A Farm Stay in Italy
Jon and I have been in our little Umbrian paradise for just over a week now. Aside from somehow getting on the bad side of one of the roosters (who now wants to attack me), our farm stay in Italy has been everything I could have imagined it to be.
We are living in a beautiful 12th century stone house just outside of the hilltop town of Todi, in the province of Umbria. We’re nestled right in a bend of the famous Tiber river, yes, the one that flows across Italy, through Rome and into the sea. It meanders here through the hills, the sides of which are dotted with olive trees, or plowed into golden fields that grow sunflowers, wheat or various other goods. Just above our own fields of wine grapes (sangiovese and sagrantino) is a 12th century castle and church, which even has a small but beautiful fresco from the 16th century. While walking up there we met the building owner, who kindly took us up to his terrace for an incredible 360 degree view. This is a special place for which I’m grateful at just about every moment.
Opposite our little farm, way on top of the hill, is the village of Montecastello di Vibio – a beautifully scenic town that is home to the world’s smallest opera house. It’s modeled after the famous La Scala in Milano, but this one is like walking into a dollhouse. 35 seats on the floor (plush red velvet) and 2 tiers of tiny boxes for a grand total of 99 seats. The entire interior is hand painted and is truly a tiny masterpiece of art. I can only imagine how special it is to see a concert or opera there.
Our arrangement here is through a site called HelpX. We work 4-5 hours per day in the fields, gardens or around the house in exchange for all our meals and accommodations. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like a fair trade because the experience of living in this place, eating home cooked Italian food and getting to explore or just relax on our time off is so wonderful.
Our tasks are varied, but the overall project for the home and farm is ambitious. The owners moved here 6 years ago when the house was apparently a complete ruin. The olive grove had been abandoned, the grapes neglected, I guess there was just nothing here. Slowly, and with the help of volunteers like us over the years, they’ve completely renovated and furnished the home into a beautifully restored living space. They’ve built stone walkways, a vegetable garden that provides greens, tomatoes, onions, eggplants, squash, and so many other goodies. This is not to mention the fruit trees that are plentiful and the fig trees that seemingly grow wild around the property. It’s also home to 15 chickens that provide fresh eggs and 4 geese that…are geese. The flower gardens they built are beautiful and from what I understand are a rose-lovers dream come true in the spring. 2 years ago they built a traditional brick oven and can now make true Italian homemade pizza (which we enjoyed our first night here), aside from breads and just about anything else that needs a perfect convection oven.
Eventually there will be another room added to the house, the foundation for which we’ll seal and paint again while we’re here. We’ve painted and cleaned the ‘cantina’ – the room that’s being rented in a nearby church that will be the site of the winemaking. We’ve pruned the olives and plowed part of a new field for grapes. We’re constantly weeding, trimming and maintaining the expansive gardens. We’re putting in fall and winter vegetables; and anxiously awaiting the hatching of the 10 chicks that are soon to come! Part of our exchange is also that I’m building a new website for our owner’s bed and breakfast, the Casale della Staffa. All this while I’m trying to avoid the one rooster that has decided he doesn’t like me and wants to attack me. It seems fine with Jon though, so that’s good. I’m ready to put it in a pot!
Of all the travel we’ve done, the experiences we’ve had, and the places we’ve seen, this is a really lovely way of being somewhere new. It’s only one family, and one vantage point, but we are getting to see what farm life in Italy is like, and learning so much about caring for land in the process. Even just working with the grapes, learning how to tend them, testing pH and sugar levels and waiting for the harvest has been a unique experience. It’s also really nice to be here for a good length of time in order to relax and truly enjoy the dolce vita – the sweet life Italians so cherish.
Enjoy some photos from Todi, the farm and beautiful Umbria!