Established in 1975 on difficult, hilly land above the Luz Valley in the Pyrenees Mountains, Ferme des Cascades has seen its fair share of transitions. Starting from nothing, Jean-Michel Gabriel purchased 2 acres of steep, marginal land per year for seven and built up a barn, dairy, and herd of goats. In 1990, a young british gal named Susie, who was traveling through to Spain, with visions of eventually moving to South America, was lending a hand on the farm. Tragically during her stay a fire started in the hay and burned everything down. Susie ended up sticking around to help rebuilding the farm, dedicating herself to the care of the goats and the cheese making, while Jean-Michel rebuilt and expanded the farm to eventually include sheep and cows. In the last few years the farm has taken on three new associates in their 20's to continue the farm as Jean-Michel looks forward to retirement.
Here it was, the beginning of October and the weather in Alsace was holding out. After a mild, wet July and August, the continued sunshine was much welcomed in NE France. And it made us begin to reconsider our previous plans for our last ride of the trip. We had originally thought that we would train down south from Truttenhausen and do a few days riding in the Pyrenees before arriving at our last farm stay, but given the good weather up north we opted to bike from Truttenhausen to Paris where we could leave our bikes and train down south without all the hassle (and cost) of lugging the bikes on and off trains all the way across the country yet again. It was over 600km from the farm to Paris and we only had 8 days to do it in, so we had set ourselves up for our most ambitious ride yet.
Perhaps it was that we arrived at just the right time- past the driest heat of summer, in the full swing of harvest and production. It also could be that we had some rough WWOOFing wake-up calls just prior to our arrival - realizing, at Sunny Meadows and Mold House Farm, that we could take for granted neither our hosts' passion for agriculture nor their commitment to the WWOOFing ethos of education, exchange, and integration. Or it could simply be that we were back in France, and happily fattened on the realities of French pâtisserie and encore du vin. Whatever the reason, we quickly realized that Ferme de Truttenhausen was and would remain unique among our WWOOFing placements.
With both of us still battling a cold, we were fortunate to grab one of the last remaining sleeper cabins on the overnight ferry ride from Rosslare, Ireland to Cherbourg, France. Unlike our previous ferry trip over to Ireland, which felt like a mini cruise ship, this ferry was much more modestly equipped with many passengers sleeping in the common areas. We were happy to land in France well rested as we still had a day of train travel before starting straight into our next bike ride.
After deciding to take an early leave from our last host farm, we headed to Dublin, our final destination in Ireland. We were thankfully able to change our ferry ticket from Rosslare to Cherbourg by ten days, free of charge, but the infrequent sailing schedule still left us with six days in Dublin. We hadn't really budgeted for such a long stay in the city, so we did a bit of shoestring exploring.
We arrived at Mill House Farm excited as usual to get involved in farm life again. Much like Sunny Meadow, Mill House is a market vegetable farm, selling produce to local grocery stores and restaurants. They have several acres under vegetable production including several polytunnels. With only the barest of part-time help and an unsteady stream of WWOOFers, the place was in dire need of some competent help.
Sunny Meadows was our first market vegetable farm. The first place were our efforts were directly effecting the success and income of our host farmer, Dermot O'Mara. For this reason it felt a little like our first true WWOOF experience, but that type of thinking only discredits the diversity of WWOOFing. So let's say it is the first WWOOF experience that at all resembled what most people image when they image WWOOFing.
Over hill, over dale, Thorough bush, thorough brier, Over park, over pale, Thorough flood, thorough fire, I do wander every where, Swifter than the moon’s sphere; And I serve the fairy queen, To dew her orbs upon the green: The cowslips tall her pensioners be; In their gold coats spots you see; Those be rubies, fairy favours, In those freckles live their savours: I must go seek some dew-drops here And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear. Farewell, thou lob of spirits: I’ll be gone; Our queen and all her elves come here anon.
-A Midsummer Night's Dream
Our year WWOOFing in France and Ireland has both monetary and practical motivations: we saw WWOOFing as an inexpensive way to travel while gaining a bit of farming/rural life experience. We also hoped to find an authentic experience of place through this type of travel - to share people's lives and live as they do, rather than passing through as an observer.
Nestled into the rolling hills of West Cork, on the south slope of the Mizen Peninsula, just 5km from Roaring Water Bay, Glensallagh Gardens is a sprawling oasis of botanical diversity. Over the last few decades, our WWOOF hosts Richard and Jules have transformed their patch of rocky, windswept land into a flourishing pocket of life.
Though we both loved France and our time at our last french host farm, La Bergerie, we were excited to get back on the road for our bike and ferry trip to Ireland. We gave ourselves over 2 weeks for a ride that would take us over 800k and across varied landscapes and climates. Our trip was going to take us along several types of biking terrain: west through the Loire Valley from Tours to Nantes; northwest along the Nantes-Brest canal to Carhaix; north from Carhaix to the tip of the Finistère region of Brittany, the Port of Roscoff; and, finally, via the Roscoff>Cork ferry from Cork to Ballydehob, the location of our first Irish host farm.
Upon our arrival at La Bergerie we were greeted with a glass of wine and a tour of the property by Suzanne and Alain, two long-stay WWOOFers that have been living and working on the property since last fall. The home owners and WWOOF hosts, Jillian and Patrice, split their time between France and Canada and would be arriving in a few days, to direct us in the spring cleanup and projects scheduled during our stay.
We departed Carcassonne via train to head deeper into southern France and into Provence, the region of our second host farm. The train ride took us through the coastal town of Montpellier, and deeper into the quintessentially provencal landscape of terraced vineyards, olive groves, and narrow stands of cypress.
Our second WWOOF host, Le Bergerie, is located in Provence, approximately 45k north of Avignon in southern France. A direct bike trip from Le Verger to Le Bergerie would have only been about 500k, but it would have been quite mountainous, cutting directly through the Massif Central. Instead we chose to bike along the Canal of Two Seas which links the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea starting in Bordeaux, with a short train ride on either end of the ride to make it feasible in the time we had.
Our hosts spent this last week off skiing in the French Alps, and they were glad to ask us to take care of the chateau and the gardens in their absence. They generously provided us with a larder well-stocked à la française, with ample options of charcuterie, cheeses, and fresh bread. We were also given directions to Barbara's favorite wild garlic patch l'ail des ours (literally, garlic of the bears). We have been eating well!
We have spent the last ten days at our first host "farm" both thoroughly enjoying ourselves and wondering what we have got ourselves into. So far, WWOOFing is not what we were expecting, but we are making the most of it and reminding ourselves that every place is going to be different from the last.
Waiting in the Köln Hauptbahnhof