Home > Travel > Europe
Tuesday September 3, 2013 MYT 6:00:00 AM
Friday August 30, 2013 MYT 3:56:40 PM
by emine saner
Monestevole, the community farm in Umbria, Italy. - Photo from Tribewanted.
Sustainable tourism company Tribewanted’s latest project is a community farm in rural Umbria, where guests are welcome to get their hands dirty.
YOU don’t expect to find yourself on a building site when on holiday but I like this one. The only nod to health and safety seems to be a quick “peep-peep” from the digger as it swings a chunk of oak into position. After-work refreshment comes in the form of a huge jar of white wine, drunk from small glasses with muddy hands.
My co-workers are cheery Italians who stop every few minutes to chat, and a few curious dogs and horses come to have a closer look. And the view: the hills of Umbria, Italy, surround us, gently glowing in the spring sunshine.
We’re building what will be a tool shed and milking barn in one of the fields around Monestevole, a 15th-Century hamlet high on a hillside in central Italy. I had underestimated how satisfying it would be to build something, mostly by hand, that literally rises from this ground.
The struts are wood from nearby forests, the insulation is straw, the foundations are made from small slabs of rock dug up in another field and the walls are made from the earth, heavy with clay, scooped from the ground, daubed on and smoothed by hand. The wall is barely four feet high when the wine comes out and work slows.
Monestevole has been run as an agriturismo for some time by its owners, Valeria and Alessio, who bought it as a ruin in the mid-1990s and restored it, but last week it reopened in partnership with sustainable tourism company Tribewanted, and we are its first guests.
This is Tribewanted’s third project. When the company launched in 2006, it attracted a huge amount of media attention, including a BBC series. The idea was to build an online community of paying members – the “tribe” – who would create a sustainable tourism project on a Fijian island.
It was hailed as a revolution in tourism but lack of funding, difficulties in engaging people online long-term, and the local government asking the company to pay a large chunk of a new lease up front meant the Fiji project ended in 2011 (the funding model has now changed to a monthly subscription of £10 (RM48), which gives “tribe” members preferential rates and a say in decisions, and provides the destinations with a steady income).
In the meantime, the company set up a similar site on a beach in Sierra Leone, and now here in Italy, which is a bit of a departure – less remote, less adventurous, and with a less obvious social impact.
“We wanted to do a project in a more developed location,” says Ben Keene, Tribewanted’s co-founder, who is peeling potatoes in the kitchen while I sit lazily by with a glass of wine.
“The model we are trying to build, which hasn’t changed, is: how can we take the best of a cultural heritage and marry it with the future of how we might use energy, water, waste, and make it work.”
One of the other guests, Kate, who works in marketing in London, has already been to Tribewanted’s site in Sierra Leone. That trip, she says, changed her life. “I came away after two weeks and I don’t think I’ve ever felt better about the world.” So my expectations are high.
The 47ha that make up the site are barely half an hour from Perugia airport, and 10 minutes from the pretty town of Umbertide, and yet it feels remote. The main house, a beautiful stone building ringed with rosemary bushes, was once a watchtower for Monestevole castle, on the other side of the mountain.
Life continues here much as it must have for centuries – the cow is milked every morning, pigs are raised (I spend a lot of time watching 10 tiny piglets follow their mother around), bread is made, olives are harvested, wine is fermented. The people who work here come in for lunch and dinner and we all sit at large wooden tables.
My room is part of an apartment on the first floor, with a four-poster bed and views of the valleys from every window. It’s tempting to hole up here, next to the large fireplace in the living room, but that would mean missing out on whatever is going on downstairs – probably a raucous game of briscola, an addictive card game. One night, Alessio’s band plays an entertaining, if odd, mix of freestyle jazz and Italian rap metal, in one of the smaller buildings, where he has built a stage.
Keene stresses that this isn’t a volunteer project, but a hillside retreat where guests can get involved in daily work if they want to. There isn’t any pressure to help, and anyway, depending on the weather, there aren’t always things to be done. Until the third day, when I help plant strawberries, I feel like I haven’t really done much except for go for walks accompanied by one of the dogs.
One problem, I soon realise, is being a vegetarian in a place where pig fat or cured pork is not only a part of every meal, but seems to be in every dish. The news that I don’t eat meat is alarming to my Italian hosts. “When did this happen to you?” asks one, with genuine concern. They don’t seem to know what to do with me.
For the first few days, the monotony of pasta with courgettes is broken only by a courgette omelette. Things improve later in the week when lentil dishes and a porcini risotto appear.
So it’s not perfect – yet – but then it’s meant to be an ongoing project, led by the Monestevole community with input from Tribewanted members. Seeing it grow is enlightening in itself – I now know how to build an adobe house, should the need arise, and I’m tempted to return when they eventually put in the wind turbines.
What is most affecting, though it sounds cheesy as parmesan, is seeing how these people live their lives – in a close community, alongside nature and in step with the seasons. Tribewanted is running a funny sort of subversion: it’s a very modern venture that owes its existence to the Internet and social networking and crowdfunding, but it brings people to a place with little phone signal and intermittent WiFi, and reminds you that getting your hands dirty and eating together and living in a very simple way can be fulfilling. At least for a few days.
Because these people do seem to be among the happiest I’ve met.
“It’s very beautiful here,” says Alessio, with understatement. We have finished work on the raw-earth tool shed for the day, and he has turned his attention to his olive trees. He sits high in a tree, pruning saw in hand, in a grove that tumbles away to the valley below. “I come up here, and don’t feel the stress.”
The sun dips over the mountain behind him and we make our way towards the house to scrub the clay from our hands in time for dinner.
For more information visit tribewanted.com (+39 075 941 5569). – Guardian News & Media
Tags / Keywords:
Transport & Safety, sustainable tourism, tribewanted, umbria, italy
Copyright © 1995-2013 Star Publications (M) Bhd (Co No 10894-D)