a period, with free food and accommodation caught our interest. Besides, winter is approaching and our 200-year old village house becomes a fridge at night. We always dislike the winter, well, it’s nice to see snow sometimes but it’s quite depressing being cold for months on end. In the past, we always managed to spend the winter in warmer lands. Two years ago, while Europe was freezing, we were exploring the Visayas (Philippines) in our lightest clothes (it’s quite humid out there!). Last year, we were wearing short-sleeved tops in Corfu, Greece at Christmas. Few weeks later, we were watching the Arab Spring rebellion on TV from our air conditioned accommodation in the UAE.
This year, we have been wondering where is our next winter destination, until this Helpx opportunity came.
We saw the “Helpers Wanted” ad of a Bed and Breakfast luxury villa in Tuscany (a region of Italy that we have been raring to visit), emailed the owner, sent our CV and two days later, we received a call from the lady-assistant of the proprietress (the latter was on a business trip to the U.S. that time) relaying the invitation for us to come and stay at the B&B for three days so we can get to know each other and see how it goes.
The next thing we knew, we were driving towards Tuscany, extremely looking forward to this new adventure!
After driving for 5 hours, we finally see the signs of Toscana, hurray!
The B&B is located in the outskirt of Scarlino village but when one is searching for an address for the first time, it’s just natural to get lost. This is the road going up to Scarlino (which we were not supposed to take but it’s only in getting lost that one discovers a lot of things). If worse comes to worst that we don’t find the place, we could always spend the night on this rural hotel.
Entering the village, the atmosphere looks very relaxing, as is natural in all Italian borghi (villages).
While the children play, the mums chat away.
…and the nonni (grandfathers) catch up with football news in the piazza.
Found the B&B at last! Met up with Anna, the owner, and were shown our accommodation. Now, if you see freshly picked bouquet like this one in your room, it clearly means, “Welcome to Tuscany!” The red box contains flyers and brochures of “where to eat” and “where to go”. Isn’t it neat!
At the lobby, these colourful chess pieces is tempting us to play it.
Day Two – We slept like a log! The bed is heavenly soft! After breakfast, we went exploring the grounds. It is a cloudy day but we could see the silhouette of Elba, that famous island where Napoleon was exiled, and behind it is the bigger and longer island of Corsica.
Our rendezvous with the owner is at mid-day so we have enough time to hike down the valley and up. The hotel is perched on top of the hill and it takes 40 minutes each way to walk at a leisurely pace, which is great because you get to see scenes like this. The Olive harvest has just finished and the next job is to prune the trees so that air easily circulates around the branches, encouraging a higher fruit yield for next year.
Vineyards interspersed with olive groves dot the Tuscan landscape. We notice the colour of the soil, practically golden. We suspect it is rich in nutrients that make it perfect for growing produce.
The vineyards, now bereft of grapes, for harvest started in September. All that is left are the leaves which are turning into orange and gold, the colours of autumn.
Careful training and control of the growth of trunk and leaves is important to produce the highest quality of the grapes. It’s not the quantity that counts here.
Along the road, we see these cork trees. The bark produces the cork used in wine bottle stoppers. Sadly, the use of plastic corks for wine bottles is becoming more and more of a trend, making the business of harvesting corks a disappearing industry. But there are still wine regions of France that uses the natural cork and one of them is Bordeaux.
The Tuscan landscape is mainly agricultural. Vineyards, olive and other fruit orchards mesh in perfect symmetry where cypress trees serve as territorial borders.
Day Two, – We went to check the Port of Scarlino where its marina is famed for yachting competitions. It’s amazing to see a thick conifer forest along the coast, practically serving as barrier against any possible tsunami, or, we reckon, a most-needed shade in the summer for beachgoers who want to protect their skin from the burning sun.
The Port of Scarlino, partial view.
One of the best things about this volunteer work is that, the hotel kitchen is at our complete disposal. And by “hotel kitchen”, I mean serious kitchen where there is a chef to prepare meals for guests of this 7-luxury room villa. It has all the gadgets and ingredients to create an Italian gastronomic meal.
To describe it in simpler terms: for the first time in our 12 years of married life, H, himself, prepared our dinner for three consecutive nights! I couldn’t believe it myself! His comment: he is just too inspired to cook in a chef’s kitchen!
The improvised pizza above is my own concoction. Using foccacia as base, I dabbed it with the juice of cherry tomatoes, then covered it with slices of the same type of pomodoro, added parma ham cut thinly by H from the ham-cutting machine, sliced mushrooms, cheese, thyme and olive oil….absolutely delish! Ambrosia! (“food for the gods” in Greek)
The hotel has just been operating for two years so the garden is still in its infant stage. But Anna has grandiose plans to make it into a colourful paradise.
Day Three – It’s the end of our 3-day trial stay so we are now heading back home to France. Today is Sunday, a day when sports enthusiasts like these cyclists are a regular sight on local roads.
Goodbye Scarlino. We’ll be back in ten days’ time to start our volunteer work, hopefully to last until February next year. We will surely make time to visit Siena which is just 70 km away: 1 hour 10minutes by car!
Another typical Tuscan landscape along the main road.