DESTINATIONS: Volunteering On A Vineyard in the Spanish Pyrenees

San_Mauricio_lake_spanish_pyrenees

San Mauricio Lake, Spanish Pyrenees photo via Creative Commons

Volunteering On A Vineyard in the Spanish Pyrenees

 

(The following is a guest post from GGT social media assistant Emma Higgins, who also runs the blog Gotta Keep Movin. If you’re a blogger interested in guest posting for us, please email Editor in Chief Bret Love at [email protected]

 

I had eaten snails, drank 45-year-old wine, joined in at the festival of  La Ronda (which involves musicians serenading all the women in the village), learned the Spanish words for numerous different construction tools, gotten introduced to the family of a couple I’d met just hours before, and been lovingly licked all over my legs by an adorable little dog named Chorchi.

 

I think this just about sums up my first 24 hours at Casa Luisa, which is nestled in a tiny village named Secastilla up in the Spanish Pyrenees. Compared to my life as an English teacher in Barcelona, this was more than a little different.

 

Chorchi the Dog at Casa Luisa

Chorchi the Dog at Casa Luisa

 

I first came across Casa Luisa through a website named Help Exchange, which provides lists of volunteer placements all over the world. Unlike so many other volunteer opportunities you will find online, Help Exchange just asks for a 20 euro fee to cover their administration costs, and then gives you a 2-year membership and allows you to access all of their features.

 

You can browse through the lists of farms, hostels, hotels, sustainable living projects, yoga getaways and much more, in order to find a host perfect for you. The idea is that, in exchange for work (which in most places tends to be 6 hours a day, 5 days a week), volunteers are given room and board. For travellers on a tight budget looking for an authentic experience in the country they’re visiting, Help Exchange ultimately proves to be a dream come true.

 

I decided to take a break from my city life back in Barcelona, and took the 4-hour journey up to Graus, the next town over from Secastilla. From there I was picked up by Jesse, the American who runs Casa Luisa, and then later introduced to his wife, Marie Jose, who grew up in Graus. Casa Luisa is mainly known for running a series of vineyards around the valley, as well as almond and olive groves.

 

Almond Grove in Spanish Pyrenees

Almond Grove at Casa Luisa

 

However, this placement offered so much more to volunteers, as the couple encourages an overall lifestyle of self-sufficiency and sustainability. The vegetables are home-grown, the soap is handmade, and the drinking water is collected from a natural spring. Everything here is reused, there’s a minimal amount of plastic lying around and, perhaps most importantly, the wine tastes better than any other I have ever tried.

 

The volunteer’s daily tasks depend on what the priorities are for the time of year. Vineyard work runs almost all year- round, including harvesting, spraying and pruning. However, during my stay the house was going through a major renovation, so much of the work I did was in construction. Entire mornings were dedicated to mixing cement– a new skill I can now add to my resume. There’s also plenty of work for volunteers in the kitchen, giving you a chance to spruce up your cooking skills with the many fresh ingredients on offer.

 

Spanish-tortilla

My First Attempt at Making Spanish Tortillas

 

The work can be long and hard: The house starts to stir at 7am, and you’re expected to stir with it. After breakfast, the shifts tend to run from 8am to 2pm, then from 6pm to around 9pm, sometimes going on until 10. The break in the day boils (quite literally) down to the fact that it’s far too hot to work. Your breaks are yours to do use as you please, and if you’re anything like me they will almost certainly involve a siesta. There’s also a short break at 11am, when the house meets up again for almuerto, a kind of snack break to allow you to refuel before you get back on task.

 

The work may be physically challenging at times, but the philosophy of Casa Luisa is “Work hard, play hard.”  In addition to hanging out with your fellow volunteers, you’ll meet locals from Secastilla who pass through the house in droves every day. Marie Jose and Jesse socialise almost every night– either at home with their family and friends, or at the local bar– and you’ll be sure to find plenty of conversation and even live music, where everyone can join in.

 

Spanish_pyrenees_view

The Gorgeous View From the Volunteers’ Window

 

As well as immersing yourself in sustainable living, taking part in volunteer opportunities like this provide perfect opportunities to learn a foreign language. My Spanish is far from perfect, but it has been improving steadily in the small time I’ve been in Secastilla. But volunteering at Casa Luisa is also an opportunity worth taking if you’re looking to learn English. Marie Jose has been working hard to set up the Conversation Station, workshops based in Graus that help people learn conversational English (which all volunteers are invited to attend).

 

Both Jesse and Marie Jose believe that a lot of the work done here couldn’t be done without the help of their volunteers. But it’s not a job to enter into lightly, and certainly should not be considered a lazy country holiday. The work can be intense, but the rewards you gain and the lessons you learn from it outweigh any of the physical exertion. Being here at Casa Luisa has opened my eyes to the realities of life in rural Spain, which is startlingly different from life in Barcelona.

 

In the end, I’ve really enjoyed my experience at Casa Luisa. Sustainable volunteering allows you to make a contribution to the country you’re visiting, teaches you how to live a life with less impact on your surroundings, and it will also result in a lot less impact on your purse strings.  –text and photos by Emma Higgins, except where otherwise noted

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  1. As a spaniard I can say that your first tortilla looks really great! And the Pyrenees is one of my favorite places in the world. The Pyrenees and the Kalahari desert. Love them! Glad you enjoyed your stay there!

    • Interesting, DJ! For me, I think my first choice would be to volunteer at a game reserve in Africa, although we are currently looking into helping plant new sea coral down in the Florida Keys.

    • I think that would be my only problem with the voluntourism experience Emma describes: The allure of the surrounding landscape would make focusing on work for the vast majority of the day EXTREMELY difficult!

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  3. It sounds like a great way to see a bit of the area and get to know the local culture. I’m heading to the Pyrenees in a couple of weeks and am really excited about it now!

    • Cool! I haven’t been to Europe in quite some time (the Scotland/England trip I did in 2002 was the last time), but am hoping to make it to Scotland, Iceland and/or Norway in 2013. Maybe we can meet up at some point!

    • I’m with you: The hard work sounds like exhausting! Mary and I are looking into some voluntourism opportunities for 2013. I’d really like to go help plant new coral reefs down at John Pennekamp State Park in the Florida Keys!

  4. I love, love, love this post! I’m looking for ways to carry on travelling next year for as long as I possibly can, and Help Exchange sounds perfect. It sure doesn’t sound easy, but as you say it’s a unique way to get a real insight into a country.

  5. Hi guys – thanks so much for all the lovely comments! I’m so happy that I may have inspired some of you to try the same. Don’t worry – not all placements are such hard work. The wine definitely helped!

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  8. Great experience! Its amazing how sometimes foreigners find out about cool things to do in your country than yourself!

    Btw, its not “almuerto” which means “to the dead person” but “almuerzo”

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  10. This sounds like an amazing place, any chance you could tell me how to contact them? I have been looking through helpx myself but yet to come across anything like this in Spain.

  11. Hey Rebecca – I just replied to your message you left on my blog. Just leaving a comment on here too to let Bret know that I’ve answered your query about how to contact Casa Luisa!

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