Ten to twelve minutes south of Bologna by bus, rising from the verdant hills, sits a house with its wooden shutters thrown open to the Mediterranean sunshine. It is one of those houses that, passing by, you would love to stay in if only you could. Well, you can.
In summer 2010, I traveled the Italian countryside from farmhouse to farmhouse. I arranged my stays at the farms through WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). In exchange for a little bit of work, WWOOF provides the cash-strapped solo traveler an exciting and culturally inclusive opportunity to see the world.
WWOOF connects farmers with volunteers not only in Italy, but in countries all over the globe. Participating countries are listed, by region, on the WWOOF website. To begin, I had to apply for membership specifically in the Italian organization, a process that varies from country to country.
After a few weeks of corresponding with farmers, my farmhouse-to-farmhouse tour of the Italian countryside was arranged. Arrival, departure, and travel arrangements were made individually with each host. I found that hosts were happy to pick up and drop off volunteers at the bus or train station and that train travel in Italy was easy and convenient.
Flanked by the greenery of vineyards, Federico's farmhouse blended into the landscape as if it grew out of the ground. Chimneys and solar panels adorned the terracotta roof and, from where I sat in the shade of a plum tree, solar panels glistened in the sun.
I took a sip of cool limonata, a carbonated lemonade drink that is ambrosia to the farm laborer. Then, I got up, grabbed my hoe and returned to the field those tomato seedlings were not going to plant themselves.
After work, I left my hoe in a barrel of rainwater and went inside to wash up and help my host, Federico, prepare dinner. His farmhouse, Il Cavicchio, is an agriturismo, a bed and breakfast that grows onsite most of the food served to guests. The agriturismo sleeps 22 people and provides Internet, satellite TV, and other amenities for its guests, who congregate for dinner each night in the wood-tabled dining room or, weather permitting, al fresco under a cloth canopy on the back porch.
Federico didn't need any help; his onions were chopped and his pork was simmering just fine. I entered the white-walled dining room, adjacent to the kitchen, unfurled a tablecloth, and laid the table with plates, glasses, and silverware along with bread baskets and bottles of wine. Then, I sat and waited for the guests to file in from their day trips
During the day, guests explore Emilia-Romagna, the central Italian region of which Bologna is capital. I did the same on my days off. I'd hop onto an inbound bus headed north on the Bologna-Rome road; the bus stop was about a stone's throw (or in Italy, a ball's kick) from Federico's farmhouse. For just 1, I'd be at Piazza Maggiore, Bologna's main square, in under half an hour.
To fully experience the culture of Emilia-Romagna, I concentrated on what the region is most famous for: its food. Emilia-Romagna is home to the world's best Parmesan cheese, prosciutto (dry cured ham), and balsamic vinegar.
Known to Italians as la grassa cittá, the fat city, Bologna is the birthplace of four Italian pasta staples: lasagna, tortellini, tortelloni, and tagliatelle. The city is famous for its heavy, butter-based sauces and its meat consumption. Indeed, Bologna is home to the hearty Bolognese sauce and, of course, the cold cut bologna.
One day, I wandered from Piazza Maggiore down cobblestone alleys that honeycomb less populated parts of the city. Eventually, I spied a hole-in-the-wall trattoria in an alley off of Via San Stefano and sat at one of the outdoor tables.
The waiter placed bread and aqua frizzante onto the white tablecloth, and I ordered coniglio all'aceto. Through the front door, I could see an old woman in chefs' whites sprinkle something in a pan, and soon I had my meal: rabbit cooked in vinegar. I sliced off a mouthful and tasted. Delicious!
After lunch, I consulted Bologna's tourist office (in Piazza Maggiore) for advice about how to spend my afternoon. The office directed me to the Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna (Museum of Archaeology). Set up in an old palace, the museum contains impressive Celtic and Egyptian displays as well as the expected Roman and Italian artifacts.
Afterward, I walked to Bologna's center and ascended the taller of the city's iconic "Two Towers." Both of these leaning landmarks are remnants of many towers built by ruling families during medieval times. The Asinelli is the taller tower, although the shorter Garisenda tower was once tallest, until it was shortened for safety's sake, sometime in the 14th century.
From the top, I had a 360-degree view of the city, surrounding hills, and Piazza Maggiore, where I could see that a jazz concert (free) was about to begin. I listened to the concert from the stone steps of a church and, shortly after, took a bus back to the farm for dinner.
The guests had filed in by the time Federico brought out the first course, tortelloni di zucca. The fat, fluffy crescent moons of pasta dough filled with ricotta cheese and pumpkin were swimming in a sage-butter sauce and topped with a sweet balsamic drizzle the sage had been plucked from a bush that I'd weeded earlier. Everyone at the table glowed with delight, and this amiable atmosphere made it easier for a solo like myself to feel comfortable and part of the group.
My second host, Mauro, picked me up in Bologna on his way back from a cello concert in Switzerland. We sped to his mountain-top vineyard in a Fiat, windows down and classical music slicing through the breeze. Toward the end of the one-hour trip, we passed Brisighella, a hill town on the Adriatic Coast of Emilia-Romagna.
Brisighella is some twenty minutes from Mauro's vineyard by foot.
Tasks and accommodations at Mauro's were quite different from my situation at Federico's agriturismo. The guest house was filled with spiders and they'd crawl across my bed sheets at night. Often, I'd have to cook meals for myself when Mauro was away teaching cello. But this didn't bother me because the work was so strenuous that, as the Italians say, I slept as soundly as a stone. I mostly cut grass, swinging a scythe beneath the gnarled grapevines, row after row. I also trimmed invasive bushes, repaired damaged supports, and pruned grapevines.
By chance, I had scheduled my WWOOF stay at Mauro's vineyard in June, the month of Brisighella's renowned medieval festival. On weekends, the city streets swelled with Italians dressed in period garb and swilling pitchers of cheap wine. Vendors set up medieval-themed stands, swords clanged up by the castle, and there was a hawking demonstration in the park.
On the way to Brisighella I'd pass its famous clock tower, a massive right-angled structure built onto a rocky promontory above the town. The clock tower contains the small but interesting Museum of Time. I'd carry on down the stairs past the 16th-century brick castle, La Rocca Manfrediana. After a few staircases and winding paths, I'd be on the main street, which isn't very big at all. The three and four-storey buildings are painted different colors, unlike much of Emilia-Romagna, where, by law, buildings must be painted orange-cream, white, and shades of brown.
In food-obsessed Emilia-Romagna, I can certainly recommend eating at any of the osterie along Brisighella's main street. The Italian osteria, a small eatery that prepares local food according to local customs, ranks among the best places to eat in Italy, and Brisighella's are exceptional.
At Brisighella's small train station, I hopped a Saturday train to Ravenna, the Renaissance city 42 kilometers away. There I admired its mosaics and paid a visit to the tomb of Dante Alighieri, Italy's revered 14th century poet.
I thought about taking in the world-famous nightlife at the beachfront Rimini, which is just a few train stops from Brisighella, but as my stay in Italy crept into its second month, I felt more like spending weekends on the farm.
There wasn't much to do in Vetralla, but I was more than happy with my congenial hosts and their small, quiet farm. Besides, Rome, the capital city of Lazio as well as Italy, was only an hour's train ride away if I felt like exploring the "eternal" city's renowned attractions and ancient relics.
More memorably, I took a day trip 30 kilometers west to the Tyrennhian Coast, to Tarquinia, where the long-dead kings of the Etruscan Empire rest. Their tombs were carved into a mound above the city some two-and-a-half millennia ago. I descended alone into the tombs, which are open to tourists, and glimpsed the timeworn paintings of hunters stalking prey and the strange gods of the past. You can almost feel their presence haunting the underground chambers, the half-lit tunnels thick with humidity and dust.
There are lesser Etruscan tombs carved into the farm's property, which my hosts, another Mauro and his wife Rita, use to shelter their donkeys.
Mauro and Rita cultivate many different plants on their farm, and they keep some 130,000 honey bees. I helped with the bee keeping, picked cherries, clipped hazelnuts, trimmed rose bushes, weeded tomato plants, and gathered flowers for various creams and herbal remedies,
After work, I'd bike to Vetralla, just five minutes away, all uphill, and be logged-on at the Internet café before I knew it. I'd snap off an e-mail to my family and, if it were a Tuesday, browse the farmers' market.
Mauro and Rita were nice enough to drive me the three-hour trip northeast to Paolo's farm on a mountainside, 15 minutes from Pergola by car and about 60 km from the Adriatic Sea. Here, I harvested garlic, onions, and shallots from the lowermost field, along with a team of volunteers and family members.
It felt euphoric to work in that field, to gather vegetables in the alpine breeze, beneath a friendly sun. It synced me with a state of happiness hard to explain, but it seemed in keeping with what I had read about WWOOFing. That is, to get the full experience, a traveler needs to stay at a farm for at least a month, time enough to become accustomed to the life and be accepted into the family. After staying for a month at Paolo's farm, Case Bottaro, in Le Marche, I'd have to agree.
On weekends, I usually stayed at the farm. When I did leave, it was for a lounge chair by the Adriatic Sea, where I'd be reclined within an hour of leaving Pergola by bus. Another WWOOFer, Emma from San Francisco, and I spent a day lounging by the sea at Marotta to celebrate the garlic harvest's completion.
I spent "White Night" in Senigallia enjoying that beach town's summer festival. Club music throbbed deep into the morning hours until the rising sun gleamed yellow on the horizon. Quite honestly, I much preferred quiet weekends on the farm.
Three months into my journey, a few days before returning home, I hiked up to the Monastero di Fonte Avellana, nestled into the heights of Mount Catria. This monastery appears in Dante's Paradiso, in five verses of Canto 21. Dante refers to Fonte Avellana as ermo consacrato, a "dedicated hermitage."
Way up where two forested crests converge, the monastery sprawls across a clearing. Against a blue sky, the whole tableau appears like a picture postcard, one of those postcards that inspires a flicker of nostalgia for the place depicted if you notice it stuck on somebody's fridge. You might think, it would be so nice to go there if only you could. Well, you can.
Membership: The process varies country to country. WWOOF Italy requires 25 (C$/US$ 35), a personal photograph, and some basic contact information.
Entering Italy: Except for citizens of EU or EFTA countries, a valid passport is required to travel in Italy. As well as a passport, American and Canadian nationals require a visa if planning to stay more than 90 days. Many WWOOFers in Italy spend a weekend in Switzerland to refresh their 90-day visas.
Connecting with hosts: Members can browse the list of some 300+ host farms in Italy. Descriptions are given, languages spoken, and contact information: phone numbers, street and e-mail addresses.
Experience and fitness: Work requirements vary. As a 23-year-old male with an interest in food and agriculture, I wanted heavy farm work: hoeing, planting, and harvesting. If you aren't into manual labor, don't worry. Many hosts simply need help with housework, selling at farmers' markets, and other light duties.
Attitude: Be aware that each farm offers a different experience. WWOOFing requires a positive attitude and a cheerful disposition. You'll benefit most if you approach the work with enthusiasm and an open mind. However, If you are ever uncomfortable at a particular farm, don't hesitate to let your host know. Perhaps the problem can be resolved, but if not, as a WWOOFer, you are a volunteer and free to leave whenever you want.
Accommodations: Conditions vary from host to host. If you want to dine with your hosts and have your own room, be sure to contact hosts who will accommodate you accordingly. Inquire about sleeping and bathroom facilities, cleanliness, diet, telephone and Internet access, or whatever may be of concern to you.
Language: Hosts may speak other languages besides their mother tongue. In Italy, many speak English, but don't take it for granted. Be sure to inquire. If you understand nothing of your host's first language, it would be helpful, if possible, to take a beginner course and, at least, learn a few basic phrases beforehand. I speak some Italian and learned a lot more during my sojourn.
Friends: Inquire about other WWOOFers; there are generally between one and four per farm. People come from all over the world to WWOOF in Italy, one of the most popular places to volunteer.