Welcome to our Europe blog! 6-8 months in Europe: Volunteering on farms, rock climbing, site seeing, and more!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Family Vacation

After arriving back in Milan for the third time and still not seeing the city, we met my dad at the airport and picked up a rental car. My dad had arrived a couple of days before the rest of my family and was going to stay a few days after they left. The three of us drove south towards the Italian Riviera. Most people who know me know that I would much rather be the driver than passenger as I am a terrible passenger. I am usually convinced that whoever is driving is trying to kill me. I am a particularly bad passenger with my dad because he is always looking around pointing things out to me (usually geological features) instead of being as focused on the road as I would like. Unfortunately I am not yet 25 so I could not drive the rental car. I was a nervous wreck. Italians are extremely fast drivers and not afraid to pass on a completely blind curve. Motorcycles weave in and out of cars travelling at 90mph as if they are parked. They use their horn liberally and for both gratitude and scolding. Italian roads are also about 90% tunnels. Needless to say my dad was quite tired after travelling from the US and then driving for 3 hours. When we were almost there I finally got the nerve to take my eyes off the road and look at the map. As soon as I did, BANG. We had hit a reflector in the tunnel and broken the side mirror. This did not help my nerves. We did make it to the B&B in the agricultural hills above the sea where we were staying safely. After we settled we headed out to get some food. On the way back we sideswiped a stone wall on the side of the driveway at the B&B. This is why you should never buy an ex-rental car. After the first day, there were not any more driving incidents (except us saying right and him going left. Oh, and not knowing how to shift.) The driving did improve greatly as the week went on.

While in the Riviera we drove down the coast into France. It was beautiful in spots but generally really built up. It was a Saturday so there were motorbikes swerving in every direction and people everywhere, but nothing open. We also took a really nice hike over a mountain on the sea to the next town and got to grill in the backyard. After two days we headed to Tuscany to meet the rest of the family. They arrived after us and were pleased to not have had any accidents of their own. They did get stuck in a rest stop though. The next day we all drove the Cinque Terre and walked the Via Del Amor that Lisa and I had done in April. This time we were experts, going in the opposite direction so the hard part came first and not accidently hiking 45 mins to a nude beach. Everyone was blown away by the little villages. We bought pesto in the deli which is as far as I can tell the best in the world. Cait and Anna (my sisters) were happy because they are picky but love pesto.

The next day we went to Florence. As usual we took two cars and were tailgating to get there. The two cars got split up though when my mom got in the wrong lane at a toll booth and had to drive across eight lanes of traffic to correct. I was in the car with her, Lisa and Cait. We had read about a limited traffic zone in Florence that carries a 100 euro fine if you drive in it. Not wanting a fine, we parked as soon as we thought we were near the city center. Turns out we were not. It was an hour walk to the city center. We had no plans for where to meet anyone else so we just headed to the Duomo, the first stop they wanted to see. Sure enough the rest of the family was there as well. We just walked around to some of the highlights in Florence. While we were in Tuscany we also explored Pisa and Lucca and took a really nice drive though the mountains of Tuscany. We did drive into one town and had to back out about 500 meters because the street was too narrow to turn around.

Where we stayed there was a wood burning pizza oven. I had a blow to my cooking ego when I made a couple of scrambled pizzas and a couple topped with burning embers from the wood. After Tuscany we headed back to Venice. Since you cannot drive in Venice we parked on the edge of the island and lugged our stuff across town to our apartment. Again we pretty much just wandered around going back to the highlights and checking out the neighborhoods that we had missed last time. Anna and her friend Lacy had just graduated high school and Anna just turned 18 so they were very excited to be able to drink legally. Every night Anna had a glass of wine and she never liked it. She did however like the Bellinis. One night we were getting ready to go out to a bar and had seen where they were earlier in the evening. We asked her if that is where she wanted to go and she said that it looked boring, “the people are just standing around drinking!” We were sad to inform her that that is what you do at a bar.

Anna and Lacy were also prime targets for the pushy vendors selling knockoff purses and sunglasses. I guess small, blond Americans look like they want to shop. They were also way too nice. When they were being hassled they would just say “I’m really sorry but I don’t have any money on me right now.” Of course they vendors English was not so good so they didn’t know they were being shut down and would continue pushing. The girls would just keep saying “no, but thanks anyway.” The vendors would not relent until they saw the girls were with Cait and me. I guess we did not look friendly.

Overall there were not really any incidents and it went really smoothly. My mom did almost burn the place down by plugging in her American hair dryer. She said that she thought it was strange that the handle was getting red hot. Luckily the circuit tripped right away, leaving us in blackness but not burned to the ground. When the girls left they headed to Milan for a day before going home, while Lisa, my dad and I went to Lake Como to stay with a friend of Lisa’s Dad.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Casa Pollo

We left Torrox behind and made the short 1 hour journey back through Malaga to Casabermeja. In Casabermeja we were met by one of our new hosts, Anne. Anne drove us to their house in the tiny 200 person town of Puerto Del Barco. Puerto Del Barco means passage through the mountains and that is exactly what it is. It is set in an agricultural region in the mountains of Andalucia. Out of our window were mountains as alpine and rocky as the 14ers at home even thought they were only a few thousand feet high. They had olive groves and wheat fields stretching up as high as possible up the steep sides before they gave way to rocky outcrops and buttresses. It really looked as though someone stretched the farmland of Pennsylvania over the topography of the Rockies.

For the first few days we were there we had another wwoofer staying with us as well. Harold was an 18 or 19 old German who was practicing English and Spanish. Harold was very proper and polite, quite the opposite of our last German friend. One day when his job was to trim the lawn out front of the house Harold came out in a suit that looked as though it belonged to the ghostbusters, complete with rubber boots and a full face mask. He would certainly be safe from flying grass! Our hosts John and Anne were more British Expats. I’m starting to wonder if the UK is somewhere I want to go since they all seem to be leaving. Our eating at Papa John’s Place was British food on a Spanish time table. We got up and ate a light breakfast, then would eat toast, coffee and fruit at about 11:00. We would then eat our largest meal of the day at about 2:00 and a light snack at night. When they first told us about the eating we thought they were nuts, why on earth would we need two breakfasts, dinner at 2:00 or 3:00 then nothing until late in the evening. Well it didn’t take long for us to start counting on a second breakfast and we were sure ready for dinner at 2:00. The food was very good but very British; creamy fish pies and steamed veggies for example.

While we were there we did some similar work to what we have been doing; watering, planting and weeding. But our main job was to build a chicken coop. We first had to do some research to find out what a chicken coop entailed and how big it should be. We were given a pile of old junk wood and palates to work with. The only power tool was a compression drill from 1984. We had to fix the saw before we could use it. After some carful analyzing we decided to build the coop out of an old wooden dog crate and a masonite bookshelf. We added vertical shelves to the book shelf so that it would have little chicken cubbies for them to lay their eggs in, complete with doors to access the eggs. The dog crate became the roost where they could sleep on some dowel rods that we installed. We used palm wood and bamboo mats for the shingles to give it a nice tikki look. We even installed window shades and a little door made from a wine box with a nice grape pattern. We also had to build a fenced in area for them to scratch around in. It was a challenge using less than ideal materials and tools but in the end it was a really fun project and a nice change from digging and weeding.

As usual we had plenty of time off as well. One day we went climbing at El Torcal, a tourist attraction on top of a plateau. It was all small limestone towers. The rock was bombproof and the usual fun limestone pockets. Towards the end of the day while I was belaying Lisa I got surrounded by a flock of a hundred sheep. Luckily Lisa scared the crap out of them when I lowered her and they took off. John and Anne were nice enough to drop us off that morning but we decide to walk home. It was a few monotonous miles of pounding downhill on a paved road followed by a fantastic few miles on farm tracks through the wheat crops and olive groves. Another day we climbed the most prominent mountain nearby. It was a scramble right from the start as the only trails were old goat tracks. After scrambling for an hour we got to a high saddle that had about 500 sheep in it. From there, we had a short section of semi-technical rock and another short scramble to the top. We also took some time to explore the nearby city of Antequera which had a cool castle and bull ring. On our last day we took the train to Ronda, about an hour away. Ronda was just another white Andalucian village, except that it is divided by a 200ft deep gorge. It was pretty touristy, but for good reason as it was absolutely spectacular. We had a nice lunch overlooking the gorge and watching the tourists go by in their lines following whatever shiny nic-nac their guide was waving. The next day we were back to Malaga to fly to Milan to meet my family.