A working holiday is a fantastic way to spend some time off your day job, and with such vast and beautiful countryside a stone’s throw away from Malta, Calabria offers the perfect playground for a holiday, with a bit of a twist.
The beauty of the region is surprising. Rolling hills, interrupted by mountains and joined by deep valleys, gently easing their way to lush sandy beaches on the east coast of Italy. Each hill is full of nature, with the tiniest of villages dotted around, where people live a very different sort of life than the one we are used to. No one is in a rush, and they only live within their means. Many of the locals in Calabria are older than 50 years old, as all most of the youths have traded village life for student life in the bigger cities of Rome or Milan. The few who get left behind become accustomed to a more laid back culture, with not much on their mind other than farming their lands.
The villages in Calabria can mostly be seen from each other however a car is definitely recommended to drive around the swirling roads, some spanning across high bridges, over 2000m above the sea level. Riding around up here will make you dizzy, but that just adds flavour to the trip.
If renting a car is not an option, driving up from Malta through the incredibly rich country roads of Sicily is definitely worth it. The point to point journey on the autostrada won’t take more than 4 hours, however driving through the country roads is the best way to do it, if you do not mind the idea of being stuck behind a flock of sheep, or a herd of cattle on the way.
We started our trip in Modica, where we arrived earlier than the café’s opening hours, giving us enough time to soak in the step ridden village. Viewpoints are aplenty here as Modica is an iconic village set in a valley, with rustic and Baroque houses stacked on top of each other, separated by narrow passageways of steps, patterned with little trees and vegetation. Famous for its Cannoli and chocolate, Modica is minutes away from Pozallo and should not be ignored for its ageing charm and timeless beauty.
Driving up from Modica we saw fit to sample the different cannoli from the little villages surrounding the area, and each one was better than the last, and the expressions on the local’s faces upon seeing three young foreigners in their café was brilliant. Chatting to the locals revealed a sense of Sicilian Pride, even if some had returned to the land after spending a lifetime as far away as Australia. To be Sicilian means to belong to the land, to love it, to care for it and to live in harmony in it, and we got this feeling right through to the bella Calabria.
Calabrians speak with a dialect which even for a person who understands Italian well is difficult to grasp immediately. They drag their vowels out and speak in a calm relaxing way, letting their hands help me understand exactly what they meant. Working the land here is a way of life so we often beat sunrise to make it to the Olive trees as early as possible, resisting the temptation of a scrumptious Cappuccino on a few occasions. Cappuccino would be my fuel as the gruelling work did take its toll. With over 250 olive trees to shake, our work was cut out and even though it kept me busier than an average week in the office, the work is mentally relaxing and an extremely good work out while breathing in fresh, clean air. Taking a break from the office is just perfect, but to be able to do it on the sun drench foothills of Calabria, while stimulating my muscles and straightening my back out is an added bonus.
For each tree we had a cycle. Cover the surrounding ground with huge curtain like nets to catch the falling olives, climb the tree to shake the loose olives, then use tall bamboo sticks to beat the more stubborn olives down onto the nets. The hard work did not stop there as those nets have to be bagged, and eventually carried up to the vehicles and dropped off at the Olive Press.
Sounds simple enough, right? Think again. The physical nature of the work will bear down on you, however when you look up to see an impressive 80 year old climbing tall olive trees to carry out his work, complaining or sighing seems useless.
At 80 there is no sign that Luigi will ever stop. He is fit and very enthusiastic, even if he barks out orders in a sharp Calabreze tongue. He speaks little to no English, while my Calabreze is rusty to say the least, but as he showed us how it’s done, while 10 metres up in a tree, we somehow managed to communicate and his example was inspirational.
This gentle man was buzzing with energy, loving his land and I can only dream of climbing trees effortlessly when I am 80. Anyone who knows me knows I am full of energy and I only wonder what Luigi was like in his younger years.
Luigi relies on the land for life. He wakes up to a breakfast of freshly laid free range eggs, farms his land until lunchtime, when his lovely wife prepares a huge spread of organic food for us all to devour. Heavy from lunch, we then return to the field, looking forward to our even bigger dinners.
The food here has a special flavour. The added ingredient of love for the land does wonderful things and you find yourself over eating at every chance. The land is a way of life for these incredible people, and they worry about nothing else. Like Luigi there are hundreds of Calabrians around the region, each willing to give a helping hand in trading terms, each producing kilos of olive oil, eggs, peppers and anything else they can farm.
Besides the luscious food, the second best thing about the trip was perhaps the fact that for the whole time we were there we had no phone signal, meaning no annoying notifications and a fantastic way of totally switching off from everything that clutters our everyday life. We lived like kings, in a very simple fashion, enjoying every moment on the fields as much as we could, and to be frank we did not miss the Western way of life. At one point I even completely forgot the Premier League was on during the weekend, and that says everything.
Such is the richness in the land, we even took a day off from the field to pick chestnuts in the woods, which began to show loving signs of autumn with each leaf crunching under our feet. Roasting the chestnuts on an open fire by a huge natural waterfall was just the treat after a hard day’s work, and this lifestyle really made me question every aspect of my life, and after managing to farm two tonnes of olives between five workers we vowed to return to the area year after year, as switching off from the grind is totally worth it.
A trip like this should costs thousands due to the experience gained, however do not be discouraged. Getting your car across to Sicily is not expensive and you will return with it completely stuffed with oranges, mandarins, olives and olive oil, meaning your adventure has also left you with a full fridge.
For me the week has not just left me with the knowledge of how to farm olive trees, but has opened my eyes to a completely different way of living in Europe, and I am grateful to Simone who made the trip possible, his father and the mighty Luigi, who really inspired each one of us to push ourselves that little bit more.
Article originally published on Pavli Style – online magazine
All images on instagram: @stribesun
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