• How we spent three weeks in Italy for free (or close to it)

    italy for free through helpx

    Our one and only HelpX experience is done and dusted, and we’ve lived to tell the tale.

    Adjusting to life on the farmstead was way more difficult than I could have imagined, and not in the way I would have thought. It was a whole lot of land, with a big veggie garden, tons of fruit trees, chickens, dogs, and horses, run by a musician. The stereotype of flaky creatives exists for a reason.

    The hardest part? The lack of routine when it came to meals. Lunch could be at 1pm or 2pm, or as late as 4pm. Dinner was always late, sometimes 9pm, and sometimes closer to midnight. The long gaps were only worsened by the fact that while we ate amazingly well – in terms of quality and flavour – we didn’t eat much. Our hosts ate like birds, and I have no idea how they functioned, especially on hard labour days. T and I both have fast metabolisms and healthy appetites – and we were burning through food practically within minutes. On top of all that, we largely ate vegetarian (with few starches/carbs). Again, that was great, but not in terms of keeping us fuelled.


    The heart of the house

    In week one, we were helping get the place ready for a small concert to be held on the grounds at the end of the week. The hired handyman/groundskeeper came about every other day, and wound up beating us to a ton of the things on our to-do list, not to mention doing them a million times better. It was like we were just in his way most of the time. Getting used to doing physical labour took a few days. I was so exhausted, I started taking siestas in the middle of the day (though I later adjusted and no longer needed to nap).

    In week two, things were a little more settled. We went along on a supermarket trip and got some extra food items. T got increasingly frustrated by some of our host’s personality quirks/management style, and by a few of the long days we put in. I got frustrated by his attitude. Personally, I take cues from those around me, and I’m not comfortable relaxing while my host is busy doing stuff, even if I’ve already racked up my hours for the day. I believe in putting in what it takes to get stuff done rather than simply doing the bare minimum of hours – and of always going the extra mile, giving before you get, giving more than you get. (Obviously within reason; I see no reason to bust your butt for years for a corporate without ever seeing any rewards for it, for example.) I really do wonder if his outlook would have been different if we had been getting paid, and then paying for board, for example, rather than it being a straight exchange of work for board. Getting used to working again after such a long break was also probably a challenge.

    In week three, T came across a viper in the house while going into the toilet. We took a day trip to nearby Viterbo, where we stuffed ourselves silly with gelato, pasta, and burgers (him). It was a full house, with a couple renting the next door cottage, and a family of four crashing in the main house as well. (The young boys were undisciplined terrors, though they had their moments.)


    Corn we picked and strung up

    For our first and only HelpX experience, I don’t think we could have done better. There were trips to the nearby beach and lake, a free concert, a night out with our host’s son (SO many underage Italian kids partying up at the local yacht club/bar), and dinner parties. A lot of them. We had no idea what was going on conversation-wise a lot of the time, but it was good fun, with interesting and lively characters. Everyone was so friendly, and those who did speak English engaged us in conversation, wanting to know how we liked Europe, what New Zealand is like, and offering travel tips. Almost everyone was a musician (I never thought I’d meet an opera singer, let alone this many), and we were treated to plenty of performances. Plus, we looked forward to dinner party nights, as there was usually ample food for a change.

    etruscan tomb cave

    Old Etruscan tombs/caves on the farm

    In a nutshell: an unforgettable three weeks; a frugal three weeks (one day trip, a couple of extra supermarket stops, a couple of nights out and a small contribution to the house kitty); a unique way to farewell Italy.

  • Italy, aka ‘New Zealand upside down’

    “New Zealand! It’s Italy, upside down!” exclaimed the swarthy proprietor at B&B Mercurio in Bologna. Palpably delighted to have their first ever guests from New Zealand, he and his partner were all smiles as they asked us about the rest of our itinerary and assured us, with a meaningful look at T, that we were in safe hands (if size is any indication, then sure).

    Indeed, New Zealand is the opposite of Italy in so many ways, and not just as a physical mirror image. We can’t hold a candle to them in food, fashion, or history. Everything we encountered was a revelation.

    cannonballs city walls bologna

    Some cannonballs with your old city walls?

    Canals in Venice don't smell

    The canals in Venice didn’t smell at all, even at the sticky height of summer.

    rome colosseum at night

    What can I say about Rome that hasn’t already been said countless times before? Simply stupendous.

    skulls via fontanelle cemetery naples

    Skulls. Real ones, en masse. At the public Fontanelle catacomb cemetery. Possibly the best free sight in Naples.

    statue naples national archaeological museum

    Oh, and the statues at the archaeological museum. So many are replicas of Greek originals, but still enthralling.

    concrete blocks amalfi coast

    Creepy concrete blocks along the Amalfi coast.

    Amalfi town on Amalfi coast - pastel buildings

    Also recommend: wharf jumping alongside squealing Italian kids at Minori, and taking a breezy ferry ride one way and a bus ride the other – the experiences are total polar opposites, and seeing the drivers handle the insanely tight clifftop turns is mind-blowing. (The traffic was a non-issue, despite all our hostel receptionist’s insistence that it would be dire.)

    Bracciano castle

    The castle – beautifully preserved, and just like the kind you learn to draw as a child – in medieval Bracciano.

    viterbo city walls

    Inside the walled town centre of Viterbo.

    Purple bicycle outside a shop in Viterbo, Italy

    Where we saw this delightful scene, starring a frou-frou purple bike.

    Our very first days in Italy were mundane, but not in a bad way. Lazy days, starting with panzerotti from the local bakery in Bologna. A botched attempt at doing laundry, successful only because one Italian matron was kind enough to flag down a young woman walking her dog outside the shop, who spoke English and could translate for us.

    People going out of their way to help us in Italy, in fact, were one of the best things about the country – like the two old gentlemen in Naples, who helped us get on the right bus to Via Fontanelle, and then to navigate our way to the cemetery itself, respectively. The elderly man and woman who helped us find our hostel amongst the back alleys in Salerno. And of course, those bubbly owners at B&B Mercurio. I cannot rave about them enough (damn you Booking.com for not inviting me to leave a review this time!). A five-star boutique B&B, with a luxurious and gleaming bathroom, lollies on a stack of clean towels – even a sparking white flatscreen smart TV, for goodness sake – at two-star prices.

    I’m just about ready to move on to the next adventure, but giving up fresh Italian mozzarella is going to be a bitch.