Out of all the wonders we’ve witnessed in our travels through Europe, our workaway experiences have been the most memorable. In Finland we lived with an alternative community, constructed a yurt and worked on a straw bale home. In Hungary we helped renovate a 200 year old adobe brick house. We walked dogs through the Balkan mountains, babysat 3 kids in Vienna, helped bring back a lost garden in Scotland, and made caramelized sugar schnapps in Poland. We built relationships with people across the continent through the opportunities provided by work exchange organizations. Workaway forced us to get off the beaten, tourist trail and experience what we would otherwise have ignored. Our 18th and final workaway experience, within our 22 month European journey, began on the island of Crete. It was in the seaside town of Stalida one evening where we met the hyperadobe earth building visionnaire, Michael.
We were en route to our new workaway home: a horse farm venturing into permaculture, just a short train-ride from Croatia’s capital of Zagreb. Arriving at Zagreb’s main station, we had the first of what would be many frustrations with Croatia’s transit system. While we were waiting at our designated platform, a mysterious locomotive rolled up. The train had a different number than the one we were waiting for, so we ignored it and didn’t think too much of it. As it was getting closer to our departure time, this foreign train still sat there, the display hadn’t changed, and we started to worry. Is this hunk-of-junk going to get out of the way for our ride? What’s going on? (I’m sure you can all see what’s coming). As the mystery train was finally chugging away from the platform, the screen briefly changed to display our train’s details, and then went dark. What? NO! We frantically emailed our host that we would be on the next one, shooting hate-filled glares at the displays that betrayed us. Luckily we didn’t have to wait too long, soon we were off to our temporary home near the Slovenian border.
We had finally arrived in fascinating land of Transylvania, Romania. We had been eager to visit for quite some time, even more so after speaking with Gabor, a big fan of the Transylvania region, back in Budapest. In my head I was imagining haunting castles perched on mountaintops, farmers still using traditional tools, and horse drawn carts rattling through towns; a mysterious, romantic country tucked away on the edge of Europe.
After spending some time workaway-ing at a nearby farm, it was time for us to get back to the big city and enjoy the sights and charms that Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, had to offer. Life was simple back on the ol’ farmstead, and we enjoyed the daily chores of milking the goat, feeding the animals, fetching water from the well and scouring the property for eggs never laid in the same place twice. Evgeniya, our host, had bought this large property in the village of Bobryk and started a farm in order to independently sustain her family. Pretty much all the food we ate was grown from her land, including the delectable chicken eggs (when we could find them) and fresh goat’s milk. As much as we enjoyed having a break from being a tourist, a time to let our minds rest with a few chores to keep us busy, Ashleigh and I were eager to find out what was beyond the outskirts of this small village.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Vienna?
For me, hmmm… the Grandeur. Stately, Baroque palaces and government buildings lit by crystal chandeliers, grand ballrooms attached to richly furnished lounges. Considering the area has been inhabited since 500 BC, it’s not surprising that they’ve had some time on their hands to build such a beautiful city. Esteemed artists would come to Vienna from all around to live and work, surrounded by inspiration. Mozart, Beethoven, and Strauss (I and II) are just a few superstars I could name that have filled Vienna’s cobbled streets with their music.
…Meanwhile, in a remote village somewhere on the Hungarian plains…
Yes indeed, that was a straw bale dressed up to look like a pig from the video game Angry Birds, but wait, we’ve got the WHOLE collection!
The tiny village of Tiszaigar, population of 946, is a cheery, little community near Tisza Lake in the Great Plains of Hungary, a two-hour drive east of Budapest. The Tisza people take great pride in their hometown, keeping it clean, building a beautiful fountain garden, and taking care to decorate according to the holidays. This year there was no particular theme but they chose to create several straw bale Angry Birds characters (including the giant slingshot), a straw bale Mater the Tow Truck from the movie Cars, and a maze for the kids to wander around in and get lost for hours. What were we doing in a wacky place like this you may ask?
Two pairs of huge, gooey eyes stared up at me expectantly as I sat on the porch of Little Spring’s Guesthouse, tying up my bootlaces. Even though it was half an hour before their usual walking time, Mečka and Sausage took it upon themselves to wake us up during the early hours with a series of high and low barks accompanied by incessant whining. Wiping the sleep from my eyes and fending off the two energetic dogs, hopping around like giant rabbits, I stumbled down the walkway and opened the gate. Mečka and Sausage took off like a shot with the older (and wiser) black lab, Chester, trailing slowly behind.
We had been staying a few weeks on a farm near Yalova, just a short ferry ride away from Istanbul. Chevrel and Alan are an English couple building their dream property on the mountainside of the small village of Kurtköy, and we definitely took away a lot of inspiration from their place. My favourite moments though were during tea time with everyone out in the garden. Between everyone laughing, chickens darting in to steal grapes, and the dogs nudging around to say hi, we would all be having a blast over cups of tea. Bidding everyone a fond farewell, we set off on our next adventure… Istanbul!
We were planning on slowly making our way north along the Aegean coast, stopping at two Workaway hosts and a couple historical sites along the way. Our first host in Turkey was Hülya, a wonderful Turkish woman living near the summer resort town of Dikili. Days were blazing hot; I felt like I was sweaty from sunrise to sunset. Lucky for us, Hülya organized the day so that we worked a couple hours early in the morning before it got too hot and then had a break until the evening when it got cool(ish) again. Most of our first week was spent weeding out Hülya’s large yard and mulching the plant beds with a couple of volunteers from the United States. The second week we were on our own helping to clean and patch up the adorable guest cottage Hülya had renovated and build a new oven to use on warm summer nights.
Fancy a cup of tea with herbs freshly picked from the garden? How about a snack made with wild nettles and oregano? Back in the land of saunas and Moomin, we found Finland beautifully in bloom! The people of Solbacka strive to live in tune with their surroundings, so they love the chance to use what nature has provided. I was so excited to start learning about all the herbs and food that the Finnish wild has to offer.
We grabbed an evening bus from Prague to Kraków, Poland, thinking we could sleep on the way and be fresh to explore. Well, between the drunk singing in the back of the bus and an overly friendly/socially imperceptive guy thinking our closed eyes meant we were really interested in what he had to say, I wouldn’t say we felt “fresh” hopping off the bus. After a transfer to a quiet but strange little mini-bus (basically a mini-van where they give you a free bottle of water), we arrived into Kraków early in the morning. Off we went to check-in to our hostel in the Old Town. Lucky for us we could check-in right then and there and get some of the sleep our bus friend stole from us before adventuring out into the city.
I briefly mentioned our trips to Loch Ness and Hermaness in, “Top Picks of Scotland” but that was only a glimpse at our adventure looking for Nessie. Without further ado, here are the highlights of our last couple of weeks in Scotland!
Our last days in Unst were busy at the hotel. During the day we helped with renovating The Hilltop bar on Yell or cleaning in the hotel, with the occasional evening of a casual drink (or two, three, four…) in Springers bar. One of my favourite things we saw with the last of our time on Unst will delight the nature lovers out there, the Hermaness Nature Reserve!
The hike is a bit tough and swampy at times, but it’s so worth it. You can walk along feet-tingling cliffs overlooking the North Sea and even see the lighthouse on Muckle Flugga (where you can actually stay the night if you want!). The real highlight though are the incredible bird colonies that nest along the cliff faces. At this time of year only the gannets have begun to arrive, but later this spring and summer the reserve will see thousands of fulmars, gulls, shags, puffins and kittiwakes. It’s an absolutely awe-inspiring sight, and this early in the season the smell hasn’t had a chance to get too bad either.
We rolled and rocked over the North Sea; we were bound for Lerwick, capital of the Shetland islands. Some days the sea is too rough and the ferries won’t run, stranding people at the docks. Luckily for us, we had a relatively calm ride. We set up shop in one of the lounges at the far end of the ship, watching a few movies before curling up to sleep on the benches. When we initially planned to sleep in the lounge, we felt a little shy about it, but looking around we could see that we were amateurs. More seasoned ferry riders were pulling out sleeping bags, pillows, and eye masks; everything they needed for a good night sleep curled up on a bench.
We arrived by bus into the lovely city of Stoke-on-Trent in late January, eager to move on from the bustling streets of London. Phil and Carole welcomed us into their home with open arms, and eager to show us their beautiful garden that was in need of some cleaning up. The Sensory Garden, as they’ve named it, has been designed to be a fully wheelchair accessible oasis of peace and tranquillity, filled with fragrant flowers, fruit, healing herbs, and plenty of places to sit and enjoy your surroundings.
They had been off living the dream for the past two years, travelling in a caravan, so the garden was in need of a bit of cleaning up. Chopping wood, power-washing the pathways, getting pots ready for planting, and tidying up the greenhouse for the most part. Phil was also involved with a local community project, Friends of Hartshill Park. Hartshill Park is a large nature reserve just down the street from their home which has been undergoing a transformation over the last few years thanks to the help of volunteers and local grants. My favourite spot was a nice little lake at the foot of what was once the gardens of a Catholic covenant, carefully tended by the nuns living there.
Deep within the Finnish wilderness, there is a secret valley. The valley is surrounded by a thriving, untouched wilderness and a magnificent forest of tall, dark trees. There is something special about this forest, something ancient that lives, and breathes, and watches. The people of the small, nearby village of Fagervik do not know about this secret valley nor do they dare go into the woods, for it is said that only those of pure heart are allowed entry.
It was a beautiful afternoon when we stepped off the train from Copenhagen, arriving in the tiny village of Knabstrup. We asked several of the villagers for directions to the place we were looking to stay: ‘Makvärket‘, the mysterious, abandoned factory known to house an ardent group of artists, philosophers, and travellers. The Knabstrup villagers kept pointing us further up a winding road. “It’s not too far,” they said, “the factory is at the end of the road.” At last we could see the cylindrical, brick chimney rising up above the trees and towering over everything. A mysterious factory on top of a hill, overlooking the village below… Sounds like a Frankenstein movie.