Beyond the glass: eco-volunteering at a winery in Sicily with Worldpackers
On my first Worldpacker's experience, I was surprised that a winery in Sicily offered me not only the opportunity for adventures in nature and to see the remains of ancient cultures, but also how healthy and relaxed I felt after doing two weeks of work.
When I accepted my first position with Worldpackers at a winery in Sicily, I of course wasn't sure what to expect.
Would it be awkward to live with a host family who I had never met? Would the work be too difficult? Would I get bored living out on a small winery in the middle of rural Sicily? After all, this wasn't anywhere near the main tourist destinations like Palermo or Syracuse.
Thankfully, the experience not only met my expectations but exceeded my highest hopes. I'm still riding the positive energy and can't wait to begin my next experience (going to Spain, stay tuned for more)!
Working in Sicily, relaxing in nature
This was my first position with Worldpackers, and due to unforeseen circumstances, I had to cancel one experience and change my travel plans with only a week or two before I left home. I had no idea where I was going, but then the host of this vineyard in the middle of Sicily reached out. They had been ill, so didn't originally respond to my application.
I wasn't planning on going to Sicily, at this point I was hoping to stay in the north of Italy, but this was the way the wind was blowing, so I opened my sails.
I caught a cheap flight from Turin to Catania, then a bus from Catania to Caltanisetta, where my host picked me up. (I found the public transport in Sicily to be very satisfactory and easy to navigate).
I passed two weeks working on their winery. The main project was repairing and painting holes in the walls from water damage, but I also got to work on farm machinery and giving English lessons to their children.
I am an English teacher by trade, so the mother of the family was happy to have me there to play and learn with her two boys, aged six and two.
The hosts were very understanding that I also teach and take a university degree online, so I was able to do all this while keeping up with my "real life."
But it wasn't all work. This winery was located in the midst of a gorgeous, rolling natural landscape, spotted by small mountains which are home to ruins of 2000-year old villages.
The Sicilian wind whispers through olive trees and grape vineyards as it lifts the local falcons to the clouds. I'm a fan of bird-watching, so I loved waking up early to have a stroll through the woods and find new species I'd never seen before.
The ancient culture of Sicily
There are several nearby locations which are current sights of archeological discovery, as traces of ancient civilizations dating back to the Bronze Age have been discovered.
One Saturday afternoon, I hiked up Gibil Gabib, past 1000-year old catacombs, to watch the sunset on the olive groves, while Mount Etna loomed in the distance over my shoulder. A feeling of incredible joy and thankfulness washed over me. I had a feeling as if thousands of years of history had worked together just so I could have this hike and watch this sunset.
I felt a thankfulness to my ancestors and all the friends who had helped me along the path, and I felt a thankfulness to myself for taking a leap and attempting this new adventure. I'm usually quite down to earth and not very prone to such emotions. I really believe there is something magical about that mountain, Gibil Gabib. I recommend you visit if you have the chance.
The nearby town, Caltanisetta, is not the most famous tourist destination, but it is a city of 60,000 people with some interesting cathedrals, a castle ruin, and the place where I finally ate my first "real" pizza in Italy. That was another feeling of incredible joy and thankfulness!
Being centrally located in Sicily, I was able to take day trip adventures to several nearby locations, including the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, which contains some of the most well-preserved remains of ancient Greek culture outside of Athens itself.
I was also finally able to achieve my goal of climbing to the top of Mount Etna. Well, not exactly to the top. This is of course not allowed because, you know, active volcano and all. But as close as I could get, up to almost 3000 meters!
To summarize, my adventures included:
- hiking and birdwatching off the beaten track in rural Sicily
- visiting Bronze Age archeological sites such as Gibil Gabib
- visiting the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento
- hiking Mount Etna
- swimming at the beach in January (water and air temperature were the same: 16 degrees celsius. Not bad!)
By this point, it's clear I saw some amazing historical sites and passed a beautiful time in nature, but adventures weren't the only benefit of my time in Sicily .
I'm most thankful for what a healthy and positive experience this was. I had been living a stressful life with some unhealthy habits in the city, grinding away at work and university.
Once I got out to the winery, I ate well (because they fed me three amazing meals every day), I got loads of fresh air (as I was working outside), and I slept and woke up early (in a very comfortable bed with a large window watching the sun rise over Mount Etna).
Although I was working hard, I haven't felt so relaxed in ages.
Visiting different archeological sites, particularly the Valley of the Temples, combined with my time in nature, gave me some fresh new perspectives on Western Civilization, and my role in it.
The Greeks believed that their architecture should reflect the perfection they saw in nature. As I passed time viewing these timeless temples and mountains, I also had time to reflect on what work of quality I am producing in my life.
It may seem like a cliché to say "my travels changed me." After all, I've been doing this lifestyle since 2013, this wasn't the first time I'd gone somewhere new and done new things. But this time felt different. I got a geological and historical perspective which has continued to inspire me and give me context for my further travels in the following weeks.
Often, as a young professional or digital nomad, we get locked into only having contact with other people of our generation.
If you're reading this and you're like me, ask yourself, "When was the last time I talked to somebody outside the age range of 25-35?" You might be surprised to realize you go days at a time without interacting with anybody who's not the same age as you!
As I mentioned, I got to spend time with two little boys, which was very refreshing. I do teach children, but my work is all online, so it was refreshing to have some actual face-to-face play time with little kids.
I also had an opportunity to have some family dinners with the parents of my host. The parents were in their 80s, of course spoke no English, and had never met an American before in their small town of only 6,500 people (called "Serradifalco", which means "Mountain Range of the Falcons").
Nevertheless, we had an amazing time full of laughs, me practicing my broken Italian mixed with Spanish, handmade tortellini, and stigghiola. (Stigghiola is a Sicilian specialty which involves grilled lamb intestines and onions. I'm usually vegetarian, but couldn't resist sampling this specialty.)
I'm so thankful I got the time to be part of a real family and make connections with these different generations. In the same week, I shared an ice cream cone with a two-year old and made my new oldest Facebook friend, an 82-year old olive farmer from the middle of Sicily!
I could write an entire article about the delicious food and drinks I tried in Sicily, but a quick overview of the best included:
- cannoli with ricotta
- arancini (this is a deep fried street food, something like a Scotch egg, but the inside contains risotto and ragú)
- pizza with anchovies (the classic Sicilian way)
- Malvasia wine, a grape original to the island of Madeira but which grows prolifically in Sicily
- Marsala, a fortified red wine much like a port
By now, it should be clear I have nothing but positive things to say about my first Worldpackers experience.
In a matter of a few weeks, I was able to climb mountains, swim in the sea, visit ancient temples, and do enjoyable work repairing walls in a winery and playing with kids. But it wasn't just these tangible adventures that made my experience so worthwhile.
The fresh air, quite time in the countryside, and joyful hours spent in a friendly family were exactly what the doctor had ordered. I didn't expect to feel so relaxed after going somewhere to perform manual labor!
In addition, I got a deep perspective on how the Greeks and the Bronze Age civilizations before them influenced the development of Western Civilization as we know it today.
These perspectives became quite important as I continued to travel to my next stop, Rome, but we'll save that story for the next time! Ciao!