Two things you should know:

1) It is typical for the young people of Tuscany to go out in the countryside at various points of the year to contribute their labor to the efforts of the contadini (farmers) who continue to practice agricultural traditions that are centuries old.

2) This experience was to be completely unique from our experiences thus far in Florence.

The Casale di Villore is the brainchild of Simone, a man completely dedicated to restoring lives and restoring the agricultural traditions of the countryside. In cooperation with other social services organization, he oversaw the restoration of the Prior’s residence, a large home adjacent to a church somewhat remote in the area of Vicchio. The structure houses groups (students as well as other organizations) in return for providing labor on the farm. In addition, the Casale di Villore offers these experiences to other groups (people with mental illnesses, substance abuse problems, or prison records) in an attempt to provide them with new skills and the feeling of accomplishment. At the time we were in Villore, we were the only occupants of the house.

The house is rustic — there is no denying that we had to shift gears and accept that we were 22 people in an accommodations that had three toilets and four shower heads. There are also “critters” — spiders, bees, flies, lizards and, at least in one room, a scorpion. This may qualify as camping, with a “pack in, pack out” sort of feel.

After breakfast, we walked up the hill to where Simone lives with his girlfriend, two sweet dogs, two donkeys and 20 chickens (and a rooster). He told us about the history of the place and the mission of his organization. His connection to the land is palpable and his convictions admirable.

We broke up into two work groups — one that was charged with splitting and stacking wood. The other group trekked into the orchard and began the task of clearing the ground around the castagna (chestnut) trees. Armed with machetes, clippers and a saw, we chopped and hacked away the invasive growth that would impair the harvest of chestnuts.

The hill is steeply sloped and the chestnuts are gathered by hand. In late September, they string nets at the bottom of the hill and as the chestnuts fall of the trees, they tumble down the hillside and are collected in the nets. The areas around the trees must be cleared of brush to prevent the chestnuts from getting tangled up.

The work was vigorous (and definitely required some skill), but Simone was patient as he gave us direction.

After several hours, we wrapped up, admired the work we had accomplished, and went down to the Casale to make lunch. Pasta aglia olio with croutons and cheese was accompanied by a hearty green salad. The rest of the day was free to nap, draw, hike, or read.

A preparation crew was assembled to make dinner. We were expecting guests — Simone and his friends as well as our friends from the Ospitale — Mara, Tomaso and Caterina. Simone brought fresh figs, an amazing tomato salad and an incredible Italian salami. The appropriate way to eat the salami was wrapped around one of the fresh figs. Unbelievable. We prepared two types of risotto (one with pesto and the other with porcini mushrooms and leeks), grilled sausage, green salad and bread. The aromas in the kitchen were indescribable. Just like camping, there’s something special about food prepared this way!

Works inspired by our stay…