On The Road Editor Cathérine Mester shares her spring break experience as a volunteer in Tuscany.


Somewhere in a remote corner of Tuscany at the foot of Monte Amiata lies a medieval castle inhabited by an Englishwoman, her aging mother, a harlequin Great Dane, a chocolate Labrador puppy, a dynasty of cats, and a changing assortment of young people from all over the world. For two weeks this March I joined a group of three volunteers to experience life and work at the castle. Exhausted by essay deadlines, an early flight, and a long ride on a dusty Italian bus, I arrived with a suitcase of what I considered my most “country” clothes: faded jeans, a baby blue puffer jacket and the most sensible footwear I owned, a snow-white pair of Veja sneakers. Fourteen days later the shoes are unrecognizable, covered with a grimy film, the insides stained with mud, the laces permanently tinted with the colours of the Tuscan land, green, brown, ochre and mauve.

Two weeks of volunteering at the castle are not exactly a holiday. You earn your room and the decadent meals by working for seven hours a day, five days a week, excluding the time spent in the kitchen. The jobs depend on the season and what needs to be done. During my time there I stripped the vines of dead branches, lifted rocks out of the vineyard, hoed fields, planted strawberries, seeded pots, cut down bamboo, and assisted with the building of a greenhouse. I also labelled bottles, made heddles for a loom, baked sourdough bread, cooked meals and washed hundreds of dishes. In return you get more than endless glasses of the house wine, that is, a kind of education, something that years at a university or even a job can fail to impress on you. The lady of the castle is not of the gentle or soft-spoken kind, but forthright and severe in a way that some will find refreshing and, more sensitive souls, upsetting. Understandably, someone who regularly invites strangers to their home, has rules. The rules at the castle are numerous and, lest one wants to fall out of favour with the hostess, are readily observed. No cutting the nose of the cheese, no snacking, all dishes must be washed, dried and put away immediately, finish your plate, no bananas. But first and foremost: respect. At the core of the castle’s philosophy is a veneration of nature, location, and of honesty.

Nothing is quite as humbling as standing in a field in the pouring rain with swollen hands and frozen feet, trying to clip bamboo branches into even lengths, in the knowledge that lunch time is still two hours away, finally realizing how incompetent you are and how pampered you have been all your life. At the end of a long day you fall into bed depleted, but with the satisfaction of knowing that you deserved your rest. Even though your body is sore, and covered with scratches and bruises, you know that you can do more than sit in front of a screen all day, and the desire to commune with the basic elements of life, fire, water, earth, to better understand our relationship to the things that sustain us is something you take with you wherever you go.