Uncovering Europe's best budget hotels since 2001.
There are lots of creative ways to get to Europe and save money in the process. We checked in with Cheapo Reinhardt Suarez after he spent two months living and working on a farm in Grossetto, Italy, a small community in Tuscany. Read on for his take on this alternative to agriturisimo.
Choosing the farm experience over a backpacking trip in Europe
I knew that my own personal budget for a European trip could likely only cover airfare and a few extras (a one-night hotel splurge somewhere, a few good meals, some museums) and originally wanted to find an artist residency program overseas. I had read about several merit-based programs and wanted to try my hand at one. But many have hefty applications and I wanted to get moving quickly. I then remembered that I had a friend who worked as a farm hand in a farm residency program in Tuscany. All the stars aligned. I contacted my friend, got the info on the program, communicated with the farm owner (that was a funny first email exhange!), and started packing.
How a farm residency is different from agriturisimo
Some farms, especially in Italy, focus on agriturismo. For a fee, tourists can rent out apartments or rooms and live on the farm, enjoying the landscape and people. You won’t necessarily have to work if you go this route, but you will pay more for room, food, housekeeping, and possibly car rental depending on how far the farm is from town. The farm residency experience is intense, hard, and a world-altering. But, all room and board is paid for in exchange for your physical labor.
I was excited for my trip. I knew it would be a crash course in how an entirely different set of people lived: I come from huge, flat, urban sprawl (how do you say strip mall in Italian?) and going to live on a farm with dense forests, mountains, swamps, and nearin fact I still sport dozens of scars on my forearms from clearing away thorn bushes from hiking trails. But most of all, I got to know the people on the farm, folks who did not have to pretend to like me to make a sale. There was no tourism involved. I was there to work, and they treated me with the respect of both a guest and a fellow member of the farm staff. When I ate with them, it felt like I was part of the family.
Although I spoke very little Italian, we tried to converse. I heard about the environmental crisis hitting Tuscany this year—the monsoon-like rains that threatened to prevent crop planting. I learned about the school lives of the children that reside on the farm. And I tried my best to share my own life with them.
Unlike when merely visiting a place—or simply consuming mainstream tourism, here I felt like I was leaving a very tangible piece of myself. My own hard work, my personal experience could remain, in some facet, at the farm. I plan to go back there again someday.
Tiziano, the farm manager, and Andrea, his one-man farm crew, handled the bulk of the work. I was introduced to Tiziano just as he was finishing the slaughtering of a pig. He smiled, wiped his bloody hands on his pants, and shook my hand. Then he waltzed over to a cooler, took out a chain of linked sausage, and after wiping a bloody butcher knife on his pants, he began cutting up pieces for me to eat. He then smiled again and offered me the salsicha (pork sausage). I felt that right at that moment, I had entered the world of the farm. Farmers of this region had been doing it this way for hundreds of years. I felt safer in Tiziano’s huge, sure hands than with the USDA anyway.
Tricks of the trade
The other figure that made quite an impression was Andrea. What Andrea lacked in physical stature; he made up for in attitude. He did much of the farm work on the farm by himself. When it was raining, and we couldn’t trail blaze, we were given over to Andrea for sanding duty. Many of the doors and window frames were old and needed to be refinished. So as Andrea explained to us what refinishing the doors entailed, we discovered two things: none of us had any real experience with sanding before, and Andrea was not really equipped to explain to us how to go about doing the sanding, as he knew just a few words in English. Andrea is as Tuscan as Tuscan can be, so he’d speak in a very specific Italian countryside dialect and end with “capiche?” Then he’d wait a second, say “non capiche,” smile, and walk away. We were left to the sanding.
After working with him a little bit, we found that if we just started doing stuff, and if we did it wrong, he’d come over and demonstrate how to do it right.
Cheapo farmer, and how you can be one too
The Cheapo benefits of working on a farm? I got great workouts (hello biceps!), ate amazing home cooking, and gained an eye-opening look at how another culture lives. And all I had to pay for was my plane ticket. Hey, I got dirty. I had to spend time with smelly animals and there were lots of physically straining activities. All of my cool city slicker clothes pretty much got destroyed (note to self: Next time, bring overalls.)
To find out more about programs like this one, you can visit http://wwoof.org. If it’s open to you, you can always go the artist residency route. The possibilities here are varied and have specific payoffs. Some programs house you in castles, some on farms, some in tree houses and the like.