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.
From the top of Šentviška Gora Plateau, Ashleigh and I descended along a walking trail that had been altogether obscured by a passing storm. Felled trees littered the path like strewn match sticks and we had to scramble our way through like an obstacle course. We were staying with English expatriate Helpx hosts who lived in a terribly remote region of Slovenia, amidst the tiny settlement of Ponikve– a carpenter and a hairdresser who decided to make a new home in a strange country. Unable to get a ride, and with no other way to get off the mountain, we set off on our weekend adventure on foot in an attempt to get to the beautiful Tolmin Gorge, about 15 kilometres away.
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.
Before coming to Britain, even before embarking on our European journey, I would often sit and dream of treading through stone passageways, patrolling the length of rocky defences, and keeping watch from the tallest turrets on a windy night. Castles were raised by the ruling powers through the blood and sweat of their toiling subjects; impenetrable fortresses of carved stone blocks atop rocky crags, castles are truly an awesome sight to behold. They were, at many times, scenes of bloodshed: from sword clashing medieval battles to the assassination of nobles. They were once the seat of lords and kings, protecting, as well as dominating, the countryside. They have stood for hundreds of years and will hopefully continue to stand for centuries more (partially thanks to the National Trust).
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.
‘Neath ancient Rosslyn waits secrets so secret nobody really knows what the secret is anymore. Some say the Knights of the Templar stored vast riches in the tombs of Rosslyn chapel and are perhaps even buried there themselves, dressed in full-plate armour. Some say the mummified head of Jesus Christ and perhaps even the sacred cup of Christ, the Holy Grail, is waiting in some secret chamber. Some say Rosslyn Chapel is the site of an alien landing pad, and perhaps the secret resting place of… Elvis?
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.
We crossed the bridge from Sweden to Copenhagen. In the water towered several wind turbines, blades spinning silently in the distance. The bridge snaked to the other side of the border and we saw Denmark stretching out, a flat plate of land the Danes call home. We were dropped off near the central station, and swinging are packs onto our backs we set out to figure out where we were going to go next.
We’ve signed away to the Help Exchange website, opening the way to a colourful list of organic farms, non-organic farms, farmstays, homestays, ranches, lodges, B&Bs, backpackers hostels and even sailing boats looking for volunteer helpers to stay with them in exchange for room and board. In my mind it’s a pretty good deal, a damn good deal… yes I am a thrifty man, and the idea of not having to spend money on food and accommodation appeals to me, but of course there’s a whole lot more to this work exchange thing that I am looking forward too. You’ve got to take a look at some of these places! Here are a couple examples of HelpX spots we’re looking to volunteer on in Norway: