From the leaning tower of Pisa to the marble marvels of Florence Cathedral, Tuscany boasts an abundance of stimuli for each of the five senses of its millions of visitors each year. In fact, TripAdvisor informs us, there are 4,406 ‘Things to Do’ in the region, one of Italy’s most popular. If you managed two things a day, it’d take you over six years to do them all.
With so much on offer, a visit to Tuscany can easily turn into a high-endurance treasure hunt, where the goal becomes to tick the next church, the next square, the next museum off the list before taking a quick selfie, downing a life-giving espresso and moving on.
More static holidays don’t have to be duller ones, however. And working hard in Tuscany could be one of the most relaxing holidays you’ve had.
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On the Ponte Vecchio in Florence – stunning but bustling. Photo: Fiona Heib
I have just spent two weeks "WWOOFing" on a farm in the Apennines between Florence and Bologna.
The premise behind WWOOFing – it stands for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms – is that you work on one of a huge selection of organic farms and get free accommodation, food and fresh air in return. For Italian opportunities you just sign up at wwoof.it, pay a €35 fee for access to their national database, and contact the farm for you.
If the farm I was on had its own TripAdvisor page and listed the number of tasks to complete, traditional homemade dishes to try, local stories to hear and species of animal to see, it might rival the Tuscany page’s 4,406 ‘Things to Do’ – the difference being that none of them had entry fees or queues, and few of them were farther away than the next field or room.
The orange farmhouse was situated at the end of a winding, rocky road on the top of one of the tallest hills around, with separate fields for cows, poultry, saffron, beans and young chestnut trees sloping down steeply on all sides. The house itself used to be a leper colony, and local residents apparently still talk of its history as a German base during World War Two.
A muster of peafowl preparing for bed. Photo: Fiona Heib
In the distance on one side of the farm, more hills completely covered in dark green forest as far as the eye could see. On the other, the nearest town, miles away, nestled in a valley amongst yet more hills carpeted with crops, light green grass and rows of pointed cypress trees.
Every now and then, the background music of typical European bird song was interrupted by the call of a cuckoo – the perfect opportunity to uphold the local tradition of rolling around on the floor to cure back pain when hearing the bird for the first time – the cry of a peacock from the shed roof, or the distant barking of dogs from a fenced ring within the forest where hunters bring their canines to get used to the smell of wild boar.
My five-hour working days were governed by a triumvirate of the needs of my host family, my own interests and the weather. Tasks included helping to cut trees near the perimeter fence (acrobatic stone martens are a constant menace to poultry in the area); weeding a field of saffron to give mice less cover to eat the bulbs – tough on the hands and calves but part of the deal on an organic farm; and donning a protective suit before puffing smoke around the farm’s hives to distract the bees while the farmer prevented newborn queens from buzzing off with half the swarm: a fascinating ceremony, like a mixture between an outing in a shisha bar and cage diving with sharks.
Smoke distracts the bees, meaning a calmer workplace for the beekeeper. Photo: Fiona Heib
The reward at lunch and dinner was delicious meals such as fried acacia flowers picked from the garden: the crispy, slightly sugary dish is only available for a short time each year and seldom appears on restaurant menus, given the need to pick it fresh. Also on the menu were slow-cooked ragù made mostly of deer the farmer had caught; home-grown fava beans with pecorino cheese; and sweet, clear cherry blossom honey produced by the farm’s bees and too delicious to have on anything but an empty teaspoon.
So what’s the advantage of getting your hands dirty with WWOOFing rather than paying to put your feet up at one of the normal aziende agricole that offer farm tours and stays in the same landscape?
Beyond the cost benefit, helping out on a farm can be more educational and personal, too. The farmer I worked for had qualifications in agronomy and wild animal studies in addition to having trained as a chef, so shared meal times and hours of field work together were perfect opportunities to learn about regional dishes and the intricacies of bee-haviour.
My host family and I were involved in a friendly cultural exchange rather than a transaction. And working the land is a novel way for visitors to give back to the community they’re staying in beyond splashing out on gelato.
Fried acacia flowers – a delicious seasonal dish rarely served in restaurants. Photo: Fiona Heib
Clearly, WWOOFing isn’t for everyone: it may be a world away from battery farming, but for families with children or people with physically intensive day jobs, it might not be any closer to recharge-your-battery farming either. Some farms are less varied – and the hosts perhaps less welcoming – than the one I was on, and certain farms are more prone to accept people wanting to stay for longer than two weeks, so thorough research and clear expectation setting with the host before setting off are key.
But next time you’re planning a holiday in Tuscany, consider doing a little digging to find the most fulfilling experience for you. Literally.
Paul Batty is a Brit currently based in Berlin.