Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Italia - Part II: WWOOFing, Marche

As it turns out, my apprehension about living with complete strangers and doing some actual work for 10 days, was completely unfounded.
We arrived in Pesaro, the nearest city to our first farm, after a couple of train rides and some very strange looks from other passengers as we munched down our lunch - apparently you're not supposed to eat on the train, but the absence of signs to this effect meant we were blissfully unaware... and not starving! The lovely weather we'd had in Rome had deserted us, to be replaced by a chilly wind, which wouldn't be out of place in an Invercargill winter. Brrr.
One of our hosts, Manuela, arrived at the train station about the time we were prepared to open our bags and put every item of clothing on, in a bid to keep warm, so that was a stroke of luck. I had been mentally running myself through the selection of Italian I know, in preparation for a bit of a chat on the way home... and with the help of my trusty phrasebook, Manuela's english (which even though she protests, is still more intelligible to me than the chat of most English teenagers), and some primary school root-word recollection, we managed. First hurdle: jumped, although probably knocked over.
The farm is only small, but it is in a beautiful spot, on the side of a hill, overlooking a picturesque valley. They grow olives, have bees, a veggie garden and chickens, geese, and guinea fowl, which may just be the most ridiculous birds in the world - they make one hell of a racket, and spend more time making this noise than trying to actually run away from whatever has caused it in the first place. They're hilarious to watch though.
We met the rest of the family when we arrived at the house - Ettore, their youngest son, Gregori, the middle son, and Lobo, their dad, Manuela's husband. I'm pretty sure Lobo is a nickname, and that his actual name is Luciano, but I didn't get around to asking. Ettore speaks a bit of English, as they spend 3 hours every Thursday learning it at school - he's such a great kid, full of beans. Both Lobo and Gregori speak english too, so between all of us, we had a pretty great level of communication going, and they mostly tried to speak to us in Italian first, so it was great for me, and I learnt A LOT.
Our first task, and one that took up most of our days, especially Kent's, was putting up a fence around the chicken houses and olive grove - they've had problems with hunting dogs and foxes getting in and taking a liking to their chooks, so this was priority number one. It wasn't quite the same as the fencing we're used to on kiwi farms, but it should keep the predators out and the chickens in. I also did some weeding in the vegetable garden... thought it would be pretty easy, but ended up feeling like I had the back and knees of an 80 year old! It was nice to accomplish something though, especially as, being an organic farm, all weeds need to be dealt with manually, as they can't spray or anything like that. We did a few other bits and pieces, but it certainly wasn't hard labour, and they only asked us to work until lunchtimes, so we spent most afternoons walking around the countryside, enjoying the sun.

The second night we were there, Manu & Lobo had a birthday party to go to, so they invited us along - what an experience! The Italians certainly know how to have a great time, but not in that getting horribly boozed way - the dancefloor was full not long after we arrived, and I would doubt anyone had more than a couple of wines by that stage. There was dressing up, group dancing like we used to do at school, a bit of capoiera (at least I think that's what it was) and a mighty singing of 'Tanti Auguri', which is exactly the same tune as 'Happy Birthday'. The guests were all very friendly towards us, and even though most of the festivities were in a completely different language, it was so much fun, just to be a fly on the wall.
We also went to a meeting of their organic co-operative/exchange group, and to the birthday dinner of their oldest son, Tommaso (who has two boys of his own and lives away from home). Manuela took us to visit the showroom of her fashion designer friend, and arranged for one of their other friends, Daniela, to take us into Urbino with her one day. It was so nice to be included in their lives like this, and it meant I had a big lump in my throat as we left - I do hope we'll stay in touch as they are such a lovely family, and we both agree that this was a wonderful experience.
The big question was, would the next farm be as good as this? Was it possible? Find out in the next exciting installment!...
E xx

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Italia - Part I: Rome

I have a confession to make: I am supposed to be packing, but it all seems so final, putting everything into our bags and making plans for New Zealand, so I've decided to procrastinate by reliving our month in Italy... surely this is a much better use of my time.

A long time before I met Kent and realised just how great it is to see the world, I decided that I wasn't really interested in travelling, with the exception of Italy. It's the only place in the world that I have always desperately wanted to see, so it's perhaps a bit strange that we left it until the very end of our travels to go there. The danger of course, in really, really, really wanting to go somewhere, is that it will turn out to be rubbish and the disappointment will be a bit much to take. Kent did warn me of this, but he needn't have bothered - after years of thinking this might be my favourite place, I was proved right... YAY!

As this was our last trip and neither of us has been gainfully employed since before Christmas, our aim was to have the best possible time for the least possible money; not such an easy task when the Euro is almost worth the same as the Pound now and Italy is a fairly expensive country to start with. This is where Kent came up with a cunning plan: WWOOF-ing. This is a global scheme which allows you to work on an organic farm in return for food and board. It's an excellent way to experience the side of a country and its culture that you just couldn't as an ordinary tourist. Our friends we visited in Norway, Pete & Ginny, are wwoofing there, and have been for almost a year, so we had a bit of an idea of how things might work. Being organised as we are, our cunning plan was only formulated as we were heading home from France, but even so, we managed to find a couple of farms willing to take us on short notice.
Before all that we had a few days in Rome, to relax before starting the first real work either of us has done in quite some time - good practise for Kent for the farm though!
The ridiculousness of Rome is that you basically can't go anywhere without virtually tripping over history - triumphal arches, churches, monuments, obelisks, ruined buildings, you name it, it's everywhere, and just there for the world to see - things like this still amaze me, probably because NZ is so new in comparison. All this history is not exactly surprising, considering it used to be the centre of the western world; I get the feeling you could spend a month here and still only really scratch the surface... and we only had 2 days!
Our hotel was a hop, skip and a jump from the Colosseum, so we headed that way first, only to be met by a large number of people with the same idea - and it wasn't even tourist season yet, gulp! It was incredible, and just insane to think that it was built a couple of thousand years ago and lots of it is still standing. Whilst my parents are very thorough, I doubt any of the houses they've built in the last 20 years will still be around that far into the future.
Our tour included a visit to Palatine Hill, where Rome was founded by Romulus in 753BC (on my birthday, no less) and the Roman Forum (which takes ruins to ridiculous heights), so we whiled away the day taking it all in, and enjoying the sun... such a nice change from all the dodgy weather we've had on our travels this year.
The next day we strapped on our walking shoes - jandals, in my case - and hit the big touristy spots: the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, St Peters Square, and Circo Massimo. Brilliantly, the city really isn't that big, and it's pretty easy to walk to most of the sights, so it was good for those of us keeping an eye on the budget.

We were a bit knackered after this, and I was a bit nervous about our first farm - sitting about playing with music all day is one thing, but I hadn't partaken in manual labour for a very long time, so I experienced a bit of 'what have I got myself into?' anxiety... it was a bit of an early night, before our adventures continued...
Eryn xx

Sunday, 15 March 2009


After the ferry docked in Newhaven (near Brighton) at 9pm, we hurried off and headed for Salisbury, where we were staying overnight before our VIP visit to Stonehenge...
We managed to wangle an out-of-hours access visit, which basically means you can walk in and around the stones, rather than being confined to the path which goes arounJustify Fulld the outside, about 10-30m away. The only downside was that we had to be there at 6.45am, although when you consider that it's about the same time as the sun is getting up, it's not such a bad time at all!
There was only the two of us and one other couple there, which was great, as during open hours it is chocca, even in winter.
There's not a lot you can say about these stones really, except that they are huge, and must have taken a very long time to get there. It is pretty impressive:

The rest of the day involved getting back to Sheffield to get the car all cleaned and ready to sell, with a minor hiccup when Kent accidentally unlocked the boot, put the key back in his jacket, his jacket back in the car and shut the boot. OOPS. Luckily we have insurance for this sort of silliness, so after a wee wait in the chilly wind, a recovery man came and broke in for us. Cold comfort came from the fact that the workmen, security guys and staff at Stonehenge all attempted to help us break in, all to no avail.
No joy with selling the car either, but hopefully someone will want our wee gem (thank goodness that someone is unlikely to have read anything on this blog and will be blissfully unaware of what a pain in the arse it has been).
We're off for a month in Italy on Tuesday, it's our last trip before we head back to NZ, and we're doing things a bit differently this time, so we're both really looking forward to it.
Talk soon,
Eryn x

Saturday, 14 March 2009

France - Part Two: Normandy

A text from Rod confirmed what we already thought might be the case... rain was on its merry way to Normandy. I'll let you fill in what was said after we learnt of the forecast.
Kent was still determined to get over to Normandy though, so we loaded up the car on Saturday morning and drove for almost 11 hours, making it most of the way there, passing through Le Mans (some of the main road is on the race circuit, so we got to drive on a bit of it), the Champagne region, and the Loire Valley, including passing through the town of Chablis. I thought it might be bigger, having a wine variety named after it and all, but no. It was about the size of Dunsandel, and half as interesting.
Kent had mentioned the idea of 'free camping' from the start of the trip - a few words from Patrick put us off doing it in Germany (the words 'illegal', 'moved on' and 'big fine' were used), the snow was a bit of a problem in Austria, and in the northern parts of our trip it was just too cold for wusses like me to be roughing it. This night, however, there were no excuses, as we were not really anywhere near any decent hostels or open camping grounds, so free camping it was... We found a small town (I wanted to be in a built up area so that baddies would be less likely to murder us) with a parking area by a water tower and pitched the tent. I ended up sleeping in the car (condensation-tastic!) while Kent had both mattresses in the tent as he doesn't fit in the car horizontally. Safe to say it wasn't the best night's sleep I've ever had, but it was free, and did mean we were up mighty early in the morning.
We drove to Caen first thing, and had a brief walk around, although not much of an idea what was what as the information office was closed (helpful). We did go to Chateau Dulac, which was, almost a thousand years ago, allegedly home of William the Conqueror, although as most of Caen was bombed during 1944, there wasn't very much left, and what was there didn't appear as old as the guide books have you believe. There was a great Normandy museum inside the castle walls though, so it wasn't a completely wasted trip.
We had already found a camping ground near Bayeux, one which said it was open all year, but we'd heard that before, so were a bit nervous about it, but fortunately, it was where it said it would be and it was open - hooray!
The inital plan was to visit this part of the country to see the Bayeux Tapestry (almost 1000 years old now, and in pretty good nick). I hadn't really clicked that it was in Normandy, where the D-Day landings happened, which added a crazy number of things to see and do to the list, but we had five days before we had to catch the ferry home, so it was definitely do-able.
Our first WWII stop was a series of German bunkers, complete with guns, some in various states of disrepair after being whooped by the Allies. There used to be a huge line of bunkers right along the coast of France (the Atlantic Wall), which the Nazis thought was pretty much indestructible. It wasn't, and the results are littered along the cliffs. It is surreal that there are plenty of reminders of the D-Day campaign, and that we could just wander all over this place where so many young men (on both sides) died. You can read all you like about history and be taught about it at school, but I don't think you really understand until you see some of the destruction which remains (and even then it's still far from real to me). Sorry to be a bit morose, but as always, I was fairly humbled by all the monuments and museums, and had a bit of a lump in my throat through a lot of them, particularly the cemetaries. We went to Arromanches (code named Gold beach) site of an artificial port from D-Day, and the American Cemetary, which overlooks Omaha Beach.

The next day was forecast to be raining heavily, so we opted for inside amusement (and something a little lighter) but thought it was about time we had the funny noise our car had been making most of the way through Europe sorted out first. This would have been fine, had either of us spoken fluent French, and whilst I can communicate a few basics, explaining what was wrong with our car, considering we weren't even sure, was a bit beyond my capabilites. So we found ourselves at the Bayeux Information Centre, where the very nice lady pointed out that she couldn't be sure if any of the mechanics she knew spoke English, as she always spoke French with them (touche!), but she kindly wrote down a translation of what we thought the problem was and pointed us in the direction of the Renault garage. We were pretty worried that they would see us coming and start rubbing their hands together in glee, but actually, the exact opposite happened - the young mechanic (no english) took Kent for a drive, couldn't figure it out, so took it into the workshop, had a bit of a look and figured out that it was a loose something, sorted it all out, told his boss (good english) who told Kent what the problem had been, and when we asked how much it would be for the time, he said it was free... yet again: why does everyone think the French are so awful? They are clearly lovely, and I can't imagine getting that kind of service for nothing on this side of the channel!
The rest of the day was spent looking at the Bayeux Tapestry, which was fantastic, and yet again, it was just right there, with hardly any people around; the Journalist Memorial, which commemorates reporters who lost their lives in combat zones since 1945; the British Cemetary (which includes 8 New Zealanders) and the Bayeax D-Day museum, which was very well done, but was a lot to take in.
Kent had found a brochure for a cheese village about an hour's drive away, so we went there in the morning, it smelled a bit inside the factory, as cheese often does, but the tour was pretty good, and it was free, our favourite price. To make up for it, we bought a couple of cheeses to take back to Rod & Lou... despite sealing them in airtight containers inside a plastic bag, they continued to remind us of their presence for the next 2 1/2 days until we got them to the fridge in Sheffield - mmm, pongy!
The Chateau a Guillame le Conqureant (William the Conqureor's Castle - apparently this was his main one) wasn't too far away, but unfortunately was a bit disappointing. We'd already seen some footage from the Normandy campaign in WWII which showed some of the castle at Falaise getting hit by bombs, so knew it wouldn't be in the best condition, but instead it has been reconstructed, and in parts is just ugly and awful... such a shame, but it is probably a big money spinner for the town, so you can't really blame whoever's in charge for having a go.
We attempted a look at some Roman ruins the next day, but after driving for over an hour to get there, and parking, we walked into the visitor centre to find all the displays covered in sheets, and the whole thing being redecorated...aaargh! Technically it was open, but the receptionist didn't speak English, and only managed to nod when I said 'ferme?' (closed). Surely it wouldn't have killed them to put a sign up in the carpark???! Instead we went back to the seaside to look at Le Grande Bunker in Ouistreham, a 4-5 storey concrete tower, from (you guessed it) WWII, built to back up the Atlantic Wall defenses. It was taken almost completely undamaged by 4 British troops in July 1944, even though there were over 3o Germans inside at the time. Outside, there was one of the landing craft they used on D-Day which was reused during the filming of Saving Private Ryan - it's the one Tom Hanks et al were in right at the start, so we had a bit of a nosey at that too. The town also still had some 'dragon's teeth' in the sand dunes, which were kind of cool to see, although the spiky sharp nasty bits had been removed earlier, so the coolness was diminished somewhat.
And then it was Friday, our last day, so we took the coastal route from Le Moulay Littry, where we'd been staying, to Dieppe, where our ferry left from... we passed through some of the most gorgeous little towns either of us has seen, with beautiful old houses and long sandy beaches (and the odd yummy patisserie!), slightly gutted that we only discovered them on the way home, but at least we saw them.
K & E x