Wwoofing: out of the office and into the paddock

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I first heard about wwoofing (willing workers on organic farms) when I worked at the Pillars of Hercules Organic Farm and cafe during my first gap year at 18. The wwoofers would help out with whatever was needed on the farm 5 days a week for 5-6 hours per day in exchange for food and accommodation. It seemed like a great way to travel slowly, learn about what was being farmed,develop some new skills and meet some local people.

Sweat Lodge

Back at base after a 10km hike

Back at base after a 10km hike

Our first wwoofing hosts were Chris and Mabel at Rineck in the Baden Württemberg countryside. Chris, Melbourne born, is developing a permaculture veggie garden and is Mabel’s son in law. Mabel runs a large seminar house where groups come to practice yoga and meditation. While we were staying there was a group led by a shaman Eskimo from Greenland who built their own ‘sweat lodge’, essentially a sauna in a field which they built from branches covered in blankets and put inside are stones heated from a fire outdoors. They started at about 11pm and went through until 4 or 5am doing chants and well, getting sweaty! It’s supposed to be a spiritual and energy cleanser, not for me as I can only manage about 15 mins in a sauna..

Inspecting a mornings planting in the polytunnel

Inspecting a mornings planting in the polytunnel

Practising permaculture

However, we were more interested in the permaculture practises and learning from Chris some of the techniques he used in the garden. So, what is permaculture? The name was coined in the 70s by Mollison and Holmgren, an Australian student and his professor and stands for permanent agriculture. It basically involves working with nature to grow enough to sustain the plant/crop/land itself and then yield some additional for human consumption. There have been many books written on the subject and I’m keen to learn more about it and hopefully implement some practices when we’re back in Aus. On our first day Chris introduced us to his ‘hugels’, some large mounds which he had built up using a mixture of cardboard, wood and compost so it was really fertile.

Planting seeds in the hugel

Planting seeds in the hugel

We planted a number of seeds including carrots, buckwheat and peas and put a loose covering of straw over the top to help capture the moisture. We also helped Chris to build up some ‘swails’. Fortunately some wwoofers before us had already dug some trenches and our job was to break up the branches of some dead trees to fill them and cover in mulch. The swails then act as a natural water storage so you plant fruit and nut trees down their sides and the roots will soak up the water from the swails. This was a great technique, fairly easy and low in resources that I think would be extremely effective in water scarce environments

Chris also had us using an old Native American technique of building up mounds with compost, topping each mound with 4 small piles of mixed soil and sand in which we planted sweet corn with a pumpkin plant in the middle. We spent a rainy afternoon making up clay balls which had a mixture of clover and alfalfa seeds sprinkled within which we could throw into the swails. I liked the idea that we didn’t have to plant everything in neat rows but could plant different seeds in amongst others.

Jenny learning about making compost

Jenny learning about making compost

We also spent one physically intensive day making up two large mounds of compost. This involved alternatively layering cut grass with brown leaves/hay and then horse manure. It was hard work but it was great to think about how many delicious veggies would benefit from growing in such great compost!

After 3 hours, the lasagne compost is complete!

After 3 hours, the lasagne compost is complete!

We did a variety of other jobs during our stay from clearing out and tidying Chris’s tool shed, to helping out put netting over the large chicken/duck/guinea fowl run to stop the kites from getting at the birds (Chris had recently lost 4 chickens to the kites) to mowing the lawn and collecting the clippings to mulch around the bases of the many fruit and nut trees. We also enjoyed observing Chris transfer a bee swarm he had caught into a more permanent hive, watching the baby chicks and also the little foals frolicking in the next field.
The work was interesting, varied and often physically demanding. We learned a lot and I certainly have had my interest in permaculture peaked that I intend to learn more about it. The work was balanced with participating in Chris’s yoga sessions which we held a few nights a week with locals from the surrounding villages – lovely to stretch out after a day of digging/planting/shifting manure in the garden! It was also a good way to pick up a few German words – left/right, ‘ant spannen’ relax..

Beautiful old water mill which we spy as we come out into the clearing from the forest

Beautiful old water mill which we spy as we come out into the clearing from the forest

Touring in time off
On our days off we enjoyed doing some hiking in the local area (not cycling unfortunately as I was too short for any of the bicycles offered!) where we spotted deer, hare and a beautiful old water mill. We also liked getting away from the tourists wielding selfie sticks to join the locals at the Mannheim stadtfest where we sampled a range of local cuisines (the best was the cherry quark cake) and listened to some bands.

Some of the treats on offer at the stadtfest

Some of the treats on offer at the stadtfest

We also spent a day in Bad Mergentheim, a small quaint village with a very grand fort which was the headquarters for the Teutonic Knights for 300 years.

Lunch in Bad Mergentheim

Lunch in Bad Mergentheim

We had a delicious lunch of kase späetzle (cheese noodles) and maulhausen, huge stuffed pasta washed down with some tasty local beers while sitting out in the sunshine in the main square.

Bad Mergentheim markt

Bad Mergentheim markt

Mitch took us on a short self guided tour around the town before we headed for the fort. There was a great visiting photography exhibition on the ground floor which showed two photos of each person, one in their casual clothes and one in uniform with an accompanying description of how they felt in each. It included nuns, police officers, sportsmen, miners and even a dominatrix!

Mitch learning how to be a good knight

Mitch learning how to be a good knight

The museum about the history of the Knights was more up Mitch’s ally but it was interesting to learn about how having the Knights there over time had affected the local town. We enjoyed walking around the beautiful gardens behind the fort in the late afternoon sun where we saw a few cheeky squirrels playing on the lawn.

Hanging out in Heidelberg
We also spent one hot afternoon off in Heidelberg, a beautiful town set along the Neckar river. Although it was quite touristy we think we timed it well arriving after lunch as the bus loads of Asian tourists were exiting. We got great views down on the town and across to the castle from the philosophenweg, named so because it was where the university academics and professors used to get out of town to ponder, reflect and think deep thoughts.

View from philosophenweg over Heidelberg

View from philosophenweg over Heidelberg

The views were really fantastic however my thoughts only stretched as deep as feeling the need for an ice cream on such a hot day after a steep uphill walk! We walked back into town past the locals sunbathing/bbqing/picnicking on the banks of the river, enjoying the sunshine. Back in the old town, a two scooper mango and caramel popcorn ice cream went down a treat.

Schloss Heidelberg

Schloss Heidelberg

Energy restored we walked up the hill on the other side to the beautiful Schloss, mostly in ruins. It was very pretty to wander through and in and around the gardens.

 

 

 

 

We really enjoyed our first wwoofing experience at Rineck, not only was the food great (think Ayurvedic porridge for breakfasts with freshly ground oats courtesy of Mitch,

Mitch grinding oats for porridge

Mitch grinding oats for porridge

veggie kedgeree for lunch or homemade ice cream with berries from the garden al’a Anna Maria and Claudia, the resident chefs!) but Chris and Mabel were also great hosts . It was nice to be somewhere that friends and neighbours seemed to drop in and out so we could enjoy chatting and learning about their way of life. It was a great way to force Mitch to practice some German, and for some of them, to try their hand at English in return!

Relaxing in the hammock after a hard days work

Relaxing in the hammock after a hard days work

The Sounds of Austria: Verdi to Eurovision to the Von Trapp Family

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Austrian Composers

We stayed in a great airbnb apartment for 3 nights in Vienna which had lovely high ceilings and reminded me of my university flat in Lauriston Place, Edinburgh, aside from the very poorly equipped kitchen – no kettle, toaster, or even bowls! Therefore we had the typical fast food for dinner on our first night from a ‘wurstlstand’ – sausage in a roll with mustard and onions for a backpacker friendly €3.

View from the SRO seats, opera

View from the SRO seats, opera

We then splashed out another €3 each for Standing Room Only tickets to see Verdi’s Nabucco at the Opera House. This was probably the best bargain of the trip so far. We had a fantastic view from the balcony area and really enjoyed the show.

On Saturday we awoke to heavy rain so after cereal from mugs we headed into the city and took in the main sights via the ring tram; a guided tour which takes you in a loop past many of the famous buildings. It was a great introduction to Vienna’s history. imageWe discovered another excellent rainy day activity to fill the afternoon, learning about Austria’s famous composers at the House of Music. It’s a fantastic interactive museum where you can have a go at conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, experience what a baby hears in the womb, make your own waltz from throwing dice and various other fun games with sound.

Sound experiments at the Music Haus

Sound experiments at the Music Haus

Eurovision
After a good hit of classical culture we then turned our ears to something a bit more modern – the Eurovision Song Contest (or ESC as the cool kids call it, perhaps escape?!)

Meeting the Ljubljana dragon at Eurovision

Meeting the Ljubljana dragon at Eurovision

We had planned to watch it in the big square in front of the Rathaus (town hall) but given the heavy rain we had a quick look around, picked up some free merchandise and then found a pub to cheer on the inaugural Australian entrant – Guy Sebastian. It was a fantastic atmosphere and we had a really fun night sitting/dancing next to a table of gay German men who have been following the contest across Europe for years and some spangly clad older Austrian women who took it all quite seriously! Both groups enthusiastically joined our Aussie cheering squad which was lucky for them given the ‘nil points’ scores for both Austria and Germany! We had some traditional food for dinner – goulash and dumplings and tafelspitz – boiled beef with hash browns and horseradish apple sauce which was delicious. I don’t know why we don’t always flavour apple sauce with horseradish, it’s a great combination.

Coffee, cake and schnitzel

Sacher torte and strudel - Vienese culture of coffee and cake

Sacher torte and strudel – Vienese culture of coffee and cake

Still raining on Sunday we met up with an old friend from Maastricht to indulge in one of the Viennese favourite past times – coffee and cake, certified by UNESCO! What a tricky cultural habit for us to adapt to.. We tried the famous Sacher torte, chocolate cake sandwiched with apricot jam which was a bit dry and not that great but we did enjoy the rhubarab strudel 🙂

Hapsburg palace and gardens

Hapsburg palace and gardens

We spent the afternoon at the Hapsburg summer palace and had a long

walk around the gardens where we spotted lots of red squirrels and even some emus in an enclosure! Back in the city for dinner it was our last opportunity to try the famous Wien Schnitzel. It’s traditionally made with veal, very thin, crumbed and served with hot potato salad and a lemon wedge.

Vienese schnitzel

Vienese schnitzel

I thought it might be a bit dry or greasy but it was delicious, and the squeeze of lemon really amped up the flavour.
I liked Vienna, we had a good time at the opera and the Haus of Music however I didn’t love it as much as I expected to. Perhaps it was the constant rain and grey skies but having visited once I feel I’ve seen enough and probably wouldn’t hurry to go back.

Sunny Salzburg

Skipping to the sound of music

Skipping to the sound of music

Salzburg on the other hand, is a different story. The sun came out, the beer flowed freely and the hills were alive with the Sound of Music! The only down side was that we had to stay in a 6 bed dorm as the hostel was really busy. We both decided that we are too old for this shared dorm business after spending the first two nights trying to block out the noise of the amazing snoring man who I’m surprised didn’t wake himself up with the noise!

Back to the good bits though, we came across a little market selling a whole range of flavours of brezen (look a lot like pretzels but are more bready) apple, cherry, chocolate, nuts – what a selection!

View from the fort of Salzburg

View from the fort of Salzburg

They made for good snacks on the way up to the fort where we enjoyed great views of the city. The fort had some great exhibitions on the history of Salzburg, puppets, and various old artefacts. We had a lovely walk back along the ridge which conveniently brought us to an old monestry where they make Augestiner beer. We enjoyed a stein or two of in the beer garden with some pork, sauerkraut and dumplings.

Puppet display - Salzburg fort

Puppet display – Salzburg fort

Ice caving in Hallstatt

We headed off to Hallstatt the next day to explore an ice cave. The rain was back and with it some very low cloud so sadly we didn’t enjoy the supposedly spectacular views going up the mountain in a cable car. It was actually quite eery coming in and out of the clouds.

Haalstatt ice caves

Haalstatt ice caves

The ice caves themselves were fascinating with some incredible formations including frozen waterfalls and stalagmites and stalactites. About 15000 years ago they were home to bears weighing over a tonne which used them for hibernation. We were delighted that one family even brought their dog along for the cave tour! In Austria we noticed that people seem to take their dogs everywhere and they are welcomed with water bowls and pats, such a great arrangement.

We spent the afternoon wandering around the town which was formerly reliant on the large salt mine but it’s economy is now propped up by tourism and the bus loads of Asians that visit.

Haalstatt town

Haalstatt town

Apparently the Chinese liked it so much they’ve actually built a full size replica of the town in China! It is a quaint little place with ‘fachwerkhauser’ stacked alongside the lakeside surrounded by mountains. It reminded us a bit of Lake Bled but with a more concentrated town centre and many more tourists! We sampled a cheese strudel here which was interesting but nothing on the apple, rhubarb or cherry that we’d had elsewhere. Back in Salzburg we had to be creative in the hostel kitchen which was even less well equipped than the airbnb in Vienna. Thank goodness for Mitch’s Swiss army knife so that we could at least chop some salad to have with our tinned tuna and microwaveable Uncle Bens rice..!

The hiiiiiiiills are alive..

Salzburg cycling tour

Salzburg cycling tour

Next day we were booked onto the Fräulein Maria cycling tour with guide Francie who told us more about the history of Salzburg, the real Von Trappe family upon which the musical is based and played songs from the musical as we cycled which we enthusiastically sang along to. It was very cheesy but great fun and I really enjoyed visiting some of the places where the scenes were filmed including the abby, do-rei-me steps and the lake. Apparently the film isn’t at all well known in Austria and Germany.

Von Trapp family house, lake at front where children and Maria fall in from boat!

Von Trapp family house, lake at front where children and Maria fall in from boat!

It must be very strange for locals to see these tourists cycling around town singing these strange songs! The cycle tour went further than we expected and we enjoyed cycling along some farm tracks, enjoying the countryside and narrowly avoided being sprayed with fertiliser from a busy tractor while experiencing the ‘real’ Austria.

Pavilion 'you are 16 going on 17' - Sound of Music tour

Pavilion ‘you are 16 going on 17’ – Sound of Music tour

Although rather touristy Salzburg is a gorgeous town and apparently has some excellent Christmas markets. I’d visit again to experience the town in winter but next up we’re off to Germany!