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.
Our first stop in Bosnia was, of course, Sarajevo. Sarajevo is the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and we had been fortunate enough to find a workaway host with the best view in the city. Perched atop one of hills surrounding Sarajevo, Olywood is a B and B/hostel, high enough to overlook the city lights below and to get a peek at the snow-capped mountains filling the horizon. Despite the natural beauty and charm of Bosnia and Hercegovina, it’s difficult not to be reminded of the Bosnian War which once ravaged the country. Sarajevo itself was under siege for 1425 days, the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. With the break-up of Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country that prided itself on cultural acceptance, suddenly became the centre of a conflict drawn along ethnic lines.
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.
We had written down all the details for our train and set off early in the morning for the station in Spišská Nová Ves, Slovakia. We were going to ride the rail to Uzhhorod, just over the Ukrainian border, and then a night train into Lviv where we had arranged to meet our Ukrainian workaway host so we could all take the train to Kyiv together. We had tried to purchase tickets for our train online ahead of time, but unfortunately the Ukrainian Railways website didn’t accept foreign credit cards (little did we know this would be the first of many credit card misadventures). You could reserve tickets on a foreign card, but you had to come pick the tickets up two days prior to departure, which wasn’t possible. So we decided to prepare as best we could and go with the flow, after all, (cue famous last words) how busy could trains possibly be in the middle of the week?
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 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.